Leeds nostalgia: plough man’s plaque launch 150 years on

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A Leeds Civic Trust historic blue plaque has been unveiled to celebrate John Fowler, one of the great pioneers of the Leeds engineering industry, who died 150 years ago in 1864.

It has been placed on the site of John Fowler’s Steam Plough Works, on Hunslet Road, Leeds close to some of the works surviving buildings on Leathley Road.

The plaque has been generously sponsored by Leeds and District Traction Engines Society Club and will be unveiled by The Lord Mayor of Leeds.

The star of the occasion was the ‘steamed-up’ 1875 Fowler Ploughing Engine which was brought to Leeds for the event.

The plaque will read: “John Fowler: The Wiltshire-born Quaker engineer erected his Steam Plough Works here in 1861. Some of its buildings still stand opposite on Leathley Road. He developed the first practical method of mechanical ploughing using a cable system powered by steam engines.

This system was exported worldwide.

Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, said: “In the Victorian era Leeds became one of the engineering powerhouses of the British Empire. John Fowler’s steam ploughs led the world in the mechanical cultivation of the land. Fowler was a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur whose works brought wealth and prosperity to Leeds for over a century.”

Leeds Civic Trust’s Blue Plaques Scheme was begun in 1987 and has since erected over 150 plaques.

John Fowler was born in Wiltshire in 1826, the son of a wealthy Quaker merchant. He had a rural background and was apprenticed to a corn merchant. However, his ambition was to be an engineer and in 1847 he was apprenticed to the Quaker firm of Gilkes, Wilson Hopkin & Co of Middlesbrough – they made railway locomotives, colliery winding and haulage gear and iron railway bridges and viaducts.

In 1849 Fowler joined a delegation of Quaker on a visit to Ireland which was stricken by famine because of the potato blight. From that time he resolved to devote his energy to the development of agricultural machinery and the means of increasing and cheapening food production.

In Ireland John Fowler learned of the importance of improving land by installing drainage systems. Over the coming years he developed a large mole plough working at a greater depth than those then current to enable continuous underground drainage pipes to be laid. This used a windlass and cable system.

In 1852 Fowler began to consider steam engines might be used as a substitute for horses in agriculture and that his windlass and cable system might be used for pulling a plough across a field.

He decided to adapt the Fisken Brothers Leeds-produced patented double-ended plough, which was designed to plough forwards across a field and then back in the other direction with the need to turn it round. The plough was to be drawn across a field and back by cables attached to a steam engine standing at the field edge. The engine would advance along the field edge as additional furrows were cut.

Fowler competed at Royal Agricultural show trials around the country, eventually succeeding in winning the top £500 price at Chester in 1858. The judges said, ‘Mr Fowler’s machine is able to turn over the soil in an efficient manner, at savings of up to 25 per cent on light land, 25-30 per cent on heavy land and 80-85 per cent on trenching.’

During the following six years Fowler continued his experimental work.

Fowler realised he needed a really sturdy self-moving engine and decided to erect his own factory. In 1861 he established his own Steam Plough Works on Hunslet Lane. The first pair of ploughing engines to be built entirely in the Steam Plough Works was delivered to the Wakefield Steam Plough Co in November 1862.

The next few years were extremely busy for Fowler and his colleagues – increasing works production, attending trials and exhibitions and searching worldwide for new markets for their successful products. Fowler made a fortune was able to live in considerable style at Denison Hall in Hanover Square, Little Woodhouse, just on the edge of today’s Leeds city centre.

By 1864 John Fowler’s efforts to build his business led to a nervous breakdown.

His doctor advised rest and a move to the countryside - he and his family moved from Denison Hall, Leeds to Prospect House in Ackworth, Pontefract.

He died there on December 4, 1864, at 38, as the result of a fall from his horse.