email: tony@lathes.co.uk
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Robert French Lathe - Kendale, England


Not so far recorded as a manufacturer in any literature known to the writer, the lathe shown below is by Robert French of Kendale - presumably the previous name for Kendal in Northumberland, older maps showing this spelling. Currently in New Zealand, the lathe is 42 inches long with a centre height of perhaps 3 inches and a between-centres capacity of around 20 inches. Backgeared, with a gap bed and screwcutting, the French lathe could have been made at any point between 1810 and 1850. Typical of what was to become a feature of many English lathes, the bed ways were flat - almost certainly achieved by planing and then hand scraping - and with what would have been 60 V-edges.
As a quite ordinary machine for its time - and similar to so many other contemporary machines of the same size - the French is unusual in carrying the maker's name. In the 1800s, many machine-tool makers failed to put any identifying marks on their products, possibly because they were factored in large bathes or resold through larger agents who insisted on attaching their own badges. Unfortunately, the plate on the lathe is just screwed on - and rather crudely - so this clue as to the machine's origin might be entirely spurious.
Pointers to the lathe's age include a generally light build; crank handles to operate the cross slide, the leadscrew clasp nut and the carriage; the gear on the carriage crank handle engaging direct with the bed rack giving a very high-geared and difficult-to-control feed; a relatively coarse-pitch leadscrew; the spindle end thrust taken by a plate mounted on posts outboard of the left-hand spindle bearing; very coarse-pitch backgears and changewheels that might have been left as-cast, the latter arrangement a common feature on contemporary and less expensive lathes. Drive to the spindle would have been by a round leather belt - a "gut drive" - with a strong possibility that power would have come from a foot-treadle-driven flywheel held between cast-iron legs - referred to at the time as "standards".
One unusual feature is the tailstock and the method of advancing and retracting the spindle - travel being increased by stepping out the end thrust plate on a pair of bars, though it appears that the operating handle is missing. Exactly the same arrangement can be seen on the remarkable and advanced-for-the-time lathe by Richard Roberts in the London Science museum.
At the headstock end of the bed, the leadscrew protrudes through its mounting bracket by several inches - the reason being, possibly, that in its original form the lathe carried, on this extension, some form of double crown-wheel-and-pinion . Between the crown wheel would have been a clutch to select drive towards or away from the headstock. Again, this sort of complex and expensive mechanism was fitted to the Richard Roberts lathe and, in the parts surviving with the French, is a single crown wheel that could have been part of the mechanism. Unfortunately, the writer's ideas about crown wheels are almost certainly incorrect for the lathe also appears to be fitted with tumble-reverse, a train of gears between the gear on the end of the headstock spindle and the changewheel drive to the leadscrew, the mechanism performing the same task of reversing the leadscrew. Surviving with the lathe is a typical-of-the-era combination faceplate and light-duty 4-jaw chuck, a useful accessory that was still being offered by some makers of large lathes into the 1970s. As shown mounted on the spindle, the unit lacks its jaws, those being shown lower down the page.
From the census of 1841 and the Ancestry website, the only Mr Robert French able to be identified as coming from Kendal, Westmoreland, was born in 1820 and died in 1894..


Leadscrew reversing mechanism on the 1817 Richard Roberts lathe in the London Science Museum.
As surviving with it is a single crown wheel, might the French lathe have used the same system?

Some of the parts surviving with the French lathe - including a crown wheel

An almost identical design of tailstock on the 1817 Richard Roberts lathe in the London Science Museum

Jaws from the faceplate-cum-4-jaw chuck

Typical-of-the-era faceplates - a, arrangement of slots holes and squares not uncommon into the 1930s


email: tony@lathes.co.uk
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Robert French Lathe - Kendale, England