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British Industrial History

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Cowans, Sheldon and Co

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Railway crane.
Exhibit at the Didcot Railway Centre.
Steam travelling crane, 1865-66.
1884. Crane No 1324. Exhibit at Launceston Museum, Tasmania.
1884. Crane No 1324. (Detail). Exhibit at Launceston Museum, Tasmania.
1891. Fifty-Ton Fairbairn-type Steam Crane at an H.M. Dockyard.
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[1]
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[2]
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[3]
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[4]
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[5]
c1953. Breakdown Crane kept at the Dematagoda Diesel Hydraulic depot, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[6]
c1900. 'Colonial Derrick' as described in their turn of the century catalogues. 30 ton capacity blocklayer; preserved at Port Kembla. (ref CC)
c1900. 'Colonial Derrick' as described in their turn of the century catalogues. 30 ton capacity blocklayer; preserved at Port Kembla. (ref CC)
1903. Railway breakdown crane.
1908. Glasgow Goods Yard.
1909. 30 ton electric travelling jib crane.
1909. 30 ton electric travelling jib crane.
1909. Revolving cantilever crane.
1910.15 Ton Steam Cantilever Crane.
1922.Breakdown Crane for Jamaica.
1931. 60 Ton Floating Crane For Cape Town.
1931. Crane on the Clyde.
1931. Crane on the Clyde (detail).
1949. Floating Crane at Sea.
1961. Railway breakdown crane.
2017. Number 851 dated 1877. Belonged to travelling hand power crane.
2018. Crane located at Princess Elizabeth Graving Dock, East London, South Africa (opened in 1947).
2018. Capstan - at Princess Elizabeth Graving Dock, East London, South Africa.
2018. Capstan detail - at Princess Elizabeth Graving Dock, East London, South Africa.

Cowans, Sheldon and Co, crane makers, of Carlisle.

Cowans began in a small way at Woodbank near Upperby. John Cowans and Edward Pattinson Sheldon had been apprentices to Robert Stephenson and Co on Tyneside. There they had been friendly with a William Bouch from Thursby, and it was his younger brother, Thomas, who eventually found the premises at Woodbank, which had been a calico works.

The four men were all involved at the start but the Bouch brothers found themselves drawn to business elsewhere and became sleeping partners. Thomas Bouch, in fact, became an eminent civil engineer and was involved with the Tay Bridge.

In June 1846 a notice in the local paper announced that 'the works had been taken over for the erection of a works for the manufacture of locomotive engines'.

1847 Company founded. 'WOODBANK IRON WORKS, CARLISLE, Closely adjoining the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway. COWANS, SHELDON, and CO, having entered upon the above Premises, recently carried by the late Mr. Richard Bouch, under the Firm of the Woodbank Iron Company, respectfully intimate to the Public, that every description of FORGED IRON WORK will in future be MANUFACTURED by them at these Works; and arrangements are in progress for BUILDING and REPAIRING ENGINES. The utmost attention will be given to all Orders entrusted to their Care. A few good MILLWRIGHTS WANTED.'[7]

The firm never made engines as such, but they were actively employed in the production of locomotive wheels and other railway forgings. This was the Railway Age and railways were booming in Carlisle and elsewhere. The firm diversified into coal-handling equipment and in five years a branch works was opened in Darlington.

1851 Dispute over access to the property. States that it was previously occupied by a person in the paper trade and then was a calico printing works.[8]

1854 Established the Darlington Forge Co on an acre of land at Albert Hill, Darlington. Note: Some researchers debate this point and it needs clarification from original sources

1858. Expansion announced. 'ST. NICHOLAS AND WOODBANK IRON AND ENGINE WORKS. COWANS, SHELDON and COMPANY beg to acquaint railway companies, engineers, contractors, manufacturers, colliery owners, ship builders, &c, that they have recently purchased the premises late in the occupation of Mr G. D. Richardson, where, in addition to their works at Woodbank, they propose carrying on the BUSINESS of FORGED IRON MANUFACTURERS, ENGINE and BOILER BUILDERS, MILLWRIGHTS, FOUNDERS, RAILWAY WHEEL and AXLE MAKERS, WAGON BUILDERS, &c., in all their branches, and with their increased facilities are prepared to execute orders with despatch. Both works having branches communicating with all the railways running into Carlisle, insures prompt delivery of wheels or other running stock sent for repairs. All Repairs of Engines, Machinery, or Mill Work promptly attended to.'[9] George Davy Richardson had operated a crane making business at St. Nicholas Bridge on the site of the old leper hospital for ten years or more and, despite having invested heavily - the works were described as being equipped with the most modern machinery available - he had gone bankrupt. Cowans Sheldon bought the enterprise at auction.

1861 Employing 52 men and 18 boys.[10] Employing 86 men and 35 boys.[11]

1865 Marriage of George Dove, Esq., of the firm of Cowans, Sheldon, & Co., engineers, Carlisle, to Helen, widow of Mr John Cooper, Edinburgh, and second surviving daughter of the late Mr Robert Auld, Dunfermline.[12]

1866 'The employes of Messrs. Cowans, Sheldon, and Co., Saturday last, presented Mr. George Somerville, who, for about seven years, has filled the office of engineer at the St. Nicholas works, with a valuable set of drawing instruments, by Stanley, of London, as a mark their appreciation of his numerous sterling qualities. Mr. Somerville leaves Carlisle for Edinburgh where he has commenced business as senior the firm Somerville and Cromleigh.[13]

1866 Cowans Sheldon built their first railway recovery crane. They made cranes for the railways, heavy lifting gear which could be used to return locomotives that had gone off the rails to the right track.

Cowans had also been supplying the British Admiralty. They were the experts in crane construction and it was almost a matter of course that wherever in the world heavy lifting gear was needed, Cowans were ready to supply it. They made massive cranes to load ships at docks and harbours round the world. The Titan crane which was constructed at the North Pier on Tyneside picked heavily laden coal wagons up as though they were matchboxes and tipped their contents into the holds of waiting ships. Seven three ton coaling cranes supplied to the docks at Grimsby can be seen like seven robots raising their single arms in salute.

They also built turntables to turn the unwieldy steam locomotives around or onto another track. The largest they ever made was a gigantic thirty metres in diameter which was sent out to China.

1871 Employing 110 men and 14 boys.[14]

1873 Public company.

1911 Manufacturer of Cranes and Lifts; Creosoting Plant; Electric Cranes; Hydraulic Machinery for the Railways [15]

1914 Engineers. Specialities: heavy lifting tackle of every description, engine and carriage turntables, timber creosoting plant, railway and general engineering. [16]

In 1933 the largest floating crane in the world was manufactured in London Road, Carlisle. It was built by Cowans Sheldon, then the world's leading crane makers. The massive crane was assembled in the Nagasaki dockyard in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. It had a lifting capacity of 350 tons. The Japanese were seeking dominance of the Pacific Ocean, a course that eventually led to Pearl Harbour, and the war in the Pacific, and the crane was used to build the Yamato class warships, gigantic ships of 36,000 tons, almost as big as the Queen Mary.

Cowans Sheldon's fate was tied to the fate of the railways and the British engineering industry. Britain stopped being the workshop of the world. The postwar years saw increased competition.

In 1961 the 450 employees found themselves working for the Glasgow firm of Clyde Crane and Booth and in 1982 the firm became Cowans-Boyd. [17]

Five years later, manufacturing ceased and only the design office team was retained in Carlisle.

The giant sheds were demolished and beefburgers are now fried where once some of the world's greatest cranes were made.


Descriptions and illustrations of many Cowans, Sheldon railway breakdown cranes may be found in a new (2012) book, 'Railway Breakdown Cranes' by Peter Tatlow [18]

In addition to Peter Tatlow's book Volume 1 there is also - Volume 2 Published January 1st 2013 by Noodle Books ISBN 1906419973 (ISBN13: 9781906419974) - (Shortly to be published Volume 3 which will be on Railway Steam Cranes as apposed to Breakdown Cranes.)


  • Railway Steam Cranes - Brownlie John S. ISBN 10: 0950296503 / ISBN 13: 9780950296500 Published privately by John S. Brownlie, Glasgow, 1973

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Mr. C. Capewell.
  2. Mr. C. Capewell.
  3. Mr. C. Capewell.
  4. Mr. C. Capewell.
  5. Mr. C. Capewell.
  6. Mr. C. Capewell.
  7. Carlisle Patriot - Friday 12 February 1847
  8. Carlisle Journal - Friday 09 May 1851
  9. Newcastle Courant - Friday 22 January 1858
  10. 1861 Census for John Cowans
  11. 1861 Census for Edward Pattinson Sheldon
  12. Caledonian Mercury - Friday 17 February 1865
  13. Carlisle Journal - Friday 02 March 1866
  14. 1871 Census for Edward Pattinson Sheldon
  15. Bradshaw’s Railway Manual 1911
  16. 1914 Whitakers Red Book
  17. 1961 Dun and Bradstreet KBE
  18. 'Railway Breakdown Cranes - The Story of Steam Breakdown Cranes on the Railways of Britain - Volume 1' by Peter Tatlow, Noodle Books, ISBN 978-1-906419-69-1
  • Carlisle's Crane Makers: The Cowans Sheldon Story by Alan Earnshaw. ISBN 1903016045