Sitting on the terrace overlooking my garden a few weeks back in the heat wave I was watching the lawn go yellow and then brown, except of course for all the pesky weeds which continued to grow cheerfully and provided a bit of height and colour. Now autumn has arrived it’s all change and I’m sitting at my desk watching the rain pour down for the third day running and watching the lawn turn green again, with all the pesky weeds looking even happier. So as soon as it stops it will be time to cut the grass again…
Trust John Claudius Loudon to be the first to notice the solution that will save me having to get out the scythe…
So today’s post is an as-little-technical-jargon-as-possible look at one of the first “boys toys”: Edwin Budding’s lawn mower and some of its descendants…
I often give broad scope lectures on the history of gardening, cramming it all into 45-60 minutes, and of course one of the key inventions I mention is the lawn mower first patented by Budding in 1830, but I wouldn’t want to be cutting our acre or so of lawn and grass paths with that…or indeed to have had to care of it with a scythe which was really the only option in pre-industrial times. It makes you realise how dependent we are on machinery to keep our gardens in shape. Of course that’s a bit chicken and egg – our gardens partly take the shape they are becasue of the machinery we have available but that’s another story.
Edwin Budding was an ingenious man who clearly knew a lot about engineering and enjoyed solving problems. He worked in the once powerful Gloucestershire textile industry, which by the first quarter of the nineteenth century was heading into decline and employers were looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their mills. One of the most skilled and labour intensive jobs was shaving the nap or rough/fuzzy surface from the newly woven cloth. In 1815 a local man devised a system for doing it mechanically using rotating blades in the form of a helix. Perhaps rather surprisingly, Budding saw the possibility of using a similar process elsewhere. A bit of a long leap from textiles to lawns you might think but Edwin had imagination and he’d already invented a pistol that was then further developed by a certain Samuel Colt, and was to go on and design a machine for chopping agricultural produce and leather, and all sorts of industrial gadgets including an adjustable spanner.
Eventually Budding teamed up with John Ferrabee who owned both a textile mill and a nearby ironworks which produced parts for the textile machinery, as well as agricultural implements, steam engines, and water wheels. Budding contributed the ideas and Ferrabee the cash and the machinery and together they took out a patent for ‘the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of Lawns, Grass-plats and Pleasure Grounds’, and agreeing to split the profits once Ferrabee’s outlay had been recouped.
Local legend has it that the trials were carried out at night to preserve the secrecy of the invention. [Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal for 1973]
The sales pitch went like this: “Grass growing in the shade, too weak to stand against a scythe to be cut, may be cut by my machine as closely as required, and the eye will never be offended by those circular scars, inequalities, and bare places, so commonly made by the best mowers with the scythe, and which continue visible for several days. Country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise.” I suspect it would not have remained amusing for any gentleman for long since the mower was made of cast iron and so heavy that a handle had to be added at the front so it could be pulled at the same time as being pushed.
They quickly acquired a London agent to handles sales, although at 7-10 guineas depending on size the mowers did not come cheap. One of the first sold was to Regent’s Park Zoo where Loudon reported that it worked wonderfully.
But being Loudon he was quite far-sighted and could see the enormous potential. ” We have little doubt it will soon be so modified as to be worked by donkeys, ponies or small steam engines; but whether it be or not, it promises, in our opinion to be one of the greatest boons that science has conferred on the working gardener in our time. We wish we could see as simple efficient and cheap machines for cutting grass to be made into hay and for reaping corn crops.” [Loudon should have seen the combine harvester that was cutting the fields around us recently – much bigger than a double decker bus and 3 times as noisy!]
Unfortunately Edwin Budding didn’t become rich as the result of his invention, and sold his share to Ferrabee before dying in 1846 at the age of 50. Ferrabee must have seen mowers as merely a sideline to his main business so although he continued manufacturing them he also began allowing others to sell and then make them under licence. Examples of the early Budding type mowers can be seen in Stroud Museum, the London Science Museum and at Milton Keynes Museum.
The first licensee was Ransome’s of Ipswich manufacturers of ploughshares and other iron goods since 1785. They began by just selling the mower through their established sales network and then 5 years later in 1837 they started to actually make Budding’s lawn mowers under licence. Very quickly this became their principal business and they continued as an independent company making lawnmowers until 1998. There is more about their history at the Museum of East Anglian Life and Ipswich Transport Museum.
One of the first machines was apparently bought by William Fullerton Lindsey Carnegie of the Kinblethmont Estate near Arbroath in Scotland. But when it didn’t live up to his expectations he gave it to a local engineer James Shanks to “improve” and that then the two of them patented the first horse powered lawnmower which required two humans and a horse or pony to operate. And of course there were plenty of writers who claim this gave rise to the expression Shank’s pony.
Carnegie’s laudatory biography in Eminent Arbroathians doesn’t mention lawn mowers but instead talks about his improvements in quarrying machinery and railways construction. But as you can see Kinblethmont certainly had vast lawns and so its quite likely he did buy a Budding lawnmower! However it’s likely to have been James Shanks’s father Alexander Shanks who carried out the original ‘improvements’ as his obituary shows…
Shanks’s adaptations to Budding’s design were simple. Given that the original machine wasn’t up to the job of cutting the more than 2 acres of lawn at Kinblethmont, he made a bigger version and then a bigger one still. But of course increasing the width of the cutting area substantially meant that was even heavier than Budding’s original. It now required at least two men to operate it – or – and this was the first big “improvement” – a horse or pony. Of course the horse required someone to guide both it and the machine, so it still required someone to be behind and someone in front to lead. In 1842, after further modifications – one of which was installing a roller after the blades – Shanks registered his design and started production of a 42″ horse-drawn model.
But saving human effort by using equine power led to another problem. Lawns were soon pitted by hooves, especially when the ground was damp so the next improvement was to put an overshoe on the horse to spread its weight more evenly and protect the lawn.
But I’m afraid that this has little to do with Shank’s Pony. Its a nice idea and might be plausible except that the first references to it meaning walking according to the Oxford English Dictionary come from the late 18thc – although they do use the phrase Shanks nag or mare rather than pony. So who knows perhaps it was said as a joke when the mower was first pulled along by a pony with the gardener walking behind.
Shanks’ mowers soon became well known. In 1846 a machine was sold to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire and an article written at the time stated: “The machine has been in constant use in the gardens at Clumber for upwards of three months. It is constructed on the same principle of Budding’s patent mowing machine but altogether stronger and, of course less liable to go out of repair, the cutters are forty-two inches in length, it is drawn by one horse requiring a boy to lead the horse and a man to direct the machine. The saving in labour has amounted to seventy per cent.”
But these early machines were still heavy and cumbersome and didn’t really catch on. Only two lawn mower manufacturers exhibited their machines at the 1851 Great Exhibition. By 1852 Ferrabee had sold about 4000 machines, and Ransomes a further 1500 but soon after that the Patent Office allowed others to patent variations on Buddings original design, and it was not long before Benjamin Samuelson of Banbury and Thomas Green of Leeds  were also manufacturing mowers.
Green improved the Budding design by adding a rake to lift the grass and also by reducing its weight making it much easier to manoeuvre. Then in 1859 he used chains rather than gears to transmit power from the roller and called the new style machine the Silens Messor, meaning silent cutter. It paid off because only 3 years after he started making mowers his machine won first prize at the first lawn mower trial conducted at the RHS London Horticultural Gardens, Chiswick. Mind you there were only 4 contenders: Ferrabee, Shanks, Samuelson and Green.
It was worth his time and trouble because in the 10 years between 1856 and 1866 Green sold 33,000 mowers and the Silens Messor was in production in various forms until 1935. Greens lasted as an independent company until 1975 but then was merged and the name soon disappeared.
James Ferrabee stopped production in 1863 although other companies came in from time to time with various technical innovations. Don’t get too excited when I tell you that the most significant design variation came in 1869 when Follows & Bates starting selling their Climax mower. This had a pair of side-wheels in place of the front roller meaning that the mower was much lighter, and cheaper, so became an orgasmic success, [apologies!] selling 4,000 models within 2 years.
After that the changes come quick and fast and I was going to start doing some more detailed research into some of these early lawn mower makers and tell you all about steam powered mowers or ones that ran on paraffin or how petrol driven ones came onto the market in 1902 – but decided very quickly that it was not only too complex, dull and tecky but that it was also dangerous territory.
Many of these early companies have long and complex histories, diversifying into steam, producing road rollers, engines and railway apparatus amongst many other things. These all attract the attention of hordes of dedicated enthusiasts and aficionados with far more technical knowledge and interest than I [and probably you] could ever possibly have or want. So if you want to know more about the history of lawnmowers then check out the Old Lawn Mower Club and the Hall and Duck Trust, or take a look at David Halford’s Old Lawn Mowers (1982) in the Shire series, or Tom Fort’s The Grass is Greener (2000).
Otherwise just be grateful for Edwin Budding that you don’t have to go out and scythe the lawn this weekend!