SOUND OF SUMMER
A Kent garden is home to nearly 400 historic lawnmowers, all testament to the workmanship that went into making them
Christopher proudfoot guides a vintage lawnmower round his mature rectory garden in Kent. Nearly 90 years old, it shows no signs of its age as its eight blades clip the tops off the grass. This is a Shanks’ Ivanhoe mower, made in the 1930s by Alexander Shanks of Arbroath. It is in good working order, and Christopher uses it regularly to keep his lawn in good trim. “The whirr of a well-adjusted hand mower is a relaxing noise on a summer afternoon,” he says. “I like anything mechanical. I have a basic belief that nothing new is as good as the thing it replaces. I also have an instinct for acquiring anything old-fashioned and obsolete. Old lawnmowers are much more solidly made than anything you buy now.” Christopher is a lawnmower collector. He stopped counting the number in his collection when it reached 300. He thinks it is safe to say he now has nearer 400. “My interest started when I was about seven and I found an abandoned lawnmower at the back of the shed. My parents got someone to make it work for me. But I didn’t start collecting them until after I got married and we had a huge garden to mow,” he says. “Collecting just happens. It’s completely dotty but addictive. You get to know the ins and outs of one model. Then you start looking for another that does something slightly different. Then you learn about the different manufacturers. The fact that lawnmowers are still usable for their original purpose is part of the appeal. The colours are attractive and the Victorian ones have handles that curl up in an elegant shape.”
An early acquisition
The Ivanhoe was one of the first in his collection and is a favourite. “It’s a rare model, a high-class 1930s mower for cutting a tennis court in a country garden. I also like it because it’s such an absurd name for a lawnmower,” he says. He bought it in 1978 at a country house sale as part of a £30 lot containing half the contents of a garden shed. “It was in good condition and had never been repainted. It still has its original transfer on the grass-box, which is rare. I sharpened the blades and repainted them. I also had to fit a new bottom blade, but that’s a routine part of keeping a mower in working order.”
In their predominantly green and red livery, the mowers are parked in rows in six different sheds he has built around the garden. They come in many different sizes with some designed for specific grass-cutting tasks. For example, Ransomes’ Edge Trimmer has a star-shaped set of blades at the side. The majority date from 1860 to 1945. Christopher does not actively seek out anything manufactured after he was born as he does not consider it to be old. Inevitably, though, he has acquired a few later models. “Some were given to me by owners desperate to find a home for them. Others came as part of job lots at auction or were bought for pennies because no-one wanted them,” he says. He also limits his collection to models made or sold in Britain. He has several Pennsylvania models, however. These were 19th century American mowers that were marketed in Britain. “They have fine casting and crisp detail,” he says. Christopher, who used to work for Christie’s auction house, has rescued mowers from nettle beds and skips. “I got an Atco model from a shed that had lost its roof. The mower had a great bramble growing up through the middle of it. But most come from auctions of country bygones.” The majority have cost him under £100. The most he has paid was £1,200. That was for a Follows & Bate’s Climax, an early side-wheel mower from the 1870s. “It was lightweight and there was no roller at the front to flatten the grass, so it was efficient for cutting overgrown grass.”
The lawnmower was invented in 1830 by engineer Edwin Budding. He got the idea from seeing a bench-mounted reel of blades that cut cloth in a woollen mill. Prior to that, any long grass was cut with a scythe. Once the lawnmower was available, the arrival of the closely cropped lawn altered garden design. At the same time, cricket pitches, golf courses and football fields became immensely more playable surfaces. “I’ve got nothing as old as a Budding. They just don’t turn up, sadly. They’re all in museums,” says Christopher. His earliest examples date from the 1860s, including a Silens Messor – Silent Mower. He has restored it to tip-top condition and uses it regularly. “That model took the market by storm. They were quiet because they were driven by chain, rather than gears. Gears were rough cast so very noisy. But the handles were much too low. Gardeners were bent double.”
The mechanics of the manual mower have changed little since the early days. “It’s a rotating cylinder of knives cutting against a fixed bottom blade,” he explains. “There’s a roller, or wheels, that conducts the drive to the cylinder. Because the cylinder has to go faster than the roller or wheels, there’s always some sort of gearing. All that happened over time was they got easier to operate as materials got lighter. Heavy cast-iron gears gave way to chains, then to machine-cut lightweight gears.” Mowers can have different numbers of blades, depending on the length of the grass to be cut. “Six blades is the norm but the Archimedean, for example, has three blades so that’s for rough grass. Shanks’s Ivanhoe has eight blades closer together so that gives a fine finish. The really high-class mowers for bowling greens have 10 or 12 blades and extra gearing as well. That makes the cylinder go round faster, which is needed for a fine finish.” Mowers also came in a series of widths, rising in 2in (5cm) increments. Christopher has many complete sets. “It’s an excuse to buy one if I see a size I haven’t got,” he says. The smallest has a 6in (15cm) cylinder, while the largest is 20in (50cm) across. The handles generally take two forms. Some were designed with two separate arms, while others joined into a single central grip.
Green and red were traditional engineering colours, with the red reserved for moving parts. But the different models come in many different shades. Often, the ironwork was ornate with the makers’ and model names clearly picked out in relief.
Horses and motors
Some early mowers were designed to be pulled by ponies or horses with the gardener guiding the machine and another leading the animal. In the late 1800s, the motorised mower was developed. “Some were incredibly cumbersome,” says Christopher. “They were basically pony mowers with a petrol engine dropped on top. It meant one man could operate it and you didn’t need to keep a horse. One of the first customers was Cadbury for its Bournville sports ground. “In 1904, Edward VII bought two Ransomes’ 30-inchers for Buckingham Palace. After the First World War, the motor mower took over and they became smaller. The Atco was the first motor mower aimed at the middle classes.”
Most of the mowers he acquires require restoration. “You’ve got to re-grind the blades or replace the bottom blade. You’ve got to do something with the bearings, where the two ends of the cylinder sit. The slightest bit of wear in the bearing means the whole cylinder can lift up and not cut properly. It has to be loose enough to go round, though not too loose.” He has two workshops, one for woodwork and one for metalwork, the latter done mostly by his son William. The pair make their own grass-boxes as well, as these are very often missing. The mower that needed the most restoration was a Green’s Multum in Parvo, Latin for ‘much in little’. “It would originally have had a gear drive, but some bright spark had converted it to double chain drive with bicycle chains. Because it was an early rare version of its model, it was worth restoring. I had another model of a different size, so we took the gears to a foundry and got copies cast.” He is meticulous about historical accuracy. The wooden handles and rollers have often rotted away, so he turns replacements on a treadle lathe. The wood comes from a beech tree in his garden. “No condition is too bad if it’s an interesting mower. You rub all the rust off, apply anti-rust treatment then repaint it. I’m very much a purist. I’d spend hours trying to get the paint colour exactly as it was originally by mixing up different colours. However rusty a mower is, there’s usually a trace of original paint in a crevice somewhere. Sometimes, I’ll paint round a bit of original paint and leave it showing so I don’t destroy the evidence.” Ongoing maintenance involves sharpening the blades and replacing worn bearings. He uses some 20 of his vintage machines on a regular basis, though he does also own a 25-year-old rotary mower. “It’s good for cutting rough or wet grass and chopping up leaves in autumn. But I don’t regard it as a lawnmower. It’s a grass-cutter.” His ideal day’s mowing is when it has not rained for a day or two and the grass is dry. “It gives me lots of satisfaction. It’s my answer to the modernists. Look what I can do with something that was made 100 years ago.”
This Ransomes’ border trimmer is a rarely seen special purpose device from approximately 1904. Designed to trim overhanging flowers as well as the grass, it was one of Ransomes’ less successful models.
A group of 6in mowers, dating from the 1860s to the 1890s: (clockwise from left) Ransomes’ Anglo-Paris; a Crowley (model name unknown); the Follows & Bate’s Climax; the Follows & Bate’s Tennis.
A 14in Archimedian lawnmower from the 1880s. This one was intended for the French market, so was called the Archimedienne.
One of Christopher’s sheds filled with red and green mowers (above left). Emerging from the shed are a 1930s Shanks’ Lynx for golf greens, Ransomes’ Chain Automaton, circa 1890, and two 12in Green’s Silens Messors, one dating from circa 1930, the other...
Green’s Multum in Parvo mowers. Christopher has several models in 6in, 7in and 8in sizes, dating from 1882 to circa 1930.
A restored Green’s Multum in Parvo mower. Christopher in his workshop, repairing a grass box.