The firm was founded in 1846 with a works at Woodbank (about 2 miles south of Carlisle near Upperby) by John Cowans (1816-1873), Edward Pattison Sheldon (1815-1881) and brothers William and Thomas Bouch. The site was adjacent to the River Petteril which powered a tilt-hammer. The earliest known order was for the Shildon Engine Works. Early products included wagon wheels and axles for various railways, as well as items for mine and port work. The firm began exporting in 1852 when forgings went to Bremen for a shipbuilder.
In 1857 the company purchased a Carlisle site formerly occupied by G.D.Richardson, Iron Founder and Timber Merchant.
Adjacent to the Newcastle-Carlisle Railway, the new St Nicholas Engine & Iron Works were named for the leper hospital located there during the middle ages. The works were managed by George Dove (1817-1906), who became a partner in 1863. In 1870
John Cowans retired due to ill-health. He died aged only 57 in 1873. That year the company became a limited liability company, and John Horne became Works manager. Horne later became a director, and did not retire until 1913. Edward Sheldon who had been blinded in an accident was the last of the partners when he died in 1881. (Thomas Bouch had been knighted in 1879 but died soon after in disgrace following the collapse of the Tay bridge). George Dove became the Managing Director, assisted by his son John, who became joint Managing Director in 1889. John Dove passed away in 1922.
Under these managers the company became Britain's best known crane maker. The earliest known rail crane order was a 2.5-ton travelling hand crane for the Oldham Corporation in July1859. The company was the pioneer in steam rail cranes by the mid 1860s. Boilers were applied to hand cranes leading to cranes of 5 to 10 ton capacity for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway in 1865. By the 1880s 15 ton breakdown cranes were being produced, and the first 20 ton breakdown crane was for the London &York Railway in 1902. Capacity increased swiftly with 25 to 30-ton rail cranes by 1906 and 35-ton cranes by 1911.
The post WWI period saw 50 ton cranes in Britain, 75-ton cranes for India, and in 1924 two 120-ton steam breakdown rail cranes for the South Australia Railway. Other power sources were explored with electric rail cranes being produced by 1909, and later diesel power. In 1960-61 150 and 250-ton capacity diesel cranes were exported to Canada. Much smaller 10 and 15-ton diesel cranes arrived in New Zealand in the 1962-64 period.
Cowans Sheldon also produced overhead cranes, starting with 20-ton hand cranes for the Inverness & Aberdeen Junction Railway in 1863 before moving to steam power, and then electric overhead cranes by the end of the 19th century. The company is also well known for dockside cranes - such as the 130-ton capacity steam jib crane built in 1891 at Finnieston Quay in Glasgow. Other maritime products included steam sheers, including the 100-ton examples for the Admiralty at Portsmouth.
At the other end of the scale were coaling cranes and 'Fairburn type' whip cranes. Other products included boilers, steam engines, rolling stock, permanent way materials, turntables (Cowans Sheldon invented the loco brake system vacuum operating mechanism), water vats and cranes, creosoting plants, tobacco presses, and equipment for coal, gas, and iron production.
In the post-WWII period, like most companies involved in crane and particularly rail crane production, Cowans Sheldon faced a downturn. However, by the 1960's they were the last remaining producer of large rail cranes in Britain. In 1962 the company became associated with another well established firm Clyde, Crane & Booth (whose heritage dated back to the 1820s), who then discontinued producing 'Booth' type rail cranes. In 1968 the company was taken over by Clarke Chapman (which itself dates back to the 1860s). The acquisition of other well known manufacturers Sir William Arrol & Co and Wellman Cranes the following year saw them combined as the Clarke Chapman Crane & Bridge Division. Clarke Chapman joined with Reyrolle Parsons (a product of the 1968 merger of C.A.Parsons and Reyrolle) to create Northern Engineering Industries (NEI) in 1977. It was soon after this that NZR acquired its last rail cranes, two 60-tonners built by 'NEI-Clarke Chapman' but bearing the name Cowans Sheldon. In 1989 the company was acquired by Rolls Royce as its Materials Handling group. During this management the Carlisle Works were finally closed. In 2001 present owners Langley Holdings acquired the Clarke Chapman Group, and Cowans Sheldon continues to operate with a focus on rail cranes, alongside the other companies in the Group - RB (Ruston Bucyrus), Stothert & Pitt, and Wellman Booth - all famous crane making names.
We Have A Gallery of Photographs from Cowans Sheldon of Cranes and staff from the company, In The Pub