Here in the U.K., vintage tractors are big business. Whilst it’s great that our old tractors have value, it also means some collectors are priced out of the market. Other rural artifacts, often older and more rare, are frequently overlooked.
No one in their right mind would scrap a working tractor from the 1950s, but plenty of people would scrap an old piece of barn machinery from the 1850s. One day we might well look around and realise that there aren’t many old swede (root) choppers or chaff cutters left and wonder why.
In the U.K. I don’t think we value these implements and tools as much as we should. Welshman Paul Jones knows that the real value of these barn machines, farm implements and tools is in the stories that they tell, not the sum they sell for at auction. This makes for a refreshing change, as one could argue that the vintage tractor scene has become rather, er, how do I put it, commercial, these days.
Paul’s collection begins with wooden horse-drawn ploughs and works its way forward, through the age of cast iron horse-drawn implements, and ends with a Grey Fergie. Interestingly, Paul chooses to end his collection right at the point where mechanization truly became widely available.
These horse-drawn implements and hand-powered barn machines hark back to a simpler, quieter time. They are also beautiful items in their own right. These often ornately crafted implements remind us of a time when Britain was a hive of ironworking activity, producing frameworks for landmark buildings and bridges worldwide. On a more local level, blacksmiths and small foundries were busy feeding our nation’s need for sturdy tools and early machines. The Industrial Revolution couldn’t have happened without iron and coal, and the arrival of cast and wrought iron implements on farms marked the beginning of agriculture’s own revolution.
The early seed drill
If there’s one type of implement that really fascinates Paul, it’s the seed drill. He admits that his collection of seven drills (each slightly different) made by Welsh companies such as John Williams of Rhuddlan, Corbett Williams and Corbett & Son make him something of a seed drill addict. Perhaps so, but they also serve as solid reminders of the history and development of these closely linked, long gone Welsh companies.
It is often said that the seed drill was invented by agricultural pioneer and Englishman Henry Jethro William Tull in 1701. However, the drill had also been “invented” by the Sumerians and the Chinese in about the second century B.C. (and since then by various other people, too). But it was Tull who built and refined the machine here in Britain. However, it seems these very early drills were not all they were cracked up to be, or perhaps we simply didn’t have the farming infrastructure in place to support their use.
Either way, the seed drill didn’t become really popular until the mid-19th century. It’s quite possible that Tull was simply ahead of his time; he was after all one of the first people to view agriculture as a science. He was also influential in moving farmers from oxen power to horse power, so his influence on farming can’t be in any way be underestimated (even if he did pinch the idea of the seed drill from elsewhere).
Early drills were wooden and were sometimes rather fragile. As metalworking skills improved, so did the intricate details of these implements, and they became more efficient and reliable. Paul’s favourites are the single horse-drawn drills dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Paul’s interest in implements made by John Williams of Rhuddlan is linked to the fact that Williams originally came from Betws yn Rhos, Paul’s home village. Machines and implements from this period have an attractive simplicity, but these items are more desirable still if they were actually made in your own neighbourhood.
John Williams bought the Rhuddlan Foundry (known as the Phoenix Ironworks back in 1860) and built a prosperous business manufacturing agricultural machinery and employing 100 men. He was joined in the 1870s by an inventive and pioneering man named John Whitaker, who also formed a partnership with Powell Bros., Wrexham. It was a time of huge technological advances and John Williams & Son thrived by moving with the times, introducing state-of-the-art machines and promoting and exhibiting their wares at U.K. shows and demonstrations.
Later, in 1908, Phoenix Ironworks went into difficulty and was bought by Francis Corbett of Shropshire. From then on the business traded under the name Corbett, Williams & Son. Corbett, Williams & Son continued in business until 1923; many implements built by John Williams & Son and Corbett, Williams & Son can still be seen in collections throughout the U.K.
When we look at any British industry we so often see the same old sad story, a tale of a once thriving business that’s fallen into decline and finally closes its doors. It’s lamentable that we produce so little these days. These seed drills not only remind us of a simpler, horse-drawn era, but also of a time when Britain was at the height of her productivity. Back then we bought what was made in our own country: It was as simple as that. Today “Buying British” is not that easy to do. We have, it seems, lost something along the way.
Paul didn’t grow up on a farm but he does have memories of spending time on his uncle’s farm as a boy. His favourite childhood toys were toy tractors and implements. Years later Paul and his grandfather attended a farm sale with the intention of buying old implements to display as garden ornaments. They came home that day with a vintage scuffler and a Corbett Williams turnip drill.
Paul found unexpected simple enjoyment in the process of freeing the old nuts and bolts and cleaning and painting the machines. The satisfaction of reassembling cleaned, repaired and repainted parts in order to recreate a tidy, working machine proved hugely rewarding. Other implements followed: a Deering mower from the U.S. and mills and ploughs built by E.H. Bentall & Co. and Bamford & Sons. He gathered up wooden items too: a shandy barrow, a couple of seed broadcasters and a wooden plough thought to date to the 1780s.
It’s the sort of hobby anyone with a small amount of shed space can enjoy. “I’m no great mechanic,” Paul says modestly, “so I like the fact that these machines aren’t too complicated to work on.” Before long Paul was displaying his collection at shows. “It’s a funny old road this hobby follows,” he says with a laugh.
Deep local roots
Another of Paul’s Welsh-made seed drills is a T8 model built by Turner Bros., Newtown. Thought to date to the 1920s, this drill is unusual in that its wheels are made of a flat band of steel, not with the flat part to the ground, but with the edge to the ground.
In 1881 William Turner acquired the Cambrian Foundry, Newtown, and he became known as an ironmonger, iron-founder and agricultural implement maker. It is said that several pieces of ironwork bearing the name William Turner can be seen in Newtown and he is credited with having invented the sheep-feeding cratch (trough) later produced in large numbers. Eventually business passed into the hands of his sons, who operated it under the name Turner Bros. What remained of the Cambrian Foundry is said to have been demolished in the early 1970s.
Not all of the implements in Paul’s collection have Welsh origins. He has a drill made by T.H. Ellacott, North Petherwin. Thomas Hooper Ellacott appears to be the son of John Ellacott, another implement maker also based in this part of Cornwall. The Ellacotts were a family of blacksmiths operating as far back as the early 1800s (though Paul’s drill is thought to date to the 1890s). As I write this, an Ellacott implement seat resides on an Internet auction site for several hundred pounds.
It isn’t easy to find information about the lesser-known manufacturers of these tools. Facts about where a particular smithy or foundry stood, and during what era it operated, might be known by a few people who live in that particular town or village, but that information is frequently undocumented and therefore largely unavailable to the public.
Tools from the New World
Paul also has a few items that were made in the U.S. and imported into the U.K. An early sheep-shearing machine made by the wonderful sounding Chicago Flexible Shaft Co. in 1911 is one example; a Syracuse plough, made in New York, is another.
Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. ended up being bought by John Deere in 1911, but the history of the Syracuse company goes back to about 1620 when a certain Robert Wiard was born in England. At some stage in his adult life, Robert set out for America, where he went on to produce descendants who established not only Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. but also Wiard Plow Co.
Paul’s Syracuse plough is a reversible (or butterfly) plough. It had belonged to his wife’s cousin, who farmed near Dyffryn Ardudwy, North West Wales. When it arrived, the plough was in poor condition. Paul repaired and replaced what was damaged and now it is complete. It is an unusual looking plough, with two wheels that pivot at the front so that it can plough either way (it is “flipped over” by means of a kick lever). It is ornately crafted and is clearly a well-made item. Most of Paul’s implements have been restored and painted, but he thinks he’ll leave this one as it is, as it shows its age beautifully.
Paul also owns two “swing ploughs” typical of their area as well as of their era. The standard wheeled horse-drawn ploughs were the most popular sort of plough, but here in the hills a quite different plough was the favourite. Wheeled ploughs tend to come out of the ground on uneven, stony ground, requiring the ploughman to constantly stop and reset. A swing plough, however, relies on the ploughman’s downward pressure to keep the plough in the ground, making it possible to plough shallow and adapt to dips, bumps and stones.
Swing ploughs were often made by small, rural blacksmiths for individual customers; one of Paul’s swing ploughs has “W. Williams, Smith, Llanefydd” stamped onto it. The preservation of information on horse-drawn implements and barn machines is largely in the hands of a dedicated few, and if it were not for the collectors who take care of these relics and for the historians who document their knowledge, there would often be no trace left whatsoever of these little industries.
The leap to another era
After Paul had filled every shed at his and his relatives’ homes, he came to the conclusion that there was enough work maintaining and showing the machines he had without buying and restoring any more examples. But then news came of a 1949 petrol Ferguson TEA 20 for sale locally. The tractor had belonged to a former member of the Women’s Land Army who worked on U.K. farms when the men were away during the first and second World Wars. This particular woman ended up marrying the farmer whose land she worked. So the Fergie had just one careful lady owner before Paul bought it. It wasn’t purely the fact that the Fergie is a British icon, representing a time when mechanization became widely available to the masses, that attracted Paul to the tractor. “If I’m honest,” he says, “the simplicity of these tractors is what appealed to me more than anything. I knew I didn’t want anything that was going to be too complicated or too temperamental.”
Paul has learned to plough with the TEA 20 this year. He’s not terribly competitive; more than anything, it will be about learning the old craft and putting the tractor through her paces. He will of course continue to display his collection of older agricultural artifacts at shows and events, demonstrating to vintage enthusiasts that there is so much more to agricultural history than tractors alone. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.