Ploughing Engines

One of Peter Nunn’s articles which appeared in the magazine ‘Old Tractor’ in March 2004 (slightly adapted).

In June 1919 Frank Nunn bought a pair of Class K7 Fowler ploughing engines with a plough and cultivator for £3,500; a little over two years old but scarcely used – apparently they had not been sufficiently strong to cope with the heavier clay soils of Bedfordshire.

A set of steam ploughing tackle demanded a committed team of five men. The foreman had to be able to perform the duties of any one of his team and needed two engine drivers, a cultivator (or plough) man and a young lad – always referred to as the cook boy. Unless the work was near to home, they ate and slept in the living van. They were expected to keep the engines at work through all the hours of daylight usually from the middle of March until late into the autumn.

During the summer of 1936, an unfortunate accident occurred with the ploughing tackle. On a farm at Combs near Stowmarket, a mole drainer became entangled with a stubborn tree root, which dragged the engine over on its side, smashing the chimney, the flywheel and, more importantly, the safety valve on the steam chest. The escaping steam blew a hole in the ground and enveloped the whole scene in an impenetrable cloud of steam and dust. Luckily, the driver had managed to jump off the footplate clear of the engine before it toppled. One of the advantages in operating a pair of engines was that if something untoward happened to one of them there was always the other nearby to render aid. The toppled engine was soon righted and, by a stroke of good fortune, a spare flywheel was available back at base. The other repairs were within the capacity of the staff and work was resumed fairly promptly.

Apart from this distressing incident, the contracting side of the business was running well. It was always an accepted part of the contract that the farmer had to provide coal and water, usually with a horse and cart (a water cart was part of the steam tackle). Any delay in the supplies arriving caused untold irritation to the enginemen because of the effect it might have on their acreage bonus payments. The problem was that many horses were frightened by noisy steam engines and could not be persuaded to get close enough for the transfer of the water and coal. Many stories have been recounted of these incidents, including tales of the steel cable of one of the engines being attached to the horse so that both it and the water cart could be dragged to the thirsty steamer!

Keeping the team going year-round

There was always a period during the winter when the tackle had to be brought back to base. Frank Nunn tried very hard to retain the team during the off- season and the foreman and his two drivers were sufficiently skilled to carry out most of the maintenance before the next arduous season. Few boiler tubes lasted more than two years so some needed replacing each year. The team would also often use one of the Fowler engines to transport timber to the works. After seasoning for four or five years, the wood would be used to make wagons, tumbrels, horse hoes and farm ladders: ash for felloes (pronounced fellies) because of its flexibility and toughness; elm for the nave (or hub) because it would not split; and oak for the spokes because of its strength.

Over the years, the requirement for timber largely diminished and so another activity was needed for the enginemen out of season. Frank Nunn purchased an A Type dredger with a trailer to transport it. The trailer also carried a pump with appropriate hoses in case it was necessary to drain ponds and lakes before dredging could begin. Imagine the farmers’ delight when it was possible to clean out a typical pond in a couple of hours for about £5-£10 a time. The dredger was surprisingly simple and was strongly constructed with two vertically hinged and heavily riveted steel plates. The first engine pulled the hinged end of the contrivance into the pond to a pre-determined distance and then the second took the strain. Critically positioned chains allowed the plates to open by about 90 degrees and scoop out about two or three cubic yards of mud and debris.

Conversion to diesel

An article that had appeared in a farm journal in December 1935 attracted Frank Nunn to the idea of converting his steam engines to diesel power. The conversions were supplied in the form of a kit supplied by J. & H. Mclaren of Leeds, consisting of a four-cylinder diesel engine, a large radiator, a two-cylinder 5 hp petrol engine for starting the diesel, a clutch, a transverse transmission and a pair of strong supporting side-plates. Before work could start, the chimney, steam chest, flywheel and crankshaft-drive assembly were removed from the old engines; the smoke box was renewed; all boiler tubes replaced and the rear water tank cleaned. The heavy diesel engines were lifted into position with pulley blocks hanging from a tripod of strong wooden baulks. The smoke box was conveniently utilised as a toolbox, the boiler became a very effective silencer (one could hardly hear the engine running when idling) and the water tank became the fuel tank holding sufficient for two week’s work. Diesel fuel was ordered and delivered on site in loads of 500 gallons, shared between the two engines, at a cost of £10 per load. Petrol was then 1/6d a gallon. Within the contract price for the conversion (in excess of £2,400), Mclaren provided the services of a qualified engineer, called Jack Smiley, who took lodgings at the local public house. The skills of the enginemen were put to good use in assisting Smiley, but Frank Nunn became increasingly concerned about the time that was being taken over the conversion with orders for work accumulating. In answer to his fervent pleas, Mclarens seconded a second engineer to the job and the engines were ready by the middle of 1938.

Back to steam!

In the autumn of 1938, Nunns were offered the opportunity to buy another complete set of Fowler steam plough tackle: these were in excellent mechanical condition, a snip at under £500 the pair.for the pair. The tackle included a four-furrow balance plough with subsoiler attachments. A new team of five men was recruited and the steam set was ready for work by the late spring of 1939. However the newly appointed foreman was found to be entertaining a girlfriend in the van during the afternoon and was instantly replaced! With the diesel engines at work, customers were no longer used to having to supply coal and water and were unhappy about having to accept the steam set. This problem was overcome by adapting a 250-gallon water cart to be pulled by a tractor. The chassis was mounted on rubber tyres and had coal bunkers at the front and rear. It incorporated a water pump and cost £21; the cart became an extra responsibility for the ‘cook boy’.

The end of the road (1941)

By early 1941, it was becoming apparent that several of the traction gears and pinions on the diesel set were becoming very badly worn. Replacement with new would have been prohibitively expensive, so it was decided to use the arc welder to build up all the individual teeth on these gears – a long job with the shape of the teeth achieved purely by the length of arc and the amperage employed. Bill Nunn and Fred Rush took it in turns to keep the arc welder in continuous use from as early as six o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening. After these repairs had been completed, the tackle set out from the works for the ensuing 1941 spring season. They had only travelled a couple of miles when a steering chain or pin broke on one of the engines, causing it to slip off the road and leaving it tottering very dangerously on the edge of a deep ditch. The second engine was not sufficient to pull it out and one of the steamers had to be brought from base to complete the recovery. The administrative problems of running two sets of ploughing tackle during the early war years proved to be extremely arduous and imposed a tremendous strain, particularly on Frank himself. The gradual introduction of crawler tractors and the Fowler Gyrotiller, each employing only one man, proved to be too strongly competitive: Nunns decided to wind up this side of the business and sold all the equipment off in August 1941.