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Joe Challis

Joe became known to many of us as a result of a lucky meeting with Tony Marchington at the 1982 Woodcote rally. Tony had admired Joe’s fine 2″ scale Fowler BB1 Princess Mary and 6 furrow plough and immediately welcomed him into his family that included recently acquired Fowler BB1s Fame and Fortune. He encouraged Joe to join the Steam Plough Club and from then on he became a good friend and patient adviser of those of us who were running steam sets in the modern age. As recently as last September Joe helped judge the club’s “Great Challenge” at Upper Boddington, near Daventry, driving his car and caravan (including his wife of 68 years, Gladys) to be with us on that fine autumn occasion.
Joe was born in 1912 in a cottage that was part of the Basildon Estate on the Berkshire side of the Thames being the second of eight children. By the age of six he was learning all about any steam engine he could find. This was easy because most of the estate was steam powered and haulage engines passed by nearly every day. Not far away was the Great Western Railway. As time went on he had the opportunity to drive the old Fowler on the estate threshing set under the guidance of his father and was introduced to the K7 ploughing engines operated on the estate by his older brothers Jack and Bert. He described long winter evenings sitting round the fire with his brothers talking about nothing else but steam engines.
At 14 Joe’s first job was at a sawmill in Pangbourne making boxes for sheets of tin. His opportunity came in the summer of 1926 when he joined as a cookboy with R J & H Wilder’s who had turned up in the village with a set of Fowler 12 hp singles. This was one of seven sets working locally from Wallingford. At the end of the year he was well thought of enough to be kept on during the winter travelling with a clover seeder and a 6 hp Fowler Little Mary. There followed a season with the ploughing sets and winter with the seeders or threshers or in the workshops. But frustrated in not being able to be a driver made him leave his good friends behind when he joined A J Ward and Sons at Egham – and his brother Bert in the process – putting a couple of years on his age just to make sure. This began his long association with the Fowler BB1 engines that he came to admire so greatly.
Local jobs accompanied epic journeys with ploughing tackle as far away as Enfield and East Grinstead. The latter was a grueling trip and despite being Easter took place in heavy rain and snow. It was then that the gang had an encounter with a vicar who accused them of pinching water from his pond. They kept him arguing until the tank filled up! Even then the 40-acre job could not start for several days because of the wet. Other work included pulling up apple orchards with the 12 hp singles. These were ideal for the job as the rope could be wound out from the drum. This was so successful that the boss told Joe to slow down as it was not a piece rate job! Joe ended up in charge and he was still only 16. Pear trees were another matter with roots going down a long way. Hurtling and broken chains, snapped front axles and a chunk torn out of the rope drum teeth all during heavy frost and wind said what a tough life it was on men as well as machinery. There was at least one benefit because the local blacksmith and engine works were always close by to assist with repairs often providing an overnight service.
About this time Joe bought his first bike, a 350 cc Rudge Whitworth, so he could get home more easily. Steam was his life but soon motorcycling was to become a second passion. He went on in 1934 to found the Mortimer and District Motorcycle Club that still meets today.
Fit and as hard as nails he might have been but this did not prevent Joe putting a needle like rope strand through his finger in fading light one Christmas. No doctor would come out but some self-applied surgery with a razor blade relieved the pressure of an infection. Even so he ended up in Staines Hospital with blood poisoning for a few days. After that Joe vowed not to touch a rope again, a rule he kept for some 50 years until he came to advise the Steam Plough Club on how rope splicing was done.
During a long hot summer together with Bert and Fowler K7s Darby and Joan, Joe created a record for an Egham based set working near home and managed to do more work than the other two local sets put together. This meant being out every day for the whole season moving from job to job. It included the excitement of a plough that had hit a huge flint, came out of the ground at speed, and then overturned several times. Despite this at the end of the season Bert and Joe went home together with well over £100 acreage money. This was a huge sum for those days worth at least £5,000 now.
Joe fell out with Sidney Ward after being denied a promised good bonus for taking an Aveling roller to Portsmouth and steaming back to Egham a Wallis with a broken crankshaft bracket. This had been accomplished in two days just before Christmas working 20 hours out of 24. After some considerable thought he took his cards and started with Ford’s at Wokingham at first driving a Wallis on a saw bench – missing the rough and tumble of steam ploughing but at least getting home every night. However this did not last as the slump of the 1930s had bitten and Joe was laid off. So he rejoined Wards again on the K7s cultivating and ground clearing and shingle hauling with an ex-WD Foster. Then followed an episode when one of the BB1s became so well stuck in during a sandy job that it took over a week of digging and jacking to get it out. This broke the poor old foreman so Joe was asked to take over and at 19 he was in charge of Wards best set of BB1 tackle.
Some of the work was near home which pleased him because by now he had met the girl of his dreams, the landlord’s daughter from the ‘Carpenter’s Arms’ in Mortimer where he now lived. And good money led to a better bike, a 500cc Rudge ‘Ulster’. Most Sundays he and Gladys would be up and away with the larks riding hundreds of miles. This was a great change from the steering wheel of the ploughers.
Ward’s landed a big job of land clearing and cultivating by the A4 at Colnbrook near where Heathrow Airport now stands. This involved Joe pulling down old wattle and mud cottages by passing the engine rope round them and to a nearby tree. With a few puffs the rope cut through the cottage and it was down in a pile of dust. (How much would they be worth now?) He was then out with the BB1 set cultivating around the home counties in what he later said was the most enjoyable summer of his life with ploughing engines.
As time went by Joe realised that the best days with the steam ploughs were coming to an end when all he was doing was travelling a long way to do a small rough job. He had taken over several rollers and driven them many miles and was already starting to consider that this might be something else to do. But this was not before another interesting journey with the ploughers from Egham back to Enfield (via Staines, Great West Road, Ealing, Wembley, North Circular and Finchley), done in a day, for another job of clearance for factory building.
Soon after Joe left Ward’s again and was invited back immediately by Ford’s of Wokingham who had just landed a contract for the roads of whole of north Hampshire. Here he thought himself very lucky being given charge of nearly new Marshall ‘S’ type 15-ton compound 83412, an engine he made his pride and joy. She was so efficient that Joe was sometimes able to double his wages on piecework even with tough jobs such as scarifying. Time was now spent relaying and widening ‘A’ roads with Joe getting home most nights. Joe settled in well as a steamroller driver though he admitted he much missed the comradeship of steam ploughing.
With well-paid and regular work coming in Joe married Gladys on 17 February 1934 at the little church in Goring on Thames so they were married for nearly 69 years.
Big jobs included widening the A339 for 4 miles between Newbury and Basingstoke and straightening the A30 for 11 miles from Popham to Stockbridge such jobs lasting for well over a year. These summers were glorious but the winters quite the opposite. Joe came to regard the asphalted roads of Hampshire as the best in the country and that the A30 stretch was the finest. It is almost unchanged today even after 50 years. After a while the Marshall went to Wallis’s at Basingstoke for the rear wheels to be replated widening them by 2 inches in the process. He soon came to know every inch of every main road in north Hampshire with No 83412. As the years passed by Joe’s three brothers all joined the firm so there were then four Challis’s on the Ford payroll.
Under the shadow of war Joe had the job of pulling up all the local milestones and removing every fingerpost in case of invasion. He volunteered as an RAF flight mechanic (by chance the same war occupation as Harold Bonnett, founder of the Steam Plough Club) but fate intervened when on leave he and Gladys had a big crash on his bike after a shackle pin broke. He suffered a fractured skull and was discharged being classed as unfit through resulting deafness. Nevertheless a man with a big steamroller had plenty to do with aerodromes to build and roads taking the heaviest traffic ever. One unusual job was to visit council dumps to roll out hundreds of tons of discarded food tins for salvage. Sadly one casualty was Joe’s beloved Marshall that was commandeered by the military and shipped off to India. A further ‘S’ type replacement was older and smaller and not a patch on 83412. Joe called it the ‘Jersey Cow’ after where Ford’s had bought her.
For a long time Joe had built up a good sideline repairing and rebuilding motorcycles. Occasionally he earned more at this than at his day job. With the end of the war approaching and still missing 83412 he decided he would give up steamrolling and start up on his own as a motorcycle repairer. Business was good and with some early help from Mr Ford he was contracted to Allen’s of Oxford to overhaul Allen Scythes. At weekends he was winning trophies in competition and his converted road bikes were reliable and quick. Workshop expansion followed (Made from 40 foot ‘Horsa’ glider crates) and the following years saw him always busy on a big variety of jobs.
Right from the earliest years Joe had enjoyed building models the first being a small oscillating steam engine. Lacking a boiler a five-gallon oil drum had a fire lit beneath! A series of engines followed first using the tools on the estate and then collecting the basics including a 2-speed breast drill and a Portass lathe bought for £17 on hire purchase. (A steam ploughman’s wage was about 27/6 a week at the time). Throughout Joe’s life a model was always in the making somewhere and when he did eventually retire from bike racing brother Bert, nephew Jim and he set about building the 2″ scale Fowler BB1 Princess Mary. Not that Joe necessarily thought much about the drawings and castings supplied but he modified them to suit his clear recollections. An accurate Fowler 6-furrow plough followed which was even more dependent on Joe’s memories of years gone by.
The steam bug having bitten again Joe rediscovered steam ploughs being demonstrated at local events and again with Bert and Jim started to visit a few rallies although he approved little of the quality the work being undertaken. But Frank and his son Tony Marchington gave Joe the opportunity to pull the levers on a ploughing engine again for the first time since he had left Ward’s some fifty years before. Soon he became well known to local clubs and model societies and happily agreed to present talks on steam ploughing. This he continued right to the end of his life because it was just before last Christmas that he demonstrated rope splicing to the Reading Society of Model Engineers.
It was also at a Woodcote rally that Joe bought a Traction Engine Register and could not believe his eyes when he found Marshall 83412 on the list. Learning that she had been repatriated from India he was up to Flint within a week, a long way from Mortimer. He found her where she lay covered in dust at a cement works. Hoping to buy her Joe was told that the company had decided instead to overhaul her at their own works and asked Joe to help. Eventually she came out looking very smart and with a replacement Marshall Trade Mark casting that he made for the canopy. However Joe was sorry that she was not seen more often after that because the works drivers could not be persuaded to take her out in their own time.
Joe and Gladys Celebrate their Diamond Wedding in 1994
Another unbroken link remained with the Wilder Ploughing Engine No 1 that Joe had seen being constructed at Wallingford in 1926. It was then paired with one of the 12 hp singles. This was when Joe was a cook boy and while the engine was not that successful it did survive to pass through a number of hands including Bob Griffin and now to James Hodgson who has rebuilt her. In 1996 the 1927 cook boy came over to visit James to see the Wilder in steam and supervise the rope splicing. A few days later he drove her at the Great Dorset gathering and once again, just before his 90th birthday last year.
More recently the Steam Plough Club has run a regular ‘Challenge’ to compete for a trophy for the best ploughing and Joe became a regular judge of the engine work. It must be said that few of us can have any real idea of what it was like to work engines at full speed for day in and day out all season as well as being on the road for many miles with a full set of tackle. When we were feeling quite pleased about the work we had done maybe it was not so much of a surprise that Joe quickly said that we were still all amateurs! But his comments were kind and provoking and it was a privilege to have him there. We will miss him greatly.
Joe is survived by Gladys, his son Philip and twin daughters Mary and Maureen. A further son, Cyril, predeceased him in 1996. Joe’s younger brother Jack died just a week earlier, in January 2003.
Much of this account is taken from Joe’s wonderful biography My Life with Steam published with Tony Marchington in 1998. Grateful thanks are due to the late Gladys Challis and Mary Loader for help in preparing this piece.
John Billard