Charles Burrell & Sons Limited

Joseph Burrell founded the business in the late 1770s, setting up originally as a general smith and repairer of agricultural tools in Thetford. He produced ploughs, harrows and rakes. Early in the 19th century, with his brothers, James and William, he began designing his own patent agricultural machinery.

In 1803 his 'improved drill for sowing crushed oat cake manure with wheat, turnips etc' won a silver cup at the Holkham sheep-shearing festival (a forerunner of the great agricultural shows). A small iron and brass foundry was started under James and continued at the St Nicholas foundry. One of James's sons, James junior, had a small shop and foundry, while the other son Charles inherited the family firm. Charles (grandson of the founder) was 20 when he took over in 1837, and was to see the name of Burrell become world-famous during his 69-year 'reign' to his death in 1906.

General arrangement drawing of Burrell showman's road locomotive 1921Charles Burrell & Sons, steam and agricultural machinery manufacturers were the first to introduce a practical heavy duty traction engine for use on roads. The firm produced traction engines, steam rollers and ploughing engines. More than 4,000 engines left the works during the life of the firm and many were put in countries around the world. In 1848 Burrell's produced their own single cylinder (SC) portable in 1848 which they exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Show. The firm continued to manufacture other agricultural machinery, and produced the first combined threshing and finishing machine about this time.

Burrell joined forces with engineer, James Boydell, to produce the first practical traction engine, a self-moving road engine for pulling loads. Boydell patented a system called the 'Endless Railway', which foreshadowed the track-laying vehicles of many years later. Demonstrations of the Burrell-Boydell traction engine at Croxton near Thetford and at Brackenborough near Louth were held in 1857 and made a very favourable impression. Several Burrell-made ploughs were drawn at a time behind the engine, which also showed its prowess in hauling loads over soft uneven ground. Burrell's reputation was now established.

Orders for Burrell-Boydell engines came in from public and private sources at home and abroad - one was exported to Brazil in 1860. For a few years they enjoyed success, but the Endless Railway proved noisy acra unable to stand up to the wear and tear of roadwork. Along with other firms, Burrell's looked around for new ideas, and produced the first chain-drive engine in 1862, later to be replaced by the geared engine. Thereafter a succession of improvements followed until the basic development of the traction engine was complete by the mid-1870s.

Another type of engine the road locomotive engine, was adapted for hauling large loads and travelling long distances. Its special features included a compound (two cylinder) engine, a 'belly tank' for carrying extra water, and a three-quarter length cab. Springs and solid rubber tyres were later additions. Charles Burrell took out a patent for rubber tyres protected by steel clips in 1871, the year of his first high-speed road engine. Other patents representing technical improvements over the years covered further wheel refinements, clutch gearing, and Burrell's famous single crank compound (SCC) system of 1889.

Frederick, Robert and Charles junior were senior partners with their father, and each contributed his own particular talent. Charles junior (1847-1929) was to take over as Chairman in 1900 from his father, who died in 1906, and like him played a prominent part in the life of the town. He was Mayor several times and his own sons also entered the firm. Frederick was a designer and craftsman; Robert was an engineer and businessman, and travelled the world.

The range of Burrell products besides traction engines was extensive. They included ploughs, straw elevators and saw-benches as well as portable corn mill, beetroot distiller and brushmaking equipment. Patents were also taken out for improvements to sashwindow catches, bacon slicers and ice-cream machines among others, though not all such Burrell inventions were actually manufactured.

Following on from successful Burrell marine engines, steel launches were built for a short time from 1884, and tramway engines were also supplied. The first purpose-built Showman's Road Locomotive - the type of engine for which the firm of Burrell's is most remembered - was no. 1451 Monarch, in 1889. Such engines were ordered for travelling 'amusement caterers', who operated roundabouts, dodgems and other fairground rides. In fact they served the highly practical dual purpose of hauling the dismantled rides in trucks from fair to fair, and generating electricity to light and drive the rides.
Burrell's made 207 showman's engines, not counting the many conversions made from road locomotives and steam tractors, which was far more than any other firm.

In 1911 Burrell's built their first steam wagons, curious hybrids of lorry and traction engine which enjoyed success for a time. During the Great War the machine shop and turnery at St. Nicholas Works produced shells for the war effort, while the boiler shop made Admiralty gun mountings. The post-war slump brought a last-ditch amalgamation of traction engine manufacturers including Burrell's. Agricultural and General Engineers Limited was formed in 1920, but the idea of a central administration from London proved a total failure. Those firms - Burrell's among them - which could not adapt to the internal combustion engine were doomed.
From 1928 the firm was wound down and finally closed completely in 1930, when the plant and equipment at St. Nicholas Works were auctioned.

The last engine to be finished at Thetford was no. 4088, a 7 nominal horse power single compound traction engine. Spares and unfinished orders were transferred to Richard Garrett & Sons of Leiston in Suffolk, where the last Burrell of all, the 8 nominal horse power. SC fraction engine no.4094, was completed in 1932.

The extensive holdings cover the period 1881-1930 and are manufacturing and production records and drawings.

More information

  • The Road Locomotive Society hold the build books for Burrell.  They are able to provide copies of entries, which will give the drawing numbers for your engine.  To contact the Road Locomotive Society, please contact us for the address and telephone number for obtaining build sheets.  Once you have the drawing numbers you can place an order, or come and view the drawings here at the Museum.

  • A full description is available on our online database or download a pdf (1.54MB) and second deposit pdf (419KB)

  • Reference number TR BUR, TR 2BUR

  • Visit the Road Locomotive Society website
Agricultural machinery business records Charles Burrell & Sons Limited

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