Founded in 1846 at Woodbank Upperby, this Carlisle based engineering firm established a world leading reputation in the construction of rail and dock cranes. The firm was simply known in the city as “the cranemakers.” Cowans cranes were exported across the globe to countries including Japan, Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa, Iraq, China, Canada, and Bolivia.  Generations of young men from the city took up engineering apprenticeships at the Cowans Sheldon St Nicholas works.

In 1857 Cowans Sheldon moved to the St Nicholas site on London Road that had once been the St Nicholas Leper Hospital. By 1858 the first railway crane had been produced and was used by the Carlisle & Maryport Railway Company.

By 1866 Cowans Sheldon had built a massive 532 railway turntables. Many were exported around the globe to locations including Australia, India, Egypt and Russia. By 1891 the company had built the largest dockside crane in the country and in 1907 the first floating crane had been produced. In 1926 the firm built the largest floating crane on the planet for the Japanese Navy. This crane was used to secretly build the Japanese warships used in the pacific war campaign. During both World Wars the company boomed due to the high demands placed upon heavy engineering for both the war effort and home front.  Closer to home, in the 1890s Cowans Sheldon constructed Carlisle Market Hall which has the look and feel of a Victorian railway system.

In 1969 Clarke Chapman of Gateshead bought the firm. The firm had returned to the Geordie roots of its four founders who had moved west to Cumbria.  Following a merger in 1982 with John Boyd the firm was renamed Cowans Boyd. However the omens for the firm were not good due to the decline of Britain’s heavy industries. Many British manufacturers and engineers disappeared during this time. Cowans Boyd followed this trend and in 1987 the St Nicholas works closed. Crane building had left Carlisle.

Objects in this collection