Leeds nostalgia: From green shoots to mighty roots

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While they might not have been invented by a Leeds man, lawnmowers were, by and large, popularised and spread across the world by one - the story of how Thomas Green managed to build his company up from the ground is told in a new book, The History of Thomas Green & Son Ltd by John Pease.

Green was an entrepreneur who began with a wire making factory in North Leeds but quickly diversified, creating lawnmowers, boilers, washing machines and later steam rollers and tramcar engines.

The first patent for a lawnmower was granted in 1830 - Green meanwhile made his first in 1855 - patent 1831, registered in 1856 was titled ‘improvements in mowing machinery’... he produced a 20-inch mower and later a 42-inch mower and other garden furniture. In 1858 it was a Green machine won first prize at the first lawn mower trial conducted at the London Horticultural Gardens, Chiswick.

Born in Nottinghamshire in December 1810, the youngest of six, he was an apprentice joiner before moving to Leeds in 1835, after which he started his wire business in Hunslet Lane. He married Ann Stansfield and they had two children, Willoughby and Thomas.

Green’s wife died in November 1865 and he moved to Brunswick Place, near North Street and in 1873 he stood as a Tory in the Leeds North local elections and lost by five votes to James Lowley, a Liberal, who polled 885 votes.

At the new premises, off Smithfield Iron Works, next to main trunk road to Harrogate, a foundry was constructed, facilitating the manufacturer of lawnmowers, boilers, road rollers and later tramway engines, petrol engines and aircraft parts - he even made a sausage machine.

In his book, John Pease writes: “The year 1850 saw perhaps the most significant development in the company’s evolution with the first inclusion of moving machines and garden rollers in the product range. These machines were to become the cornerstone of the business that would establish the company’s reputation, not just in Britain but across the world. In the following year it is recorded in the census return that Thomas Green was employing 26 men.”

In 1885, it was reported during the chairman’s speech that, worryingly, the cost of the steam road roller was more than the price at which they were being sold and that the secretary see that an investigation was launched into how this was allowed to happen.

However, this was tempered by news of a six-ton roller being dispatched to Royal Gardens at Frogmore, Windsor.

The demand for mowers grew like the grass they were designed to cut and in 1907, the owners declared they could have 10,000 mowers in stock by the following year. Mowers were made of all shapes and sizes, including a 30 inch mower designed for sports ground and even an engine driven 42-inch mower. There was a tractor which towed several mowers and was designed for golf courses.

There was a verge cutter, designed for clipping verges, with a slipping clutch so the blades would stop when they encountered debris. There was even a ‘triple mower’, which had side extensions with cutting blades on and a high seat for the driver.

Later they went into tramway engine manufacturing and locomotives, some of which found their way to Australia.

During the Second World War, the company made parts for the Swordfish aircraft, amongst other things.

The business was bought outright in 1951 by Blackburn and General Aircraft Ltd, whose managing director Robert Blackburn noted: “The business was established well over 100 years ago and its lawnmowers and road rollers may be found in most parts of the world.

“Their profits will make a useful contribution to the profits of the group and their products, which have the highest reputation for traditional British workmanship...”

Thomas Green died at Asket Hill, a mansion in Roundhay, in April 1892.

With amalgamations in the aircraft industry, Hawker Siddeley took over the business in 1960, but this was not a successful marriage and in 1975 Greens were sold to Atkinsons of Clitheroe and the Leeds works closed.

Mr Pease, the author of two previous books, added: “ notes: “This is the story of a Leeds company that produced many products but are particularly famous for lawnmowers and road rollers. Perhaps some of your older readers may have worked at Greens.”

The book is on sale now priced £18. See website: www.lightmoor.co.uk for more information.

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