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Articles By Mike Rooth

Steam Tractor, Part II

Why is it that you can only remember sunny days?

I can never remember a Rally Saturday that wasnt.If it *did* rain,it was always a Sunday afternoon.

I used to be dropped off at the farm early on the Saturday morning,but even so,the engines were sitting ticking over, grumbling gently to themselves.The Steam fair people soon turned up and began setting out the rides,firing up the absolutely *beautiful* little centre engines,mostly built by Savages of King's Lynn,in Norfolk.Tiny little jewels, these,some mounted on wheels.You could get them into the average garage,no problem,and use them to drive a circular saw.*There's* a thought!And they would be an ideal size to tow to events behind a Land Rover.The entrants arrive. Majestic Showman's engines,shod with solid rubber tyres, almost silent apart from some gear grind,brass "hub" covers gleaming,motion cover stars polishes as a counterpoint to the brass canopy supports.The roof of the canopy is often white and the extension chimney is housed neatly in brackets along one side ready to be put on the top of the copper capped chimney to elevate the exhaust when generating,and to provide a little extra draught.Names like "Emperor" "King William" "Conqueror""Pride of the South".The agricultural engines clank up,with names such as "Molly" "Little Gem" "Daisy". And with a great roar,the Rev E.R."Teddy" Boston arrives driving "Fiery Elias",his Foster eight tonner,as usual living up to its name,sparks *everywhere*,Teddy never *did* get the hang of linking up,and drives everywhere in full gear.The language as he scrapes the gateposte is *most* unsuited to his cloth,but then that's(or sadly,now,was)Teddy,and no-one would have him any different.A rotund,jolly man this country parson,who is worthy of a story of his own,later.Elias knows the way to the beer tent all on his own,and for all his round build,Teddy can really shift when there's a pint in the offing.He disappears into the tent,and can shortly be seen standing in the doorway,beaming benignly at the assembled multitude,pint in fist.

The steam lorries arrive,as usual out of breath,seemingly,because of their relatively low gearing,and high speed engines.I dont think there is an American equivalent to these beasts.Almost always two cylinder compounds,the "overtype"mainly Fodens of Sandbach in Cheshire,have a tiny conventional loco type boiler,with equally tiny motion on top,hence the name overtype.Steering is either wagon type or,later,Ackermann,and they have a cab,and sometimes this cab is glassed in!The problem is *not* to keep warm in winter,it tends towards trying not to dehydrate in summer.The ones preserved are mainly flatbed trucks,and they are a real pleasure to drive. The undertypes,which just hiss along,are more conventional to the eye,since the single acting engine is slung under the chassis, and the boiler is a vertical firetube type.The cabs on these are fully enclosed,and they sport brakes,a foot throttle,all the comforts of home,in facte,but despite this they *are* a little boring visually. The green Allchin lugs a threshing "drum" onto the field.I'll get the chance to drive this one home again later,drum and all,but for now it is set up on the field,driving the drum via a flat leather belt from its flywheel,governor whirring round and a deep "thump,thump" from the exhaust merging with the peculiar throaty hum from the threshing machine,and a little belt slap.

So its time for us to move up the field.The damned injector is *still* playing up,so we chuck a bucket of water at it,and soon have it chirruping away until we have three quarters of a glass in the boiler.We keep well away from the gauge glass,because although the engines were rebuilt in the twenties,they forgot to put a gauge glass protector on and there are no automatic shut off cocks in the fitting should the glass come into violent contact with the coal hammer.Back the old girl up,and heave her round to point up the field.Feather of steam at th safety valves now,so shove some more coal on the quieten her down a bit,full forward gear,pull the throttle open,one heavy WHUFF,and away we go. Park her up in line with the other engines,her mate on our left,and a later Fowler compound,proper steering and all,on our right.

There is a large metal box on the forecarriage,between the front wheels,ostensibly to keep the tools in,but away to the back of the beer tent we go,to re-appear struggling with two cases of Newcastle Brown,and Bass.In bottles in those days.Cans?Never heard of them. Whoever would want to put beer in tins?Put these *very* quickly into the toolbox,amid the complaints from the driver of the other engine.Something to do with we've got *his* beer as well.He's told to go and pinch his own,if there's any left.
At this point,its decided we are short of water,so we whistle up for the water tanker,which arrives at high speed behind the superb little Robey five ton steam tractor"Village Queen". This littl engine was found as two identical wrecks in a local abandoned brickworks quarry.There was enough in the two of them to make up this one,now unique,example of the breed.The driver has the whale of a time with it towing the water bowser,because although fairly light on coal,being unsuperheated,most engines are heavy on water.
The rally field is now covered in a pall of coal smoke.In fact, that is the way most visitors find the event in the first place, and the glorious smell of coal smoke,hot oil and steam pervades the area.Lovely!The ring is surrounded by engines with slowly turning flywheels,just,only just,ticking over.You can get the things to tick over so slowly that th crank seems as though it is going to stop coming onto each dead centre,and you can see it speed up again as steam is admitted to the cylinder.

The events on offer are various.Balloon bursting,bending races, obstacle courses,tug of war etc.Not the thing for which the machinery was built,certainly,but entertaining on a hot summer afternoon,sitting on the coal in the bunker for a good view,with a botle of Bass in one hand,and a sandwich in thee other.I can *still* taste the coal in the sarney.The punters are co-opted into some events,there being a ladies steering event(sexist!), and half the time the problem is to get 'em OFF the footplate to make way for someone else.The Robey tractor is taking kids for a ride round the field on a trailer with bales of straw on it. Fairly *scuttles* around.Of course,this was all before anyone decided to kill off any enjoyment the kids might possibly have by mentioning safety,insurance,blah,blah,blah.It isnt done now. Comes the time for the ploughing demo.Now,since its high summer it isnt possible to plough,and anyway the enourmous Fowler anti balance plough digs a furrow deeper than any modern implement. They are odd looking things.Viewed from the side,the frame is a shallow vee,rising each side from the axle with tall spindly wheels.One side is always in the air while the other side ploughs. So evenly balanced are they,that a five year old kid climbing from one end to the other will alter the balance enough to slowly bring the heavy side down.The shares,a set either side,are a good four feet deep.We've brought them out for display,but for the demo w are going to use the Mole Drainer.Nothing,I might add,to do with Mole Wrenches.The drainer is a three wheeled device,small wheel at the front,steerable,two big ones st the back.The draining bit is a slug of steel,about the size and shape of a six inch naval warhead welded onto a bar of steel about four inches by and inch and a half.The slug is lowered into the ground,point first,and pushes a tunnel underground.
The idea is that w use our engine,and the Fowler compound,to demonstrate the different exhaust characteristics of the two types.The compound has a *much* softer beat.Wee are lucky that the Fowler is a left hand engine,that is to say its cable drum failead is on the right side of the engine,so it takes the left side of the field.We take the right side.the two engines are well out of shouting distance,so whistle signals are necessary, allied to arm signals.The engines stand parallel to each other. We shackle our cable to the front of the drainer,and the compound's cable is manhandled across the field to be shackled to the back of the implement.When all is well,we whistle up for the other engine to pull.He disengages his road gears and drops the drum into gear.With the motion in full back(reverse) gear he whistles "ready" and starts his pull.The implement retreats across the field,its driver sterring it more or less straight.The big compound is hardly breathing,its a much more powerful engine than ours,and he's getting about twice as much work out of his steam than we will.

Finally,he whistles up "done".We drop our drum into gear,full back gear,and start our pull.The strain comes on as the slug is dropped, its us that's doing the work,because the drainer only works one way. The difference is immediately apparent.Our exhaust note deepens to a steady cough,CHAFF,CHAFF,CHAFF,CHAFF.The drum gears groan,and the cable hums to itself.*No-one* stands anywhere near it,we're all on the footplate.We demonstrate the single cylinders peculiarity of "trying again" if you stall it by doing just that.It cant get over dead centre,and reverses half a turn with a loud WHUFF and has another go.The drainer hits a buried rock with the slug,the cable goes WHAAAANG and the enginee,all twenty tons moves sideways on the forecarriage,prompting the comment that its about time the pivot pin was overhauled,and it might get done this winter.This is the way that heavy farm work was carried out until after the second war,in this country,and it neds to be said that the implements didnt pack the ground anything like as much as a modern tractor, only a team of horses being as light on their feet,Which,if you've seen the plates of meat on a Shire(Shod by the acre)takes some doing. Later in the evening when most visitors have gone home,we replenish the toolbox open the ashpan damper and shove some spuds inside. Its the *only* way to bake spuds.Some salt and butter,and a bottle of Bass......sheer heaven!
But...there's still that Allchin to take home...Next time.

If there are a lot of e's missing,or too many,sorry,but this bloody keyboard has a faulty key.Eithr does two or none at all unless bashed.

 

   
Copyright Dixon Kenner, 1995-2010. Last modified April 30, 2005.
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