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Holman Bros., Millwrights of Canterbury: A history

History of the business: Workshops, retail and agriculture



It started by being a simple workshop with hand-operated machinery, manufacturing and repairing wagons and ploughs and later making and mending items for the millwrights. It had its own set of measurements and patterns for each part of a wagon. Wheels were made by the wheelwright. The blacksmith in the forge made the iron fittings and wheel rims, which were passed on to the workshop, whilst the carpenters supplied the main parts ready to assemble into finished carts and wagons.

With the advances in mechanisation on the farms, the workshop was gradually updated to cope by adding various power-driven metal working machinery including lathes, grinders, drilling machines, grindstones, power hacksaws and a power hammer. These were eventually driven from a layshaft driven by an engine in a newly constructed engine and boiler room.

Postcard of Folkestone Cliff Railway
Postcard of Folkestone Cliff Railway. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

The engineers would be called upon to manufacture and repair all manner of things. When steam engines became the source of power on farms they were involved in making and repairing pistons, fire boxes and bars, and valves for pumps. They were employed to repair engines for Sturry Fire Brigade, printing machinery for the Kent Herald newspaper, a sausage machine for Mr. Craig in Burgate and even, in 1877, sawing out gun stocks for a local gunsmith. Folkestone Cliff Railway, marmalade machines, oast house fans, and railway track for City Corporation in 1884 were also repaired.

In 1877 the Right Hon. Lord Sondes employed them to strengthen a lime tree at the Kent cricket ground. This tree was unique as it was the only one in England growing inside the boundary line. The bill read: ‘Iron work for supporting tree at cricket ground. 2 swivel nuts with R and L hand threads, 4 screws, chain and hooks, iron straps with long bolt, 14lbs plate iron, 4 iron wedges. Plumber fitting 26lbs lead on tree. £8-3-4.’

During the 1920s the workshop was involved with converting numerous machines housed in farmer’s barns and used for chaff cutting, turnip slicing, and crushing oats and oil cakes for animal feed, from hand to power driven with the addition of petrol or paraffin engines.

Postcard of Dreamland Amusement Park, Margate
Postcard of Dreamland Amusement Park, Margate. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

One specialised service was the repair of mowing machines. They had contracts with the City Council, golf clubs and private estates to keep their machines in running order. In the 1950s an automatic cylinder sharpening machine was installed. After sharpening, no cylinder left the works without a fresh coat of paint.

They also worked on Dreamland Amusement Park in 1934, breweries, tanneries, electricity works, a mental hospital, oyster fisheries, and repairs to H.M. Prison Canterbury Tread Wheel in 1893.

The following is a list of machines damaged by bombing in the war on 12 June 1942 which gives a comprehensive picture of the machinery in use at the time used to complete a diverse variety of jobs:

Dean, Smith & Grace 8″ SS & SC centre lathe on 9ft gap bed

Lumsden 2 wheel dry tool grinder

Dean, Smith & Grace 8″ SS & SC centre lathe on 7ft gap bed

Bench mounted key seat cutter

H. W. Ward light sensitive feed pillar drilling machine

Joshua Heap 2, 3 and 4” pipe screwing machines

Tanco – 1/2 in bench drill sensitive feed with 1/3rd HP driving motor

12” SS & SC centre lathe on 18ft gap bed

36” grindstone in iron trough

L. Sterne & Co double wheel wet tool grinder

Edward Herbert power hacksaw

Jones & Shipman worm geared hand press

N0 2 Handy lever shearing machine

Oxy acetylene welding and cutting plant

One set 6” tyre bending rolls

One 6” tyre closer

One set 3ft plate bending rolls

Players 3cwt pneumatic power hammer with 3HP driving motor

Power driven drilling machine

Hand lever punching machine

1” bolt screwing machine

Wilkinsons 9” stroke slotting machine

Wilmarth & Mormon twist drill grinder

Power driven drilling machine

G. Booth & Co 10” stroke shaping machine

Pollock & Macnab planing machine

3ft radial drill

George Hatch pillar drilling machine

Hand power bolt screwing machine

12” emery disc grinder with 1/2 HP driving motor

Tool and cutter grinder

No 2 Handy lever shearing machine

Edwards Besco No 1 hand lever bar bender

Mower knife section remover and rivet punch


There was a paint shop on site and paint pigments were ground up and mixed to order. It is not certain whether there was a permanent painter in the firm or whether one was called in when needed. A painter finished off jobs such as carts by varnishing or painting and adding any advertising or a name and address for the new owner. Two paint recipes have survived:

Brush polish

1 gallon methyl spirit

2 1/4lbs shellac

1/4lb Amber resin

1/4lb Seed lac

5 ozs castor oil

Mix. When the gums are dissolved, apply with a very soft brush. If too thick, add a little more methyl spirit.

Cabinet polish

1 pint methyl spirit

4 1/2oz shellac

1 drm paraffin oil

20 drops ether sulphuric

12 drops Lig. Amm. fort.

Mix altogether and apply with wadding.

Use the aniline dyes as wood stains.

Bismarck brown and magenta are the dyes mostly in use by polishers.


Dover Street forge tools
Dover Street forge tools. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

The forge often worked in conjunction with the carpenters and millwrights shops to produce any ironwork necessary for the production of new items or the repair of old. Records show the diverse nature of the output – production of an eel trap for Chartham watermill, metal chimneys for engines, gratings for wells, rims for wheels, iron cart fittings and various pieces of metal work for the millwrights.

A lot of early work was used in the production of carts and ploughs. The forge produced all of the ironwork used for the Kentish Turn-wrest plough, which was a good seller for the firm.

Central to the operation was the fire used for heating up the metal being worked on. The hearth had a brick base with a large metal hood attached to a chimney to disperse the smoke. The bellows kept the fire at the right temperature and were originally hand-operated by a boy, but later were powered by an electric motor. The blacksmith worked mainly at his anvil, placed so that he had easy access to the fire and his tools that were either on a rack attached to the water trough used to quench iron or cool tools, or on nearby racks. The anvil was mounted on a large wooden block made of oak to give the blacksmith some ‘feel’ which he would not get with solid metal.

Bert Cook at the lathe
Bert Cook at the lathe. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

As time went by, a lot of the manual work in the forge was mechanised with the introduction of electrically powered hacksaws, hammers and drills. Mostly wrought iron was used in the forge as it was easier to handle than mild steel. Its fibres lie in one direction with its strength lying along the fibres, they must be preserved in forge work to keep its strength. It was joined by heating each piece to white heat and then hammering them together on the anvil. Mild steel could be worked cold, is equally strong in any direction, and can be turned on a lathe.

Ironwork recipes found amongst the firm’s papers dated 1886 include:

A mixture consisting of ten parts of Borax and one part of sand is the best flux used for welding cast steel. The flux is introduced in some cases by first fusing it over a sheet of very fine wire gauze and placing this between the surfaces to be welded. The gauze distributes it more evenly giving a better weld, one sheet does several times. 5 lbs. silver sand, 1/4lb common blue, 1/4lb soda mixed together. Use it as sand.

1/4lb saltpetre and 1/4lb oil of vitriol in two gallons of hard water. Cool the steel in the water blood red. Before welding use sand as with iron.

Restoring burnt steel – 5lbs resin and 2lbs black pitch boiled together. Cool the steel in the pot, then temper as usual. It will stand.

To case harden iron as hard as steel – Take the iron when blood red and cool in carbolic acid. It is hard when cool.

For tempering mill bills (used to cut the grooves in millstones) – 2ozs borax, 2ozs sal ammoniac and 2ozs spirits of nitre in 4 gallons of soft water. Cool the steel in the water blood red. It is tempered when cold.


The Old Dover Road yard had a saw pit for preparing timber from tree trunks. The work was done by two men. The senior of the pair stood at the top of the pit guiding the saw. It was his job also to keep the saw in good condition. The man below in the pit simply provided the power to push the saw up for the next downward stroke and to drive in wedges to open the cut. He had a jar of oil to lubricate the saw. The saw was around 8ft long and tapered from top to bottom from around 10” to 3”.

This type of sawing was for straight cuts. If curves were required for such jobs as making cart wheels or shafts, a frame saw was used. It had a rectangular frame with the blade held under tension. Patterns were held in the shop for standard items, the timber being marked out or ‘lined out’ before sawing. Sawdust from the pit saw was sold for bacon curing – oak was especially prized. In the yard there was a wood store where sawn planks were left to season, which could be a long process. It was standard practice to leave the wood to season for one year for each inch of thickness.

Originally ash or oak was used for the framework of the cart as, when properly seasoned, it did not crack, with the panelling and flooring being of elm, but it was later superseded by Norwegian deal which didn’t curl at its edges, and was longer and straighter. The bottom boards were laid lengthways to make shovelling loads out easier. Tip carts were made wider at the tail to help loads slide out. Wood corners were shaved off, not only for appearance but also to make the cart lighter for the horse. This could also be achieved by making sure the wood had been seasoned to allow all sap to dry out. Joints were secured using dowels which were made in the shop by hammering wood through a sharp ring of steel set in a block – a job often done by the apprentice.

Hornbeam and apple, very hard woods, were used for cogs in mills. Oak, again very hard, was used in mill structures and machinery. The shop also constructed the wooden parts for ploughs, harrows, barrows and sack barrows. The ironwork was produced in the forge with the finished article being assembled in the workshop.


Records show a carpenter’s and wheelwright’s shop in the Dover Street yard from at least 1868 continuing until at least 1900.  At first, the workshop built carts and wagons to order and repaired existing ones. They built hand carts and those to be pulled by one or up to four horses. Carts had two wheels while wagons, which could carry up to 3/4 ton, had four. The carpenter constructed the body and under frames with consideration being given to the future use of the cart in his design with appropriate springing and body style. Loads to be catered for included coal, bricks, and dung. Sometimes the buyer asked for the cart to carry a certain weight.

A wheelwright made and repaired wheels. He worked in conjunction with the carpenters and forge to make and repair carts, wagons, ploughs, harrows, hand barrows and sack barrows.

Wheels were usually made from elm which grows with its grain twisting and intermingling resulting in timber which is hard and unlikely to split. This was especially important when the wood had to stand up to having holes cut for spokes and axles. It had to be perfectly dry to stop shrinkage.

Holes, or mortises, had to be cut into the hub to fit the spokes, made of oak, which were shaped with a draw knife and finished with a spokeshave and finally sandpaper. The mortises in the hub were chiseled out, which was a skilled job as they had to allow for the spokes to emerge at an angle so the wheel could be dished. Wheels were dished to allow a wider body above, so that the wagon could carry a larger load especially lighter ones such as hay. It also helped spread the load when driving in ruts.

The felloes, the shaped wooden blocks which make up the wheel’s rim, were made using an appropriate template, and joined together with dowels – no glue was used in a wheel’s construction.

The iron tyres were prepared by the blacksmith. There was a flat iron plate in the yard where the wheel was laid down to put the metal rim on. The rim was heated up on a fire to white heat and then quickly hammered into place on the wheel, finally shrinking it on by throwing water on it.

Wheels were 5 feet diameter at the rear and 4 feet at the front which gave 2 feet clearance under the cart – necessary on rutted tracks and in fields. The smaller diameter at the front also allowed a tighter turning circle.

The finished wheels were passed onto the carpenter’s shop for the final assembly of carts or wagons. An early form of recycling was practiced when old spokes were used to make ladders.

By 1876, iron axles were being used, replacing the original designs in wood. Wheels eventually became stamped metal disks bought in from a manufacturer and fitted in the workshop.

When there was a decline in work for the wheelwright, his skills were easily transferred to millwrighting.

A carpenter constructed the body and under frames and due consideration was given to the future use of the cart in his design with appropriate springing and body style. A painter/sign writer was employed to paint the carts and to add any lettering to advertise the owner. There was a paint shop on site and often the paint pigments were ground up and mixed to order. It is not certain whether there was a permanent painter in the firm or whether one was called in as necessary.

What follows are extracts from the firm’s ledgers of work undertaken in the workshops:

New spring wagon for Mr. Collard. Hind springs 3ft 3in long 7 leaves, Front springs 3ft 1in long 6 leaves. 2 top leaves 2 x 5/16 other leaves 2 x 1/4. 1 5/8 patent axles. Iron axles to run right through.

10.9.1868 – 2 strong 2 horse carts with 4 inch wheels and extra iron cub? to do. £27.10.0 for T F Wacher. Carriage to Minster 9/6d

10.12.1869 – 1 strong Cob cart with Croskills? wheels and axle fitted to do. £10.0.0

Coal cart for Mr. Collard

1873 – 2 horse cart and 2 horse wagon for Robinson

7.3.74 – A new cart, solid sides. Body to be 5ft 3 1/2ins long to hold 7 courses of bricks. Back and front side boards. 14 spoke wheels £12.10.0 for Joseph Harris, Brick Fields, Swalecliffe.

1875 – A one horse builders cart 2 1/2 wheels patent axles with front board and painted red and yellow letters E. Butcher, Builders, Folkestone.

2.1.1875 – 2 horse wagon for Stephen Hatcher, Goodnestone £28.0.0

A new cart £13 same as Mr. Pilchers for William Deal, Westbere.

15.1.75 – Mr. Stupples, Hardres. 1 strong one horse farm cart and one more if approved of when done.

10.3.76 – 1 two horse cart 4 inch wheels for Mr. Scott

6.5.1876 – 1 new strong 1 horse dung cart £14.0.0

18.6.76 – New spring wagon for Mr. Collard. Hind springs 3ft 3in long 7 leaves, Front springs 3ft 1in long 6 leaves. 2 top leaves 2 x 5/16 other leaves 2 x 1/4. 1 5/8 patent axles. Iron axles to run right through.

18.9.1876 – 1 new strong coal cart on springs with side and front boards £20.0.0. Writing name on front and varnishing 5/-

11.10.76 – 2 two horse carts for C Collard

16.12.76 – 1 light wagon smaller than 2 horse about 12cwt and to carry 30cwt with horse and skid £22

30.6.77 – 1 new one horse cart with 4in wheels £16 Mr. Wilkinson, Nonington

Jan 1878 – 1 cart pony size 2 1/2 in wheels £12.10.0  R P Laurie Chartham

Feb 1881 – 2 horse cart with floats in 4 pieces for Mr. Neame, Birchington £16.10.0

A price list of c1880 lists wagons:

4 horse with 23/4 iron arms horns & skid complete. Wheels 5ft & 4ft diameter tyres 21/2 X 3/4 – £37.0.0

3 horse with 21/4 iron arms horns & skid complete wheels 4ft 8in & 3ft 8in diameter tyre 21/2 x 5/8 – £32.0.0

2 horse with 2in iron arms horns & skid complete wheels 4ft 8in & 3ft 8in diameter tyre 21/4 x 3/4 – £28.0.0

and Carts:

2 H cart 21/2 x 3/4 tires 23/4 arms – £14.0.0


At first the firm only sold goods associated with windmills. This included such items as weighing machines, sack barrows, mill bills, replacement parts for the mill and machinery such as dressing machines and additional millstones. In 1887 the following information was circulated to mill owners:

Dover Street

October 1887

Dear Sir,

I write to inform you that I am daily expecting to receive a stock of best quality peak stones direct from the quarry.

Should you be requiring any this year, I shall be pleased for you to call & inspect them at any time, & I am sure that I could supply you with as good an article, & at as reasonable a price as you can obtain them elsewhere.

Prices at my yard

                                  in the rough           Faced, rounded & hooped

3ft 10”                         £3. 17. 6                                  £5. 2. 6

4ft                                 4. 7. 6                                     5. 15. 0

4ft 2”                            4. 17. 6                                   6. 5. 0

Soliciting your orders
I remain
Yours respectfully
Thos R Holman

They even sold second-hand millstones, sometimes from demolished windmills as this letter dated 6 June 1899 to B.E. highlights this:


We have two pairs of 4ft dia French Burr stones we can offer you.
They are in splendid condition & fitted with balance boxes to runners, dress with sun (we believe 10 qrs 4 furrows?)
Price for the lot £7.10.0 on rails at Birchington station L C D R. Offered subject to being unsold

Yours ffully Holman Bros

The shop at 12 Dover Street had a display area but customers went straight to the offices behind to buy or order goods and services. Items could be supplied from stock, ordered from the manufacturer or made to order in the workshops such as carts and farm wagons.

Holman Brothers exhibition at Kent County Show, Maidstone, 1951
Holman Brothers exhibition at Kent County Show, Maidstone, 1951. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

When engines replaced earlier hand-driven machinery, there was a great opportunity to sell this new machinery. As the firm widened its scope to agricultural engineering, sales took on a new dimension with many additional lines being added. As early as 1895, they became agents for Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, one of the leading manufacturers of agricultural machinery.

A limited range of farm machinery was on display in the yard behind the office. This would include hay rakes, mowers and tractors, but much was made to order with items being delivered directly to the customer. Records show a wide diversity of machinery being sold. This included bottle washing and labelling equipment, chimney sweeping, soda water making and lime grinding machines. When straw binders became more common, there were always repeat orders for binder twine.

In 1901 the firm started exhibiting at the East Kent Agricultural Society’s Ramsgate show, where they had 2 stands; one showed machinery in motion, the first of its kind, and the other an uncovered space for general exhibits. In 1904 they were exhibiting at the East Kent Agricultural Show in Canterbury. For many years they had a stand at the Kent County Show which was formed when the East Kent and West Kent Societies merged. Due to their long attendance, the firm eventually occupied the coveted No 1 stand each year. Their other sales stand was at the Canterbury Cattle Market each week when one of the Holmans attended to meet and sell to farmers.


Holmans were also licensed valuers and there are a number of records of valuations of the tenants’ fittings in mills when a new miller took over from the outgoing tenant.

Appraiser’s and House Agent’s Licence to Harry Branford Holman
Appraiser’s and House Agent’s Licence to Harry Branford Holman. Source: Mills Archive / Geoff Holman Collection

In 1900, HBH was authorised by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to ‘use and exercise the Business, Calling or Occupation of an APPRAISER, and also of a HOUSE AGENT.’ There are a number of records of valuations of the tenants’ fittings in mills when a new miller took over from the outgoing tenant. This continued until 1911.


Aside from retail and valuations, Holmans provided other services for the milling, agricultural and industrial communities. Milling services included, amongst others, the provisions of: supplying cake mills; roller mills for barley; repairing horse wheels and sawmills; and hiring out traction engines to drive sawmills.

They supplied the likes of drills, horse rakes, mowers, straw elevators, and an extra strong soda water making machine for Mr. Bing the Chemist. Hiring stock included block and tackle, splitting beans, and steam pumping gear for pumping out Whitehall open-air swimming baths so they could be cleaned.


Towards the latter part of the 19th Century there was a change in the work done by the firm. Although much work was still done in mills, the coming of steam power and later the internal combustion engine made additional work. Many mills had the new form of power to keep the mill turning during periods of little wind.

Another change was the increasing involvement in the agricultural side of the business and while the old wooden Kentish Turn-wrest plough had been made on the premises, the tendency now was for the sale of iron implements such as ploughs, mowers, reapers, horse rakes etc. made at factories in England and America with trademarks such as Ransomes, Deering, McCormick and Massey Harris.

At the time HBH joined the business in 1880, practically the only implements in use on the farms were Kent ploughs and wood harrows both of which, together with carts and wagons were made by the firm. He also maintained the 12 windmills that had been built.

Before the firm took over the meadow in the 1920s, cattle grazed there; the cow shed was just inside the Old Dover Road entrance indicated by some plaster on the brick wall. The cattle and dairy owned by Miss Hughes D’Aeth were moved to parkland at the junction of the New Dover Road and Upper Chantry Lane. Before the meadow was acquired, the steam engines and threshing machines were parked on a piece of land at the junction of the Old Dover and Nackington Roads.


Ploughing turns the earth to expose it to the action of the elements and uproots or buries any weed seeds. Land was originally cultivated by hand using a hoe but this only turns the top of the soil and didn’t bury weeds. The land had to be constantly hoed after crops had been sown to keep them down.

Horse-pulled ploughs enabled the land to be cultivated more quickly and deeper. A single horse plough would take around three days to plough one acre but could take twice as long in heavy clay, with the ploughman having to walk 10 miles while steering the plough.

Steam ploughs replaced horse ploughs as it was much quicker and could be used to plough in heavier conditions. A team of four men could plough 20 acres per day. Steam traction engines were first used, simply pulling a large plough behind them. Some manufacturers produced self-propelled steam ploughs in the mid-1850s.

In 1861, Fowlers invented the addition of a cable winding drum under the engine for ploughing. It involved having a pair of engines, one each end of the field which pulled a plough by cable across the field. The plough was designed like a see-saw with the set of ploughshares being used going one way across the field and turning the soil in one direction. At the end of the run the plough was tipped over for its return journey with the ploughshares then in use turning the soil in the same direction as the previous run. This system meant that a plough did not have to be turned round at the end of each run.

The engines could work in large fields, sometimes being up to a quarter of a mile apart. The drivers signalled to one another using steam whistles. One remained stationary whilst pulling the plough while the other plough moved up the field to pull it back again at a speed of about 6 miles an hour. A pair of engines ploughed 2000 acres per year on average. A 5-furrow anti-balance plough would cultivate around 20 acres per day. The advantage of these ploughs was that they could be used on a wide variety of soils from heavy to soft.

After ploughing, the land was cultivated to break down the furrows into smaller lumps and to get rid of couch grass, bare bind and other weeds, there being no weed killers available. This was done using a cultivator which had a series of metal spikes or tines which went into the soil. The cultivator was pulled across the field in the same way as the plough. Sometimes the land was cultivated in two different directions, with the tines on the cultivator being set at anything up to 2ft deep. This broke down the soil into fine particles ready for seed sowing. A roller was sometimes used to further smooth the surface and compact the soil so that there were no air pockets. Ploughing and cultivation using this method kept heavy machinery off the soil thus avoiding excessive compaction.

During the 1860s there was concern that the use of traction engines would endanger the safety of the public. It was felt that they might cause fatal accidents, scare horses, block narrow lanes and disturb people by operating at night. By this time the cost of maintaining the roads was shifting from tolls to rate payers and it was thought that traction engines would damage the highway far more than horse drawn vehicles. The Locomotive on Highways Act 1861 stated that the wheels of an engine must be in continuous contact with the road to avoid damaging the surface. This meant that cross strakes or ridges on the wheels could not be used with the disadvantage that a plain tread gave little traction. The weight of vehicles was limited to 12 tons.

The Locomotive Act 1865 (Red Flag Act) set a speed limit of 2mph in towns and 4mph in the country. It stated that each vehicle had to be accompanied by a crew of three, the driver, a stoker and a man with a red flag who walked 60 yards ahead of each vehicle to ensure that the engine did not exceed walking pace. It also stated that engines must ‘consume their own smoke’, and there was to be no visible fire. The engines were not very manoeuvrable because they could weigh 10 tons and the steering wheels had to be rotated 30 turns to go from lock to lock. The Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878 removed the red flag requirement but still required a crew member walking 20 yards ahead. Vehicles were obliged to stop on sight of a horse.

In 1895, Holmans purchased their first set of ploughing tackle which was comprised of a pair of ploughing engines, a 5-furrow plough, a 9-tine cultivator, a sand press, a hop cultivator, a sleeping van and two 4-ton wagons, together with tow truck anchors and snatch blocks.

By 1909, Holmans were still ploughing with steam engines and listed on insurance policies were two pairs of ploughing tackle. Ploughing engines were manufactured in pairs, one with the cable coming from the left and the other to the right, allowing both the engines to face in the same direction when working a field. 1915 saw another pair of ploughing engines appearing in the records; and a 1916 policy lists seven ploughing machines including a new 5-furrow plough purchased in 1913.

The horsepower ratings were given as Nominal Horse Power (NHP) which is much less than actual horse power. It was described like this to try and pacify those who objected to them on the roads. Multiplying the NHP by eight gives the actual horsepower.

It was traditional to name each pair of traction engines. One of the Holman engines was at some stage called General French but there is no record of other names used. The traction engines were also used for other jobs which needed the strength of the cable pulling system. This included tree pulling, and in one recorded case, for pulling down Harbledown windmill in 1913. They were also hired to produce steam to sterilise greenhouses.

Three threshing machines with traction engines at Dover Street yard
Three threshing machines with traction engines at Dover Street yard. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

Ploughing engines set out from the yard in Dover Street at first light on Monday morning and worked until midday Saturday when the engines were cleaned down and prepared for the following week. Tom Holman’s sister, Mary, recalls: ‘How the ploughing engines managed to get in and out of the yard without knocking the cottages down we never knew, but they did very well.’ [source] The first engine towed the plough. The second engine pulled a four wheeled living van, a cultivator and a water cart. Sometimes additional coal was kept in sacks in the van. Water for the engines en-route had to be obtained ‘as and when’. It could be pumped up from streams or ponds or got from fire hydrants but only if the necessary key and permit had been obtained. It was against the law to get it from horse troughs, although in times of great need this may have been necessary. There was no shelter for the driver on the footplate.

There was sometimes a foreman supervising and a cook boy to do odd jobs such as keeping the van clean, keeping the fire going, cooking food, making tea and shopping for the men – which included going to the nearest pub to get their beer. Often tea and food had to be delivered to the men out in the fields. He would also have to pack up the bedding each morning. The layout of the van meant that the foreman slept at the front by himself, one man at either side and two at the rear.  Cook boys could expect to get around 25 shillings a week plus 3d per acre the gang ploughed. A ploughman would earn 32 shillings plus 5d per acre, and an engine driver could expect 36 shillings plus 6d per acre.

There had to be a minimum of three men working – one on each engine and one on the plough. The men would sometimes be away from the yard for days or weeks on end, travelling from farm to farm. They would sleep in the van, in a barn, or, if very lucky, in the farmhouse. Sometimes during a job they could get home at night by train, bus, cycle or on foot. The farmer normally provided the water and coal. Work started at first light which in summer could be as early as 5am and went on until 9 in the evening. If the men were staying overnight in the van, a shovel of fire from the engine’s firebox would be used to start up the van stove. The engines were routinely maintained back in Holmans’ yard in the winter months. 

In 1897 the firm fell afoul of the law and was summoned to appear in Court. There is no record of the outcome. A notice from the Petty Sessional Division of Ashford in the County of Kent read:

To Thomas Holman of Dover Street, Canterbury. Engine proprietor.

Information has been laid before me this day by Richard Bailey of Ashford in the said County, Superintendent of Police for that you, on the 25th day of February in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Ninety Seven at the Parish of Chilham in the County aforesaid, unlawfully did erect a certain steam engine within the distance of twenty five yards from a certain public carriage way there situate the said engine not being within any house or other building or behind any wall or fence sufficient to conceal or screen the same from such carriageway so that the same might not be dangerous to passengers, horses or cattle, contrary to the form of the Statute in such case made and provided.

You are therefore hereby summoned to appear before the Court of Summary Jurisdiction sitting at the Police Station, Ashford aforesaid, on Tuesday, the ninth day of March next, at the hour of Half-past Eleven o’clock in the Forenoon, to answer to the said Information.

Dated the third day of March One Thousand Eight Hundred and Ninety Seven.

In 1902, the first medium-powered internal combustion engine farm tractor was made by Ivel Agricultural Motors Ltd. of Biggleswade. They made a substantial number and were reasonably successful. It was soon followed by several other tractors but it was not until the First World War that the tractor really made an impact on farming.

In 1917, Henry Ford was building a factory for the manufacture of agricultural tractors in America. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister at the time, ordered 5,000 Fordson tractors. They were delivered within three months. Mostly driven by women, they gave a tremendous impetus to the progress of farm mechanisation.

After 1920, there was a decline in the use of traction engines as internal combustion engine tractors were developed. The diesel tractor cost around 6 times less than a traction engine to run in fuel alone. It could also be operated by one man as opposed to up to five for a steam rig. During the General Strike in 1926, Holmans kept their traction engines going using coke purchased from the local gasworks. The Road Traffic Act 1930 restricted axle weights with license fees increasing with the weight of the vehicle. Fowlers stopped the production of traction engines in 1933. As a result, Holmans added tractor ploughs to their hire fleet. In the late 1940s a new tax was introduced which heavily taxed heavy road vehicles, further leading to the decline in traction engines travelling on public roads.

Henry Ford’s Fordson Standard tractor had been introduced in the 1930s which gave further impetus to the decline in steam ploughing. Farmers could afford to buy their own equipment with the tractors then being available throughout the year for other work. Some models also had the advantage of a three point linkage replacing the single tow bar of earlier models. This made the rig more stable and also enabled the attachment of a wide variety of implements which took their power from the tractor’s engine. A tractor could plough in the region of 6 acres per day. Nowadays a tractor can pull 28 tons and the record for ploughing is 1,500 acres in 24 hours.

After the Second World War increased food production was vital. Farmers needed to cultivate their land more efficiently. In 1946 Harry Ferguson introduced the grey Ferguson TE20 tractor. Holmans decided not to sell them because they thought they were not heavy enough to do a good job. How wrong they were. In the following 10 years the Ferguson outsold all others, selling the greatest number of tractors of any make. Perhaps the Holmans had yet to abandon their ‘heavy traction engine’ mentality.


Cutting Corn

Originally corn was cut by hand by men with sickles. Scythes replaced sickles as they could cut much more quickly. They had an iron cradle to catch the cut corn and leave it evenly on the ground. They were followed by women and children (usually their family) called gavellers who gathered up a handful of the cut corn and twisted it together to form a band which would then be wrapped round an armful of corn, making a sheaf to be stacked into stooks of 10 sheaves to dry off. These were then collected by wagon and stored in barns. At the time farmers preferred to keep their crop indoors rather than stacking it in a yard.

By the late 1800s corn was increasingly being cut with a mechanical reaper pulled by horses. One man drove the horse, another sat on a seat raking the cut corn into handy parcels for people to pick up and bind into sheaves. The Reverend Patrick Bell invented the mechanical reaper in 1828. They were pulled initially by horses and later by traction engines and then by tractors. These cut the corn using two overlapping rows of knives working with a scissor-like action which then delivered the cut corn onto a moving canvas depositing it onto the ground in rows to be gathered by hand and tied into bundles.

The automatic binder was invented in 1872 by Charles Whittington. These machines cut the corn and automatically tied it into bundles. The first machines used wire ties to secure the sheaves but after the corn was threshed bits of wire were sometimes left, later to be swallowed by cattle with disastrous effects. If the grain was to be milled they could create sparks during grinding, setting some mills on fire. McCormick, Deering and Massey Harris became the main binder manufacturers. By 1880 the self-binder was complete using a twine made from sisal and hemp which was supplied in large balls – a ‘stock in trade’ for Holman Bros. An area was first cut round the field by hand as the machine could not cut right up to the edges. A binder could cut 10 acres in a day.

By the end of the 19th Century three quarters of corn was harvested by machine. The number of binders in use increased over the years to reach 150,000 by 1950. They then fell in decline with the introduction of combine harvesters.

Rick Building

The sheaves would be collected and taken to the rick soon after cutting if the weather was dry; oats were left longer to mature. When collected on the farm wagon, the pitchers threw the sheaves to the loader on the wagon who stacked them with the butt end on the outside. Ricks were built in the yard on staddles – mushroom shaped stones which kept rats and mice out. Timber was put across them and then a layer of brushwood as a foundation. Each rick was built big enough to be threshed in one day. When they got too tall for the sheaves to be pitched up to the builder, an iron harrow was put on the stack for a man to stand on as an intermediate step. Mechanical elevators came later.


In spite of constant improvements to the design of threshing machines and their increasingly widespread use, on many farms in the 1840s the crop was still being hand-flailed, a handy activity for otherwise idle hands in the winter. The threshing was done on the middle-stead, the middle of the barn, the floor of which was made of clay beaten down until it became as hard as concrete. The threshing was done with a flail which had an ash handle with a swivel on top connecting it to the part that struck the corn. That was called the swingel and was made of a tough wood, like holly or blackthorn. When using the flail the thresher swung the handle over his shoulder and brought down the swingel across the straw just below the ears so that the grains of corn were shaken out without being bruised.

Great skill was needed to use the flail effectively – it was very easy for an inexperienced thresher to hit himself on the back of the neck. While the threshing was being done the big double doors at one end of the barn and the single door at the other end were opened to allow a through draught to blow away the dust. After threshing was completed, sievers separated the cavings (short lengths of straw) from the grain and chaff, the grain being piled at one side of the middle stead. A scuppit (a wooden shovel) was then used to throw the grain high in the air, the heavy grains falling furthest away and the lighter ones dropping short. It has been estimated that it would have taken 100 man hours to thresh 1 ton of grain.

The threshing machine was invented by a Scottish millwright, Andrew Meikle in 1750. It was not popular with some farm workers who thought it would put them out of work; on 11 September 1830 it was reported in the Berkshire Chronicle and Bucks and Windsor Herald that a large gang of labourers destroyed a threshing machine at Lower Hardres near Canterbury:

Report in the Berkshire Chronicle and Bucks and Windsor Herald on the threshing riots
Report in the Berkshire Chronicle and Bucks and Windsor Herald on the threshing riots. Source: British Newspaper Archive. Image (c) British Library Board. All rights reserved

Many more such cases were to follow. Early threshing machines fed the cut corn between grooved rollers into the path of a revolving drum which had beater bars affixed to it to knock out the grain, then there were screens to separate the grain from the straw. Early models were installed in barns, driven by horse or water power, and later – around 1800 – by steam power. Later models used a different mechanism which used a rubbing rather than a beating action to separate the grain.

In 1841, Ransomes manufactured the first steam-powered portable threshing machine. These were hauled from job to job using teams of horses, often supplied by farmers, who take advantage of dearer early season grain prices.

Holmans started hiring out threshing tackle in 1895, when they purchased a Fowler threshing engine (no. 4977) together with one other 8hp traction engine both with threshing machines and coal vans, valued at £320.10.0 and £248.15.0. They also bought an 8hp portable engine with another threshing machine, value £151.0.0. It was hired out to farmers, because being a seasonal activity, it made economic sense for the farmer not to buy his own gear and have it lying unused for long periods. A full set of threshing tackle consisted of a steam engine with possibly a portable water tank, a threshing drum, an elevator to use in building the rick, and sometimes a straw trusser and chaff cutter. In addition there could be a house van for the gang to live in whilst on the job. The steam engine pulled all of these in convoy to the farm and it then powered the threshing machine. Holmans tended only to thresh large farms as constantly moving all this equipment was not economical. Owing to the weight of it one problem was soft ground when getting to the farm; an ideal time was mid-winter with the ground frozen hard. However winter barley had to be threshed in July.

Threshing gang at Nackington
Threshing gang at Nackington. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

Sometimes a portable steam engine was hired. These were hauled to the farm by cart horse or tractor. Tall chimneys, with a cowl lifted smoke away from the work whilst a spark arrester stopped sparks reaching the highly inflammable straw. The farmer supplied coal and water for the engine. The crew consisted of an engine driver, who was responsible for the set of tackle, a man to cut the string from the sheaves and a feeder who fed the corn into the drum at a steady rate – too slow was wasteful, too much jammed the machine. A sackman attended to the full sacks of corn, whilst two further men removed the bundled corn stalks from the threshing machine and built a straw rick. Later there would be a mechanical elevator taking the sheaves to the top of the rick. The farmer normally supplied additional men, there would be two on the rick to pitch sheaves to top of thresher to a band cutter – usually the farm boy who cut bands and passed the sheaves to the feeder. Another would take care of raking up the chaff.

The threshing machine had to stand level, with driving pulleys lined up. This was sometimes difficult on soft ground. There were spirit levels built into the framework to help. If the machine was not level the sieves loaded unevenly, and driving belts were likely to fly off their pulleys. Health and safety was the responsibility of the individual as there was little protection of moving parts.

The thresher separated corn into three grades. Weed seed was bagged off. Straw, chaff and cavings were all separated. Straw was used for thatching, cattle feed and bedding, and cavings from under the shakers were rubbish. Crops were originally grown with long straw, nowadays with short as there is little use for long straw. A threshing machine could produce around 1 ton of grain per hour.

Threshed straw could be used to build a stack using a mechanical elevator. After 1914 a trusser was used if straw was to be taken elsewhere, these had a knotting mechanism similar to the binders. Winnowing machines were sometimes employed to clean the grain removing dirt, stones and especially weed seeds before sowing.

During the Second World War the firm was registered under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Food and given a list of farms on their quota that they had to carry out threshing for. To help the firm meet the quota Land girl gangs were often put on threshing duties. The Land Girls would be provided with hostel accommodation which could be central to several farms. They would be put on such duties as sweeping away the cavings from under the threshing machine.

Combine Harvesters

Massey combine harvester at Knowlton, 1966
Massey combine harvester at Knowlton, 1966. Photo: Holman Brothers Ltd

The combine cuts and threshes the corn simultaneously and separates the grain from the straw, thereby eliminating the several operations formerly needing a lot of manpower including cutting, binding, shocking, collecting sheaves, hauling sheaves to yard, rick building, and threshing. Combine harvesters were invented in the 1830s to cope with the large fields of wheat in the United States. There is a record of a large machine being drawn by 40 horses. By 1886 there were self-propelled machines using a straw fired steam engine which could cut 100 acres in a day.

They were introduced into the UK in 1926. The early horse-drawn models did not separate the grain from the straw and chaff too well. Later models were drawn by tractors with self-propelled combines displacing the tractor drawn models. They had a crew of two – one to drive the harvester and the other on the bagging platform attending to the filling of sacks with corn, which were tied up and dropped onto the field in heaps for later collection. The stalks were ejected from the rear of the machine in rows, where they could be picked up by a baler and made into bales which were collected up and stored in barns. Later models incorporated a baler and also a hopper system where the corn was stored in an on-board hopper which was emptied by an elevator into a trailer driven alongside.

In the UK the climate often made it necessary to artificially dry the grain. The corn was taken to barns where its moisture content was measured and if necessary dried in large driers. This was necessary as it would go mouldy if stored when damp, together with a risk of fire. One of Holmans commissions was to build a large grain drying complex near Canterbury.

To replace existing steam driven tackle in the early 1950s, Holman Bros. purchased a McCormick combine harvester with a pick up baler. This arrived from Canada in bits in large wooden packing cases. A former employee remembers that it came with no assembly instructions, so there was much experimentation before it was completed. One thing that caused a problem was the radiator for the engine. As the men had previously worked on tractors with the radiator at the front, it took some time for them to realise that in this case it was side mounted.

As farms expanded, often taking over neighbouring farms, field sizes increased which allowed production to increase. It then became economical for a farmer to buy his own equipment, possibly sharing with neighbouring farmers. In the UK there were more than 10,000 combine harvesters in operation in 1950; by 1960 this figure was more than 50,000, and over 70,000 by 1970. Hiring out the combine harvester became uneconomical and the equipment was disposed of. Contract baling was still carried out using a McCormack T50 – which often went out on jobs with a BSA Bantam motorcycle on a trailer so men could return home in the evenings. The firm then offered machinery servicing contracts to farmers.


Grass was grown for cattle feed. After it was mown it had to be turned to dry. Originally it was all cut by hand until the 1850s when an efficient mowing machine was developed. Tedding machines tossed cut grass in the air to help drying. The swath turner inverted rows of grass completely. When dry this could be collected by an automatic pick up baler working in the same way as the straw baler. Further developments resulted in machines able to cut young short grass which was dried artificially giving a more nutrient-rich product for animal feed. Silage making also increased from the 1920s. Here grass was cut green, then fermented in hoppers which excluded air and compressed the grass to give a highly nutritious animal feed. Later Holmans offered a maintenance service for mowers including the use of an automatic blade sharpening machine.

Below is a sample of the machines and tractors owned by Holmans, between 1895-1956, taken from insurance policy records held in the Holman archives:

Two 8hp traction engines and threshing machines complete with coal vans.
8hp portable engine and threshing machine.
Marshall and Sons threshing machine, no. 12154, with straps, bands and appurtenances.
Clayton & Shuttleworth threshing machine, no. 16480, with straps bands and appurtenances.
Clayton & Shuttleworth threshing machine, no. 14926, with straps bands and appurtenances.
Fowler 8hp, 10 ton threshing engine, no. 4977, reg. FN 5024, manufactured in 1895.
Wallis & Steevens 10 ton threshing engine, no. 2040, reg. FN 5025.
Ransomes & Sims 10 ton threshing engine, no. 14543, reg. FN 5026.
Aveling & Porter 10 ton threshing engine, no. 1885, reg. FN 5027, manufactured in 1883.
Aveling & Porter Threshing Engine Makers no 1519. 10 tons.
7hp portable engine.
Aveling & Porter threshing engine, no. 3131, reg. FN 5028
Aveling & Porter threshing engine, no. 2766, reg. KE 3098. (Now at The Steam Museum, Preston, Kent.

5 Threshing machines
3 Threshing trucks
2 Threshing house vans
3 Straw trussers
2 Sleeping vans
2 Water barrels

3 threshing machines
3 threshing house vans
3 straw trussers
1 McCormick pick up baler
1 McCormick combine harvester
1 trailer truck