A Brief History of John Fowler & Co
John Fowler was born into a wealthy Quaker family and after initially following his father's wishes in becoming a corn merchant he soon decided to go his own way and become an engineer. Fowler joined railway manufacturers Gilkes Wilson & Co of Middlesbrough, a firm that produced 351 locomotives between 1847 and 1875, including over 100 for the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
It was on a visit to Ireland in 1849 that John Fowler witnessed the aftermath of the potato famine. He had travelled there with a group of fellow Quakers in order to organise help for those hit by the famine. In his capacity as an engineer with a background in agriculture it was hoped that Fowler might find engineering solutions to farming problems. On his return to England he left Gilkes Wilson & Co and began working on machines for improving drainage, thus allowing wasted bog land to be cultivated. Just a year later his machine was demonstrated to the Royal Agricultural Society. It worked using horses for power and geared capstans which allowed more substantial channels to be dug. The early experiments did not run smoothly and Fowler decided eventually that a steam engine was needed to work the machinery. It was soon realised that there were many other applications for a steam engine in farming, particularly in the work of ploughing so a number of ways of putting steam engines to use for these purposes were devised.
Some firms tried hauling ploughing equipment across the field directly at the back of the engine, though generally the weight of the engine would cause it to get bogged down and it would not produce good results. Several experiments were carried out using a steam engine with an attached winding drum that could haul a plough back and forth across the field. A number of arrangements were devised using an engine moving along the headland at one side of the field and a rope anchor set up at other side of the field to keep the plough in a straight line.
Much of the early equipment was made in Bristol in partnership with fellow Quaker, Albert Fry, of the famous chocolate making family (Fry's incidentally had been using a Watt engine to grind cocoa at their works as far back as 1795) though this partnership only lasted until 1855. The Fowler-Fry works continued as the Bristol Carriage & Wagon Works until it was taken over by Leeds Forge in 1920. The factory was sold to Bristol Tramways and Carriage Co, a forerunner of Bristol Commercial Vehicles.
After several attempts in competitions, Fowler eventually won the Royal Agricultural Society's £500 prize in 1858. The engine used was 10 nhp portable engine manufactured by Ransomes of Ipswich and fitted with a twin drum windlass, manufactured by Robert Stephenson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and mounted under the engine smokebox. The anchor carriage on the opposite headland was designed by Jeremiah Head of Ransomes, and manufactured by Stephenson. This success led to many orders for similar machinery, built for him then by various firms.
In the end the most efficient method of steam ploughing was found to be to use ploughing engines at both sides of the field, hauling the plough back and forth between each other and this was Fowler's prefared way of doing things. Though the ideal method of working often varied according to the conditions of the field to be worked. Fowler developed a range of equipment that could be used in whatever manner was most appropriate.
Above - Video clip of a pair of Fowler ploughing engines being demonstrated at the Pickering Traction Engine Rally in 2012 (Video - Kris Ward)
In 1860 Kitson & Hewitson took on all the engine orders. With business booming it was soon decided that Fowler needed a works of his own. In partnership with Kitson's financier and fellow Quaker Hewitson, as Hewitson & Fowler, the Steam Plough Works was established on land adjacent to Kitson's works in Hunslet, Leeds.
Above - Map of Hunslet in 1908 showing the Steam Plough and Locomotive works amongst its engine making neighbours. Based on an Ordnance Survey map of the time (Crown Copyright)
In 1861 German Engineer Max Eyth enquired about a position at the new works. I got to know John Fowler, who stood by his steamplough in the midst of a circle of pleasantly animated farmers who were congratulating him on the prize of the Royal Agricultural Society of England just won. I found him in a stubble field before a broken implement of mysterious appearance, full of interest and zeal. A splendid man of about 34 years old, big and stately, black hair and affable, with a laugh that did good to all within a hundred yards of him, he read my letter [of introduction from Alfred Tylor, a London brass founder whome he had befriended], shook my hand, but could not use me.
Fowler soon changed his mind though. My friend Tylor in London reminds me about you. If you are inclined to commence work in my factory, just recently started, you will find a vice. As soon as opportunity offers, I will take care that you learn steamplouging. After that we must see. I believe in the future of the thing.
Though Eyth contributed greatly to the development of designs in the Leeds works it was for his overseas travels that he became better known. A talanted writer, artist and poet, his tales of adventures whilst selling machinery to developing countries became popular books. He also went on to write a couple of novels and collections of short stories. After just over twenty years with the firm he returned to Germany where he founded the German Agricultural Society in 1885, modeled on the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Eyth's sales trips to Egypt were important for the firms success as they would win the firm valuable orders for machinery that would establish cotton plantations on virgin land. It was the time of the American Civil War and British mills were suffering as cotton supplies from the slave owning plantations of the Southern states were held up in port blockades. The development of mechanised agriculture in African countries would also help to fight the slave trade by breaking the 'Slave Triangle' that saw African slaves sent to America and Cotton and other plants sent from there to England. Once the Civil War ended Eyth went to America where Fowler machinery would help to fill the void left by the loss of slave labour in the plantations
Below - Max Eyth painting "Heath Plow to Lopau (June 1903)"
Hewitson died in 1863 and the firm became known as John Fowler & Co, although sadly, Fowler himself never lived to see the works at full production. Overworked in establishing his Steam Plough Works, Fowler suffered a nervous breakdown in 1864. He then went in to partnership with his brother Robert and left the business in order to recuperate. He was encouraged to take up fox hunting but during a hunt he fell and broke his arm. Tetanus developed and on the 4th December John Fowler died at the age of just 38. With a number of changes in partnerships the firm continued under Robert Fowler.
Above - Fowler's first locomotive, works number 668 for the Imperial Mexican Railways. (Photo - Michael R Lane Collection)
After the initial rush for Fowler's new ploughing engines the company looked for other products they could add to their range. From 1866 they started producing railway locomotives. A Locomotive Shop was established across the road from the Steam Plough Works and Frederick Parker, formerly a works manager at the Great Northern Railway's Doncaster Works, was appointed as Locomotive Works Manager.
Initially some standard gauge locomotives where produced for main line railway companies, however, the main line companies in the UK were establishing their own works around this time. The independent engine manufacturers soon had to look elsewhere for business (this was a problem at all the other engine builders in the area). Fowler concentrated on the Narrow Gauge market and had particular success supplying engines, track and wagons to sugar cane plantations overseas. Fowlers produced portable track pannels under licence to the Decauville system, developed by Frenchman Paul Decauville. Fowler had supplied Decauville with steam ploughs for his own sugar beet plantation and had an agreement where Decauville produced Fowler implements under licence in France. Fowler developed the portable railway equipment and later introduced their own "Grieg's Patent Portable Railway" in 1879, somewhat souring the firms relationship with Decauville.David Grieg was one of the key figures in Fowler's early history behind many of the company's designs and was given charge of their light railway machinery department.
Above - The bulk of Fowler's steam locomotive production would be narrow gauge lococomotives for plantation use. This is the official works photo of 20276 destined for the Queensland sugar cane plantations in Australia. (Photo - Michael R Lane Collection)
Traction engines were developed for road haulage use, based on their Ploughing Engines. Large numbers of these were put to use by a number of haulage companies for moving loads to places the railway network couldn't reach. In many cases the engines could be used to carry enormous loads such as mill boilers to difficult to reach places. Fowler made the wagons the engines would tow and, as journeys sometimes took a number of days, Fowler also provided the living vans for the crew.
One of the interesting developments in the Road Locomotive range was their armoured road trains used in conflicts in South Africa and India around the turn of the century. These would haul four or five armoured wagons containing in effect a mobile armory with all manner of workshop equipment. Four B4 Road engines were also employed on construction road trains for the Ugandan Railways allowing men and materials to be in position up to 20 miles ahead of the limit of the railway tracks working on the trackbed. However road trains in the UK were limited to three wagons and a water carrier so this country never saw road trains of this size except for the occasional tests of Fowler equipment, an armoured traction engine with mobile armory must have been made an interesting sight on some of the quieter roads of West Yorkshire.
Showmen also began to use Traction Engines to haul their fairground rides from one fair to the next. This led to another spin off, the showman's engine. These would often have a dynamo to power the ride or a crane attachment to assemble it. Showmen's engines were elaborately decorated and they became a fairground attraction in their own right.
An interesting fairground attraction Fowler produced was a miniature train on a cirular track, similar to many seen on fairgrounds today except that back in 1895 the steam engine at the front of the train was quite real. At least two were produced, works numbers 7528 and 7529, though 7528 was later converted to a conventional saddle tank locomotive.
Above - Fairground ride steam loco 7528 Nockalong. (Photo - Michael R Lane Collection)
Another variant of the Traction Engine was the Steamroller. At first Fowler didn't produce these as they had an agreement with Thomas Aveling of Aveling & Porter that they wouldn't build any steam rollers, though the firm went on to produce large numbers of these after Thomas Aveling's death in 1881.
Above - Video clip of a demonstration of steam rollers in action at the Leeds & District Traction Engine Club's 2011 Pontefract Steam Rally. This features Fowler engine Eve as well as a pair of Aveling & Porters.(Video - Kris Ward)
As well as these verious mobile forms of steam engine the company produced many stationary engines and winding mechanisms for railways and collieries. The winding business was another spin off of the ploughing engine development. New uses were sought for their "Burton Clip Drum" a winding drum with mechanisms to prevent the cable from slipping. With so many Fowler products using cables they established a cable making subsidiary.
Above - John Fowler advert from 1888 (image Graces Guide)
Many Fowler stationary engines were used to drive electricity generating sets in the early days of electrical power. Fowler established an electrical department for such machinery. In 1895 an Afghan prince visited this and other works in Leeds and took quite an interest in the Electrical department as the Leeds Mercury of 19th June 1895 records. His Highness was shown electric motors from 12 to 5 horse power. An overhead crane capable of lifting 10 tons, and worked entirely by electricity, was seen in operation. [This is possibly Thomas Smith's first electric crane] Messers. Fowler are manufacturing dynamos for the Yorkshire House-to-House Electricity Company's station in Whitehall-road and attention was directed to one of the dynamos, of 400-horse power, which was at work." The report also mentions similar equipment under construction for Coventry, Reading and Kensington.The Ameer of Afghanistan had been keen to industrialise the country and was establishing a factory in Kabul under the guidance of British engineer Sir Thomas Salter Pyne (Pyne later published accounts of his work in the court of the Afghan ruler). Fowler's portable railway and traction engines were supplied to this project.
Above - Fowler 7246 with a special train laid on for the Ameer of Afghanistan's tour of the works in 1895. (Photo - Michael R Lane Collection)
Despite the various diversions the company made in its product range the agricultural machinery was always their core business. In 1927 Lord Aberconway records in his Basic Industries of Great Britain "At the commencement of the present century the demand for cultivating machinery became so great that the electrical and locomotive branches were discontinued, although the firm still undertakes light locomotive building, chiefly for plantation work.
Lord Aberconway records "It is the world's largest maker of cultivating machinery, and thousands of sets have been built for work all over the globe." Key to this overseas trade was, as well as having their well travelled representatives, a network of overseas branches who could handle the sales and servicing of Fowler products.
Several overseas offices were established to handle exports and Fowler machinery. The largest site outside Leeds was Magdeburg in Germany. It was through here that products could reach central Europe, Eastern Europe and beyond to Russia and the Far East.
Another important overseas establishment was the Sydney office to which orders for Australia and New Zealand were dispatched. This overseas network was vital for their export business as engines sent to the other side of the globe could not be sent back to Leeds for servicing requirements.
Above - Fowler steam roller awaiting restoration in New Zealand (Photo - Ian Ward)
The 20th Century brought the internal combustion age and John Fowler & Co were quick to move with the times. As early as 1902 the company began working on oil powered engines, in 1909 they produced their first traction engine to use an internal combustion engine. These engines didn't prove popular and only 40 had been produced by the early 30s whilst at the same time 200 steam traction engines were built. Unlike more modern tractors the early internal combustion engines were large and cumbersome machines and didn't offer much advantage over the tried and trusted steam engines. Likewise their early internal combustion powered road rollers did not make huge inroads in to their orders for steam rollers. Fowler subsequently went into developing smaller tractors including 'crawlers' that used caterpillar tracks similar to army tanks.
Above - Picture of 1926 built petrol powered ploughing engine preserved at Armley Mills - Leeds
Below - Motor roller 18672 at the 2013 Great Dorset Steam Fair (Photos - Kris Ward)
They produced several prototypes for products aimed at introducing the internal combustion engine to their main markets of agriculture and road haulage. None of these products seemed to capture the markets as well as their steam engines had done in the previous century. A number of lorry designs were developed, however changes to what was permitted on the road network effectively ruled out everything they had on their drawing board at the time.
An electric powered ploughing engine was developed on paper. As strange as this sounds there was great interest from Russia where it was hoped they would be employed on vast wheat fields. A change in diplomatic relations prevented any sales before the idea could be turned in to reality. In the 1920s and 30s things just didn't seem to be going their way.
Fowler produced a petrol powered locomotive in 1923, this was followed by a range of small diesel locomotives. They had more luck with this innovation and these shunters proved very popular as firms began to realise the advantages of using diesel shunters in private sidings over steam locomotives. When infrequent shunting work was required it was not cost effective to have a steam engine crew on hand from the early hours of the morning to steam the engine. Fowler's little shunters were ideal for a number of firms.
Above - One of Fowler's early diesels 17209 shunting within the works in 1927(Photo - Michael R Lane Collection)
Fowler sold their steam and internal combustion road-roller business, to Marshall & Sons of Gainsborough in 1937. Production of other steam engines ceased and the servicing of existing engines was passed on to J&H McLaren of the nearby Midland Engine Works on Jack Lane, Hunslet. This servicing work was undertaken in a part of the former Manning Wardle works.
Realising that the future was petrol and diesel powered Fowler effectively washed their hands of the steam business by 1938. There was still demand for a few more plantation locomotives, one of these orders was passed on to Kitson & Co for Uganda Sugar. Though it carried Fowler's works number 21648 it was in fact Kitson's 5475. Kitson themselves finished locomotive manufacture shortly after this and a further Fowler steam locomotive order was forwarded to Hudswell Clarke, Fowler 22752 being Hudswell's works number 1705. Fowler sold some plantation locomotive designs to Bundaberg Foundry in Queensland and eight more engines were produced in Bundaberg in the 1950s
Above - Fowler designed locomotive built by Bundaberg Foundry for Queensland sugarcane railways. preserved at the Ballyhooly Railway in Australia.(Photo Kris Ward)
In spite of the great effort they made trying to find new markets at the end of the steam age, the depression of the 1920s and 30s very nearly finished off John Fowler & Co as it had done to neighbouring firms Manning Wardle and Kitson & Co. (Though it is probably significant that these two firms did not embrace the internal combustion revolution)
There were resignations and sackings amongst the managers and directors had to forgo their salaries for a time. In the end the problems within the company had to be put aside when the works was needed to make tanks for World War 2. To safeguard this essential work the company was nationalised in 1941. In the war years the Steam Plough works was almost entirely dedicated to the war effort and large numbers of tanks were made. Fowler built 580 Matilda, 274 Cromwell Mk V111, 529 Centaur and 284 Comet tanks giving a total wartime tank production of 1633. More information about this and other tank manufacture in Leeds can be found in our Brief History of Tank Making in Leeds article. The works were permitted to take on some non-military work during the war. Agriculture and industry were, after all, still key to Britain's survival.
After the war the company was sold back into the private sector being purchased in 1945 by Rotary Hoes Ltd and it was soon sold on once again, in 1946, to Thomas W Ward of Sheffield. Thomas W Ward had already bought Gainsborough traction engine manufacturer, Marshall & Sons, in 1936 and with both firms working on similar products the decision was taken to merge them to form Marshall-Fowler .
The Fowler works began mass production of crawler tractors to complement the Marshall range of tractors; these included the popular Track Marshall (a caterpillar version of Marshall's Field Marshall) and the later Challenger ranges.
Above - One of the Fowler built Track Marshall tractors. (Photo Kris Ward) click here to see a picture of one of the Gainsborough built Field Marshalls for comparison.
Locomotive production also continued after the war, although from 1947, Fowler used engines made next door at J&H McLaren rather than their own engines in the locomotive range. When that company closed, Fowlers used engines from a number of manufacturers. In 1968 locomotive production at the Fowler works ceased with the locomotive business being passed on to Andrew Barclay (who was subsequently merged with Hunslet Engine Co). With many firms having recently replaced their steam locomotives over the last 20 years or so, not to mention road haulage having an increasing share of the market by the 60s, the demand for locomotives had fallen. It was thus decided that it was best to move on the locomotive business and dedicate more workshop space to production of Crawler tractors.
Above - Picture of Fowler Shunter 4220038 of 1966 still in use at Plasmor Great Heck. This is the last Fowler loco still in industrial use in the UK.(Photo Kris Ward)
Fowler locomotives produced in the 1950s and 60s were quite different to those of the 1930s and 40s, both externally as well as internally. The traction engine style chimney was gone and a modern streamline appearance was introduced.
In 1974, the remaining business was transferred to Marshall's Britannia Works in Gainsborough and the former John Fowler & Co Steam Plough and Locomotive Works was finally closed. Within a year of closure all but the locomotive erecting shop (which still stands to this day) was demolished and the company had been sold on again, this time to British Leyland. With the continuing decline of sales the Gainsborough works closed in the 1980s. Production of the Track Marshall tractor range did continue for some time under various other firms, although as wheeled tractors improved over the years, their numbers declined and production ceased altogether in the early 1990s.
After the demolition of most of the works site a plaque was installed at the site to remember the Fowler works that stood there. A number of Fowler engines attended the unveiling ceremony, shown on the video clip below.
The Fowler name survives in South Africa as a result of the continuation of the company's South African subsidiary after the takeover of the British firm, Marshall-Fowler. Marshall-Fowler (SA) (PTY) Ltd manufactures boilers in Aureus, Randfontein, South Africa. At the time of writing a John Fowler steam roller is used to illustrate their website. In the UK the John Fowler name was revived as a functioning company name at Old Hall Farm in Cumbria where replica B6 road locomotive Talisman was built.
No dreamy, drowsy theme is mine,
No fable fetched from auld lang-syne,
Of shepherd swains with oaten reeds,
Or fairies trippin o'er the meads;
But fitter for the age I trow,
I sing of Fowler's famed Steam Plough-
Prodigious Imp of modern birth,
What mortal lungs can shout thy worth!
O, if on famed Achilles' shield,
When Vulcan forged the furrowed field,
Instead of crooked yokes thy strength
With furrows six had swept its length;
Then hadst though lived in Homer's page,
And worthy shone from age to age...
We have an extensive collection of works photos from John Fowler's locomotive department having scanned original prints from the Michael R. Lane collection.
Click here to see the pictures of Fowler engines in our collection
There are a lot of surviving records from John Fowler & Co, mostly kept at the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading to whome I'm very greatful for their assistance in stacking up a trolley with volumes of Fowler works lists that must have been a strain on the wheels as well as a strain on the librarian. Some of Fowler's locomotive records ended up with Andrew Barcley who took over their locomotive business in 1968, some of these ended up with Hunslet Engine Co who then merged with Barcley. Some of the records are missing completely. No doubt we will be gradually adding Fowler machines to this list for years. Many of the records, particually the earlier ones, are hand written and not in the neatest of writing. Some engines were ordered to stock then found a buyer whilst they were under construction, some engines ordered for one customer were despatched to another and there is a lot of crossing out and alterations on the original lists. If you find an entry in the list and you know different details please contact us
There are quite a few Fowler machines still to be seen locally. The complete database at present contains around 3000 entries and we have a lot of records still to add.
Remarkably all the Bundaberg Fowlers survive in preservation in Australia
External Website Links
Museum of English Rural Life
Steam Plough Club History section of the site.
Wikipedia content about John Fowler
Wikia article about Fowler tractors
Industrial Railway Society article about Fowler locomotives
National Archives content about Fowler & Co
Armley Mills Industrial Museum This Leeds museum houses examples of many of the products of the Fowler works
Surviving South African subsidiary of Marshall-Fowler
Max Eyth.de (in German) Translate to English
Wikipedia article about the American Civil War
Ripon & District Light Railway's page about the history of portable railways
How to build a model of Fowler 0-4-0DM LMS No 2
Mersea Museum's page about Abberton Reservoir this page mentions the Fowler narrow gauge locos used in its construction.
Archive Images on Leodis.net Search results for 'John Fowler'
Much of the archive material from John Fowler is held at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading.
Great Engineers, L.T.C.RoltLook for this book on Amazon*
The Steam Plough Works, Michael LaneLook for this book on Amazon*
Fowler Locomotives in the Kingdom of Hawaii, Jesse C Conde, Narrow Gauge Railway Society, ISBN 0 9507169 4 4Look for this book on Amazon*
An Illustrated History of 18 Inch Gauge Steam Railways, Mark Smithers, OPC, ISBN 0-86093-499-3Look for this book on Amazon*
The History of J&H McLaren of Leeds, John Pease, ISBN 1-84306-105-8Look for this book on Amazon*
Leeds Steam, Yorkshire Evening Post 1971
John Fowler works lists in the archives of the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
The Basic Industries of Great Britain, Lord Aberconway, 1927Look for this book on Amazon*
Leeds Mercury of 19th June 1895
Lancashire Life report about reviving John Fowler at Old Hall Farm in Cumbria
The Jules Verne book The Blockade Runners, whilst it is fiction it gives a good account of the blockade of southern ports in the American Civil War.
* These links are provided to help readers search for often rare books on the subject and to promote any books available, we are under no commercial incentives for this
With thanks to Derek Rayner and the Leeds & District Traction Engine Club for help in producing this article. With thanks to John Pease for providing us the locomotive department works photographs from the Michael R. Lane collection.
This article was produced by Kris Ward, any feedback or contributions about the Leeds engine making industry would be greatly appreciated.
Page last modified: 07 May 2021
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