John Fowler and his legendary steam company


I have written a couple other recent articles on the steam engine companies of England and since I am a dedicated Anglopile, that is not too unusual.

England was to a great extent the birthplace of steam power, with pioneers like James Watt, Richard Trevithick, Robert and George Stephenson I. K. Brunel, and many more.

The John Fowler Co. of Leeds, England, was founded with much different goals than most American firms, which mostly started out with threshers and got into steam engines as a required source of power to run them.

John Fowler started out in pursuit of a successful means of large scale cultivation of the relatively difficult soils of the British Isles. They are apparently largely clay-based and subject to compaction.

Food production

Food production was and continues to be somewhat of a problem there. When I visited in 1972 I was told, among other things, that if one wanted good bacon they bought Danish bacon.

There was always a limit to how much ground could be worked by horses and oxen, so steam power was looked to as a solution. But steam engines were so heavy that direct plowing as we use it in the United States, was not a viable option.

And, it was primarily the Fowlers who developed the cable plowing system we are so familiar with. Considerable experimentation was done with designs of engines, winches and other plowing tackle. The final and most successful design was the double engine system with an engine at each side of a field pulling the plow back and forth between them.

The engines were built in pairs, usually with consecutive serial numbers and a pair of enormous engines, along with the plowing tackle.

Many were built

They were costly, but they were a success and many were built. Threshing machines were never a large part of Fowler production, as other firms, such as Clayton & Shuttleworth, and Ransomes, had a good corner on the market.

Beginning in the 1850s, they were for many years dependent upon other firms for construction of the engines, but the great strains of pulling ploughs required engines heavier than most companies were building.

So, in 1859 John Fowler formed the Steam Plough Royalty Co. to raise capital to build their own equipment. Many early engines were built by Kitson & Hewitson Co. Once the designs were a success, business moved along rapidly to the point where, in 1863, the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society reported that in early 1863, some 300 sets of Steam Ploughing tackle were in use in the United Kingdom, and two thirds were built by Fowlers.

Catching on

Soon, the ideas and equipment were being exported to the continent and beyond. Noting the date — in the 1860s during our Civil War — explains why the Fowlers got into the development of cotton cultivation in Egypt.

The great industry of cotton spinning in England had become dependent on American cotton and this was now cut off by hostilities, so other sources were being sought. Food production in Russia and the rest of Europe also attracted the steam power machines and Fowlers eventually had a large business at Madgeburg, Germany, which provided a big fraction of their profits, until disrupted by World War One.

Other uses

It follows quite easily that the cable plough system would find other uses. Among those was the installation of tile lines for drainage of wetlands. The special plough pulled a line of pipe behind it and buried it. In addition, special equipment allowed for cleaning ponds and similar areas.

Another area that they developed early on was road transport, and many road locomotives were built with solid rubber tires, for better traction and less vibration on stone roads.

In fact, one of the latest and best known engines they built was the Showmans Road Locomotive, called Supreme, built in 1934 for a Mrs. Deakin.
A glance into the Traction Engine Register, which lists preserved engines, shows that the first twelve engines listed are all plowing engines built from 1869 to 1884, followed by several traction engines.

Compound engines get more common as the listing proceeds, the first from 1875, with a note that it is equipped with Burrell company cylinders of their single crank compound design.

Most of the rest of the compounds are likely cross compounds of their own manufacture.

They are easy to spot due to two different sized cylinder heads. The next several pages are a mixture of Traction Engines, Road Rollers and Road Locomotives and Showmen’s engines, with the occasional plowing engine.

For some reason the page getting into the teens lists many more ploughers filling half the page or thirty of sixty engines. Road improvements attracted more attention into the teens and ’20s as automobiles became more numerous.

More Rollers

The last two pages have a majority of Rollers. The latest ploughing engines preserved are a pair of K7 class engines of 12 nominal horsepower, which would correspond to 35-40 horsepower of American engines, or 100-120 indicated horsepower. Truly enormous engines.

Returning to the Steam Plough Works book, we find that it opens with a discussion of the family. The main developer was John Fowler, junior, and his father, the senior, was also interested but he died in 1861, before much success was recorded.

Unfortunately John junior died in December of 1864, of a tetanus infection coming from a compound fracture of the arm resulting from a horseback accident while hunting.

He had been recovering for some time from a nervous breakdown resulting from the strains of developing the ploughing system. His elder brother Robert took the helm at this point and served until 1888 and was in turn succeeded by his brother, William, the financial supporter of the enterprise, until his passing in 1905.

Determined to succeed

They apparently all recognized the potential of John’s developments and resolved to keep the Works moving along. They were all members of the Society of Friends and exhibited the hard working and thrifty habits of so many of the Quakers ,besides having connections with many influential and well-to-do-families, including bankers.

Chapter two is titled Years of Experimentation, and we have already referred to it in terms of the various systems of cable ploughing and associated tackle These are further discussed in Chapter three: The Royal Agricultural Society Trials, where we find a lot of diagrams of the setups tried.

In this chapter, we are introduced to Robert Burton’s clip drum, which was a major development. Burton was an employee and patented this improvement in 1859.
Prior to that, a great deal of trouble was experienced with wear on the cables from friction with the sheaves. The clip drum had a series of two piece clips around the circumference so that the tension on the cable pulled them in and they gripped the cable rather than depending on just friction in a groove. This action actually improved the condition of the cables as they were used by keeping them compacted.

The next chapter deals with the life and contributions of a German lad named Max Eyth, who seems to be the first and a very influential travelling man for the company.

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.