The Life and Times of John Davenport Siddeley

The Siddeley family can be traced back to 1555, being found as farmers at Peover in Cheshire.

 

Moving forward in time to 1866 we discover William Siddeley and his wife Elizabeth (nee Davenport) residing in the Longsite district of Manchester.  On the 5th day of August they rejoiced in the birth of a boy who was named John Davenport Siddeley.

 

The Davenport connection - The Davenports were a well-established family in the Cheshire area. From this family, the Davenport writing desk was envisaged. It is suggested that a sea captain, of that name, was the instigator, as a compact desk was required in the captains quarters aboard ship. Several furniture makers made this style of desk including Gillows.   

More research is required to find Elizabeth's place in the family.

 

At the time of John's birth his father William described earlier as a 'shirt maker', had established a business as a hosier and glove seller in the Market Place Manchester. Later a second shop was opened in Llandudno, as a further outlet for the produce from the mill and factory with which he is credited. Entering politics he became an MP for a district of Manchester. As John grew into manhood he would have the benefit of a good schooling and the extra training gleaned in his father's business. While working for his father he took it upon himself to study and qualify as a draughtsman.

J. D. Siddeley age 26 with one hand on the T Square and the other on the cycle saddle.

 To understand the pace of development in the entrepreneurial late Victorian age it is interesting to consider that while John lay in his cot,  aged two, there occurred an event and in a city which would one day play a large part in his life.

 

In 1868  Rowley Turner, Paris Agent for the Coventry Sewing Machine Company brought back from France a velocipede to show to his uncle who was a director of the company. Shipped to Coventry by rail, young Rowley rode the machine from the station to the factory which as you might expect caused quite a bit of interest. Rowley convinced his uncle and the other directors to start manufacturing the machine with constant improvements, so much so that by 1869 the sewing machine side of the business had come to a halt.

 

Much could be said about the early growth of the bicycle as it developed including names such as Ariel, Ordinary, Imperial, Highrider, Quad-Salvo Royal (named for the then Prince of Wales). Some tricycles when fitted with carrier boxes were much used by the Post Office. It is interesting to note some of the names of the workers in the fledgling industry, such as Singer, Hillman and Humber. By 1875 it is said cycles, some capable of 20mph, were numbering 50,000 on the roads of England. In 1885 Starley designed and Rover manufactured the more familiar to us 'safety bicycle' and in 1888 Dunlop produced the pneumatic tyre.

 

John, now 22 years of age was passionate about cycling. He opened a cycle shop in Deans Gate, Manchester, near his father's shop. Through business here he came to know George Mills and organised his record run from Lands End to John o' Groats.

 

Then in 1892, John organised the same run for T. Edge who took 4 days 40 minutes beating Mill's time by 10 hours 37 minutes. This was achieved by John moving ahead by train and cycle to arrange meals and hotels. The same year John joined Humber as a draughtsman, but it is thought the real reason for his employment was his ability to win races.  In 1893 he was offered a post with Dunlop Tyres at their new depot in Belfast. On the way to Belfast he made a detour to Macclesfield and married Sarah Mable Goodier and in 1894 the first of 4 children, Cyril, was born.

 

In 1896 he met S.F. Edge, the Australian cyclist and together they set up a Napier agency and formed Clipper Tyres. To avoid litigation arising in the tyre industry at that time he took patent permissions from the Continental Caoutchouc and Gutta-Perca Company of Hanover Germany,  (Today we know the company as Continental Tyres.) manufacturing pneumatic bicycle and car tyres. The advertising slogan was ' The only reliable motor tyre available'

 

The Automobile Club of Great Britain was formed in 1897 and John Siddeley was a founding member.

 

In 1900 he took part in the One Thousand Mile Trial - basically London to Edinburgh and return by diverse routes, in a 6HP Daimler car to prove and publicise the Clipper Tyre. This experience seems to have set him on the path he would follow until his retirement.

John Montagu in an 1899 6hp Daimler on the 1900 1000 mile trial. Credit National Motor Museum

 

In 1902 John formed the Siddeley Autocar Company to construct motor cars based on Peugeot designs, using Peugeot mechanical parts, but having English built bodies. These early cars were assembled for him by Vickers Son and Maxim. At this point we discover something of the force of his character as he based his works in Coventry next door to the Rover Company and his London office opposite to those of The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company. (a subsidiary of Vickers Son and Maxim).

 

By 1905 Siddeley Autocars were selling so well that Vickers approached John with a view to amalgamating his business with their Wolseley operation. This he agreed to and became the London sales manager for The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company.

 

The Wolseley Company works were established at Adderley Park, Birmingham with Herbert Austin in charge of production and racing. The three years to 1903 had shown profit, however as time passed the Vickers board felt that to maintain their strong market position and to increase profitability a change from horizontal to vertical engines was needed. Austin disagreed. The Vickers board were now looking for a person with a more modern vision and they felt that John Siddeley fitted the bill. Early in 1905 John was promoted from sales to general manager. This led later the same year with Austin's continued resolute refusal to countenance new vertical engines for 'his' Wolseleys, whatever his directors might wish, to him handing in his resignation the year before his contract ended. (Curiously in his new Austin enterprise all the engines used were of the vertical type.) 

 

1908 Wolseley-Siddeley

 

John Siddeley, on his appointment to Austin's former position, promptly replaced Austin's horizontal engines with the now conventional upright engines. With him he brought his associate Lionel de Rothschild as a member of the Wolseley board. Together they gave the business a new lease of life. Capitalising on the successes of the Siddeley Autocars they took full page advertising displays naming their products Wolseley- Siddeleys. In the way of journalists they started to drop the first word in Wolseley-Siddeley Autocars to - Siddeley Autocars made by (in smaller type face) the Wolseley Tool Co.  Certainly it was true the new engines were named Siddeley engines, but doubtless this must have caused some ill feeling within the company.

 

Meanwhile, under Siddeley's management, Wolseley maintained the sales lead left by Austin but, now run from London not Austin's base of Birmingham, the whole business failed to cover overheads. A board member, Walter Chetwynd, was set to find a solution. It was decided the business operated from too many different locations.

 

First the board closed the Crayford Kent works, moving the whole operation back to Birmingham and dropping production of commercial vehicles and taxicabs - a large number of which, 500+, were made during Siddeley's time including an early 10hp taxicab made in 1908 sold to a Mr W R Morris of Holywell St. Oxford who ran a garage there and hire car business as well as making bicycles.

 

In the Spring of 1909, the closure of the London head office followed. After some heated discussions, both John Siddeley and Lionel de Rothschild resigned.

 

 

Captain Deasy

Back in 1907 the Brooklands race track was opened - the brainchild of Hugh F Locke King. Mrs Locke King had just purchased a second-hand car and driving this she led the procession around the circuit to declare the track open. The car was a 1904 Siddeley which she purchased from a car showroom at 117 Piccadilly, London. The salesman was a Captain Deasy.

 

It would appear that Deasy's interest in cars started around 1903 in which year he drove a Rochet -Schneider car from London to Glasgow without a stop and later a Martini car to the summit of a Swiss mountain. The new U.K. Deasy company formed in 1906 purchased the lease of the now defunct Iden Motor Company in Parkside, Coventry while sales and administration was housed at Brompton Road, London. Matters did not run smoothly and in March 1908 Deasy resigned.

c.1903 Rochet-Schneider car as driven by Capt Deasy

John Siddeley was now looking for a new opportunity and he approached The Deasy Motor Company, securing the position of General Manager, based in Coventry.  In June of the year he was appointed Managing Director. The sales showroom remained in London but administration transferred to Parkside, Coventry.

 

By 1910 a new range of cars known as the J.D.S.Type Deasy were in production. The company was brought into profit by John moving from every part having been made in-house to judicial out of house manufacture and purchase of parts. eg Chassis from Rover, Engines from Asters, White and Poppe and the Knight sleeve valve engine manufactured under licence by Daimler.

 

In November of 1912 the Deasy Company was renamed The Siddeley-Deasy Motor Car Company and now all cars were powered by Knight sleeve valve four and six cylinder engines. As a result of the experience of a journalist who tested the car and wrote that the car was as silent and as inscrutable as the Sphinx, John Siddeley was intrigued by the expression which led to the creation of the Sphinx mascot.

 

A very astute purchase in 1913 was The Burlington Carriage Company situated next to the Siddeley Deasy works, so becoming the 'in house' body builder.

 

1915 Siddeley-Deasy with a Burlington body

Also in this year John formed an additional company, Stoneleigh Motors Ltd. to handle light car and subsequent commercial vehicles so ensuring that this venture would not conflict with the main enterprise. One of the WW1 orders to this company was for 100 Stoneleigh lorries to be fitted out as ambulances and field kitchens.  .

 

With the coming of the war in 1914 John Siddeley using his contacts and based on his previous good record succeeded in obtaining contracts from the War Office. These opened up new opportunities to expand into the manufacture and development of aircraft engines and airframes. This would prove to be a turning point for the Company. It should be noted that his was the smallest company of the six commissioned.

 

From a work force of 500 in 1914 with the securing of a new contract in 1915 for 300, type RAF- 1A aero- engines, was followed by the development and production in quantity of several others. With the manufacture of ambulances, trucks, staff cars and aircraft frames this increased the work force to 5000.

 

When the armistice was declared in 1918 and the 'War to end all Wars' was over the need for many of these products fell away.

 

An advert by Siddeley Deasy in 1919 stated that during the previous four years, while producing for the nation, they had made great many aircraft engines and their spare parts; very large numbers of RE8 reconnaissance aircraft and over 1,000 motor vehicles.

 

After four years of war, the armistice came as an undoubted relief for the people of Great Britain, the war had been costly in lives and the nation had incurred huge debts. For manufacturing the immediate cancellation of war contracts, with little or no compensation, left them with spare capacity and a large workforce.

 

In order to survive many companies sought to merge with other compatible concerns. These mergers often brought complexities and conflict of interest which was often confusing even to those who were living through the involvement. Many such ventures were doomed to failure. John Siddeley, astute as ever, recognised these potential problems.

 

During the war, Siddeley Deasy and Armstrong Whitworth had worked together on aircraft engine production. John Siddeley recognised that there could be synergies in the motor and aircraft manufacturing capabilities of the two companies. With his board’s approval he approached Armstrong and agreement was reached in May 1919 to form a new organisation named the Sir W.G.Armstrong Whitworth Development Company.

 

By October 1919 this new company had set up its own subsidiary, Armstrong Siddeley Motors (ASM), with the objective of absorbing the car and aviation interests of both companies and concentrating all these activities at Parkside, Coventry with John Siddeley as the Managing Director.

 

 

One might have expected John Siddeley to have been a member the main board, however, it would seem that the Chairman of the Development Company did not wish to have Johns influence where the A.S.M. profits were to be invested. Additionally, it was perhaps better to keep his known strength of character one place removed.

 

 

In fairness John had plenty to occupy him as he reorganised the factory and prepared for the construction and launch of the new range of motor cars, there was still a good demand for aircraft engines and aircraft production had to be brought on stream in Coventry.

 

Following service in the army, his sons Ernest and Cyril joined him at Parkside. Ernest was quickly dispatched on a fact finding trip to America where the motor industry had mechanised the manufacturing processes and in consequence, was flourishing. Whilst in America he visited several motor manufacturing companies carefully noting the methods of production and the machinery used which was enabling the American industry to produce cars of quality in such numbers.

Armstrong Whitworth Siskin -this aircraft started life as a Siddeley-Deasy  design

Meanwhile, a London office and showrooms were opened and in October at the Olympia Motor Show, the Armstrong Siddeley Company made its debut. After the austerity of the war years, there was a pent-up demand among those who had money to purchase cars.

 

The new range of cars, aero-engine manufacturing and the construction of aircraft were making good profits for the parent company. Towards the end of 1926, John was elected to the Armstrong Whitworth board and his suspicions that the Armstrong Siddeley profits were keeping the rest of the group were confirmed.

 

The outcome was that he contacted his local Midland Bank and through his personal friendship with the chairman Reginald McKenna was granted an unsecured loan which gave him the ability to purchase the Armstrong Whitworth Development Company in November 1926 for £1,500,000.

 

Whilst his initial approach to the parent company was not welcomed the need for such a large cash injection forced them to agree. As a condition of the deal, he stipulated to the parent company that they would not in future undertake the construction of aircraft or cars. Soon the Armstrong Whitworth Development Company name was changed to The Armstrong Siddeley Development Company (1927). 

 

Freed from the control of Armstrong Whitworth, John was able to look to other ventures to secure the future of ASM. In 1927 John Siddeley met Walter Wilson the inventor of the 'Wilson epicyclic gearbox' or pre-selector gearbox. At the time of “crash gearboxes,” this semi-automatic gearbox revolutionised driving a car for the owner driver.

The hand controls of the pre-select gearbox

John and Walter struck a deal and the manufacture and development of these boxes which was undertaken by a new subsidiary company 'Improved Gears Ltd. (1928).'  This form of gearbox would be available on Armstrong Siddeley cars through into the 1950s. Little surprise that in the public mind it is most often remembered aspect of the marque.

In May 1928 another opportunity came along when Crossley Motors, also in need of a cash injection, put their subsidiary A.V. Roe and Company up for sale. Since Avro was one of ASM’s main customers for the Lynx aero-engine John quickly stepped in and acquired Avro to ensure that the Lynx continued to be used in that aircraft.

Avro 504N fitted with an Armstrong Siddeley Lynx engine

Also at this time Peter Hooker Limited, a supplier of pistons to Armstrong Siddeley, got into difficulty and John on three occasions made substantial loans to assist them. However, the net result was that they became a part of ASM and were renamed High Duty Alloys.

 

1928 was also the year that both of his sons, Cyril and Ernest, joined the board. Cyril settled into the sales and administration aspects of the company while Ernest found his niche in the technical aspects of the business.

 

By 1932 the recession was almost at its height, but surprisingly, Armstrong Siddeley was selling beyond expectation, their wide range of cars. Also, the aviation side of the business was developing well with John seeing the fulfillment of his belief in the growth of passenger air transport. When in June the King's Birthday List was published a knighthood was conferred on John Siddeley.

 

In 1932 at the Olympia Motor Show the Siddeley Special was introduced. This model was a continuation of the line of 30hp cars which had undergone continual improvement since the 1919 car. Developed under the strict supervision of John Siddeley it was to become the pinnacle of achievement for Armstrong Siddeley motors in the 1930s.

1933 Siddeley Special Sporting Saloon with a sporting gent?

By 1935 John realized that as he approached 70 years of age the new technical developments, especially in aero engine design was now the provenance of younger men. The time had come to consider handing over the reins and to this end, he took the decision to look beyond family and put his treasured company into the hands of some enterprise which echoed his successes but in the contemporary age. He chose to sell to  Tom Sopwith head of Hawker Aviation. The Armstrong Siddeley Company and all its subsidiaries were now folded into the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company (1935). A company and name which certainly did not disgrace the accomplishments of John Siddeley.

 

In recognition of his services to the nation, Sir John Siddeley was raised to the peerage in 1937 and created 1st Baron Kenilworth. John was also elected president of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders which was the highest honour the British Motor Industry could bestow.

 

At this time he purchased Kenilworth Castle, provided funding for its repair and it was subsequently given to the nation.

The Gate House at Kenilworth Castle which now houses a collection of J. D. Siddeley artefacts and memorabilia. See our partners area.

When described by his contemporaries it was often stated that he was a disciplinarian, autocratic but fair and certainly not ruthless. He is recorded to have been at times of fiery temper and certainly did not suffer fools gladly, although he was frequently observed to be a ' very private man'.

 

Confident in his own ability, hard working and with a determination to make a profit for the company and himself, he expected those in his employ to be fully committed to the enterprise. Equally, he provided generously the facilities for their recreation and leisure.

From today's standpoint and having access to many of his private papers we discover how much home and family meant to him. The depth of his caring and generosity to deserving causes and to needy individuals can also be seen. Many in the Coventry area benefited directly or indirectly from John's kindness.

 

Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Siddeley spent the last years of their retirement in their home on the Island of Jersey.  Elizabeth passed away on the 18th day of October 1953 and John, the following month, on the 3rd of November 1953.

 

There is still a close relationship with the Siddeley family today.  Derek Ainscow the great, great grandson of John Siddeley is President of the Armstrong Siddeley Owners Club and Armstrong Siddeley Heritage Trust is honoured to have the support of Randle Siddeley, 4th Baron Kenilworth as our patron.

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