Inside the Collection

Mechanisation of agriculture – 1889 Fowler steam ploughing engine

Steam ploughing engine made by John Fowler & Co., Leeds, England, 1889
Steam ploughing engine made by John Fowler & Co., Leeds, England, 1889. Powerhouse Museum collection. B2265.

One of the most visually impressive objects in the Museum’s collection is this fabulous steam ploughing engine. It’s an example of the world’s first successful method of powered cultivation, developed by John Fowler of Leeds, England, in 1863 and was part of the mechanisation and industrialisation of agriculture during the nineteenth century.

Before tractors were developed in the early twentieth century, steam ploughing was the first method of mechanised ploughing and cultivating, though nearly all ploughing was still done with horses. Steam ploughing involved two steam traction engines, each with a drum carrying cable suspended beneath its boiler. Located on either side of a field, the engines took turns in winding the cable across the field to which a special balance plough was attached.Traction engines were developed by the early 1860s, but they were too heavy to pull ploughs directly over the soil. By the mid-1860s Fowler had devised his basic ploughing engine design which was to remain, with improvements, until the last ploughing engine left Fowler’s works in England in 1933, superseded by the development of the internal combustion engined tractor.

Ploughing engine sets were very costly to buy and operate in Britain. Far more were exported around the world, to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish empires, developing the great potential of their vast land resources, and to Egypt, Tunis, South Africa, the Transvaal, Mozambique, Australia, Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.

Steam ploughing demonstration at Menangle, NSW, in the 1980s
Steam ploughing demonstration at Menangle, NSW, in the 1980s.

Owing to the nature of land use in Australia, steam ploughing was not common here. Most holdings were too large, the country was too rough and fuel and water supplies were too scant in many areas. It has been estimated that only about one hundred Fowler ploughing engines were used throughout Australia. The first to operate was in the 1860s in South Australia, closely followed by Victoria, Western Australia, and then Queensland in 1881 and New South Wales in 1882.

Many ploughing engines were not imported into Australia for agricultural purposes but for the construction of large earth tanks or dams for storing water. These were developed for outback sheep stations. During the 1880s some travelling stock routes were improved by government-owned Fowler ploughing engines with excavating scoops. Steam ploughing engines were also used during the development of the irrigation areas along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. During the 1920s they were used by the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission to clear and plough land for soldier settlers around Griffith in NSW. Another big user was the Queensland sugar industry where steam ploughing was used on plantations until World War II.

The Museum’s steam ploughing engine is the left hand engine of a pair of wood-burning engines, Nos. 5933 and 5934, built at John Fowler and Co.’s Steam Plough Works, in Leeds, England, in 1889. They were ordered by Michael O’Shaunassy for his Jerilderie property in NSW. The engines were later sold to the pastoralist and philanthropist, Sir Samuel McCaughey (1835-1919). McCaughey was a significant sheep breeder and owned numerous stations. In 1900 he bought a North Yanco property, near Griffith, and it was there that he employed the two Fowler ploughing engines. He constructed a complex irrigation system with some 320 km of channels to irrigate 40,000 acres on which he grew lucerne and other fodder crops. In 1912 McCaughey sold the ploughing engines to the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission for operation at Leeton to remove silt from water channels and to deepen watercourses in catchment areas.

In the 1930s the two engines were separated and the Museum’s engine, No. 5933, was used on a farm for water pumping and the other for driving a circular saw. In 1965 the engine went to the Goulburn Steam Museum for display and it was subsequently acquired by the Powerhouse Museum and restored to steaming condition. It has been shown at steam rallies around Sydney to promote the Museum and is currently on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill in NW Sydney.

Builder: John Fowler and Co., Leeds, England
Date: 1889
Type: single cylinder
Engine No: 5933
Horse power: 18 nominal horse power
Cylinder bore: 12 inches
Cylinder stroke: 14 inches
Front wheel diameter: 5 feet
Speeds: 4 miles per hour and 6 miles per hour
Fire grate area: 11 square feet
Boiler pressure: 120 pounds per square inch
Fuel: wood
Water capacity: 318 gallons

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, June 2014

5 responses to “Mechanisation of agriculture – 1889 Fowler steam ploughing engine

  • Fascinating history! Undoubtedly you know of the similar engine at N.P. at Menindie on what was Kinchega Station. What particularly intrigues me is who may have owned the KINCHEGA engine and its’ mate at KARS Station. Some year back I tried all manner of newspapers, Broken Hill Historical Society, Broken Hill Tourist Bureau, Hay Historical Society and Mildura History Society; None of them were able to throw any light on the engines, including Fred Hughes current owner of Kars Station. After reading your history is there any known owners [per your para of usage on Murray Murrumbidgee area .. lands ? My interest is purely historical as to whom originally owned them, as it seems they “appeared at Kinchega Station” where ten years ago a notice said, “walked up from Melbourne.” If so, there seems to be no record anywhere of the walk and who may have don so ! I believe they were used as you have said, to dig dams etc. Any ideas would be appreciated. Regards. Mal.

    • Fowler numbers 4110/4111.
      Purchased by H.B.Hughes in 1881, more than likely arrived in Adelaide with a second pair of engines for Peter Waite of Paratoo Station
      It is a bit surprising Fred Hughes did not know the history of them as he is a descendant.
      4111 is at Kinchega, 4110 and plow are now in Victoria

      • THANK YOU Chris for this information, much appreciated. It has also thrown up a few more interesting questions. It seems possible the engine and plough could well be in Victoria for possible restoration which would be interesting. However the main answers seem to have been the arrival in Adelaide etc. Would love to know more !
        Regards. Mal.

  • Hello Mal,
    No doubt restoration would be the intention, the engine was pretty well
    stripped, the plough was reasonably complete for memory.
    I only presume they arrived in Adelaide.
    H.B.Hughes also owned a paddle boat and barges. The Darling River was pretty low through most of the 1880`s, I think the river would have been to low to barge them to Kinchega.
    The road to the Barrier region of NSW, ( Broken Hill was founded in 1883), from Adelaide, came up through Burra on past Lillydale and Mootoroo stations through the SA/NSW border past about were Pine Creek crosses the Silver City Highway south of Broken Hill, then up towards what was then the Broken Hill.
    Kinchega, on the Darling, ran out to the SA border, near the Broken Hill with its southern boundary joining Netley Station about were the road crosses Pine Creek.
    It could have been they were railed to Terowie SA, then ether steamed , a pretty massive task taking into account water and fuel supplies, timber, or towed them, bullock teams, up the road to there western boundary on the border.
    This my assumption only, it wastes plenty of time searching the net for clues. There is a photo of the Kinchega shearing shed taken in 1922, the engine, nor loco boiler are in the photo. I wonder if the loco boiler was used to run the fowler, as there is a pipe into the valve cover.
    Anyhow the search continues ,
    Regards Chris.

  • I purchase a large Fowler steam engine from near Wellington NSW from a clearing sale in about 1978 and brought it back to Dalgety”s machinery yard in Dubbo but unfortunately could not take it to Melbourne when we moved in 1980. I was told someone in Tamworth bought it and it then went to the UK and had a 3 speed drive on it as this contact informed me, he has a steam roller in working order here in Vic.
    Before I left I took off the Gibbs Bright cast brass plaque off it and still have it somewhere and I would like it to go to an appropriate Fowler Steam engine for fitment . A small fee would be involved but would add to the engines bling.
    I have seen so many laid up engines over the years as I visited many farms since 1965 when I started out with Howard Rotavator here and then overseas and then was lucky enough to be part of the new tractor era as
    sales manager in 1980 with Kubota.
    I saved a huge historic bundle of documents , photos books etc from Howards drawing office in 1970 during a clean out in the drawing office by Tim Mc Cormick the design engineer and they realy should be documented in a book or reside in The Mitchell Library before I kick the bucket.

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