Drivers' Reminiscences
by John Copsey (driver of Lockett's No. 8 Machine 1940-54)

It was the summer of 1939 and I was a boy of fifteen and a half years old having been born and bred on my grandfather's farm on the Essex/Suffolk border near Nayland. I spent all my spare time when not at school working with the horses, and I just loved with Clayton & Shuttleworth traction engine at threshing time. One morning, I was working with the farm workers in the harvest field when there was a roaring noise nearby that I had never heard before.

Instead of going to dinner between 1pm and 2pm, I biked to see what it was. It was a Fowler Gyrotiller working in the village. I was just stunned. It was mid-August six weeks before World War II broke out. Instead of going to bed that night, I managed to get a ride on the machine, and spent the whole night with the driver; the machine itself was working 24 hours a day. After asking a lot of questions, I thought "Oh Boy, this is the life for me!". The machine was in the parish for several days on different farms, still working 24 hours a day. I got very chummy with the foreman driver and enquired whether there would be a job for me in the future.

I learned from him that 8 machines were working in East Anglia, with an operating base and yard at 64 Creeting Road, Stowmarket. Fowlers themselves had a depot at Hills Road, Cambridge.

About this time, the machines had been bought by Wm. & John Lockett, a firm of shipping agents at Liverpool, with the sale price for each machine being in the region of £6,000.

War broke out at the end of September 1939 with blackout laws coming into force. All night work with those powerful lights had to stop and in many cases the crews for each machine were reduced from three to two.

In the early War years (1939 - 1940), John Fowler of Leeds had to cease production (including spares) to concentrate on War Office orders for military equipment.

I applied for a job on the local machine, and after a few crew changes had taken place, I got the job on a month's trial on standard terms in November 1940 on No. 8 machine at Shotley. It was just great to be the driver as it was only a two man crew. It meant me buying my first motor bike to get home for a few hours on a Sunday, and mother would pack me up a considerable amount of food for another week.

Work was very plentiful reclaiming large areas of land which had become derelict and overgrown with blackthorn bushes and general scrub, the result of the agricultural depression of the 1920s and 1930s. The need for British-grown food became intense.

At some time in the early '40s, the Stowmarket base became a bit more organised. Charlie Smith was put in as Manager and general "run about" man. George Bloomfield was fitter and mobile welder. His large Wolsey car towed a 2 wheel trailer which contained a Morris Cowley petrol engine direct drive to the generator for electric welding. The Morris engine was crank start and although usually easy to start, just drank the petrol!

Arthur Smith (lived at Claydon) was general maintenance man in the yard, but would assist with any major repairs amongst the eight machines in the field. The eight machines were now working to much more of a routine by each operating in a given area.

No. 1 Machine Dick Neeve, foreman, West Essex (worst area of all - heavy land)
No. 2 Machine George Chiddingham, foreman, West Suffolk (west of Stowmarket)
No. 3 Machine Leslie Poulding - North-West Suffolk
No. 4 Machine Percy Anguish - East Suffolk
No. 5 Machine Dick Wilsher - North-East Suffolk / South Norfolk
No. 6 Machine Bob Studd - South of Stowmarket to Ipswich District
No. 7 Machine Walter Callaby in the Bury area north of Stowmarket
No. 8 Machine Sid Hines - Essex/Suffolk border area

In the very early days around 1940, all the guards and ridging bodies were stripped off the back end around the rotating skives as the machines were being used more and more for scrub clearance and the start of the hedge removal.

By the mid '40s, machines were still on arable work, but the hedge removal and plantations including some woods were increasing rapidly. The Gyrotiller (working in reverse) was the best tool ever. You could reverse the skives into the bank or hedge at a slight angle, stirring out the roots, then draw forward in the same trackmark. The skives would move all the ground and level it at the same time, In the case of a very big butt end of a large tree, a contractor would use a high explosive blast to split the butt end for the skives to churn out. All roots were always left churned out on the ground surface.

In about 1944, Sid Hines decided to return to Kent, his home area, and I was made foreman of machine No. 8 and ran it as a one man crew, as most of the others had begun to do. The machines continued to be in as much demand as they had been for the past four years.

With the ending of the War in 1945 - 1956, a lot of local land was starting to be planted up with apple trees, and I personally had a big demand for gyrotilling 22" to 24" deep for tree planting. This was all bottom gear work and demand for this carried on much the same through the late 1940s.

One change to the machine about this time was a Ford car engine being mounted on the offside of the big engine. It had no water cooling, the prop shaft was connected to the offside starter and engaged by a manual lever and the Ford, in second gear, full throttle, with the decompression lever on the big engine raised and then lowered, started the big M.A.N. engine, sometimes with the help of a bit of flaming cotton waste soaked in diesel to get a good flame to the air intake. We did notice in the late 1940s, with the ever increasing number of farm tractors, arable cultivation began to get less. This was further evidenced by the increase in number of crawler tractors including the Cat D4s, Cat D6s and Cat D7s. The big Cat D7s, plus International TD18s and TD14s, some ex-government War surplus, were pulling Fowler and McLaren converted steam cultivators and Ransome 6 furrow hexetrac ploughs. But the Gyrotiller still found work, a lot of which was hedge clearance to make larger fields for the new era of mechanical farming, horses largely having gone. I, myself, must have removed hundreds of miles of hedgerow over my years with the Gyrotiller. From the 1940s onwards, agriculture was expanding fast and all rough bits of land were being incorporated into large fields which kept getting bigger.

About the year 1950, Locketts sold out to E.H.Crinage (heavy haulage contractors from Bedford) which lasted for about three years. The eight machines were now getting into a bad state, with metal fatigue particularly affecting the back end.

Crinage sold the whole lot at nearby scrap prices to Stan Fellingham of Haughley who still kept the best two running using George Chiddingham and myself. Everything we wanted for spares had to be robbed from the scrapped six machines, but this only lasted about two years.

The most wearing parts were the metal coupling ex bell housing to the gear box shaft and the main clutch (multiplate) 4 steel clutch plates between the ferodo plates. The steel plates would get hot and distort and could split right the way across.

It happened to me once in Hadleigh High Street. The machine just suddenly stopped. The coupling flange ripped the spline on the output shaft. Sorting it out myself with some metal wedges took about two hours, much to the annoyance of the Police!

The Gyrotiller had a seat but this was hardly ever used, the driver having to stand so he had full reach of the widely spaced steering clutch levers. Standing behind the levers was alright and you certainly had a good view of the job.

One very hot day, and after a few pints at dinner time in the Nelson pub at Ramsey, I went sound asleep standing up. The machine tracked on, through the hedge, down the bank and on to the main Colchester to Harwich road which was when I woke up. I reversed up in the same gap which had made a good gate way, but I felt a bit of a fool! On one occasion, while ploughing out blackcurrant bushes at Great Oakley, I got struck by lightening. It put me down on the platform for a few minutes. The machine tracked on but it burnt out the dynamo. At Parkeston, whilst clearing invasion defenses, I got badly bogged down in a tank trap. The machine became submerged over the top of the tracks and it took two Caterpillar D7s to drag it out.

The most worrying thing happened when I was crossing the busy railway lines at Manningtree station which I had to do several times a year. The railway staff would only let the machine cross over the four sets of lines if there was a clear period of at least ten minutes, and always with one of their staff in attendance. We had to just crawl over the rail tracks very gently, watching the machine track plates did not nip the rail line. But on this occasion, they did. The weight of the machine must have depressed the wooden sleepers enough to that as the machine track plates closed together at the bottom of the idle wheel. It so happened that it closed and just nipped the railway line on one track, which would not be noticed until the track plates opened at the bottom end of the driving sprocket. In the process, it slightly plucked the rail line. However with a gentle movement it let go of the rail line, although it lightly lifted it, but it more or less went back into position with the weight of the track. Was I pleased to get off that crossing - it was a bit frightening!

Looking back over the years, it was a great life working in different places, being your own boss. Of course you had to be able-bodied, willing and strong to cope with long hours and not much comfort. But I can say they were the happiest years of my life, and I'm now 71 years old.

The last place of arable gyrotilling was 55 shillings per acre for second gear work and this increased by 25% for low gear apple orchard work requiring deeper work (22"). Hedge clearance worked out at 55 shillings per hour. There were no moving charges.

John Copsey aged 71 holding his original Gyrotiller ignition key.

John Copsey is Robert Fearnley's great-uncle.