The Great Challenge: Steam Ploughing

The British Great Challenge competition keeps steam ploughing tradition alive.


| April 2014



2 Fowler Z7s

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

Photo by Peter Longfoot

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.