founder of the Steam Plough Club, died in his 92nd year. He was
one of that special group of men who could write in simple language of his
wide talents and interests. He grew up in steam days and as a
railwayman it provided his living for nearly forty years. He also
travelled widely in North America and southern Africa.
Harold was always
a great explainer; via his rally commentaries, or books, or perhaps
standing with outstretched hands by a steam plough talking to anyone who’d
listen. He saw his railway engines decline to the scrap yard losing
his British Railways job at Paddington in the process. Whilst he had been
fascinated by steam engines of all kinds more especially he liked
ploughing engines his favourite being the "lovely to look at and
wonderful to listen to" BB1 class. These feelings inspired the
acclaimed "Saga of the Steam Plough" published in 1965
and his creation of the Steam Plough Club at the Great Northern Hotel in
Peterborough in December of the following year.
experience as Secretary of the National Traction Engine Club in the 1950s
the first two years of the SPC were difficult. There was little to
show and members were slow to enroll. But he never doubted the
outcome. He considered his aim of getting plough engines out to work
in the fields again so worthy that it could not fail to succeed. His
timing was just right coming when public interest in the old steam age was
at its greatest. From those early days he was able to witness in
October 1998, right at the end of his life, his club organising the
greatest gathering of steam ploughs ever seen.
He was born on 12
February 1907 the son of a signalman at Barkston North Junction Box on the
Great Northern Railway. His spark of enthusiasm soon fanned into
flame because Barkston was on the main East Coast route to Scotland.
When he was eleven his first paid work was looking after cows on verges
and the best place to go was by the railway bridge where there was plenty
of long grass. There were soon no doubts that he wanted to be a
At seventeen he
started in the time honoured position of cleaner at Grantham Loco
developing an affection for the purposeful "A" class 0-6-0 goods
engines but in awe of the firemen and drivers. These were good times
with the introduction of the Gresley Pacifics and Harold saw them in
action on trial against a Great Western "Castle". By 1925
he was a fireman and with it a pay rise from six shillings (30p) to nine
shillings (45p) a day. From Grantham he moved to Hatfield and worked
heavy freight to London with 2-6-0s and 2-8-0s ("Ragtimers" and
"Tangos") and on one glorious day a "Booster" (Gresley
2-8-2). But sadly in 1928 an eyesight defect finished his footplate
days and after two years as a boiler washer he transferred to office
duties at March sheds.
introduction to steam ploughing came very early. As far as he could
remember there were "great ground shaking two engine sets" going
past his little red brick house at Barkston. When his schoolmaster
joined the army in 1914 there were no planned pastimes so Harold aged
seven or eight was out with the engines whenever they were near the
village. Out of school at four without going home for tea he was off
with his friends following the sounds of engines. On many occasions
he did not return home till supper time or later. Thereby he came to
appreciate hand and steam getting the job done together thus arousing an
admiration that stayed with him all his life.
Ironically it was
the internal combustion engine that saw him through his own service days
throughout the war. Called up at the late age of 35, typically, Harold
Bonnett made the most of his chances. Posted to Canada to maintain
aircraft engines he travelled widely on the continent from Vancouver in
the west to Los Angeles in the south. Such was the attraction of
Canada in 1944 he bought a plot of land on the Cowichan river in Victoria
for $40 with the idea of settling there after the war. This didn’t
happen and 45 years later he decided to sell fetching around $10,000 so he
didn’t do too badly.
In 1940 Harold
married Hilda, his wife of 59 years. Hilda was a teacher of English and
was able to help him by reading the manuscripts of his books. They
too were able to enjoy their separate interests. Most of their married
life was spent in Perivale, Middlesex and later at Bledlow Ridge near High
Wycombe. Following his redundancy from the railway it seemed natural
that he should join a publishing house organising exhibitions not retiring
finally until he was 67. Then Harold was able to indulge fully in
his major interests of writing, water colour painting and running two
engines Fowler compound 10 ton DN class roller 17077 and Aveling and
Porter compound 8 ton roller 12074.
His books will
always be known for their clear style and a deep knowledge of people and
machines. They included: Saga of
the Steam Plough (1965).
Discovering Traction Engines
with Steam (1974). S team Traction Engines (1975). The Grantham Rail
Crash of 1906 (1978). Smoke and Steam (1981). Lincolnshire Steam in
Camera (1988), and An
Erk among the Elks (1998).
Right up to the end of
his life he continued writing and his Snippets
of South Africa 1967/8 is to
be published shortly.
was a delightful man remembered for his depth of information and a deep
throated laugh which concluded most conversations. Yet he never
forgot those early years on the footplate of a Great Northern "Ragtimer"
or "Tango". He said, "There is nothing quite like the
smoke, the steam - all the work showing and the engine struggling on at
low speed. Those trains were in rhythm with human beings".
John Billard 15 February