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The Raworth Coincidence
publication date: Apr 23, 2015
author/source: Dave Moss
Your correspondent is intermittently engaged in writing a book on the life, times and disappearance of the most famous names in Britain's "old" motor industry.
Publication is not imminent, so this is not a book plug, rather an unexpected, locally connected automotive vignette, unearthed during research via the long arm of coincidence.
The story of Lord Nuffield, born William Morris, is well documented and generally well known. My research on Morris cars has thus mostly involved clarifying and confirming nebulous, oft repeated but unsubstantiated details rather than deep primary investigative work.
The name Raworth pops up frequently in writings about Morris' earliest automotive years, but with little detail. Despite knowing how research time can easily be squandered on peripheral matters when getting a book together, I also knew the name was quite common in Somerset, and decided this warranted a little further investigation into Raworth and Sons, coachbuilders of Oxford.
From 1913, the company supplied bodies for early Morris 'Bullnose' models, and later also built them for Cecil Kimber's MG offshoot. I wanted to add more: what was Raworth's background? Had they supplied bodies to other fledgling car makers... and if so, which?
It emerged that Raworth's origins were not in Oxford at all. Intriguingly, the trail led back almost a hundred years, though a key date for this story is 1905, when Charles Raworth and Sons, Coachbuilders and Carriage Makers, operated premises at 6-8, Monmouth Street, Bridgwater, Somerset.
The company appears to have originated as carriage builders here around 1813, and early in the 20th century, was boldly advertising the sale of "Quality carriages, founded on the four tenets of lightness, strength, quality and cheapness."
Raworth's move into automobile coachwork manufacture came late in 1904, when the company's boss, then Albert Raworth, contracted to build bodies for a new motorised carriage - to be produced in Bridgwater.
Across town, around 1900, Harry Carver's cycle shop on East Quay expanded its interests into early motor vehicles, quickly gaining a solus De Dion Bouton agency.
By 1904 it was offering pioneering automobilists "every service they might need." They must have paid handsomely for this privilege, for that same year the business expanded into spacious, well-equipped premises nearby, previously occupied by the Bridgwater Iron Foundry. The growing business then became the Bridgwater Motor Company Limited, and in 1905 built its first car - known, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the Bridgwater.
The car was typical of those early days, built using techniques later to be exploited by one William Morris - with carefully selected combinations of components bought in for assembly into a complete vehicle in the company's workshops. The Bridgwater's chassis and running gear came from France, with customers able to choose engines from either the Coventry firm of White and Poppe - later to become a Morris supplier - or Ballot, in Paris.
Engines ranging from 12 to 24/30hp were initially offered, though within a year the less powerful engines had disappeared. Catalogue prices in 1905 ranged from £500 to £700 - placing the car at the high quality end of the market.
As with many early twentieth century manufacturers, Bridgwater production didn't last long - and not many cars were built. Records suggest less than a dozen were registered between 1905 and 1908, virtually all sold locally, though it’s unclear whether every chassis built was bodied by local suppliers Charles Raworth and Sons. No Bridgwater cars or chassis are currently known to survive.
Exactly how Raworth's work first came to appear on Morris Oxford chassis we will probably now never know. Perhaps the Raworth "Four tenets" advertising already mentioned came to William Morris's attention... or perhaps Charles Raworth saw far more potential in the fledgling Midlands motor industry than in Bridgwater; and decided to move there to make his fortune...or perhaps Morris simply contacted him, with a promise of steady and secure contract work.
Whatever the reason, other Raworth family members continued in business in Bridgwater, while the 1911 census indicates Charles and his wife newly resident in Oxford.
The midlands arm of Raworth and Sons prospered before disappearing into the Nuffield organisation around 1945 , but uncovering exactly what happened to the Bridgwater operation needs further detailed research.
It’s known the Bridgwater Motor Company gave up car making in 1908, but afterwards enjoyed a long and independent motor trade career. Its car sales operation was expanded and by 1910 agencies were held for Triumph motorcycles - and Peugeot, Rover and Darracq cars.
Later there was diversification - into postal service operations and mechanical and agricultural engineering.
During the First World War under Ministry of Agriculture control farming equipment was distributed and maintained, though cars again took centre stage when peace returned. In the 1920's and early 1930's local bus services were operated, and in 1939 the company gained an Austin distributorship.
The Bridgwater workshops were run by the Ministry of Aircraft Production in the second World War but afterwards the company returned to the motor trade. It remained loyal to the Austin franchise until 1980, when allegiance was changed to Renault, with whom it remained until its location was scheduled for complete redevelopment. The business closed in 1994, and today, a supermarket occupies the site.
Remarkably, the Bridgwater car was not alone. In a region hardly known as a hotbed of automotive activity, research for this feature has revealed the existence of two more car makers, and a car component importer - all operating successfully in the area over a hundred years ago.
It seems there's much more to Somerset's history than the cider for which its probably best known but which we can use to toast this little known piece of British motoring history on our doorstep.