The British Steam Plough Club

S.P.C. members

S.P.C. members in Charles Roads yard at Orwell, Cambridgesboro 1969. Charles is second from left.

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3, Ridge Side, Haw Lane, Bledlow Ridge, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP14 4JN., England

By American standards, the British Steam Plough Club may well appear rather small and specialized. It was formed in 1966, and although its progress has never been spectacular, the club had grown steadily into a successful unit which has now a membership of nearly two hundred, including a few ladies. Twenty of its members actually own plough engines. I think that it can be said, quite truthfully, that this club has certainly stirred up an interest in the now historical method of ploughing by steam.

In antiquity it was considered desirable, before launching out upon new or doubtful projects, to consult oracles or look into the entrails of animals for propitious signs. The Steam Plough Club was, perhaps, lucky in that it had immediate unsolicited Divine prompting, for the inspiration to form it came like a flash from the blue whilst the writer was attending Sunday morning service in the flint-walled hilltop village church at Bledlow Ridge in Buckinghamshire. So blessed, the club's luck has held good.

Action began with a dozen interested people having lunch in the Great Northern Railway Hotel at Peterborough in Northamptonshire on December 3, 1966. Over a very enjoyable meal, our minds animated by a few light draughts of beer or wine, we talked about steam ploughs, their boiler explosions and other mishaps, as well as about their wonderful achievements in breaking up big acreages of land. A private room in the hotel had been hired for an afternoon meeting, at which we were joined by another dozen chaps. Taking count, we found that we had people representative of nine English counties, although at that time most of us were complete strangers. It was decided to form a club with an annual membership fee of 1, a figure which has not required increasing one cent during the intervening eleven years, thanks to the good treasureship of bank official Richard F. Jackson of Walsall in the West Midlands.

As I am talking about a British steam ploughing club, it has to be said right at the beginning that practically all our activity concerns cable type work, using a pair of engines, one on either side of the field. Of the alternative methods: one stationary engine with a fixed windlass and round-about style ropes passing round the field, or the direct traction pulling the plough by the engine style; the two remaining examples are preserved by Lt. Commander, J. M. Baldock of Liphook, Hampshire, and Frank Smith of Boston respectively.

Practical field operations began the following April when the club staged a display of steam cultivating on the biggish and well-managed farm of Brian Hailey at Great Wymondley near Hitchin in north Hertfordshire. A cultivator is a three-wheeled, self-turning implement having thirteen long strong tines and known to the old steam ploughmen as a scarifier or drag. Batchelor farmer Brian remembered with affection the steam ploughs which his grandfather and father had used on the family farm; so he not only welcomed us, but he also paid for the coal and counted the cost against the cultivating of his field by the one pair of engines we had in use. Mike Goodman brought his eighteen ton 1920 John Fowler of Leeds compound AA7 class engine No. 15563, rated at 18 nominal horsepower (about 175 i.h.p.) named Wayfarer. Bill Colebrook, a motor maker in Vauxhall's Luton works, came in with his 1917 AA No. 13880, but since both engines were fitted up to pull their ropes from the left side, Bill's engine had to progress backwards along its hedgerow. During the weekend the engines ripped up about ten acres; but less than fifty people came to look at us. Our only misfortune was to let the outside tines on the cultivator tear out the bank alongside the narrow lane that led from the village to the work site. This upset the tidy mind of Brian who took five years to forget it and before he invited us on to his land once more.

In 1968 there came the unexpected but welcome request from the East Anglian Traction Engine Club (a much larger group) asking if we would look after the pair of plough engines they would have at work at their Hauxton, Cambridgeshire, rally. We snapped up this chance to show our worth, made some red flags, identified our half dozen stewards with armbands, saw that spectators kept clear of the machinery, and that they did not wander about across the ploughing where the slithering steel cables presented a hazard to careless walkers. As our men were strangers to the area, it was excusable if two of them asked the owner of the field (not knowing who he was) to get off the ploughing. I did a commentary beside one of the engines, telling folks something about the steam engines and their implements. We also had a makeshift stall from which we sold a few books and enrolled those who wanted to become members of our club. All told, the affair was quite a success sufficient to get us the award of a cup and 20 for the club funds.

From this modest beginning, the club went on to give this kind of help to other clubs. We appeared at Great Shelford, Houghton Conquest, Sudbury Mammoth Rallye (twice) Nettlebed, 18th World Ploughing Contest in Somerset, Roxton Park (six yers), Asthall (twice) Letchlade and Reevesby Fen. And, touch wood, so far no accidents! Our first safety officer was Brian Parsons who worked hard to ensure that nobody got hurt while the engines were at work. We used to stop at hourly intervals in order that people might step around to the pulling side of an engine and have a closer look at the plough or cultivator that we happened to be using. Our present safety officer is Pete Ware from Bedford. At last year's Asthall One Hundred Horses Ploughing Match, Pete, his wife Sandra and two children left home at 4:00 A.M. in order to make sure that the rope barriers were up long before the engines were ready to begin work. Pete also makes certain that the owners of all engines at our events can show current boiler and accident insurance reports, in accordance with club requirements.

By 1971 we had fifty to sixty members and as things were going so well, we decided upon a public show of our own. John Pryor, squire in the little Hertfordshire village of Weston near Baldock still had green memories of the Cooper digger owned and worked by his grandfather, as well as of the pair of Fowler steam ploughs that came on to the estate in his father's time. 'You can come on my land,' he said, 'I will buy the coal and cart the water and we will share any profit between the old church at Weston and your club.' That year it was jolly hot in July as we worked on a big hillside field after the clover crop had been carted. It was a lovely top of the world site with wide views over the fields of waving barley creeping down the slopes into the valley below and up again over the rolling, smooth-topped chalk hills on the northern side.

For this show we had two pairs of engines: one pair ploughing and the other cultivating. At the ploughing were Alec Ibbott's 1919 BB class Fowler compound No. 15336 and Ron Ruff's 1917 BB No. 14383 'Prince.' Both of these engines were rated as 16 nominal horsepower and would have been referred to by the old time steam ploughmen as 'A pair of sixteens!' Alec is a gas tractor salesman and Ron is in the agricultural contracting line. The cultivating lower down was undertaken by farmer Charles Roads of Caxton nearby with his AA No. 15451 'Victory,' built in 1925, and Bill Colebrook's AA already mentioned. These engines were pulling the implement at a good six miles an hour, the proper speed, to the mild surprise of one or two gas tractor men whose crawler caterpillar machines took things a little less hurried. The toughest ground, clay with flints, was found on the ploughing patch where the ploughshares often rolled out jagged flints as big as footballs. It was no wonder, therefore, that the ropes broke several times and had to be spliced up. Running down the middle of the ploughing was a deep hollow, over which the rope under tension lifted quite ten feet into the air in a spectacular tight-rope fashion.

The British Broadcasting Corporation took an interest in what we were doing at this 'Steam Ploughs at Work' display and sent a camera team out to us for two days. The short color film was televised from London the following Monday evening. Some 3,000 folks paid to come into the field that weekend, and when we had done our sums, we found that we had an encouraging profit of 350.

When Robert F. Oliver, a hospital equipment salesman, took over from me as secretary in 1974, he at once set about publicity for the club, seeking new members. The response was immediate and our members crept up to the two hundred mark. The club chairman is Esmond L. Lewis-Evans, a Rhodesian whose major preservation interest has been running the South Eastern Steam Centre at Ashford in Kent, where he has rented the old railroad locomotive shed from the Southern Region of British Railways. Esmond's great sense of fair play, as projected from the chair at our meetings, has doubtless kept us free from the sudden verbal thunderstorms that arise at such gatherings elsewhere.

No club such as ours, with its widely scattered membership, which ranges over Great Britain, Holland, Australia and Canada, could keep its members holding hands without a quarterly newsletter. Our young editor, Mick Place, of south London, does his work well, partly because he happens to be a bachelor without too many restrictions upon his comings and goings, and partly because he is in inveterate traveller around all the steam scenes in this country. Mick knows all the steam chaps, their engines and everything else connected with our preservation movement. His only fault is that he hankers a little after those horrible conversions of steam ploughs into diesel engine-powered units.

One of the more recent achievements of the club has been the making of a twenty-three minute color film 'Ploughing by Steam,' under the professional eye and hand of retired film maker John Rogers of Harpenden near Luton. Some members were, quite naturally, a bit wary about the club laying out around 350 for the making of this film. However, it has turned out to be a success, having been hired out to a hundred or more showings in the UK, and seven copies have already been sold, one has even gone to Australia. Our aim with this film was to show how steam cultivation work was done, as well as a few other field jobs for which plough engines are suitable. Both the shots and the accompanying narration are presented in an easy-to-follow-manner, and all the elementary questions are answered.

During 1977 the club hopes to have another public display of steam cultivation, and it also hopes to be associated with two horse and tractor ploughing matches in October when our members steam ploughs will be at work. The club's secretary is Vic H. Burrough, 94, Harvist Road, Kensal Rise, London NW6 6HL, England. If any of your readers in the States are coming over this side and would like to make our acquaintance in company with some of the finest steam engines we have in this country, would they please write to Vic. Shakespeare has a wealth of characters in his plays, but kings and villians apart, we can match him among the members of this club for color.