Cranes from Carlisle No More


The city of Carlisle was once home to the world’s most well known crane maker – Cowans Sheldon, with their works built on the former leper hospital of St Nicholas, they began building cranes, and turntables – most notably for railways at home and all over the world. Those skills, knowledge and experience passed into history in 1987 – some 30 years ago.

In 1986, just a year before the St Nicholas works closed with the loss of 400 jobs, the company had been awarded a £4 million contract to design and build a 140tonne capacity railway breakdown crane for the Indian Government Railways.

Indian Crane

Indian Railways – World’s Heaviest Breakdown Crane in 1986

In 1969, the company was bought by a North East engineering firm – Clarke Chapman, who, in turn, merged with John Boyd Ltd., and the Carlisle works was renamed as Cowans-Boyd, but still turning out cranes for home and export. In 1977 Clarke Chapman merged with another Newcastle company – Reyroll-Parsons to form NEI (Northern Engineering Industries). The Cowans Sheldon, or Cowans Boyd works remained part of NEI until its closure in 1987.

Eight years earlier in 1979, the company had received not only £1/2 million order from Tanzania, but had designed and was building three types of rail mounted cranes as part of British Rail’s programme to replace and refurbish its crane fleet that were, in some cases, more than 40 years old.

BR Heavy Duty Crane

BR Heavy Lift Breakdown Crane – 1979


On top of this, in 1982 in a joint venture with Portec Inc. of the USA the Cowans Sheldon Unit of NEI Cranes Ltd was designing and building new standard cranes for US railroads, with the possibility of orders from Amtrak.

USA Crane 1982Just a few short years later, it seems nobody wanted to buy cranes for railway use from the UK any more, with neither home or export orders.

So what happened to the St Nicholas site – well, it was turned into one of those shopping parks now known as “St Nicholas Gate”, and houses Asda, Halford, B&M Bargains, Iceland, amongst others.

How times have changed!

Further reading:


All illustrations are by courtesy of ‘Railpower’ published by the Railway Industry Association


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