Cowans Sheldon 50 ton Dockside Electric Crane 

Sturrock Dry Dock, Cape Town, South Africa

Modelplan 190


The famous crane with Table Mountain behind


Meccano Modelplan 190


The Cowans Sheldon Story

The Cowans Sheldon company based in Carlisle in the United Kingdom was one of the most important railway and marine engineering firms in the world.

In 1933 the largest floating crane ever made was manufactured in London Road, Carlisle. It was built by Cowans Sheldon, at that time the world's leading crane makers. The massive crane was assembled in the Nagasaki dockyard in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. It had a lifting capacity of 350 tons. The Japanese were seeking dominance of the Pacific Ocean, a course that eventually led to Pearl Harbour, and the war in the Pacific, and the crane was used to build the Yamato class warships.

Cowans Sheldon had also been supplying the British Admiralty and it was almost a matter of course that wherever in the world heavy lifting gear was needed, Cowans were ready to supply it.

They had begun in a small way at Woodbank near Upperby. John Cowans and Edward Pattinson Sheldon had been apprentices to Robert Stephenson over on Tyneside. There they had been friendly with a William Bouch from Thursby, and it was his younger brother, Thomas, who eventually found the premises at Woodbank, which had been a calico works.

The four men were all involved at the start, but the Bouch brothers found themselves drawn to business elsewhere and became sleeping partners. Thomas Bouch, in fact, became an eminent civil engineer and was held responsible for the notorious Tay Bridge disaster. In June 1846 a notice in the local paper announced that 'the works had been taken over for the manufacture of locomotive engines'.
The firm never made engines as such, but they were actively employed in the production of locomotive wheels and other railway forgings. This was the Railway Age and railways were booming in Carlisle and elsewhere. The firm diversified into coal-handling equipment and in five years a branch works was opened in Darlington.

By 1857 Cowans and Sheldon were again seeking larger premises and bought the crane making business of George Davy Richardson and so set out on their journey to become the greatest crane makers in the world.

They also built turntables to turn the unwieldy steam locomotives around or onto another track. The largest they ever made was a gigantic thirty metres in diameter which was sent out to China.

After the Second World War Cowans Sheldon's fate was tied to that of the railways and the British engineering industry.  Britain stopped being the workshop of the world. The post-war years saw increased competition. In 1961 the 450 employees found themselves working for the Glasgow firm of Clyde Crane and Booth and in 1982 the firm became Cowans-Boyd. Five years later, manufacturing ceased and only the design office team was retained in Carlisle.  

Today, Cowans Sheldon together with another famous crane maker Stothert and Pitt are part of the Clark Chapman Group and still manufacture materials handling and track maintenance equipment for railways. 

In 1938 the Admiralty ordered from Cowans Sheldon two 50 ton electric traveling cranes for the No.10 North Naval Dockyard at Devonport - order number 6599,600 and in 1942 the Admiralty ordered a similar crane (order number 8118) to be installed at the new Sturrock Graving Dock in Cape Town.   The Devonport cranes no longer survive, but the Cape Town crane lives on and still provides good service and still stands today as an icon of British engineering. 

Sturrock Dry Dock

 The Cape Town docks were substantially enlarged in the 1930s when the Duncan Dock was built.    The engineering work was done by the Dutch firm of Hollandse Aanemings Maatskapij (HAM) and tripled the number of berths which had been previously available in the old Victoria basin with a mile of new deep water quays.    As part of the improvements, a very large dry dock was built and was ready for use by 1937.     The City of Cape Town benefited from a huge amount of reclaimed land which eventually became a new city. 

Shortly afterwards, the Second World War started and the Cape of Good Hope became an important staging point for sea traffic to the Far East.

South Africa already had a well-developed harbour infrastructure and, for quite some time, the dry dock in Durban had been of immense strategic importance, being the largest of its kind between Singapore and Gibraltar. However, as this graving dock on its own was insufficient for the number of ships requiring attention, the recently built Sturrock dry dock in Cape Town, capable of handling (like its counterpart in Durban) battleships and aircraft carriers assumed a very important role.

With the loss of Hong Kong (25 December 1941) and Singapore (15 February 1942), the Royal Navy felt the urgent need for improved repair facilities, and quickly ordered a crane from Cowans Sheldon.   As has been mentioned, the firm was no stranger to work for the navy as it had already erected the two cranes at Devonport, and it was an easy matter to produce almost identical drawings for the new order.   The crane was duly built and tested and shipped in sections and erected on the Sturrock Dry Dock wall.   It had a maximum lift of 60 tons and could reach both sides of the dock by means of a Y shaped track.  

The crane has been maintained by the South African Railways and Harbours administration which in recent years became Portnet and is still in fine working condition and is in daily operation because of the heavy dockyard use.   It is no longer needed for servicing battleships, but is in constant use over diamond exploration and general cargo vessels.   Some years ago its traveling mechanism was substantially modified by installing an electric motor on each bogie.   It is not known if it ever lifted a battleship gun, but its heaviest recorded lift was a South African Railways 4-8-4 Class 25 locomotive built by the North British Locomotive Company in the early 1950s.

The Meccano Model on which this crane is based has been built from workshop plans obtained from the Carlisle Archives.  The model is 1:12 scale and all the machinery is built as close to the prototype as possible with regard to situation and appearance.       

 Michael Adler August 2010