Cliff Howard produces his first cultivators at Moss Vale in 1920s

Arthur Clifford Howard (1893-1971) began experiments in 1912 which culminated in his invention of the powered rotary hoe cultivator. It would create a revolution on the land. 

As told in the previous article, at the time young ‘Cliff’, as he was known, was living in Moss Vale. He undertook an apprenticeship and engineering course at coach builders McCleery & Sons, and was then appointed as an assistant to his boss John McCleery. Cliff made friends with the youngest McCleery son, Edgar Percy, known as Everard, who also studied engineering and served as the firm’s secretary. The two lads were the same age. They developed a small prototype of Cliff’s rotary hoe cultivator idea, and were developing larger models when World War I intervened.

The works had become McCleery’s Limited, which gained Government contracts during the war to supply tool carts and other equipment. A total of 160 carts were built to a pattern brought from England and other items were manufactured, including thousands of tent pegs for use at Gallipoli and the Middle East. At least 15 workmen were employed at the McCleery works. 

As the war progressed, six of the employees at the works enlisted. Despite being needed as managers, Cliff and Everard also decided to enlist, volunteering for the air force. While awaiting call-up, Cliff had a motorcycle accident and was turned down but Everard was accepted and joined the Australian Flying Corps. He went to England in January 1917 and qualified as a pilot. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and sent to France with No 4 Squadron. On 17 August 1918 he was killed during a bombing raid on Somme aerodrome. A devastating loss for his family, firm and friend Cliff.

Cliff had left for England in early 1917 to work on munitions and aero engines, gaining considerable new skills and expertise. At war’s end, he tried to interest English manufacturers in his cultivator, but without success. He returned to Australia and to Moss Vale, to find that the McCleery works had shortly before been badly damaged by an accidental fire. The machinery had been twisted and mis-shaped, but a quantity of it and the tools could still be used. 

The McCleery owners were grateful when Howard offered to revive the works, which he achieved by the end of 1920, mainly to build his rotary hoes. Together with his half-brother Albert, he developed a new powered rotary hoe cultivator which he patented. It consisted of a main frame carrying an 8-tonne Buffalo Pitts internal combustion engine and a subsidiary frame consisting of five sets of 1-metre rotors with a cultivation span of 5 metres. Designed to suit wheat farmers’ requirements, on tests it ploughed an unprecedented 3.5 acres per hour. 

In 1922 Howard formed a syndicate made up of his close friends and created Austral Auto Cultivators Pty Ltd to take over the McCleery works and produce the cultivator.

He selected the best tradesmen to work for him but struggled financially to expand and improve upon his prototype. A second machine, powered by a 60 horse-power Buda engine from America, was sold for 1500 pounds. By 1923 another six rotary hoes were produced. When each machine was completed, he personally demonstrated its capability around the country to obtain more orders and to sell shares in the company. He later stated that “I got quite a lot of small shareholders, chiefly farmers, but practically no worthwhile support. I had bitter disappointments but made many friends who later became substantial shareholders”.

In 1924 Howard developed a rotary hoe to work with the Fordson Tractor that had recently come on the market at a very attractive price. This compatible hoe secured good sales. He also developed a range of machines to further mechanise Australian agriculture. For instance, he modified his cultivator for orchard and vineyard purposes, created another version for use in sugar cane country, and designed a heavy-duty hoe to clear rough country and destroy noxious weeds such as prickly pear. 

In September 1925 Howard married Daisy May Hayes, a local girl whose father served as Moss Vale mayor. They would have two daughters and a son.

By this time the business was outgrowing the small Moss Vale works, so a factory closer to Sydney was being sought.

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 2 of a 3-part series. To be continued.