Probus hears about Thornycroft in Basingstoke

President Chris Perkins MVO with speaker Garry Bone

In the 19th century Thornycroft had been successful boat builders and marine engineers based on the river Thames at Chiswick. Steam power was the means of propulsion for paddle steamers and boats for the Admiralty, including torpedo boats. One such Thornycroft torpedo boat featured in the film The African Queen enacting historical fact where the German vessel that had been controlling Lake Tanganyika was eventually sunk. Other torpedo boats were successful in sinking part of the Russian Red fleet during the Bolshevik revolution. The company expanded with a yard in Southampton and eventually in Singapore and Australia.

It was the repeal of the red flag act in 1896 that had required someone to walk in front of a vehicle waving a red flag at a maximum speed of 6 mph that prompted Thornycroft to realise the potential for self propelled road vehicles. They were already making steam driven vans but clearly needed new premises to expand production. Thornycroft settled on Basingstoke because the town had good road and rail links.

The company moved to Basingstoke in 1898 where they established their works on a 16 acre site  on the Worting Road. Eventually Thornycroft became the town’s largest employer. Today Morrison’s supermarket occupies part of this acreage. The roundabout at the junction of Churchill Way West  and the Ringway carries the name of Thornycroft as a lasting reminder of the importance  this company made to the rising fortunes of Basingstoke.

Thornycroft Society Logo Capture

Garry Bone was a long serving employee of Thornycroft and is a founding member and director of the Thornycroft Society and gave an insight of the changing fortunes of Thornycroft in a presentation to the Probus Club of Basingstoke.

Thornycroft Steam Van
An early Thornycroft steam van produced at Chiswick

Steam powered lorries were supplied to the British Army from the Boer War onwards, with commercial vehicles supplied to many retail customers. London’s first steam powered bus was a Thornycroft double decker and overseas companies were regular customers, as were many UK bus companies. Petrol vehicles were introduced in the early 1900s which saw Thornycroft making a series of cars until 1913 when they decided to concentrate on lorry production.

Thornycroft car
One of a range of Thornycroft cars made in Basingstoke

The outbreak of WW1 saw an immediate requirement for lorries and Thornycroft was tasked to deliver as many as possible. They concentrated on their J Type lorry and many chassis were fitted with anti tank guns, mobile aircraft guns, ammunition carriers and as general transport vehicles. Over 5,000 were delivered during this conflict during which time 35% of the workforce were women.

Other war supplies made by Thornycroft in Basingstoke were marine engines, trench mortars, over 3,000 depth charge throwers for the Admiralty and thousands of shells.

Post war saw a reduction in the fortunes of Thornycroft as surplus military vehicles were available at a quarter of the price of new vehicles but by the mid 1920s the company was rising again with the introduction of the Lightening coach that was capable of carrying its full load of passengers at 50 mph. Other orders were placed by railway companies for lorries and buses and by this time about half of the output was exported.

By the 1930s the loss making Thornycroft was criticised by its bank for having too many models on offer and poor senior management that needed to grasp the realities of the market. As well as making buses and coaches they were making eleven types of lorries. In 1930 they had 1800 employees which reduced to 731 by 1936 by which time the firm returned to profitability.

WW2 saw a massive improvement of the order book. The firm worked 24 hours a day with 2,500 employees, over 800 being women. As well as munitions the company made over 8,000 Bren gun carriers some with floatation gear to cross canals and rivers under their own power, 13,000 wheeled vehicles including mobile cranes, others with generating sets, 670 two-pounder guns, 1,700 17–pounder guns and 15,000 sets of torpedo parts. In addition Thornycroft made nearly 2,000 Nippy and Sturdy lorries for essential civilian work. There were huge numbers of parts made for various military and marine engines.

1948 saw the vehicle and engine manufacturing formed into the subsidiary company Transport Equipment (Thornycroft) Ltd.  TET announced in 1949 that the Iraq Petroleum Company had placed a large order for Mighty Antar lorries to carry pipe lines across the desert. This was followed over many years by the UK military using this vehicle in many guises as its main heavy transporter.

Mighty Antar Tank Transporter Capture
A Thornycroft  Mighty Antar as a tank transporter

TET was sold in 1961 to Associated Commercial Vehicles (ACV) announcing that the Basingstoke works would concentrate on the Mighty Antar, Big Ben and Nubian heavy duty vehicles while other parts of the group would be responsible for mass produced vehicles. June 1962 saw ACV becoming part of the Leyland Group, whose subsidiary, Scammell, also produced specialised lorries which led to reducing orders for Basingstoke.

In 1972 British Leyland sold the Basingstoke works to the Eaton Corporation of Ohio. The work force was reduced from 1,100 to 738 with the pledge to employ them in its transmission business. This did not last long as the last lorry was built in 1972 and the works sold on 14 January 1973 although Eaton carried on locally. So ended 74 years’ connection between Thornycroft and Basingstoke where thousands of commercial vehicles had been made with great numbers of a highly skilled labour force. With its highs and lows of commercial endeavour, war work, and successful heavy duty vehicle manufacturing it had brought the benefit of employment to thousands of Basingstoke folk who regard their time there fondly.

(Bob Clarke is acknowledged as providing many of the above statistics)