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James Hawker: another Chard man ahead of his time

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

It has long been acknowledged that if John Stringfellow had had access to a light petrol engine instead of a heavy steam engine that he had the knowledge and capability enabling his plane design to have carried a man.

Another Chard man, James Hawker, is another inventor from our town. We have long admired a beautiful model of a caterpillar track steam engine in the Museum. It was made by Mr John Courtney. We also have an advertisement for James Hawker, an engineer, at Town Mill.

Until recently, we have not been able to find out much more about Mr Hawker, except that he patented his idea for the forerunner of the tank in 1872.

Then we came across an article by the late Derrick Warren in the Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society Bulletin No. 72, August 1996, which told us more about this unsung genius.

James Hawker's premises were between Holyrood Mill (Gifford Fox) and Town Mill (Oram & Co.) and as Mr Warren states 'it is logical to suppose that he learnt his trade as a millwright and engineer in the engineering workshops of one of these factories.' Hawker did not envisage his machine going at any great speed, his idea was to surmount the problems of steep slopes and other obstacles. One of the features of his machine was that the boiler for the steam engine would stay level whatever the slope encountered. He installed an innovative gear and clutch mechanism similar to those seen in modern day crawlers.

The Hawker family consisted of James's wife, Elizabeth and seven children, living in Crimchard until, for reasons unknown, they moved to Exeter in 1876. His Will, proved in 1888, says he is 'late of Chard' and that he left £463 12s 2d. Perhaps he returned to Chard. The 1851 Census has James employing 3 men and his nephew, Joseph Case. By the 1861 Census, he was employing 9 men and 3 boys, so business was good.

Derrick Warren writes that "he feels that David Roberts of Hornsby near Grantham, in the 1890s, must have been influenced by Hawker's patent. Although Roberts use of an oil engine meant that the weight power ratio was better than the steam engine that Hawker had used". These were used to make agricultural tractors by several companies.

The development history of the traction engine is set down by Derrick Warren, starting with a competition in 1903, set by the War Office, with a £1,000 prize for a tractor that could pull a 25 ton load for 40 miles without stopping to re-fuel. Hornsby of Grantham won this by exceeding the distance by sixteen miles and were awarded an extra £180. By 1907, David Roberts was experimenting further, by fitting chain tracks to a car and then a tractor. When he demonstrated this to the Army, they were not impressed although the Royal Engineers, who were far more enlightened, nick-named it 'the Caterpillar'.

Although greeted enthusiastically, sales failed to come through and Hornsby sold the Rights to the American company, Holt Tractor Co. of New York to re-coup their development costs. However, in the winter of 1914, Derrick Warren writes that 'Major-General Sir E. D. Swinton conceived the idea of using a tracked vehicle to smash down the barbed-wire entanglements which the Germans had erected in front of their lines'

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, suggested that the vehicles should be armoured and carry guns. Fosters of Lincoln undertook the development of the tracked machines. The early 'tanks' had to be imported (back) from the Holt Tractor Company of New York! As Derrick Warren said 'The rest is history'. Just remember it started in Chard.

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