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Lawnmower World

January 22, 2009

Bowling greens, cricket pitches, afternoon tea in the sunshine; we British are very proud of our lawns. Martyn Oliver learns the history of grass-cutting.

Just a few hundred yards from the Victorian splendour of Southport’s Lord Street, its elegant arcades, its wrought iron canopies and its boulevard-style layout, you’ll find a hidden gem that receives visitors from all over the world. It’s well signposted, to be sure, but you could be forgiven for thinking you’d taken a wrong turn, for, step away from the bustle and glamour of the town-centre stores, galleries and banks, cross the railway lines, and you find yourself in Shakespeare Street, a road of terraced houses and local shops. And on the corner is Stanleys Garden Machinery Warehouse, home of the British Lawnmower Museum.

Squeeze past the bales of razor wire in the doorway, the forks and spades, the shelves of screws and washers and, yes, the rows of shining brand-new grass cutters, climb the narrow staircase, and you enter Lawnmower World.

The 'Multim in Parvo' by Messrs Green and Son © Martyn Oliver 2008

The Museum’s curator, Brian Radam, began to work at Stanleys, the family hardware business, as a boy, and then served an apprenticeship with mower manufacturer ATCO (the Atlas Chain Company). On his return to Shakespeare Street he became responsible for the lawnmower side of the business. Lawnmower engineering had reached a peak by the mid-20th century which meant that, with maintenance and the occasional spare part, most mowers would go on for ever. Stanleys made a speciality of collecting and restoring old-but-good machines and supplying hard-to-find replacement parts; and it is on this foundation that Lawnmower World is based.

The lawnmower was invented in 1830. Prior to that, gangs of men equipped with scythes toured the countryside, mowing the aristocracy’s fine parkland at great expense as they went; flocks of

How did a scytheman vary the height of his cut? By changing his boots for a pair with thinner – or thicker – soles. Once he achieved adult height, a scytheman worked with the same scythe throughout his life, and became intimately aware of its size and exactly where it would cut.

sheep took care of the rest. But in 1830 Edwin Budding, a textile engineer, adapted and scaled-up a machine that literally shaved the bobbles from woven fabric into one that cut grass instead. Instead of the scythe’s slicing action, Budding’s machine (he called it the “New Automaton”) used a scissor action – more efficient and easier to control. And every lawnmower since then (Brian Radam makes the distinction between “lawnmowers” and “grass-cutters”: grass-cutters – the hovers and the rotaries – merely chop and tear the blades of grass indiscriminately, while a lawnmower cuts them cleanly, neatly and accurately) has followed Budding’s principle.

'The Britisher' by Messrs Shanks
© Martyn Oliver 2008

The jumble of machinery that greets your eyes as you enter the Museum is almost too much to take in. You might think they’ve examples of every mower made, but there are still one or two gaps in the collection. But only one or two. (They don’t have a Budding original – yet – though they do have Budding’s patent.) There are early machines from Ransomes of Ipswich and Scottish firm Shanks (of Shanks’s Pony fame), and shining, ride-on leviathans from ATCO and fire-engine manufacturer Dennis. I was fortunate to have Ian Britstone, the Museum’s archivist, to guide me through the gear wheels and the grassboxes, though all visitors are provided with an audio guide. Amongst many others, Ian introduced me to the Multim in Parvo (‘Much in Little’, a narrow mower for cutting the grass between gravestones), the Silens Messor (‘Quiet Cutter’, so called because it was driven by a newfangled chain rather than toothed gears), and ATCO’s Driver Training Car, a converted ride-on motor mower with a car body from 1940, developed to teach large numbers of people to drive as part of the war effort. And he showed me the collection of overshoes which were made so that horses (and elephants) wouldn’t mark the greensward when towing the heavier mowers.

So what is it that makes Lawnmower World so popular? Well, for one thing, it symbolizes Britain’s one-time worldwide influence – for Britain’s colonists took their love of lawns with them wherever they went, and kept them in the traditional manner that was followed nowhere else in the world but the British Empire. For another, it encapsulates a branch of uniquely British engineering that has been completely successful; one that represents the democratization of society – for, with the invention of the lawnmower, ordinary households too could afford to have their lawns; and at the same time one that is on a scale small enough that we can all identify with it. Lawnmower World speaks to our heritage and our pride as a nation.

For more information, telephone 01704 501336, or visit www.lawnmowerworld.co.uk

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