Fowler’s Chapter Three: Story of the Steam Plough Works


I finally got the time needed to review the latter chapters of Michael Lane’s Story of the Steam Plough Works, which is a history of the Fowler Works of Leeds England.

They had developed the well-known cable plow system using, for the most part, two large traction engines and an “anti-balance plough” so as not to pack the clay soils so common in England.

In the first two articles, we told about the development of the tackle for plowing and the engines, first built by other firms like Kitson’s then by the Steam Plow works itself.

Importance grows

As the industrial age grew in England and Europe, and food production more critical, the plowing equipment became more important and the factory grew.

Also a branch house was opened in Madgeburg, Germany, and later in Prague and Bucharest for the more eastern trade. These continental branches came to contribute over half the profits of the company in the early years of the 20th century and when World War I disrupted this activity, Fowler’s never fully recovered.

The future

In the opening years of the century, Robert Henry Fowler visited the United States and was convinced that the internal combustion engine was the wave of the future and would eventually replace steam as the main prime mover for agriculture and transport.

Steam was still an important factor in America in those years, but the oil industry and other factors had pushed gas engine development ahead in this country. At the same time, the War Office was pressing Fowler’s and others to develop internal combustion power.


In 1902, a first provisional patent was issued to Fowler’s for an Otto Cycle or four-cycle gas engine. Later in 1902, a three-cylinder engine based on this patent was built for the War Office for installation in an experimental motor car.

No records remain, but developments continued and a special department was set up to handle things. The text mentions the work of Christian Huygens who pioneered the piston and cylinder idea, though he powered his model with gunpowder and used the atmospheric pressure to return the piston.

Later attempts used city gas and petroleum spirit and were more successful.

Lenoir’s engine in Paris was being displayed at this time. It was double acting and non-compression and not very successful.

Four cycle engine

Dr. Otto, in 1886, developed the four-cycle principle with compression of the charge before ignition and millions of engines have been built since on this principle.

About 1890, the Priestman Brothers in England were working on an oil engine and Herbert Ackroyd-Stuart developed the oil engine commonly known as the Hornsby-Ackroyd engine since he assigned the patent to Ruston and Hornsby of Grantham, England.

Later in the century, Dr. Rudolf Diesel built the first successful compression ignition engine named after him. The stage was then set for internal combustion to take over.

In 1904, serious development began on internal combustion engines and one Harry Cooper was hired as a specialist in this field. He guided much progress for many years. He died in 1934 after an auto accident returning from a RASE show in Ipswich, which featured the first public display of a diesel engine Crawler tractor built by Fowlers.

Fowler Agri-tractor

In 1917, the Fowler Agri-tractor was introduced and over 200 were produced. All this happened during the turbulent war years while much war work was being done.

By 1919, it came to be recognized that a separation of the internal combustion department from steam engine production. It should have been done earlier and the IC development was hindered by it.

Also in 1919, profits were still high, but it was a peak and the beginning of the end for Fowlers’s independent existence.

As we have already mentioned, the war years were problematic in many ways and the depression that followed the peace caused even more problems especially in the financial world.

Chapter 15 is called the “End of Steam 1921 to 1936” and indicates that traction engines rollers, and road locomotives were still a major product.

The Supreme

In fact probably the most famous showmans engine of all, called Supreme, was ordered by Mrs. Deakin in 1934.

Meanwhile, the venerable Robert Henry Fowler had come to the end of his vigor and was replaced by Charles Henry Fowler who served from 1919 to 1932 as chairman of the board.


Both Steam and electric locomotives continued to be major products and exports and some may still be running in India and Africa. Many different gauges of track were built from full size, standard gauge and narrow gauge for plantations, sugar cane operations and other industries.

British interests in South Africa and India led to exports to those areas and parts of South America were common destinations. As they searched for alternative products, high on list were gasoline and diesel tractors and cable plough systems.

Electrical generating systems were also built, often with diesel power.


One of the departures from the old cultivating systems was called the Gyrotiller, which was a pair of large rotating tines attached to the rear of a tractor. They turned in opposite directions and could pulverize the soil to a depth of as much as 15 inches. They must have taken a lot of power but they really prepared a deep seedbed.

When the able plow was developed the motto was “God Speed the Plow.” To those for whom the Gyrotiller as unpopular, they added the phrase “and Damn the Gyrotiller.”

I read that the seedbed was so soft that if a man tried to walk in a field that had been tilled by one he could sink in almost to his knees.

Water removal

Another machine for municipal use was called a “Gully emptier.” As the name implies, it used a jet to lift water from flooded roadsides so that repairs to drainage could proceed.

They also built cement mixer plants and various winches and Rock Crusher outfits for road building.

Difficulty in the economy

Further difficulties were experienced in the thirties during worldwide down times for business and into the World War II upheavels.

Various schemes were tried in terms of allied companies, new directors, buyouts and so on, with variable levels of success, none of them earthshaking. They struggled on until 1974 when the plant and offices closed. They were demolished in 1975.

Still around

Steam engines, some now well over 100 years old, as well as tackle, tractors and so on are frequently seen at the many rallies held all over Britain as well as Ireland and other locations. Very few are seen in America at shows but some derelict pieces are still sitting in South America and Third World nations.

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.