Essays in Beekeeping History: Thomas William Cowan (Part 3)

Bee Craft: April 2009

Karl Showier

Cowan’s Guide Book gives us a fascinating view oj beekeeping in the early twentieth century

THE PROGRESS in beekeeping when the new century arrived continued throughout the Edwardian era. Cowan marked the coronation of King George V with a special hard bound, well-produced, twentieth edition of the Guide Book. In his preface, written from Upcott House, Taunton, in June 1911, Cowan acknowledged the contribution from many authors and the use of material from the late Frank Cheshire.

Attention was drawn to the work of European investigators on honey bee diseases and, for the first time, a colour plate was included entitled ‘Foul Brood, Bacillus alvei, untouched photo (from nature)’. Cowan attributes damaged brood to possibly any one of three conditions:

a strong smelling foul brood b odourless foul brood or c sour brood

He also describes sacbrood and chilled brood.

Untitled-1(1)-1< Interior of a WBC hive showing a section crate on the top

The Guide Book for 1911, with its 226 pages, was 46 pages longer than the preceding editions because many sections had been expanded and more full-page illustrations included. Its greater coverage made it a more modem book.

WB Carr, who had made a significant contribution to the Guide Book over the years, died in 1909, aged 73. William Herrod was appointed in his place in the following year.


The nineteenth edition of the Guide Book, 1907, contained a picture of Lee and Son’s three-brood-comb observation hive which became thereafter a regular item. The importance of such a hive was stressed for the personal study of bee life. Oddly, for William Herrod was a great showman, no mention was made of the use of observation hives in public exhibitions.


As usual, the massive double-walled Cowan Hive was described in some detail, both in its summer arrangement as well as with a reduced number of combs for wintering. The airspace around and above the brood chamber was filled with cork chip lagging. The WBC Hive in its double-walled form was now shown in photographs. Hives from Lee and Taylor merited mention.

The Claustral Hive was the new addition to the range of hives currently available. This hive had a special porch with ventilating chimneys which allowed the bees to be confined for winter. It was devised by the French Abbe Gouttefangeas and was shown in photographs with the ventilating tubes in place and porch door both open and closed.

Untitled-1(1)-2TW Cowan without his dundrearies >


The days of using the hand press for making individual sheets of foundation had passed. A photograph was included of the machine room in james Lee and Son’s factory in which British Weed foundation was being made. Their works were then at Martineau Road, Highbury, London. The Al Root Company, Medina, Ohio, had developed the foundation-making process invented by a Mr Weed so when James Lee started to make foundation he used the Root method but termed his foundation ‘British Weed’. In the photograph the belt driven machinery looks decidedly contrived and was no doubt built by the firm’s staff.


By now honey extractors were no longer a novelty. EH Taylor advertised the Cowan Extractor with a side handle drive. Extracting honey from combs with brood to relieve congestion in the brood nest area was still advocated.


Another model of a heather honey press was introduced called the Rymer Honey Press in which the muslin covered combs were laid in a box and a downward pressure was applied to them with a screw thread. The honey collected in a basal tank.


Possibly under the influence of William Herrod, a new chapter on queen rearing was introduced before the chapters describing the Italian, Carniolan, Cyprian and Syrian bees. There were reasonable comments about each race of bee with a note on the viciousness of some strains of the last two.

It was clear that by 1911 the Guide Book was being directed towards more sophisticated readers who were taking beekeeping seriously. The queen rearing work of the Kent beekeeper FW Sladen was drawn upon and his small hive with its folding frames was described.


Clearly William Herrod, who was always a willing innovator, saw in the bicycle a means by which the beekeeper could extend his range. Herrod shows modifications to the bicycle frame which permitted the rider to carry driven bees in either skeps, bags or light boxes.


This was the final 226-page edition of the British Bee-Keeper’s Guide Book to the Management of Bees in Moveable-comb Hives and the Use of Modern Bee Appliances. Thomas William Cowan was now an old man of 84 and it was difficult to say how much influence he had on its content.

It was clear that in the last six editions since 1911 there had been very little technical change. The youthful picture of Cowan with a beautiful set of Victorian dundrearies (sideburns) (see Bee Craft, March 2009, page 21), still forms the frontispiece although as early as the fifteenth edition of 1898, Cowan had noted in his preface:

‘although distasteful to me that it should figure prominently in the Guide Book I have given way to the repeated wishes of my friends to its appearing as a frontispiece’.

The number of photographs had increased but there were still some steel engravings. William Herrod, who was clearly masterminding the content of the book, could not resist pictures drawn from the past, so one was included of Willie Gordon the skep maker who died in July 1905, aged 82, going to market with an ox-drawn wagon loaded with skeps.

The rich diversity of hives and frame shapes and sizes illustrated had been

Untitled-2-1< A cyclist carrying skeps

Untitled-2-2Willie Gordon taking his skeps to market on an ox-drawn wagon >

reduced but no doubt appliance dealers continued to make their own favoured models and those requested by customers.

Robert Lee took over from his father James and the firm moved from Martineau Road, Highbury, London, to George Street, Uxbridge, and introduced ‘the famous Uxbridge WBC Hive’, double-walled with its sloping sided outer casing in the late 1890s.

The progressive admixture of bees from outside the United Kingdom and Western Europe included the import of aggressive strains of bee from the Mediterranean basin. Had this now made bees less tractable? On page 214 a pair of bee gloves with bared fingers was illustrated for the first time although the use of bee gloves was deprecated in the text.


Cowan could look back with some pride on the 100,000 copies issued and that various editions of the Guide Book had been translated into a number of European languages: Danish in 1887; Dutch in 1903; French in 1886 and 1890; German in 1891; Russian in 1887 (19,000 copies) and 1890; Spanish in 1888 and Swedish. A shorter Welsh language version was produced in 1888 by Michael Jones of Bala. This had Welsh language advertisements from several English appliance dealers as well as one from HP Jones of Dinas Mawddwy. The latter supplied Cowan hives.

William Cowan was a respected figure in the United States and Canada. Root cited his work on foul brood and in creating a practical extractor but no edition of the Guide Book was published in the USA.


If there was any doubt about the influence of William Herrod on the Guide Book, in 1938 there appeared its mirror image, The Bee-Keeper’s Guide to the management of bees in Moveable Comb Hives, by William Herrod-Hempsall. In all, eight editions were produced up to 1947.

[To be continued.]

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