The Major Makers

In his book “Railway Steam Cranes” John S. Brownlie relates that engine-powered breakdown cranes for UK railways were built by thirteen companies with a geographical spread from Glasgow down to Bath, namely:

Appleby Brothers  (London and Leicester)

Dunlop, Bell & Co. Ltd.  (Liverpool)

Joseph Booth & Bros. Ltd.  (Leeds)

Alexander Chaplin & Co. Ltd.  (Glasgow)

Cowans, Sheldon & Co. Ltd.  (Carlisle)

Craven Brothers Ltd.  (Manchester)

Wm. Forrest & Co.  (Glasgow)

Great Eastern Railway  (Stratford)

London & North Western Railway  (Crewe)

Ransomes & Rapier Ltd.  (Ipswich)

T. Smith & Sons (Rodley) Ltd.

Stothert & Pitt Ltd.  (Bath)

John H. Wilson & Co. Ltd.  (Liverpool)

Several of those companies made just one or two breakdown cranes, concentrating more on permanent way and non-railway cranes.  Appleby Brothers were the first to supply purpose-built, engine-powered, breakdown cranes to UK railways but the most prolific makers were to be Cowans Sheldon, Craven Brothers and Ransomes & Rapier.  Brief historical accounts of these four makers follow:

Appleby Brothers

Written with the kind help of John Steeds, a great-grandson of Charles James Appleby

Charles James Appleby was one of the Victorian Engineers now recognised as one of the pioneers of Steam Cranes.  He was born in 1828 and trained as an engineer at the family-owned Renishaw Ironworks and other engineering establishments in the Manchester area, followed by a spell working in Russia.  He started working from offices in London in 1858, when cranes and other equipment were produced in his own name.  In 1862 he was joined by his elder brother, T H Appleby, and they started trading as “Appleby Brothers”.

In 1866 Appleby Brothers established two works, one in Leicester (The London Steam Crane and Engine Works) and the other in Emerson Street, London, just south of the Thames.  Joseph Jessop, who had supervised the construction of their new Leicester works, became the resident partner in Leicester.  The Emerson Street works, which was near to Appleby Brothers' London offices, was specifically designed for carrying out new inventions and other experimental works under close supervision, and for conducting a large export trade.

The company exhibited a steam travelling crane at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and a much improved version at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873.  The cast iron of the three-axle carriage soon became replaced by wrought iron, with buffers, couplings and propelling motion added.  In 1875 five specifically “accident” cranes of five-tons capacity on two axles were sold to the Midland Railway and another of 10-ton capacity on three axles to the London & South Western Railway.

In 1876 T H Appleby left the partnership, leaving his brother, C J Appleby, in sole control of Appleby Brothers.  In 1878 C J Appleby established a new works in East Greenwich and the following year he closed the Emerson Street works.  In 1880 the Leicester partnership was dissolved and Joseph Jessop took over the Leicester works and, joined by his son George, established the new and independent partnership of Joseph Jessop and Son.  Prior to this, some production from the Appleby Brothers' Leicester works had been in the name of “Joseph Jessop”.

In 1883 Appleby Bros patented a steam crane having a horizontal engine and other improvements, a significant technical advance over the earlier vertical-engined examples.  In 1886 Appleby Brothers became a limited company and C J Appleby, who had a small holding of the shares in the new company, was retained as a consultant.

In 1889 the limited company failed and was put into liquidation in the High Court, resulting in the closure of the East Greenwich works.  There remained a demand for Appleby Brothers' machinery and C J Appleby then established a new “Appleby Brothers” partnership with two of his sons, P V and E G Appleby, however they had no works of their own.  As a consequence CJ Appleby seems to have entered an arrangement with George Jessop, the son of his old friend Joseph Jessop (who had died in 1883), to have Appleby machinery constructed in Leicester, which might explain the appearance of Appleby cranes in the Joseph Jessop & Son catalogue of 1892:

Jessop 1892 catalogue page 13

Appleby crane featured in Jessop’s 1892 catalogue.  It was described as a permanent way crane but the 1897 Appleby handbook described it as a “Permanent Way Locomotive Crane or Railway Accident Crane”

This difficult arrangement was finally corrected in 1896 when the two firms merged to become “Jessop and Appleby Brothers Ltd”.  It is evident from letters, addresses etc. that members of the Appleby family were established at Leicester works some years before the amalgamation.

In 1896 the new Appleby Brothers partnership merged with Joseph Jessop and Son to form Jessop and Appleby Brothers Ltd.  In 1906 Jessop and Appleby Brothers Ltd merged with the Glasgow Electric Crane and Hoist Co Ltd to become "Appleby’s Ltd".  A similar expansion took place the following year (1907) when “Appleby’s Ltd” absorbed “The Temperley Transporter Company”.  Appleby’s Ltd survived only until January 1910 when it went into voluntary liquidation.  The company was then refinanced under a new name, “The Appleby Crane and Transporter Co Ltd".  This company was taken over by Sir William Arrol later that same year.

The merger with the Glasgow Electric Crane and Hoist company resulted in Appleby’s Ltd possessing the Glasgow works.  Following the takeover by Sir William Arrol, the Glasgow works became Arrol’s new Crane Division and in 1912 the old Appleby Brothers' works in Leicester were sold.

Cowans Sheldon

Unlike Appleby Bros which counted a wide range of industries amongst its customers, the firm of Cowans, Sheldon & Co was primarily a supplier to the railways.  It was formed in 1846 by John Cowans and Edward Pattinson Sheldon in association with brothers William and Thomas Bouch at Woodbank near Upperby, some two miles south of Carlisle.

Both Cowans and Sheldon had been apprenticed to Robert Stephenson & Co of Newcastle-on-Tyne.  Sheldon later joined the London marine engine firm of Maudesley and subsequently held a position of responsibility at the Bedlington Ironworks where he again came into contact with Cowans.  Their friendship, which was to last throughout their time together, evolved into a decision to set up in business.  Brownlie reports that it was a good match as “the optimism of Cowans was balanced by the more cautious nature of Sheldon”.

Cowans and Sheldon selected Carlisle as the home for their business as it appeared to be developing into an important railway centre.  They found suitable premises in the form of a small foundry owned by William Bouch who had been an apprentice with them at Robert Stephenson & Co.  William Bouch and his brother Thomas joined the new company as sleeping partners, alternating in officiation.  All four were engineers prominently involved with railways and this would have assisted in winning the orders placed with them for railway forgings such as wheels and axles.

Shildon Engine Works was a particularly valuable customer, their first order probably being the one for a crankpin placed in December 1846.  The first foreign order was from a shipbuilding firm near Bremen in Germany in 1852.  In order to meet increasing demand for their forgings, in 1853 the whole of that part of the business was transferred to Darlington Forge Company in which the partners had a financial interest.

The business continued to expand to the point where larger premises were needed and, in 1857, the Carlisle works previously occupied by G D Richardson, Iron Founder and Timber Merchant, was purchased.  In 1858, George Dove was brought in to manage the new works.  Dove had been employed by several firms engaged in locomotive building and was thus probably already well known to Cowans and Sheldon.  His successful management of the works led to him being made a partner in 1863.

Cowans died in 1873 and within eight years Sheldon and the two Bouch brothers had also passed on.  During their failing health and eventual death, George Dove had control of the company, his son John Charles Dove joining him as Joint Managing Director in 1889.  On the death of George Dove in 1906, his son John took the role of Managing Director which maintained until his death in 1922.  Thus was the hierarchy of Cowans, Sheldon & Co in their first 75 years of trading.

A speciality of the new Carlisle works was the ‘balance-on-centre’ turntable, of which 532 were manufactured between 1859 and 1873 (in which year they had become a Limited Company).  As locomotives became larger, the company adapted by producing the articulated non-balanced turntable which then came into common use.

Hand-powered travelling cranes were built in the new Carlisle works shortly after its opening and by 1873 they had built 530 cranes of various types.  They built a 16-ton breakdown crane for the South Eastern Railway in 1881 and then, over the next 20 years, several of 10 tons and 12 tons capacity and more than thirty of 15 tons capacity for a wide range of UK railways.

Their first breakdown crane of 20 tons capacity was built in 1902 for the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway followed by two more in 1903 for the Great Western Railway and the Midland Railway.  The company was to build ever larger breakdown cranes for the UK to cope with increasing capacity demands, culminating in the 75-ton fixed jib and telescopic jib cranes built for British Rail in the 1960s and 1970s respectively.  In total, they built more breakdown cranes for our railways than all the other makers combined.

In 1968 the company was taken over by Clarke Chapman which itself has since gone through several changes of ownership.  The Clarke Chapman Group is currently owned by Langley Holdings, who bought it from Rolls Royce (aero) in December 2000.  Its railway division still trades under the name ‘Cowans Sheldon’.

Craven Brothers

Brothers William and John Craven were apprenticed to the Manchester locomotive builders Sharp, Roberts & Co.  In 1853 they set up a business in Salford making large machine tools and soon became prominent suppliers to the railways.  As an extension to this business, they started to build workshop cranes.  In 1900 they expanded into a 25-acre site at Reddish on the outskirts of Stockport.

Well known for their electric cranes, Craven Brothers received their first order for steam ‘accident’ cranes in 1906, from the Caledonian Railway who required two of 20 tons capacity.  In that same year, the Great Central Railway ordered one and the North Eastern Railway ordered three, of the same design.  The NER amended the required capacity of their three cranes to 25 tons prior to them being built.

In the period 1911-1913, Craven built four 35-ton breakdown cranes for home railways.  There was then a lull in their supply of breakdown cranes to the home railways until the LMS placed an order for two 36-ton cranes in May 1930, these being of the relieving-bogie type to a specification based broadly on the one built in 1915 by Ransomes & Rapier (for more about this, see the story of Ransomes & Rapier crane No. MP3 in the Selected Chronicles section).

There are records of only twelve breakdown cranes built by Craven Bros for home railways but they exported many abroad.  The design and build quality of their products was said to be ‘second to none’.

Craven Brothers was bought by Herbert Morris Ltd in 1930/31 and the crane side moved to Morris’ premises in Loughborough.  The Loughborough company, trading today as “Morris Material Handling”, remains a leading builder of cranes and hoists but has built no railway breakdown cranes since 1937.

Graham Ellis, a descendent of the Cravens, tells us more:

"I was only a very wee boy when the transfer to Morris took place.  I wish I had met the Cravens but they had gone by the time I was born, or shortly afterwards.  In the early 1920s they must have been pretty well-off in personal terms.  In terms of family, there were no male Cravens to follow on, only two formidable maiden aunts of my father's, Hibbie and Lucy, who spent their time living in hotels.

"I think in the Slump of the twenties and early thirties, Craven Brothers - in common with many heavy engineering companies - became in a poor way and very short of cash.  I don't know when they became a public company but sometime in the thirties the £1 shares were converted to 5/- (25p) to help keep the company going.  My father's eldest brother, William Craven-Ellis, was a director and the last family member to be involved.  I have always understood that the capital reduction was his idea and it probably saved the Company by giving them breathing space until re-armament orders came through in around 1937.

"Joseph Greenwood had become a director in 1929 and was chairman from 1936 until his death in 1959.  He was a very capable leader and business boomed under his guidance.  Following his death, the business got into trouble again and was bought by Staveley Industries in the mid-1960s.  It was sad when Staveley took them over because that was an asset stripping operation and the Reddish factory was soon closed.

"I remember, as a very shy schoolboy, meeting Mr Greenwood during WW2.  I could have gone to Cravens as an apprentice, Mr Greenwood words being "We can make you into a bloody good engineer but can you invent owt ?".  That was a bit daunting because the inference was towards the inventing bit and, as a shy 16-year-old, how would I know?  I became a Chartered Surveyor instead!"

Ransomes & Rapier

Norwich ironfounder Robert Ransome moved his business to Ipswich in 1789, becoming one of the country’s major makers of ploughshares.  The company later diversified into many other products including iron bridges and, from the 1840s, all manner of railway equipment.  In 1849 the business was moved to a site alongside the River Orwell, thus it was named the Orwell Works, where it had more than 1000 employees.

In 1869 the company was split into two separate entities.  The railway business became Ransomes & Rapier, with partners J.A. and R.J Ransome, R.C.Rapier, and A.A. Bennett, and the agricultural business became Ransomes, Sims & Head.  (The latter business then went through a number of other name changes including, in 1884, Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies).

Ransomes & Rapier was based at Waterside Works on the River Orwell, opposite the original company which remained at Orwell Works.  The company had many achievements in the railway world, including providing two locomotives and much of the equipment for China to establish their first railway.  It designed and made very many products besides railway equipment, such as military equipment, excavators, the world’s largest walking dragline and other heavy engineering items.

Ransomes & Rapier was, of course, a leading maker of breakdown cranes for UK and foreign railways.  Notable amongst their many successes was the invention, in 1904, of the relieving bogie system for reducing breakdown crane axle loading and, in 1908, building the first of the heavy, long jib, breakdown cranes from which all others evolved until the mid-1970s.

The company assisted BR, in the 1950s, in the preliminary design of the ‘modernisation plan’ cranes.  However a reorganisation of its business led to it withdrawing from tendering for the order, this going to Cowans Sheldon.  It was at about this time that demand for railway products such as buffer-stops and turntables was declining.  Though it appears that the demand for breakdown cranes for export remained good, Ransomes & Rapier made its final breakdown crane in 1958, for export to East Africa.

The company was taken over by Sheffield-based Newton Chambers in 1958 and it then concentrated on making mobile cranes and excavators, branded NCK-Rapier, at Waterside Works.

In 1972 Newton Chambers decided to close Waterside Works, with the loss of 700 jobs, and sell the site for redevelopment.  Ernle Money, MP for Ipswich, raised concerns about this and told parliament: “Nothing has created more anger or more continuing shock … than the way in which the decision was made - totally in breach of the Code of Industrial Practice; against a background of 100 years service from the work force at the Waterside works; against a background of one day lost in the last 20 years as a result of industrial dispute; and against the background of a 30 per cent increase in productivity over the last three years.”

A reprieve ensued: NCK was bought by industrial holdings company Central & Sheerwood and the decision to close the Ipswich works was reversed.  There followed another 15 years of operation until Central & Sheerwood’s infamous Robert Maxwell arrived at the works by helicopter in July 1987 and announced that he was closing the site down.  Trading ceased by the end of September 1987 and by 1990 the site had been cleared for redevelopment.