Fowell & Co. – A Family Firm

© Copyright 2014 Richard Green – reproduced with permission.
All seven surviving Fowell machines
All seven surviving Fowell machines together with the one surviving Burrell made by Joseph Fowell at Old Warden 2007. Thanks to Mark Worbey for this photo. The surviving Fowell road locomotives are (in 2007) nos 91, 92, 93, 97, 98, 103 and 108.


Thetford, then a small market town on the borders of Suffolk and Norfolk, was home in the early 1800s to John Fowell and his wife Eleanor. They lived at 77 Back Street, in a small house long since demolished, in which John practiced his craft of shoemaking and repairing. Their son Joseph Thomas, my great great grandfather, born there in 1815, thus grew up with the smell of new leather, old sweaty shoes for mending and a dusty atmosphere which could hardly have been conducive to good health. Nevertheless, he thrived, although when it came to deciding on his future work he became a wheelwright. Not a wealthy man, John found the money to educate Joseph, and subsequently to apprentice him.

Burrell Tractor logo
Burrell Tractor logo

Also in Thetford at the time was Charles Burrell, whose agricultural engineering firm was already well established: Joseph went to work for Charles in 1838. By this time Joseph would have been well established and experienced in his trade, but since he joined at the age of 23 it must be assumed that his apprenticeship (which normally lasted 7 years) was carried out elsewhere – there were usually conditions attached to the indentures which prohibited carrying the trade on within a specified distance. Perhaps, since he married a girl from Cavenham in Suffolk, he met her during his time of training and had been working in the Mildenhall area, but this is pure conjecture.

Joseph Fowell
Joseph Fowell

The 1841 census recorded Joseph as a wheelwright, and an 1848 record shows him as a machine maker. By 1855 he was a foreman and became superintendent of the iron foundry in 1857. Joseph had clearly impressed Charles Burrell, and by 1868, when the firm employed about 250 men, he was earning £5 a week – a princely sum in those days. He was involved in all production aspects when Burrells developed their world-renowned traction engines. They had started with simple portable steam engine in 1846 towed to its worksite by a horse, and evolved by 1856 to the Burrell-Boydell heavy traction engine fitted with an “endless railway” system of boards which provided a smooth surface for the wheels to run on and at the same time spread the load, especially important on soft ground.

By 1860 Burrells were producing (under licence from Fowler’s who had built the very first traction engine) cable ploughing machines, and two years later a chain-driven traction engine. The first road locomotive was made in 1871, and the following year a gear-driven machine was introduced. Throughout all this time Joseph was the man who had charge of production, and the excellence of the product depended on his experience and eagle eye!

Joseph Fowell

Joseph had married Sarah (known as Sally) Osborne in Cavenham on Christmas Eve 1840 and they set up home in 77 Back Street, Thetford, close to Burrell’s factory. Sally’s father, George was a gardener at Cavenham and had been born in the little village of Norton in mid-Suffolk.

Joseph and Sally had ten children, at least six of which survived to adulthood, the eldest of whom was George John Fowell, always known as “George John”, not “George”. Of his early years nothing seems to be known, but it is clear that he was a bright lad who was well educated – he was the chief draughtsman at Burrells in 1868, getting £3 a week, in which position he was responsible for the fundamental design of Burrell’s steam traction engines which stayed with the firm, albeit with improvements, long after George John had gone.

 The patented treads fitted to the rear wheels of a Burrell High Speed Road Locomotive
The patented treads fitted to the rear wheels of a Burrell High-Speed Road Locomotive

Burrells steam traction and stationary engines had earned a very high reputation, and sales were good. One of the regular purchasers was William Box from Market Lavington in Wiltshire, and clearly he had been impressed with the head draughtsman at Burrells – this relationship was to have a substantial effect on later developments at St Ives. Equally impressed by William Box’s son William was George John. William junior was an engineer of some ability, and he was operating a brick and tile works at Uffington – the goods were delivered to customers on a trailer pulled by a Burrell road locomotive. The only problem with this arrangement was that the Burrell engine was not sprung, and any potholes could result in damaged goods. William junior solved the design problem of springing and in 1876 he took out a patent (no 1994) for a system to provide a smoother ride. Burrells made the first of these machines, at a time when George John was the leading draughtsman

It was arranged so that the traction engine drive was via a jackshaft under the boiler was connected to the drive wheels via rods and friction straps. The connecting rods provided for up and down movement of springs and the straps allowed for the different wheel speeds when turning corners.

The family story was that George John fell out with Charles Burrell because he had not been given his share of the proceeds from the patent he shared with Charles, but this seems very unlikely (if indeed any royalties were due on this rather obscure patent) and a process which had been taking place in the firm for some time seems a more likely cause of George John’s later departure.

Charles Burrell had three sons, each of whom were being groomed for carrying on the firm. There were Charles, Robert, and Frederick, and they were placed in each department of the company acquiring the skills of the various elements which went to make the various products. The boys were schooled for the positions for which they displayed an aptitude, and Frederick was not only good at design but an excellent draughtsman: he thus became the head of that section. But this was the position which George John had enjoyed for some years, and he must have been able to see that his chances of further promotion were minimal. So, in 1876 he resigned from his post with Charles Burrell and set himself up as an agricultural engineer in St Ives, Huntingdonshire. He had married Elizabeth Broadbent from Leeds eight years earlier and had three children by this time. Joseph stayed with Charles Burrell for another year.

Burrell no 748 "Century"
Burrell no 748 “Century”. The only surviving Burrell machine designed by George John and supervised in the building by Joseph

Joseph’s son Joseph had been working for Burrells in 1868, but at some time unknown, he married a girl called Carolina who died soon after of “acute mania exhaustion” in Bethel Hospital, Norwich in 1877. Joseph junior, described as a model maker in the 1861 census then went to live in Reeves Road, North Walsham and was described as an “engineer’s manager” in 1879; in 1881 he is recorded as a “Practical Engineer” living at East Dereham; also present was his sister Ellen. He had remarried (in London) in 1879 Sarah Ablett who bore him one child who survived, Daisy who was stated to have been born in Preston, Lancashire. The next trace of Joseph was living in working for Garrett’s of Leiston, a maker of steam engines, in 1901, and he finally retired to Boxford, Suffolk.

Of Joseph senior’s children there were two more individuals whose husbands were to play an important part in the history of the firm: Jane, born in 1845 who married Stephen Oldman to become my great great grandparents, and Ellen, born 1849 who married Thomas Lax, a coal merchant of Leeds, later to become a glassmaker, an who, coincidentally, had the contract for the production of Marmite jars up to the 1950s. The two men were responsible for rescuing the firm from difficulties at the turn of the century.

G J Fowell

George John Fowell
George John Fowell

George John bought some land in St Ives, adjacent to the railway and near the station which had good links to the rest of the country. St Ives then had a population of about 3000 and was the market town for a heavily agricultural area – one which could and did generate a good deal of work. The fields had originally been farmed by Oliver Cromwell, and thus when George John bought the land from a Mr Herbert, he decided to call his factory “Cromwell Works”, and immediately set about building his factory. The main engineering workshop was 100 feet long and 30 feet wide and had a yard at its side.

George Fowell business card
George Fowell business card

Although there were two other foundries in St Ives, George John, who lived for the first few years at 7 Cromwell Place, St Ives, appears to have found no real difficulty in establishing his business. W P Waldock was an iron foundry in Market Hill but did not manufacture steam engines, whilst a Francis Freshwater Briggs had a foundry near to All Saint’s Church where he did make at least one steam traction engine but seemed not to be a threat to George John. From a drawing in the Engineering Times of June 1901, it is clear that this machine had the front wheels set back behind the smokebox – this may have been where George John got the idea from for Fowell machines – or maybe Mr Briggs was copying Fowells. Neither of the St Ives firms offered any real competition, however.

A traction engine built b the St Ives engineer Francis Freshwater Briggs
A traction engine built by the St Ives engineer Francis Freshwater Briggs

William Box and George John clearly were well known to each other at this point – whether it provided the stimulus to start a new firm or whether the timing was coincidental is unclear, but George John started his new firm, called G J Fowell in 1876, with building two traction engines – one to the old Burrell design and the other for William Box, known as a Box Patent machine. One had already been produced at Burrells, and others were made at Robey’s.

Fowell no 2
Fowell no 2

This machine went on to have a fairly hard-worked life, but well maintained by its owner. Unlike most engines of the day, it went better with the governors working. 3000 miles hauling loads of 15 to 25 tons were covered in the first two years, and 20 years on this had grown to over 30,000 miles. A new front wheel was supplied in 1894, but it is not clear whether this was because of wear, a fault or an accident.

Its design, which had been patented in 1876 by William Box, was intended to provide the option of some road springing, absent on other machines of the time. It involved two coupling rods, as on steam railway locomotives, and for cornering purposes, the inner friction band could be slackened to allow for the different speed of the wheels.

Fowell no 1
Fowell no 1

In the event, the Box machine had been completed first, it was numbered 2, Fowell no 1 following a few weeks later. The major difference of no 1 from subsequent machines was that the front wheels were mounted under the smokebox – in later machines they were behind the smokebox in order to allow for turning in confined spaces such as stockyards.

No 1 was bought by Edward Green of North Walsham, who used it for timber work – hauling and sawing, as well as for threshing – evidently satisfied he also bought 4 other machines over time. (Nos 10, 23, 51 and 54) There were, of course, marked similarities to Burrell’s machines – after all, the same man designed them, but whether George John took the drawings (or copies of them) with him when he left Thetford is unknown, but seems likely.

It should not be forgotten that these machines were then (and remained) the icing on the cake for George John. His main task was the manufacture, supply, and maintenance of agricultural machinery, and throughout the history of the company up to 1921 the principle was that traction engines were made by providing the workforce with a job during slack periods in the order book, sometimes on commission but often speculatively.

No 1, (the non-Box machine) was similar to the then-current Burrell production and Fowells taking the Box Patent may have both caused friction between Joseph, for many years the works manager, and Charles Burrell, since it provided real competition. It seems likely that if, when George John left, he had taken with him a set of drawings and specifications for a traction engine, that his father would have been blamed. At all events, Joseph decided he had worked long enough for Burrells (40 years) and retired. From this time on using the name of Fowell became forbidden in the Burrell household and works (according to my great grandfather Stephen Oldman), partly because when Joseph left, he went to St Ives to join his son and took with him nine of Burrell’s most skilled men.

So when Joseph arrived in St Ives, there came with him not only most of the rest of his family, but several key workers: W Stearne, boilermaker, G Jude (fitter and turner), A Coulson (engine fitter), A Javins (pattern maker), E Morley (who repaired threshing machines), W Hutchinson (moulder), J Paul (painter), W Dow (blacksmith) and C Fuller (wheelwright). (Mr Fuller was to set up next door on his own as a wheelwright a few years later)

Joseph Fowell, Son & Co

Fowell & Son smokebox badge
Fowell & Son smokebox badge

At this stage, in 1878, the name of the firm changed and became Joseph Fowell, Son and Company and continued to prosper – a further 10 traction engines were built and sold in the next four years, the quality of the engineering helping to establish Fowell as a company worth considering. By 1881 the short-wheelbase machine had become standard, with the front wheels mounted behind the smokebox. In this year too, the census shows that Joseph was the employer of 17 men and one boy, the latter being described as an “Agricultural Machine Attendant

1882 saw 6 machines being produced in one year, and maybe it was to raise the capital to meet this increase in the order book that a Mr T F Hunt became a partner and the company changed its name to Fowells & Hunt until 1886 when it seems the partnership ended. This is not the F J Hunt of Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire who subsequently bought five machines, but may have been a relation

Fowells & Hunt issued a catalogue in 1883 which showed No 12, describing the seven horsepower machine as “the lightest and most compact engine in the trade. These engines, though specially designed for threshing purposes are equally available on the round-about system, driving circular saws or any fixed machinery and hauling loads on common roads. They are fitted with two speeds, steam jacketed cylinder, link motion reversing gear, water lifter with 25ft of suction hose, two lamps, waterproof cover, firing tools and anchors for soft ground. Each wheel is driven separately by strong internal gear rings and pinions from a steel counter which gives extreme lightness combined with strength. A winding drum is fitted if required.”

How could any farmer resist?

Another six traction engines and one portable were then made and sold, but this spurt of activity slowed down in 1886, perhaps leading to Mr Hunt’s departure and in 1886 the name changed again to Fowell and Son, which it remained for the next twelve years.

The London Gazette of  16 Apr 1866
The London Gazette of 16 Apr 1866

Fowells made four more Box patent machines, one being delivered to Uffington and the other two going to Merseyside – these were numbers 18, 30 and 41. The last machine had been modified in its design by George John, and was exhibited at the Royal Show at Leicester in 1896 – it was, however, converted to a normal drive in 1898 since it had proved unsatisfactory to its owner, Percy Elbourne of Meldreth. He allowed his men to drive the engine with the friction band loose – it made cornering easier, since one did not have to be adjusted, but he was parsimonious with the lubrication and maintenance. This one, no 83, was the last of the Box patent machines to be made. None now survive, but a superb model (which for its excellence was awarded a gold medal) built by Brian Hutchings.

Works group about 1887 - 8. Probably no 36 in background. William Stearne (previously at Burrells) and his son are second and third from the left, and Joseph Fowell stands in front of the wheel.
Works group about 1887 – 8. Probably no 36 in background.
William Stearne (previously at Burrells) and his son are second and third from the left, and Joseph Fowell stands in front of the wheel.
Thanks to Peter Stearne for this photo

From 1877 to 1888 all 30 of the standard Fowell road locomotives had four shafts and were made in 6, 7 and 8 horsepower sizes. All machines from 37 onwards had three shafts, with the drive-through a single countershaft, and the boiler and cylinder block had been redesigned – by George John

Fowell & Son

Fowell and Son's team about 1894  - George John on left Joseph on right
Fowell and Son’s team about 1894 – George John on left Joseph on right

The period from 1886 to 1898 was one of stable order books and commercial success, with the maintenance of farm machinery being the backbone of the firm. Fowell & Son had the contract for maintaining the engine at Stretham Old Mill, as well as making straw and hay presses elevators and so on. John May of St Ives commissioned an eight horsepower vertical engine for his tug boat for towing lighters to and from Kings Lynn, and a steam engine was supplied to George John’s miller brother in law, Stephen Oldman, at Stow Bedon. And all the time, when work was slack, traction engines were made for stock, or occasionally on commission.

A description of the Cromwell Works was written in 1893 by S G Jarman and can be seen here.

The traction engines especially were regularly serviced, usually after harvest, and the making of new traction engines filled in the slacker periods. Many testimonials remain showing in what high regard the firm was held by the users of their machinery. Edward Green of North Walsham wrote: “No 1 has worked to my entire satisfaction. It has been continuously employed Threshing, Sawing and Hauling Timber…Of the two 8 horsepower engines you have made for me (Nos 10 and 16) I am equally pleased and would certainly consider them the best and most powerful engines in the country… They are also very economical in fuel”

1891 saw an event which was ultimately to enable the continuance of the firm to the later 20th century when Herbert William Oldman, my great uncle, was apprenticed to the company to “learn engineering”. He was the grandson of Joseph Fowell and son of Stephen Oldman and Jane Fowell, and lodged with John Paul (whose father had come to St Ives with Joseph Fowell) and his wife Emma in Oliver Road, St Ives. This event was followed in 1896 by the apprenticeship of Mr F W Thain who was also to have a profound effect on the firm.

George John was living almost “on the job” – just across New Road in a house, still there, which faced Station Road, and Joseph was living as a widower with his two remaining single daughters Elizabeth (born 1853) and Hannah (born 1858) at Bridge Street, St Ives in 1881.

The Fowells were Wesleyan Methodists (Joseph was a librarian for the Thetford Methodist circuit in 1864) as well as being Liberal in their politics, Joseph serving on St Ives town council from 1884 to 1887 and George John from 1893 to 1899. They lived next door to each other in Station Road and two of George John’s children, Alfred and Joseph junior also worked for the family firm. All of them seemed to abide by the strict Methodist codes of the time, although there were clear problems later.

At what stage George John became ill is not known. He developed consumption (tuberculosis) and as a result, began to drink alcohol – banned by the Methodist Church. He frequented the “Lamb” public house, close to his home, and one can imagine the dismay with which this would be greeted by his family – especially his father. By 1898 matters came to a head, and steps were taken to dissolve his partnership with his father, the instigator most likely being Joseph.

Parting of the Ways

The London Gazette of 27 September 1898
The London Gazette of 27 September 1898
A works group in 1898 with Joseph Fowell on the far right. 7th and eighth from the left are William Stearne and his son

George John had attended the sale of Fowell & Son, buying two-part finished machines, nos 88 and 89, as well as a large quantity of patterns, drawings and engine spares, and then offered his services to Bayliss and Thakray, a Huntingdon firm operating from Victoria Foundry which accepted him with open arms as manager. No 88 was a seven nhp engine built mostly from the spare parts that John George had bought at auction, and was sold to Percy Elbourne of Meldreth. The machine was registered as CE 8064 and continued working until 1948 when it was cut up for scrap. No 89, an 8 nhp engine, almost certainly was made with new parts produced at Huntingdon and was sold to Edward Green at North Walsham. Registered as AH 5941 and was bought by Wallis and Stephens in 1925 in a part-exchange deal, and a year later it was bought by Percy Elbourn who used it until 1946 when, like 88, it was reduced to scrap.”

Bayliss and Thakray were then bought out by Harvey and Williams, who had been making printing machinery in London. They had intended, they said, to move their London works to Huntingdon and told the local press that they were about to create 400 jobs. They advertised themselves as “Builders of the well known “Fowell” Pattern improved Agricultural Locomotive” Clearly George John provided the skills for building the two engines, although he was certainly joined by his son Alfred and possibly by his son Joseph as well.

Early in 1900 the firm went into liquidation, Mr Harvey being prosecuted for fraud in 1901. But George John was not to see this court action: he died of tuberculosis on 30th November 1900 at his home, St Andrew’s House, Ermine Street, Huntingdon, leaving £403. His son Joe emigrated to New Zealand with Elizabeth, his widow and Ada, his eldest child. Steam continued to play a part in Joe’s life, for not only was he granted a certificate to drive steam vehicles when he arrived in Dunedin, but he was involved in the building of the SS Earnslaw, a steam-powered vessel which operates out of Queenstown to this day – to the delight of the tourists who are able to see the engines if they wish (I did!). Alfred stayed in Huntingdon, establishing his own engineering firm and died in 1947.

After Joseph’s retirement and death, Joseph Fowell, Senior changed its name again; with an initial share capital of £5000 capital with Harry Gleaves Few, a Cambridge corn merchant who became the principal shareholder, this time to Fowell & Co Ltd and Herbert William Oldman was made managing director. You can see a copy of the letter of notification sent to all customers which can be seen here. Herbert was described A man of limited education and few words, but hard-working and kindly. He established a reputation for ingenuity as a practical engineer, especially where difficult repairs were involved. He was a remarkably skilled traction engine driver.”

Fowell & Co Ltd

Fowell Traction Engine illustration
Fowell Traction Engine illustration

The agricultural engineering continued, with one new traction engine a year being constructed – all of the 7 nhp size, since George John had taken all the drawings for the 8 nhp engine with him. It was at this stage that the present-day brick building was erected in New Road with the arched entrance so familiar to the people of St Ives. A small dividend was paid each year, but the traditional practices and designs continued.

All the seven existing steam locomotives were made by Fowell & Co in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and are to be seen at rallies all over the country – one is even owned and stationed in Tipperary! A reunion in 2007 arranged by Mark Worbey at Old Warden is illustrated at the top of this page.

Now Mr W F Thain returned to the firm. He had been an apprentice in 1898 but had left to join the Royal Navy, and at the request of Mr Few, was released to come to Cromwell Works as Works Manager, deputy to Herbert William Oldman, who, at the auction had bought 8 Station Road, the home of George John. Whilst an apprentice, Mr Thain had spent some time in the drawing office and had redesigned the 8 nhp traction engine, but the plans, although kept, were not acted upon. Between 1910 and 1914 he reviewed, modernised and redesigned the machinery in the factory as well as producing an improved 8 nhp engine based on his work as an apprentice. In 1914 he returned to the Royal Navy and had a long and distinguished career at the RN torpedo establishment, HMS Vernon, retiring in 1944 as principal Scientific Officer with many inventions to his credit. His four years at St Ives revitalised the works and set the scene for the seven years after World War I.

The first World War saw Cromwell Works producing munitions and employing over 100 workers, but the part-time work on four traction engines continued, one being completed in 1915 and another two after the war. No 110 was started but never completed.

During the war a prototype paraffin engine was built, but the work was very expensive for so small an undertaking. And all the time, the internal combustion engine was developing – difficult for Herbert William, who had been raised on steam and detested its new and better alternative. The heyday of traction engine manufacture was at an end, although the company continued to service both their own and other traction engines.

During the financial year 1921 to 1922 Fowell & Co made a loss and a still larger one in 1923, which lead to the winding up of the company. But this was not the end! Herbert William Oldman bought the firm and it then embarked on a new life called H W Oldman.

Agricultural engineering remained the practice of the company for the next 19 years. The products widened in their range to include harrows, potato planters, conveyors, poultry food mixers, processing machinery as well as special vehicles and larger scale bridge fabrication work. Indeed, the bridges for the Cambridge bypass all include ironwork from H W Oldman. And in the middle of all this, my sixth birthday was graced with a green and red wooden wheelbarrow made at Cromwell Works! But it was the repair and maintenance tasks which kept the firm viable, rather than the production of children’s wheelbarrows and new equipment. Many firms failed when the post-war recession began to bite about 1919 onwards, but keeping things going for the farmers meant regular work and a steady income.

Not all work was maintenance, however: Paisley records that a large order was received in 1919 for brake gear parts for a London automotive firm which was completed, and there is evidence that Oldman’s sold new equipment, such as threshing machines as agents for other manufacturers.

By this time it was clear that the internal combustion engine and the tractor had replaced new steam traction engines, and no more were produced. H W Oldman came through the recession in time to set up for the second World War.

During this time, as well as continuing the agricultural engineering, many extra staff were employed and production of parts for Pye Radio of Cambridge became an important part of the output – and presumably of the war effort. To do this the gas engine shed was converted into a machine shop, evidence of the flexibility of the management which had stood the test of time so well.

Herbert William Oldman
Herbert William Oldman

So who was my “Uncle Herbert”? I remember him as the rather quiet man with a big moustache who took my mother and I to Whipsnade Zoo in his car and held me up to see various animals, and his wife as a warm and cuddly lady who I liked very much – for a five year old! – although, sadly she was not well and died in 1939. But what did others think of him? An account of his funeral is included here and my father’s diary records He had been father to Mollie (my mother whose own father had died in 1919), and a kinder hearted, finer man never lived. Everyone who knew him liked and respected him. He was the only man I ever met of whom one might say he was a thoroughly good and upright man.”

Whilst Herbert headed the firm he was ably assisted by his “Right-hand man” Mr H J Benton who in latter years took on an increasingly managerial role in the firm and Mr F W Adams, the office manager, and when Herbert died in 1942, Mr Benton took over the whole exercise, bringing in his wife’s nephew, Reg Howse of St Ives who became Managing Director after Mr Benton retired, carrying on the firm as H W Oldman (St Ives) Ltd until it closed and was wound up at the Official Receiver’s Office on 21 June 1983, finally confirmed 14th April 1987.[London Gazette]

Reg Howse with some paintings
Reg Howse with some paintings

Reg Howse with some paintings of Fowell machines. In the early seventies however, work had expanded very substantially. Growing export work, fabrication for public utilities and the Department of the Environment produced enormous pressures, and the premises at New Road were no longer large enough, and the whole firm moved to new purpose built premises in St Ives industrial estate. It is of interest to note that during the whole of the time the firm operated there was no trade union activity; all disputes were dealt with on a personal basis by the boss of the day and the workforce seems to have been more like a family than most.

Peter Stearne, to whom many thanks, wrote to me (Richard Green):

Indeed I am related to the William Stearne who moved to St Ives with Joe Fowell. I gather that William Stearne was the chief boilermaker at Burrells, so I guess it was a bit of a blow when so many top staff moved to St Ives.

Initially William lived in St Ives, but with a loan from the Thetford Odd Fellows, he was able to buy Cottage Farm, Needingworth. Dad told me that he used to walk to work each morning, about 3 miles, along the railway, but I think he timed his journey so that the local goods engine gave him a lift. I guess all the engine train engine drivers would know who he was.

My Great Grandfather was born in St Ives but when very young moved to Cottage Farm. He followed in the family trade of boiler making, so I guess the examples of the steam engines that have survived have his boilers in them. His name was Ebenezer. His son Percy was born at Cottage Farm, but he chose to be at first a fruit farmer and then at the end he had a small dairy herd. He was a very poor farmer, but a great blacksmith.

Dad, Cyril William Stearne, was also born at Cottage Farm. His first job was engineer’s mate at the paper mill across the river in St Ives from the Fowell works. The mill is now converted to trendy flats. He became a very highly respected toolmaker. He had a lung problem that was made worse by factory work. Thus he sought a more ‘outdoor’ job, which happened to farm mechanic to T. B. Paisley.

Dad might have been employed as farm engineer, but he spent most of his time working on a rapidly growing collection of steam engines, including the three Fowells. Dad worked there for about seven years before starting his own business.

In 1975 Dad was asked if he might be interested in helping Oldmans to prepare the three Paisley Fowell engines for the 100-year celebrations in 1976. So Dad and I moved the engines to Oldmans works and started work. It was soon apparent that one of the engines needed a new firebox, so it was not steamed. The other two soon passed boiler tests, and so started 3 summers of showing the engines. It was great fun. I have pictures of the engines in St Ives in 1976, when my Uncle was mayor of the town.

At about the same time both my brother and I worked for H W Oldman’s as summer students. So in a daft sense, I worked for Fowells.

So perhaps Fowell & Son was a family firm in more than one sense!

Also, Ian Allgood, to whom also many thanks, wrote to me (Richard Green):

I worked for R. J. (Howse) as a spotty 17-year-old boy in the early 1970s and stayed with the company for 7 years working mostly in the field on the local RAF sites as a fabricator, I also had some time working in the lathe shop.

I was lucky enough to work for 3 years or more (Can’t quite remember the dates) in the original shop in St Ives Town. I remember the great forge where most of the forming of the huge boilers must have taken place. I can remember most of the tools still hung up on the wall around the forge area and thinking to myself that there must have been a lot of sweat lost in the place.

I was still with the firm when they moved up to the industrial estate, and I can tell you that something in the ‘ol firm was lost that day, I also remember an enormous facing lathe that must have stood at least 10 feet high when it appeared in the cutting shop of the new factory I guess that must have been a relic of the days of steam.

You may be interested to know that one of the people who worked on the steam engines was a chap by the name of David Coulson. He used to live just outside Warboys in the fen. He was an avid steam fan and used to display several stationary engines, and he was also one of the workers at Cromwell factory. I remember him especially because he was a very likable eccentric, I remember he made his own 12 bore shotgun during his lunch hour and breaks.

The reason I mention David (Nicknamed “Dally”) because if you are a visitor to the steam shows you may or already have bumped into him. And he would tell you much more than I could. He was there when I started and was still there when the company ceased trading.

Fowell reunion plaque
Fowell reunion plaque

Even though Fowells and their successors have ceased trading, seven of the traction engines are still operational and may be seen in steam at various rallies up and down the country. Grateful thanks are due to the enthusiasts who maintain and operate them so expensively and efficiently. In 2007 a reunion of all existing Fowells was provided at The Bedfordshire Steam & Country Fayre, Old Warden Park, where there was also an exhibition of Fowell memorabilia organised by Mark Worby, to who many thanks.

Part of Cromwell Works
Part of Cromwell Works

Special thanks, too are due to the Road Locomotive Society and to Ken Ballard and Brian Hutchings, for basic information and the machine list, Ian Allgood, Clive Turner and Peter Stearne (for photographs as well) and to Glenn Carter, Alec Crosse, Ron and David Miller and Richard Parrish, owners of the existing road locomotives.

There is a list of all machines made by Fowells here: for those interested in the Fowell family history, click here.

The surviving Fowell road locomotives are (in 2007) nos 91, 92, 93, 97, 98, 103 and 108.
All seven surviving Fowell machines together with the one surviving Burrell made by Joseph Fowell at Old Warden 2007. Thanks to Mark Worbey for this photo. The surviving Fowell road locomotives are (in 2007) nos 91, 92, 93, 97, 98, 103 and 108.

© Copyright 2014 Richard Green