Nineteenth century horse engine and threshing machine at Lower Town Farm, St Agnes


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1015000

Date first listed: 04-Oct-1996


Ordnance survey map of Nineteenth century horse engine and threshing machine at Lower Town Farm, St Agnes
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)

Parish: St. Agnes

National Grid Reference: SV 87938 08420


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social development of early communities. Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands' settlement. The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post- medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post- medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard for the nation's shipping in the western approaches. The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of documentation, including several recent surveys.

The animal-driven mill, usually using horses or donkeys walking a circular track and harnessed to an arm which turned a rotating structure, has been known since the Classical Roman period but received only limited application until the early post-medieval period (from AD 1540) when it came into more widespread use as the horse engine, often called a `horse whim', for powering ore hoists and water pumps in the mining industries. The horse engine only appeared in farming contexts in the late 18th century technological revolution which gave a rapid rise in agricultural output and which both reflected and caused a shift of labour from the land. It was the invention of threshing machines to replace hand-flailing from the 1770s that made the horse engine a necessary part of many farmyards. The early agricultural horse engines tethered the horses to forks hanging from poles radiating above the animals from a central wooden vertical axle pivotting on iron pins; the poles turned a large wooden crown gear at the top of the axle and the crown gear turned a small pinion on the end of a drive shaft which took the power into the threshing barn. The horse engine was usually situated outside the long wall of the barn and often enclosed within a round or polygonal building, with the top of the axle pivotted into a roof beam. The overhead gearing required an elaborate superstructure which also limited the size of the horses' track and the power of the engine. These problems were overcome with the invention of the `sweep' type of horse engine in 1841, in which cast-iron gearing at the base of a short central axle turned a drive shaft at or sunken below ground level. The horses were tethered in traces fastened to metal arms radiating from the axle and their track passed over the drive shaft on an iron bridge if the shaft was at ground level. The sweep horse engines were usually in the open air, with a levelled track either raised on a platform or slightly sunken into the farmyard. Threshing machines also underwent development, incorporating winnowing mechanisms, improving their efficiency and reducing damage to straw needed for thatching, and becoming available in a variety of sizes, wheeled or stationery, with differing capabilities for depositing or bagging the straw, grain and chaff produced. By the late 19th century, the horse engine had been superseded by the development of the portable steam engine, which, with portable threshing machines, could be transferred from farm to farm and operated out in the fields. This monument at Lower Town Farm contains an unusually intact survival of a sweep type of horse engine. Although horse engine platforms are known at a number of farms, such extensively complete presence of the associated metal fittings and gearing is very rare and is further complemented in this instance by the survival in situ of the drive shaft passing through the barn wall, complete with its drive wheel in the barn's wheel pit and engaged with the threshing machine that it operated. As a result, this monument demonstrates well the full set of operating components from a major, if short lived, phase in the development of agricultural power sources, which had far-reaching social consequences in the rural economy.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes an extensively intact 19th century horse engine adjacent to the northern farm building of Lower Town Farm, St Agnes, the south western inhabited island in the Isles of Scilly. The monument also includes the horse engine's drive shaft, passing beneath the farm building's wall, and the threshing machine that it operated, situated against the inner side of that wall. The horse engine survives with a raised sub-circular earthen platform abutting the northern wall of the barn in a complex of farm buildings. The platform measures 9.75m east-west by 8.75m north-south across its base, and rises 1m high from the adjacent farmyard. A narrow access ramp extends 3.5m south from the south west corner of the platform, merging with higher ground around the north west corner of the barn. The platform's steep sides are revetted by a drystone rubble wall, while a thick turf over its upper surface masks evidence for the usual paved hard-standing along the peripheral route trodden by the horses. The platform supports iron fittings for a `sweep' type horse engine, a form where the drive shaft to the machinery extends from the base of the horse-engine's central axle. The surviving fittings include a vertical axle, 1.2m high, ribbed along four edges and tapered to the upper end; at its lower end is a 54-toothed gear wheel. Immediately above the gear wheel, the axle passes through a slender framework forming a short girder which projects south on the line of the drive shaft and retains a small 9-toothed cog against the gear; the girder has a pivot by the axle, enabling the cog to be raised clear of the gear wheel to disengage the drive shaft. Beyond the end of the girder, at least one flat square stone slab survives over the drive shaft's bedding trench which extends south across the platform surface to the lower wall of the adjacent barn. Two driving arms radiate from the axle, 90 degrees apart and linked by a cross-bar, for two horses to power the engine, but of a design giving the potential for a four-horse drive. Each driving arm consists of slender upper and lower spars, converging on the arm's terminal from the upper and lower ends of the axle. The tip of one arm still retains the long U-shaped bar, called a trace, to which the horse was tethered; the trace enclosed the rear of the horse and survives complete with hooks near the open end for securement to the harness. The drive shaft remains in place, passing through the lower wall of the barn and ending at a large cogged drive wheel, c.1.2m in diameter and parallel with the wall's inner face, its lower edge running in a pit below the barn's floor level. This drive wheel engages with the drive gear wheel of a small timber-framed threshing machine standing on the barn floor. The threshing machine, c.1.7m long and 1.14m high, takes the form of an enclosed wooden body raised on four legs; on the top is a feed surface and hopper leading to the wooden casing of the threshing cylinder. The machine's drive wheels are mounted on the ends of the cylinder axle which projects through the casing at each side; the drive on the north end is the gear wheel engaging with the drive wheel on the horse engine drive shaft; on the south end is a belt-drive wheel enabling the machine to be operated by an auxiliary power source. In the north wall of the barn, east of the threshing machine, a small window opens onto the horse engine platform allowing the operation of the engine and the threshing machine to be coordinated. Another feature relating to the barn's former use, not included in this monument, is an opening in its east wall allowing the grain crop and the threshed straw to be transferred from and to storage in the loft of the adjacent building, whose stalls and surface drains denote a former cattle shed, called a shippon. The roof and guttering of the barn are excluded from the scheduling but a section of the wall, floor, wheel pit, all parts of the horse engine and threshing machine and the ground beneath them are included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 15452

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Brunskill, R W, Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture, (1978)
Brunskill, R W, Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain, (1987)
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7655, (1988)
Ratcliffe, J & Parkes, C/CAU, Fieldwork in Scilly: September 1989, (1990)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8708 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Told during MPPA visit 1/7/1993, Information spoken to MPPA by Mr Francis Hicks, Lower Town Farm, (1993)

End of official listing