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Equine Machines: Horses and Tractors on British Farms c.1920-1970

During the twentieth century the technological landscape of Britain’s farms underwent a

profound change, as the horse was displaced by the tractor as the predominant source of

draught power. By 1959, the agricultural horse population had shrunk to just a tenth of its

1921 peak, while over the same period the tractor population saw a twentyfold increase. It

is therefore somewhat unsurprising that this technological transition has often been

described by historians as a revolution. This thesis challenges that portrayal, noting that if

this was a revolution it was a remarkably protracted one, in which the benefits of the tractor

and the deficiencies of the horse were far from self-evident to the farmers who used them.

Rather than reading the decline of the horse as the inevitable result of the ascendency of

the tractor, it argues that the horse’s long but dramatic population decline distracts from (and even obscures) the considerable influence it continued to exert on British farming.

By tracing the ways that farmers chose, acquired, modified, used, re-used, maintained, preserved, denigrated and celebrated the range of draught power technologies available to them, this thesis breaks new ground in our understanding of the relationship between the horse and the tractor during the period of their co-existence on British farms. It explores how horses shaped farms, the implications of their labour alongside tractors for nearly half a century, and the use of equine technological practices as both model and foil for new ways of thinking about machines. Far from revolutionising agriculture by simply replacing the horse, the tractor was profoundly shaped by its lengthy and complex interaction with it, as experts and farmers navigated the best ways to incorporate new technologies into existing farming systems. The history of the tractor is therefore the history of a fundamentally equine machine

1st Supervisor: Professor Abigail Woods (KCL)

2nd Supervisor: Dr Ollie Douglas (Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading)



I am a curatorial museums professional with a specialist interest in the history of technology. I recently completed my PhD at CHoSTM on the use of draught power technologies in British farming c.1920-1970. As a recipient of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, I was based primarily at the Museum of English Rural Life, where I worked prior to starting my PhD on the redevelopment of the Museum’s permanent galleries. As well as the history of technology, whilst at King’s I also became interested in the growing field of animal history, and am a co-founder of the Animal History Group, the London-based research network with the goal of inspiring, creating and developing new knowledge about animals within history. I am currently widening the scope of my research from agricultural to urban technological and industrial history as the Research Assistant for Science & Industry at Birmingham Museums Trust.


McWilliams, F., ‘A Sense of Place: digitally mapping museum collections’, Journal of Museum Ethnography 27 (2014), pp. 46-62.


Papers Given:

  • Equine Machines: horses and tractors on British farms, 1920-1960, British Animal Studies Network, Exeter, 2018

  • Maintaining Tractors and Caring for Horses: looking after draught power technologies in twentieth-century British farming, Society for the History of Technology Conference, Philadelphia, 2017

  • Forces for Change: the social history of agricultural technology in museum and thesis, Congress of the Association Internationale des Musées d’Agriculture, Tartu, Estonia, 2017

  • ‘They are slow, but they are very sure’: the value of draught horses to British inter-war farming, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, 2017

  • Exhibitions

  • Curated new permanent gallery of agricultural technology, Forces for Change, at the Museum of English Rural Life (opened October 2016)

  • Public Engagement

  • Designed and led research-themed tours of The MERL galleries for British Science Week and Being Human Festival events, 2016-2019


Professional affiliations and activities:

Reviews Editor, Folk Life Journal of Ethnography (2016– )

Co-convener, Animal History Group (2016– )

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