27: Spring 2011

Author: Andrew Haynes

The Cornish Shovel

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The Cornish Shovel
Andrew Haynes

“What a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it.” – William Bryant Logan.


We are often urged to “call a spade a spade and a shovel a shovel” when plain speaking is required. A spade is a tool designed for digging, whereas a shovel is intended to pick up loose materials, as when loading a barrow from a heap of gravel for example. There is however a tool known as either the Cornish shovel or the American shovel which is a kind of hybrid between the two.

This tool comprises a shield shaped blade, the point of the ‘shield’ enables easy penetration of the soil when digging and a scooped shape to the blade enables a good quantity of soil to be lifted when used as a shovel. The really important difference however is the length of the handle. A conventional spade has a handle length of around 28″, which means that when the blade is fully inserted into the soil (the very point when maximum lifting effort is required) the user is lifting the loaded spade with a bent back. The 47″ length of the handle of the Cornish shovel enables the user to remain almost straight backed, with considerably more leverage behind the action, and makes it easy to deposit the load well away from the working position if required.

Charles Elliott, an American gardening enthusiast living in Britain, describes in his book (The Transplanted Gardener) published in 1995, the difficulty that he had in obtaining an American shovel at that time. Apparently a similar tool was used in Roman Britain but abandoned in medieval times in favour of shorter handled tools. He contacted Bulldog tools who informed him that they manufactured such a tool but mainly for export. In desperation he imported one himself on his next visit to America.

The use of this tool has however persisted in the West Country.

I first tried one in Cornwall a few years ago when the owner of the holiday let that we were staying in was using it to create a terrace. He was more than willing to let me try it out. I was impressed, the mechanical advantage of the long handle was immediately noticeable. Hardware shops in Cornwall were offering them for sale, but on my return to Dorset they were not to be found anywhere except for one rather cheap and nasty version whose blade appeared to be constructed of an old biscuit tin! I was sure it would bend under the slightest pressure.

Recently however I was delighted to find a proper Cornish shovel in a garden centre near Salisbury. It had a proper shaped ash handle and a treaded blade and even a 25 year guarantee and what’s more it cost only £20. Needless to say I purchased one and am now appreciating its versatility and the comfort of working straight backed. This American / Cornish spade / shovel is a joy to use and every serious gardener should have one.

First published in the Dorset Group Newsletter, 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 27.
© Copyright for this article: Andrew Haynes

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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