SEPTEMBER 2004
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LAWNMOWERS OLD & NEW


UNTIL 1830, lawns were generally cut either by men with scythes or grazed by sheep.  But in that year, mechanisation came to grass cutting with the invention by Edward Beard Budding of a “machine for mowing lawns.”  Budding was an engineer in a textile factory and his patented design was first manufactured by a Mr Ferrabee at Phoenix Works, Stroud in Gloucestershire. 

It was felt that the lawn mower offered to country gentlemen “amusing, healthy and useful exercise” - a theme that was taken up in 1841 by Mrs Jane Loudon, who wrote in the Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden that the lawn mower was now “particularly adapted for amateurs, affording an excellent exercise to the arms and every part of the body.”

The earliest mowers had rotating blades, and on the lawns of large country houses they were drawn by horses.

To avoid damage to the turf from the horses’ hooves, they were fitted with specially designed leather boots.  These were still in use in 1912, when Messrs H. Pattison & Co of Streatham advertised their “well known horse boots for use on lawns etc.”



MOW - THEN THROW


IT is something I rarely do, but recently I had a wander round a lawnmower showroom.  On entering, I must admit to at first being quite startled by the gleaming array of machines - some not looking like mowers at all - painted in many colours.  The old days of most lawnmowers being finished in varying shades of green are over, it seems. 

Gradually I saw makers’ names I was familiar with and no longer bemused by the dazzling paintwork, I then began to study the engineering.  I have to report I was not impressed.  But then I haven’t been for many years - lawnmowers may be brighter and more colourful nowadays but they are simply not the products they once were and for this particular trade that is assuredly one great leap backwards. 

As a mechanic and one who has laboured in the vineyard (good metaphor?) for several decades, the attributes I was looking for in these glamorous examples was solidity, durability and sound construction.  Almost without exception I saw the reverse.  Plastic where once was steel - self tapping screws where nuts and bolts should be employed and overall willowy lightweight construction. 

Oh dear! Don’t get me wrong - lightweight mowers on the end of a mains lead or busy little ones you push, have their place.  Many a lady living alone has kept her small garden to a commendably high standard of neatness using such - but I have found these people usually have high standards indoors as well as out - and more importantly these same people invariably treat their mower with some respect.  My experience has convinced me that no appliance in the entire household gets the rough handling that the poor old mower has to endure.  Hence the great need for robustness.

In all this line-up of equipment, I was surprised to see one name familiar enough to me - but not before in this field.  J.C.B. have entered the lawnmower market and on seeing this my thoughts were therefore along the lines of: “That’s a step in the right direction - coming from the earth mover world - their stuff certainly won’t fall apart.”  Examination indicated that the model - finished in the familiar yellow - was indeed of sturdy build.  A large example admittedly and certainly not one you would see in the ordinary garden, I guessed the price tag would be impressive as well.  Nonetheless it conveyed the impression of a machine capable of giving not just years, but decades of service.

How different from most of the machines that have literally flooded the lawnmower market.  It is, of course, a fact that the majority of machines are now purchased from the high volume mass retailers and certainly the price consideration means they have never been cheaper.  But that is reflected in the specification and my virtues of solidity, durability and sensible construction are not to be seen on most of these products - you’d better believe it! 

Parts that the customer never sees such as camshafts and gears are nowadays made of plastic and whilst perfectly adequate for a time, the life expectancy and perhaps more importantly, the toleration point from arduous treatment combined with meagre maintenance must be - well, let’s not mess about, I have the broken bits in my workshop to prove it - IS lower than in former times.

So like your modern toaster, microwave cooker and television, the lawnmower is now most decidedly in the ‘throw-away’ sector.  No longer an old reliable friend of the family - where Dad once bequeathed his faithful machine to his son's first family home; if it stops - just bin it.

It is of course progress and the way of the world.  Planned obsolescence is a fact of life - and I can imagine it may well spread to people next. 

Yet how can this “buy it - use it - sling it” policy, dictated by our concerns over price, stand with the most necessary need - for the planet no less - of recycling?   How long can we continue to plunder the earth’s finite resources of valuable material to make gear cheap enough for us not to agonise about putting it in a black bag after a couple of years or so?  The simple answer is that one day we will all have to face up to the fact that the gravy train ... will run out of gravy.

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I could look at a mower with a slight fault - one of the wheels had fallen off.  It proved to be a failure of the spot welds on the axle support and in just a few minutes it was up and running again.  Yet it was not the first time I had seen that mower.  I had sold it new to the mother-in-law of its present owner - 1972.
“Still running well?”  I enquired,
“Fine - and what is more, I would like to order some new blades” was the cheery answer.

I recall the machine was considered expensive at the time and it was reflected in disappointing sales - but now, after the only test that ever matters - was it really so?

Sidge Kenny



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