The Great Challenge: Steam Ploughing

The British Great Challenge competition keeps steam ploughing tradition alive.

2 Fowler Z7s

A pair of Fowler Z7s (nos. 15670 and 15673) retrieved from the Sena Sugar Estates, Mozambique.

Photo by Peter Longfoot

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The traditional art of cable ploughing (also known as steam ploughing) was celebrated at the seventh Great Challenge competition put on by the Steam Plough Club in Warwickshire, England, last September. The club has held Challenges periodically since 1994, when member Michael Davies challenged all comers to a ploughing competition, one that would give the best example of English topsoil ploughing.

The idea was to improve the standard of the work done by cable ploughing sets — in which steam traction engines stationed on opposite sides of a field pulled a plough back and forth — at public demonstrations. It had become very obvious that the equipment was producing poor work and comment was being made accordingly. The first Great Challenge was won by Peter Stanier and Richard Pierce with engines built in 1876.

In the operational days of steam ploughing, the teams worked together every day and so were able to get the best out of the equipment. In preservation times the teams only meet on weekends and then usually with a different team each time. In these circumstances coordination between engine drivers and ploughmen is very difficult to say the least.

For that first Challenge, Robert Pelly (great-grandson of inventor and manufacturer John Fowler) presented to the club what has become known as the Challenge cup. This piece of silverware was originally presented in 1888 to Robert Fowler, then chairman of John Fowler & Co. Ltd., Leeds, for “his extraordinary shooting” by J.T. North of Chilean Nitrate Co., one of Fowler’s leading customers. The traveling cup is now presented to the overall winner of each Challenge contest.

Out of Africa

After the disappointment of having to cancel the planned 2012 Challenge because of continuous wet weather, much anticipation was in evidence leading up to the 2013 event. Things looked bad the afternoon before, when an inch of rain fell. However, that was not going to stop anyone from enjoying the weekend. An early start was made on Saturday morning with fires lit by first light and steam on by 7 a.m. An Allis-Chalmers HD-7 and HD-10 were on hand in case assistance was needed on the hillsides. The sun came out by midday and good weather stayed for the rest of the weekend.

Ten sets of engines (20 individual engines) went to work on the 100 acres that Michael Davies and his family had made available at Hill Farm, Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, in the heart of England.

The equipment on site was manufactured during a span of 46 years. An 1876 Fowler 8 hp (no. 2861) worked with Fowler no. 4223 built in 1884. This pair of engines used an 1886 Fowler plough. At the other end of the timeline was a pair of 22 hp Fowler Z7s. Built in 1922, the 23-ton machines are the largest engines Fowler produced and also the most numerous class in terms of numbers made. Only a handful of these engines were sold on the home market; they were just too big for the small fields on British farms at the time.

The two Z7s present at the Challenge have an interesting history. Engine nos. 15670 and 15673 were part of a batch of Z7s exported new to the Sena Sugar Estates in Mozambique in southeast Africa, where they were used until the 1950s. In 1977, realizing that there were no Z7s left in the U.K., Michael organized a group of steam plough enthusiasts to go to Mozambique and arrange purchase and transport of the Sena Z7s back to the U.K.

One engine had to be left behind as it had a broken rear axle and another had been used for spare parts and was very incomplete. After two major trips to Mozambique over a two-year period, the collectors ended up with six good engines and spares from the two left behind.

Influenced by war

In between the largest and smallest engines, the other engines present were representative of the other sizes of engines used for steam ploughing. Fowler 12 hp K7s, 14 hp BBs and 16 hp BBIs were well represented on the field. One McLaren 16 hp engine, also built in Leeds in 1919, came up all the way from Cornwall for the event. The complement of engines was completed with a Fowler BB1 that had been converted to diesel with the fitting of a 150 bhp McLaren diesel engine in the 1930s.

The BB1s are the most numerous class of engine operating in the U.K. steam ploughing preservation movement today. As the German U-boat menace took its toll on Atlantic shipping in the latter half of the First World War, England was in danger of starvation. Great numbers of men and horses had been sent to the front in France, leaving British farmers desperately short of power and labor.

Large numbers of tractors from International Harvester, Waterloo Boy and Ford (the first 6,000 Fordsons off the line came to the U.K.) were imported to augment domestic U.K. tractor production. But that was still not enough; in 1917 the Ministry of Supply ordered 90 pairs of engines — mostly BB1s — and relevant equipment from John Fowler & Co. A good number of those engines have survived.

Rising to the Challenge

At the Challenge site, each pair of engines was assigned a 5-acre plot. Ploughing teams were asked to plough the plot in two days to the best standard they could achieve. This most did successfully.

However, as they say, “If it can go wrong, it will,” and it did. In the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a steam plough driver, one BB1 blew a plug soon after its fire was lit. The plug is a lead-cored fitting screwed into the firebox crown and is designed to melt if the water level gets too low in the boiler, the resulting ingress of steam putting the fire out. Somehow the water level in that engine had dropped to a dangerously low level in the night and a dirty water-level sight glass did not help the situation.

All was soon remedied and the engine was at work by midday. One team somehow managed to acquire a whole field to itself and set in with vengeance. Fowler 14 hp singles nos. 2267 and 2528 (both built in 1875) and their plough finished their 5-acre plot by midday and went on to complete some 25 acres by the end of the first day. “We came to plough and that is what we did,” said Guy Debes, owner of no. 2528 (“The Chief”).

Guy and his brother, Hal, are proprietors of boilermakers Israel Newton & Sons Ltd. Founded in 1805, the firm repairs boilers and manufactures new units both for narrow gauge railway locomotives, traction and ploughing engines and new units for modern industrial applications.

Judging “enginemanship”

The ploughing continued until 1 p.m. Sunday. During the event three eminent ploughing judges traveled round the site inspecting and marking the teams’ efforts. A fourth judge caused a bit of a stir. Mike Beeby, whose family has been involved in steam ploughing for more than 100 years, judged “enginemanship”: a driver’s ability to correctly control his engine at all times, as well as fire and water management.

Mike included in his deposition an inspection of the contents of engine toolboxes. These needed to contain rope spikes (in case a rope broke and needed to be spliced), spare water gauge glasses and fusible plugs, a 14-pound sledgehammer and a coal hammer. Surprisingly nearly every requirement was present on all engines. It was suspected that the engine drivers had been forewarned!

At 3 p.m. Sunday awards were presented in the refreshment tent where a hog roast had been held the night before. Michael Davies’ Z7 no. 15673 partnered by Z7 no. 15670 (owned by David Adkins) with a six-furrow semi-digger plough won the Robert Fowler Challenge cup for the best work overall. The pair of 1875 14 hp singles won the award for best work for a shallow plough. The Beeby Brothers Memorial Cup for the best work with a digger or semi-digger plough went to Joe Nourish and his team.

Judging by the smiles and banter as the teams loaded their equipment, which is not a quick job, a good and enjoyable time was had by all and talk of the next Challenge was in evidence. The club celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016 and plans are in hand to “go for it.” The largest steam plough contractors (or custom operators) in the world were Ward & Dale of Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England. In their heyday they ran 24 sets of engines (totaling 48 individual engines). Can we equal that, well, we can only try! FC

Read more about steam ploughing in Sam Moore’s Early Days of Steam Plowing in the U.K. and Working Out the Kinks of Steam Plowing.

Peter Longfoot is the editor of Steam Plough Times, the quarterly journal of the Steam Plough Club. DVDs of the retrieval of Fowler engines from Mozambique and the 2013 Great Challenge are available from the Steam Plough Club; contact the club secretary via email:
TheSecretary@steamploughclub.org.uk or visit Steam Plough Club for more information.