A Kent gar­den is home to nearly 400 his­toric lawn­mow­ers, all tes­ta­ment to the work­man­ship that went into mak­ing them

Landscape (UK) - - In The Garden - Words: Caro­line Rees Pho­tog­ra­phy: Clive Doyle The Old Lawn­mower Club www.old­lawn­mow­er­

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.”

Col­lect­ing quirks

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.”

Mower me­chan­ics

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.”

Restora­tion work

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.

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