The last decade of the nineteenth century was a period of great economic activity that witnessed the continuing importance and the growth of Britain's major ports and cities. One of these ports, sitting astride the Avon estuary off the river Severn remains an important centre of commercial activity today and it is here in Bristol, with the surrounding areas providing a backdrop, where the story of Williams Automobiles begins.
Late Victorian England and its Empire was a time of great opportunity providing you had two things. One was a good education and connections in society, the other was if you had access to a little capital by way of family, a legacy or access to a loan. If you had neither then your opportunities were much more limited. The were available in the military but if you entered as a private or able seaman again the chances of becoming an officer were very slim indeed. The was plenty of work available in the factories that had sprung up around the cities. However the work in these was poorly paid with extremely long hours demanded and advancement limited. Bristol had great factories, Wills for tobacco, Frys for Chocolate, Hills for shipbuilding and Bush for lead shot amongst many others.
If you were of an entrepreneurial nature and found it difficult to work in a regimented factory then you had to live very much on your wits and negotiating ability and earn your own reputation.
"Farmer" George Williams was a large man with a sobriquet of unknown provenance, since he was not a farmer. His origins remain a mystery. Some people suggest the coalfields of Radstock, or perhaps Midsomer Norton whilst others suggest the Harptrees where his wife grew up. He made his living during the day as an ostler and tack trader in Bristol's Old Market and the tanneries and knackers yards that ran along the banks of the River Frome towards St. Werbergs and Newfoundland Road. By night, he graciously helped in the ridding of rabbits from the Estate at Ashton Court belonging to a Lady Smythe. Unfortunately, the good lady was unaware of any such arrangement and the bailiffs would occasionally catch him. This resulted in a good many one-nighters in the local jail from where his wife would bail him out in the morning.
By 1890 he was established in Bedminster, a village on the South side of the River Avon, which had been absorbed by the growth of Bristol to become one of its suburbs. He had a small, basic two up and one down house. The house in Clark Street had no heating, no electricity, no running water and a small outside toilet. Soon enough the house was home to five children: Gilbert, Henry (forever known as Harry), Lilly, Bill and Francis. Often, and in the effort to escape the challenges of raising four children, he would spend the evening in the Barley Mow public house on the high street that formed the main road from Bristol to Devon and Cornwall. Always accustomed to carrying a shillelagh on his person he would use it, after a few too many, to knock a few pint mugs from their overhead racks if he felt he was not being served quickly enough. This would again necessitate a night in Bedminster nick although he was known to always return to the pub and to pay for the damages.
"Farmer" George became quite notorious within the horse trading community and, despite being a hard trader; he secured a reputation for honesty and straightforwardness. Both of these attributes stood him well and he was well respected by other traders.
The five children, in the meantime, enjoyed a very much free-range childhood and four went on to become major Bristol business figures while one became a tramp.
One of "Farmer George's " sons was Henry, known to all as Harry. Born on November 5th in 1893 he saw the last few years of the Victorian era. As a youngster he was mischievous and this particular aspect of his character led him to become a member of a local gang of kids known as ‘the Bedminster Kerb Dashers’ who were generally known to get up to no good. Receiving no financial support from his father and recognising there was not a lot of money about, he soon realised he would have to earn it.
His schooling was rudimentary at the local Windmill Hill school school but he did get a good command of English and maths that would stand him in good stead for his business life. He left as soon as he could at an early age to try to earn some money for the household.
Harry's first business venture began after he noticed the cemeteries of the local churches became quite overgrown in the summer and that the bushes and brambles presented a significant challenge in their removal, using machetes and scythes. 'Farmer' George suggested that a goat would be well employed to keep the grass down and the brambles at bay and since there was nearly always a wall and a gate surrounding the cemetery, the goats could not escape. So Harry acquired a goat and duly rented the animal to a vicar. The plan worked and the goat managed to keep the vegetation at bay whilst Harry assiduously cleared the graveyard of goat pellets. Soon enough neater cemeteries were creating happy vicars and even happier congregations. Harry's one other task, he quickly learned, was the need to dye the goats blue to prevent them being stolen. A blue goat was Harry's goat.
This inspired little seed business gave Harry some spare cash, but like so many commercial enterprises, conditions dictate fortunes. When winter arrived and the weeds stopped growing, the goats would need to be fed and this would seriously erode Harry's newly created modest capital base. In a galvanising moment of business genius Harry clearly saw the need to diversity, an attribute that was to feature regularly through Harry's business career along with the development of the company.
So the goats were sold to be eaten and Harry's capital was invested in fruit and vegetables.
This investment did not surprise those who knew him since Harry had always nurtured an interest in the busy bustling fruit markets that ranalongside Baldwin Street near the old docks. Now he spied an opportunity to ally this interest to one of his childhood dreams: to one day own one of the the lovely and elegant merchants houses of Clifton, the village overlooking the docks alongside Brunel's famous suspension bridge, stretching down to the harbour at Hotwells. His plan, and conscientiously implemented, was to rise early in the morning and walk to the Baldwin street fruit market to buy the best fruit and vegetables on offer. He would then pull his laden wheeled basket up park street to sell his wares at the doors of these same lovely and elegant houses. He worked hard always arriving early at the market and buying good quality until he had a thriving business with loyal customers. In the afternoons he would stroll from Clifton down Constitutional hill to Anchor road in Hotwellswhere other members had a small premises dealing in horses and tack.
During this time Harry would often walk down Victoria street and over Bristol Bridge on his way from Bedminster to the fruit market. Many times over those years he would walk by numbers 136-138 where the showrooms of “the Bristol Wagon and Carriage company” were situated. This company made the first “Bristol” car and also sold Wolseley and Darracq cars. From 1902 to 1908 these cars would have been parked alongside the road and were no doubt a fascination to Harry and the seeds that the transport industry lay with these vehicles would no doubt have been planted in his mind.
In spite of his success, the slender profit margins would never amount to a Clifton house and this reality drew him part time into the family business. He began ranging as far as Wales to buy old carts and carriages that were nearing the end of their days to dismantle them. The springs, wheels, tyres, lights, and harnesses could be sold on from what was in essence an old fashioned scrapyard. The more hopeful carriages were rebuilt by coach builders and sold on, a business that Harry would make us of later in his business career. Even the wood from the useless cart bodies would be broken up and sold for firewood. A very early example of effective recycling. Another interesting vehicle Harry dealt with was the older steam road rollers which had been around from the 1850s. When they were worn out from crushing rock and rolling it onto the roads they would provide good metal for recycling. As well as the carts and traction engines horses still ran in his blood and he would deal in Shire Horses he obtained from the north and ponies from Wales.
One day in 1911, a still very young Harry was was presented with an opportunity that would change his life. One of his customers had an automobile he wanted to sell. A Belsize. Automobiles were very rare and unreliable in those days, there were very few mechanics, fuel was difficult to get hold of, punctures were many and they were despised with equal hostility by both taxi carriages and horse transport but Harry was desperate to buy the Belsize despite not having the money to do so. He managed to persuade the owner to let him buy it with a cheque that was not to be cashed until Harry had sold it. The acquiescence of the owner was undoubtedly due to the the reputation for honesty and integrity that Harry had earned and now enjoyed, a characteristic he inherited from his father.
The Belsize sold quickly and Harry suggested to his family and friends that automobiles were the future. They would have been sceptical if not incredulous, as prevailing attitudes of the time towards these new fangled focussed on their high cost and proven unreliability and the the belief they would certainly never replace horse drawn transport in cities. They said to Harry in theirindomitable Bristol accent " these 'ere automobiles will never catch on". Harry, ever the entrepreneur was undeterred and "Williams Automobiles " was established in 1911.
Beginning with little capital Harry bought any used Automobile he could find and slowly began to specialise in the imported American Hudson and Essex vehicles. The company very slowly started to develop over the next couple of years until the first major setback of the business in 1914 and the descent of Europe into the chaos of the First World War. All mechanical transport was requisitioned by the War office and Williams Automobiles temporarily ceased to trade.
Our recorded of this time are understandably sparse and indeed cease until Harry re emerged from the war in 1919. A return to the old business was out of the question since there were no automobiles available as they has been used for the war effort whilst second hand carts and carriages were almost unobtainable. So Harry, and with little capital left returned to a trade he knew well, fruit and vegetables.
By 1920 , and in the same year that his first son Clifford was born, he had made enough money to rent a large flat in Albany road in the St Paul's area of Bristol. An astute move move since the House, once belonging to a wealthy merchant had the added advantage of a large stables at the end of the garden. Onto these stables he attached a coach painted sign that stated to all and sundry that "Williams Automobiles" was back in business. As a point of interest the script for the sign was rather old fashioned in its day but is still used by the company today despite Richard trying to persuade Clifford in the seventies to modernise it. Many years later he bought the freehold ground rent for this property for nostalgia sake and the family still own it.
He gradually found cars to sell and remained a specialist in American imports.. He also started dealing in the more affordable British made Fords and cars made by the Riley Motor Company that were to become his favourites driving one until the day he died.
As the automobile market expanded in the 1920s it was becoming clear that the future lay with cars and that they now represented a viable alternative to non railway travel. The manufacturers soon realised that there was a vast market for small , reliable and affordable cars that were cheap to service. Amongst others Herbert Austin and William Morris were soon producing such vehicles by the thousands. Harry sensed there was a real opportunity to be had from selling them and began to look for some larger premises where he could do just that.
In 1922 he found an interesting property coming up for auction in the inner city "village of Eastville". It was to have been a dairy but having been built over a stream called the Combe Brook, so much concrete had been used in the foundations that the owner had run out of money. It was also in a prime location, situated at a major road junction where everyone coming in from the East had to pass and it was, moreover only one hundred yards from the bus terminus that was the final stop forthe trams to and from the city centre.
Arranging a mortgage from one of his loyal customers ( apparently he didn't trust the banks....), Harry went to the auction and bought the property for the princely sum of four thousand pounds. He wasted little time in building a glass showroom entrance and installing a solid mahogany coach panted sign over the front door. All he needed was a supply of new cars to fill the showroom and it was no surprise that he chose Austin and Morris who had recently taken over Riley, and this business agreement was reached at a time when both these companies were still essentially .
privately owned. Indeed in 1928 William Morris presented a barometer hand made by the Morris apprentices personally to Harry due to the number of Morris cars that he had sold that year.
Automobiles were now becoming fairly ubiquitous and an increasing numbers of Bristolians were able to afford a car. In spite of a growing number of competitors, Harry maintained a first class reputation and, in time added Wolseley and MG to his new car portfolio. His local standing ensured that business was brisk and Williams Automobiles soon became highly recommended as the place to buy one of the marquesof cars on offer.
As the business developed Harry and his wife enlarged their family with two more sons, Terry and Hedley. Whilst Terry would be destined, along with his older brother Clifford, to follow his father Harry into the automobile business, Hadley was to follow other interests and eventually to become a well known and respected horticulturalist.
Despite the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the subsequent effects that were felt around the world, the business prospered and Harry was able to buy and interesting property on the coastal sand dunes of Brean near Weston Super Mare, in the same year. This was in addition to his purchase of one of the most imposing houses in Bristol, overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which came with the ownership of most of the woods alongside the the Sea Wall known as Avon Wood. It had a vineyard on the slopes of the Avon valley that Harry used to pick the grapes he grew and give them to the patients of the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Although a fabulous property, Harry's wife, Alice, whose was born and raised in a ships chandlers alongside the city dock and was an 'inner city' girl who rarely drove, hated living in the country, as she put it and insisted they move back into the city. Harry sold Avon Wood and bought a fine merchants house in Clifton. The boyhood dream of the lad from Bedminster with not a bean to his name but with hard work and integrity had finally come true.
The three boys attended school, business was buoyant and the fine house in Clifton reflected Harry's success. But the second major setback for the company was about to unfold as, once again, the dark and ominous clouds of war gathered over Europe.
The rest of the story will follow soon............