The Wickham Tractor

Preserving our heritage

Our Wickham tractor is one of the very few survivors of the age of the tractor on London's canals. We bought the tractor from a private collector in 2013 and exhibited it at the National Waterways Festival in Watford that year. For several years it was loaned to the Walthamstow Pump-House Museum, but in 2018 was returned to us and taken to a specialist for an overhaul and complete repaint in the colour Anchusa.

Narrow tractor on bridge surrounded by men, church to the rear

Tractors have a long and somewhat neglected history on the canals and were mainly used in London. Barge haulage by tractor in other parts of the UK was rare.

The first experiments with tractor haulage were carried out on The Regent's Canal in 1925. The tractor is thought to have been a Fordson type F tractor - a machine mainly intended for agricultural use, but adapted for the narrow canal towpath. The image above almost certainly shows the launch of this machine and was taken in front of St. Mark's Church, Camden Town. The headwear suggests that some senior managers attended. Not much is known about these early towpath tractors or their use before the Second World War, but the fuel pump installed near Old Ford Lock to fuel tractors is of a design that was introduced in 1919 so we may speculate that there was enough use to justify the installation of the fuelling facility. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were not very stable and could topple over on occasions. However, it is believed that some of these tractors survived into the 1950s at least, although there are no known survivors to the present day.

The post-war period saw new tractors introduced, notably the Garner light industrial tractor, with some minor modifications for canal use. It had a JAP petrol engine and a centrifugal clutch. This tractor seems to have been a successful design as the Garner tractor appears in more photographs than other models and there were examples still to be seen in the mid 1970s. A few models survive in private collections but none are thought to have been those used on canals. The Garner tractor was also used in industry and the survivors do not seem to be adapted for canal use.

Orange-painted miniature tractor in front of red narrowboat

In 1959 a new model of tractor was specially designed for canal use by Wickhams of Ware, famous for their railway maintenance vehicles and railcars. It had a Lister diesel engine. We do not know how many were made but three are thought to have survived. One is in the National Waterways Museum, one is in private hands, and one has been restored to original livery and is maintained in working order at London Canal Museum.

The picture shows the museum's Wickham tractor painted orange on the day we bought it in 2013. Later, we had a restoration and overhaul carried out and it was repainted in a colour called anchusa which was the blue colour in which we believe it to have been painted originally.