Tony Pettitt


Howard Rotary Hoes

Interviewee: TonyPettitt, born 1954

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 22 Dec, 2011

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Jan 2012

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Tony can you tell me something about yourself? Where and when were you born?

I was born in I think it was called Harris Park Waranilla Private Hospital at that time near Parramatta. As a child I then lived at Dundas for a short time (until around 4 years old). After that my mother took me and my brother and we lived at Grafton for a short time with relatives. Then came back to The Hills district and lived on Windsor Road just near the Baulkham Hills Public School. I started kindergarten at the public school at Baulkham Hills. Then we moved down further to Northmead and I went to Northmead High School and finished my fourth year high school at Northmead. Then I did an apprenticeship with the Shell Oil Company. I was there (at the family home at Northmead) until I was nineteen and then I left home and started going walkabout.

Tell me a bit more about your schooling at Baulkham Hills Public School? What do you recall about those days?

Oh it was fairly impressionable I suppose. I went through kindergarten and primary school. I’m not a great scholastic type of person but you do what you have to do. In those days you had to go to school and work your way through it.

Which year were you born?


So you would be classed as a Baby Boomer these days?

Yes I think so, the threatening species that is going to cause all sorts of problems to the retirement funds, superannuation and pensions. Put a big load on the government after all the work we’ve done. The thanks we get.

Give me a bit of family background?

As I said earlier my mother took my brother and I to Grafton separated from my real father. I never knew my real Dad and I have a stepfather. I’ve just got the one brother so it’s pretty straight forward as far as that is concerned.

How far can you trace your mother’s family back?

There’s been indications from my mother’s side, it’s probably about three maybe four generations Australian. I don’t know much further back than my grandparents on my mother’s side. But it goes back probably a generation or two before that.

Do you know where they came from? Which part of the world?

I think there’s a bit of English background in them, my father’s side is a little bit further back than my mother’s side.

So your father's name was Pettitt as well was it?

No that’s my stepfather’s name. I took my stepfather’s name when my mother married my stepfather. My real father’s name was Bonser. My mother’s maiden name was Leeds.

Tony Pettitt's first Howard a 1946 Junior Rotary Hoe fully restored

How did the four year apprenticeship with the Shell Company go?

That was good really good training. Excellent training I mainly worked on oil tankers and ancillary equipment. So it was heavy transport.

What, as a mechanic?

A diesel mechanic yeah.

Were you good at repairing stuff?

I think I was very good, top job, quality job.

Were you always interested in things mechanical?

As a child I wanted to be a farmer but working in my vegetable garden as a child I acquired a rotary hoe. That changed my direction and I suppose that’s why I ended up a mechanic because I started playing with mechanical things. The farming desires slowly disappeared. I’ve always maintained a bit of a dabble in the garden with vegetables and fruit trees. But I like mechanical things.

So what created your interest in Howard Rotavators?

Well the veggie garden that I was growing as a child was inspired by my next door neighbour who came from a background of Italian market gardeners. He introduced me to… I started off growing strawberries and then it was potatoes and tomatoes and next minute I had the whole backyard dug up and all sorts of things. He said to me one day “you’re going to have to get yourself a rotary hoe”. Well I didn’t have a clue what that was and he introduced me to one that was overgrown with Kikuyu in his backyard. He said “you pull it apart and I’ll show you how to put it back together”. That basically started my infatuation with rotary hoes, Howard’s in particular.

You’ve got another connection with Howard’s Rotavators haven’t you? Some of your family lived nearby?

It was a bit of a coincidence really. My grandparents lived opposite Cliff Howard up until 1938 when he moved to England to start the company over there in England. My grandfather knew Cliff Howard personally. I didn’t know my grandfather because he died before I was born. Most of my mother’s family all worked for Howard’s at some point in time. Some of them worked there most of their lives. They intermarried with Howard employees. It was just quite coincidental that one of my uncles who was there most of his life and was married to my mother’s sister. I benefited from a lot of information from him that other collectors are completely unaware of.

A young Arthur Clifford Howard demonstrating a early 1930s Junior Rotary Hoe powered by a Sturmey Archer engine

Tell me a bit about Cliff Howard? Who was he and what was his impact on Australia?

Cliff was an Australian born person (at Crookwell in 1893) and he grew up in Moss Vale (from 1896). His father had a farm at Gilgandra (from 1908 when he remarried and where in later years Cliff spent time on school holidays, as Cliff was now living with his aunts). As a lad he became inquisitive as to what his father was doing with his Buffalo Pitts steam engine which was basically pulling a plough across the paddock. He was concerned that the compaction of the soil by the sheer weight of the wheels on the soil was basically half the problem. You had to open that back up again with the ploughs. He thought “there’s got to be a better way of doing this”. He started experimenting as a lad around his mid teens I suppose. He tried all different types of methods of mechanical tilling of the ground until he came up with the L shaped blade. That’s where it all started happening.

Once he perfected the rotation of a blade on a rotor blades mounted on a flange. He then started looking at different power sources for it and trying to perfect the piece of equipment. Once he perfected it, it was basically a hand held machine. He started demonstrating that but didn’t get a lot of interest in that until he started doing bigger stuff. Rotary hoes that were fifteen foot wide. Once he demonstrated that at a field day he got six orders on the day and he was away. The company was formed and he started manufacturing and it went from one thing to another and he had all different types of rotary hoes. (His work was interrupted in 1914 by the First World War and things were put on hold). By the early twenties he was going full head of steam. Doing tractor mounted rotary hoes and walk behind rotary hoes. The fifteen foot rotary hoe that he had behind the Halford lorry was probably the thing that “hit the nail on the head”. All the big farmers were onto that and getting purchases left, right and centre.

Now, was the rotary hoe an invention of his or did they already exist perhaps?

He’s believed to be the inventor of the Rotavator. There are various cultivators throughout the world but none that do the job that the Howard Rotavator does. He had a patent on it for about twenty years and once that patent wore off then everybody throughout the world was starting to make them. Then the competition got pretty stiff for him. I think in principle he can be claimed as being the inventor of the rotary hoe tilling method.

 Aerial view of Northmead with former Woollen Mills and Howard Rotavator sites at top right 1997

Where did he set up his factory?

He first started his factory at Moss Vale and once things got really booming in 1927 he purchased a block of land at Northmead (and expanded it until it was bounded by Windsor, Briens and Boundary Roads). By 1928 he started production and it’s believed that in 1929 he commenced the first mass production line in Australia. Producing machines off a production line. He was building at his factory before 1929 at his factory in Northmead but his production line started in 1929.

I believe that first engine that he used for his rotary hoe was a motor bike engine was it?

He took the motor bike engine out of his motor bike and used that to drive a hand held machine. This is back in early 1916 (actually 1913-1914). He had the rotary hoe mounted on a frame and that was his first machine. There’s not much evidence around of any information or pictures of that sort of machine. I would imagine it would be very similar to a Junior a crude machine to a Junior.

What did he do during the First World War?

He went to the UK and he was working in aero and munitions factories doing war production. I think that is where he picked up a lot of his skills. When he came back after the First World War things were really happening as far as Howard’s. He had everything ready to go as far as a production line was concerned. The First World War basically put a spanner in the works and it wasn’t until after he came back from the war. Which I think was probably to his advantage because he picked up a lot of technology in Britain. Working over there in the factories. I don’t think he was able to go and fight in the war because he had a motor bike accident at some stage. He wasn’t fit enough to go into the war. By the time he came back he had all this knowledge from producing materials and equipment for the war that he applied to manufacturing at Howard’s. Howard’s have a fantastic reputation for their metallurgical skills, foundry work, gear cutting and hardening. He was able to make his own engines that he built himself. Even the carburetor was manufactured in house. Everything bar the magneto, spark plugs and bearings all the machines back in those days were made in house. He was a brilliant engineer and he obviously had a lot of brilliant tradesmen working for him as well.

Austral Auto Cultivators factory Northmead late 1920s

So how many rotary hoes would he have been making in the early twenties when he started production in earnest?

I’d say after the First World War he was basically making one and selling it. Then getting the monies from the proceeds of the sale to produce the next machine. It was a bit slow to take off but it started to accelerate as he got going. He started selling shares and getting people to buy share in the organisation and become partners with him. He seemed to always have the controlling majority of shares in the company. It sort of became a public company in the early days.

In 1932 he started building his own engines and developing them. Tell me about that?

When he first had the rotary hoes he was putting motor bike engines on it like Sturmey Archer’s and JAP’s. Then there became a shortage of motors so he started building his own motor. That was similar to a JAP is or a Sturmey Archer but his own designs were put on it as well. He was doing quite well making his own engines and he didn’t have to rely on anybody else to supply the power units anymore. He developed a four cylinder motor for the tractors in 1933. He had the DH22 four cylinder motor going, prior to that he used a Morris commercial four cylinder sixteen horse power engine.

Now in the 1930’s his Australian operation took off. Give me some figures of the number of machines he made and how many different models he had?

Well one particular machine from basically the late 1920’s to the late 50’s. One particular model he made over twenty six thousand of that particular model. He made probably around a dozen different models of machines including hand held machines and tractors. He was quite a serious producer throughout that time in Australia. At the peak his factory (from 1936) was employing over six hundred employees doing manufacturing (and around the 1950’s over 1,000). He moved to England himself but the Howard Australian factory kept manufacturing. In 1938 when Cliff went to England he started Howard Rotary Hoes of England and they started exporting to the northern hemisphere. Whereas the Australian mob were exporting to the southern hemisphere. The English machines started to evolve further than the Australian machine did. Cliff was basically concentrating on his company in England. Its manufacturing went through to the millions in total of machines that were made over there. Australia became quite insignificant on the world wide stage of Howard Rotavators.

It wasn’t until about the late 1950’s around 1959 that Cliff Howard returned to Australia, basically took control of the company from the Australian board of directors and it became his business again instead of a public company. Cliff was getting on in years by this time. He was heading for retirement and he handed the business over to his son John Howard. John didn’t have the drive or the skill that Cliff had and the company started to deteriorate. When the Howard worldwide company was liquidated or wound up the Australian company was the only one left that was actually making a profit. It got caught up in the whirlpool of the demise of Howard internationally. It was bought out by a lot of the Australian people who started what they called Howard Australia. That survived for a while and now it is owned by a New Zealand company called Power Farming which was one of the original distributors of Howard Rotavators in New Zealand. Today Howard Australia is the only Howard company left. At one stage they were made in fourteen different countries and exported to over a hundred and fifty. Australia is now where it started and where it ended.

Howard Auto Cultivators Northmead factory early 1940s aerial view

So what was the influence of the Howard factory and the production on the Shire?

It was a huge impact on agriculture especially locally. There was a huge amount of agriculture in The Hills area from market gardens to fruit tree growers. Everybody had a Howard Rotary Hoe. Even nationally Howard’s were everywhere. In Queensland, in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia. In the sugar cane area they were very popular with their tractors up there because they were narrow and they would be able to go down the narrow aisles of sugar cane. He even developed a sugar cane harvester back in the olden days. Through Australia they became extremely popular and all the country towns had Howard dealers.

1960s Howard Terrier

Did it bring an influx of wealth into the Shire?

Oh it would have. It was probably one of the biggest manufacturers, I would say, in my own opinion, in the district at that time. There was Sydney Woollen Mills and I think later on the Country Club shirts. They were pretty big employers. As far as machinery goes I’m not aware of anything of that sort of scale in the Shire.

So how many people would have been employed by Howard Rotavators factory in its heyday?

There was up to six hundred employees there at their peak (from 1936). My estimates are that they peaked around the 1950’s (to over 1,000) especially after the Second World War. But they started to slow down in the 1960’s. I think a bit of a slow down because Cliff was slowing down. He was getting on in years and competition was getting a bit stiff. Things were moving toward three point linkage tractor mounted machines. That is basically where Howard is today. They only do three point linkage stuff, they don’t do any hand held machines or the smaller ones for market gardens, which was a very popular line.

Some Howard employees at Northmead early 1940s

So the Italian market gardening industry in the Shire would have been very much relying on the Howard Rotavators would they?

I’d say that there wouldn’t have been one market garden that didn’t have one sort of Howard rotary hoe working in their gardens.

1948 Howard v-twin water cooled 12hp

What’s been your own interest in the Howard Rotavator?

I was just fascinated by them as a child. I’m concerned these days to try and preserve a bit of Australia’s ingenuity, skill and inventiveness. My idea is to get a collection of just about every machine that they’ve made. A good cross sectional sample of machines. Hopefully it will be preserved for history to demonstrate what a magnificent inventor that we had here in Australia. There’s other things as well that go alongside that sort of stuff in agricultural machinery.

1955 Howard Kelpie

So when did you start collecting the first Howard Rotavator?

I would have been about fifteen or sixteen when I first started getting involved with them. I completely restored the first one and then sold it. I purchased a later model and then different types of models. Then I didn’t do anything for about ten or fifteen years after that. Once I got into my twenties I was interested in other things. About ten or fifteen years later I thought well I better see if I can get a few more of these. I put an ad in The Trading Post “Howard Rotary Hoes wanted”. I was surprised at the response I got. Some of the machines that I came up with, one in particular had been in the family most of its life. It came from the original owner who lived next door to that particular market garden. It had been extremely well looked after. It was a 1938 machine. I picked up some good machines from the advertisement and then word started getting around and I started getting offers from different places with different machines. Then we got onto e-Bay and I’ve hunted a few down through e-Bay.

1960s Howard Bull Finch

To this day I’ve only got to get another two machines and I’ve got all the hand held ones that I need. The tractors is a little bit more difficult. I don’t think I’ll ever see the early style one. The one on the Halford lorry with the Buda motor and the fifteen foot gang of five three foot rotors on the back. That I’d like to see but I don’t know of anyone in existence. Apparently there is a replica one somewhere but there’s no original ones left. Some of the later tractors are a little bit hard to come by because they didn’t make a lot. We’re talking about one; two three thousand and that’s towards the end of the 1950’s. A little bit harder to come by. I’ve pretty well got ninety percent of what I want to make the collection complete.

1960s Howard Foxie

How many Rotavators do you have then?

I’ve got about thirty that are showable. I’ve got a lot of others that are spares incomplete parts of them. There’d probably be totally about eighty.

1922 15' Rotary Hoe powered by a 60hp Buda engine

What I’d like to do eventually time and money being available is to have one completely restored in its original showroom condition. Another one in its working clothes the best one that I might have for demonstrations and showing people what they look like when they’re being used. There’s two schools of thought out there these days. Some people like the nice show room condition and other people like to see them as used. So if I could have one of each that would be an ultimate goal. At the moment I’ve basically almost got one of each machine in their working clothes. I’ve only got a couple that have been restored. It does take a lot of time, more time than money. Whether I get there or not is another story. If I just have every machine going and complete in original condition I’ll be happy with that.

1937 Howard v-twin water cooled 12hp

Where do you keep all those?

Wherever I can. It’s a bit of a pressing problem at the moment. I’ve got friends who’ve got sheds. I’ve got them stuffed away in sheds all over Sydney. I’ve just recently had to get out of one shed that I’ve been in for five years because the person who owned the shed wanted his shed back which is fair enough. I’m probably looking at trying to get some acreage in the not too distant future. And have my own sheds and be able to store them myself instead of relying on other people who have been good to me.

You’ll need to build a big hanger or something for all those?

Someone said to me the other day “we think we know where there’s a shed on a property that’s going to get demolished”. So yeah that might be a good score if I can get that.

You’ve spent considerable time and energy on those haven’t you? Have you restored any of those yourself?

My first machine I completely rebuilt every nut and bolt on it. Full restoration from the bottom up. I’ve done a few rebuilds. I’ve got a few engines that are fully rebuilt. I’ve got some chassis underway that are almost ready to go to be rebuilt. I haven’t spent a lot of time on rebuilding. Most of my effort has been on tracking them down, collecting them and acquiring them.

Tony Pettitt's Howard machines on display at Balcombe Heights 2010

Tell me about the shows that you’ve shown them at?

I’ve done a few shows. I mainly concentrate on the local shows. Metropolitan area like Sydney. It’s a little bit out of the question as far as cost going too far. I have been as far as Crookwell, that’s the birthplace of Cliff Howard. They had a show down there and they invited me to go down so I took down a dozen machines and put them on show for them. I’ve been to the Clarendon Rally there at Richmond near the airport. I’ve been to the Bella Vista House had a show there. I’ve had them at the Castle Hill Show. I’ve had them at the university at Richmond. I’ve had them on show up there. I’ve done shows for the students, the agricultural students. I’ve done other bits and pieces, pioneer village at Wilberforce I put on a display out there on Australia Day last year and I put another one there this year. Basically anywhere that is local.

How does the agricultural community look upon that Rotavator now? In hindsight do they think it’s rather quaint or what?

Well the Rotavator virtually revolutionised agriculture world wide. It brought about a more simple and easy effort to till virgin ground. It’s basically converted three operations into one. Back in the olden days they used to use ploughs and harrows and discs. Whereas the rotary hoe, one or two operations across the ground with the rotary hoe and its ready for planting straight away. With ploughing and scarifying and harrowing and disking it’s not ready to plant out straight away. Some of the rotary hoes have seeder attachments so they can seed as they’re rotary hoeing. So it’s all done in one operation.

So he was a pretty clever guy, this Cliff Howard?

I think so. I think the way he’s designed his machines, he spent a lot of time perfecting it in the first place. Then he basically continued to refine it. If you look at one machine the Junior Rotary Hoe, the hand held machine. From the first model to the last model we’re looking at, at least around one hundred and fifty design changes to perfect his piece of equipment. That’s the Junior. When he went to England he produced a machine called the Gem, which I strongly believe had he stayed in Australia would have followed on from the Junior and actually would have been the evolution of the Junior. Then you look at the evolution of the Gem in England. It goes through another there’s a series of five models or eras that they go through. That within itself had different engines, different gear setups and a few modifications. The physical machine was still the same. He never stopped thinking he was always inventing a better and easier way to manage the machines, to work the machines. If you look at the 1930 Howard Junior and look at the 1995 Howard Gem the changes are quite dramatic.

Howard Australia Rotavator RC2000

Is the Northmead factory still operating?

No the factory is closed. It’s no longer there. There is a warehouse and assembly plant over at Seven Hills. The factory I think that closed round about 1982, 1983 something like that. The people that basically bought out the remainder of what they could set up their Howard Australia at Seven Hills.

When did Cliff Howard die and what do you think is his legacy?

He died in 1971 and I think his contribution to the world of agriculture is quite significant. The Queen gave him an MBE for his contribution to agriculture. He was recognised by the British people as being a significant producer of agricultural equipment, which was quite significant to British agriculture as well.

1979-82 Howard 2000 Tractor

Now what about your own career? You’re a diesel mechanic, tell me a bit about your time with the Powerhouse Museum and so on?

Well I did an apprenticeship with the Shell Oil Company as I said earlier. I stayed in heavy machinery, transport, mining industry for a couple of years. I managed to get a job as a supervisor at the Powerhouse Museum’s site at Castle Hill. It was quite a good job I looked after the warehouses and all the storage of the equipment. As well as the property and building maintenance so it covered all aspects of it. I got a bit of an incite into what they were doing there and a bit of an understanding.

Now, I believe you also made the Guinness Book of Records tell me about that?

That was a group effort. The most amount of tractors and rotary hoes and ploughs in one paddock at once. I think it was about eighteen hundred machines they actually had down at Gilgandra (actually Cootamundra) all going at once. Creating a huge dust storm. It was just a thing that the old farmers did. I had the machine that was capable of breaking ground I took that machine down and basically got that machine into the Guinness Book of Records.

You had eighteen hundred rotary hoes working at the same time?

Yes we had them all lined up in a big paddock. Somebody said go and off we went all across the paddock. They had them basically doing loops so you can imagine all these rows of tractors and rotary hoes all doing these loops. There were small tractors and big tractors. Some of the biggest tractors you’ve ever seen. There was everything there that a farmer could possibly have.

Now you said that the Howard factory or what remains of it is still manufacturing some machines. What is the current model that they’re doing?

They do things like slashers and large rotary hoes. Anything up to forty five foot wide. They’ll do the small ones as well down to five or six foot. What they basically do these days. There’s a few other different things that they do. They do a lot of front end loaders for tractors they do seed equipment they do sprayers and fertilising equipment. Soil renovators and all that sort of stuff.

Tony demonstrating his 1938 12hp Howard Rotary Hoe at Castle Hill Show 2011

What’s your favourite Howard Rotavator?

I’ve got two favourites. One of them is a 1938 V twin water cooled twelve horsepower hand held rotary hoe with about a thirty two inch cut. The other one is a 1980 model Gem. It’s a hand held machine with a Hatz diesel air cooled motor on it with about a twenty inch cut. So from one extreme to the other.

Do you have any thoughts about changes in the Shire as a result of the agriculture going away and redevelopment?

I think it’s a big disappointment to see the destruction of the agricultural area in the Hawkesbury/Hills area. I think we’re going to have a problem in the future of good food sources. Once all this prime agricultural land is lost, it can’t be reclaimed. It’s all been concreted and tarred over. I think there was lack of foresight the way development has gone on in The Hills Shire as well at the demise of the agricultural. Not only from market gardens with your vegetables to all the fruit trees. Even the chicken farms which were quite prolific in the area. They’re almost all gone.

What do you think is the reason for the disappearance of those things?

I think it's bad planning and greed.

Were they just to close to the city maybe that the land became too valuable?

If you’re going to over populate the country, you can’t grow tomatoes in the desert. The biggest problem that we have is the ripening fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes, apples and oranges. If you don’t vine or tree ripen them they don’t gain their full nutrition. Therefore you get fruit and vegetables that aren’t really healthy because they haven’t got much nutrition in them. Because you’ve had to pick them early, bring them long distances to the population. You can’t beat a vine ripened tomato or an orange that’s ripened on the tree. They taste better because they are better. I think a lot of the planners haven’t worked that out.

So what do you think the future for The Hills Shire looks like?

There’s just mass population, overcrowding I don’t think it looks good at all.

Howard Rotavator at Maroota 1940s

So you’d rather go back to the time when everybody had a Howard Rotavator in their backyard?

If you go back to my early days we didn’t have a problem. Everything was easy going. There was a job for everybody, everybody had a job. No matter how dumb or how stupid or how bright you were at school there was a job for everybody. Work on the farm, work in the factories. We’ve got no factories, we’ve got no farms. We’ve got a huge population. We’ve got huge unemployment, huge foreign debt. We never had a foreign debt back in those days. We manufactured and grew just about ninety per cent of what we consumed. Now we import it all. It’s all just upside down, its just a mess, absolute mess as far I’m concerned.

You must be happy that you lived through those times yourself? That you’ve seen those things?

I think it would be very tough for school leavers these days. If you aren’t exceptionally talented or come from a family that can give you a start somewhere, you basically don’t have a hope. I think we’re getting into a situation where we’ve got generations of children now who are never going to work in their life. Their parents didn’t work and quite often their grandparents have never worked. I don’t think it’s a very desirable situation to get in at all.

So what are your plans for your collection of Howard Rotavators in the future?

My dream would be to be able to acquire a drop deck curtain side semi trailer and have a mobile museum. With all the machines mounted on the deck like a stage. So you pull the taut-liner curtains back and everything is presented there on the trailers like a stage. So that I can take it around from one site to another with a fair amount of ease. It would give people a complete overview of what they made over several decades. Probably forty or fifty years and see what Australian achievement was all about back in those days.