Special look at Leyland Motors’ glorious past - part one

Leyland Motors worker heading home after the day shift at Farington Works. Photo by Ken Chapman
Leyland Motors worker heading home after the day shift at Farington Works. Photo by Ken Chapman

Leyland Motors began in 1896, when The Lancashire Steam Motor Company was formed by James Sumner and the Spurrier family.

James Sumner worked in the family blacksmith’s business for his father Elias, a fitter and turner as well as a farrier.

The small engineering workshop, on Water Lane, Leyland, produced iron and brass castings of up to half a hundredweight.

James enjoyed building steam powered engines and by 1884 he had built his first steam wagon for Stannings Bleachworks in Leyland.

The wagon was built to haul coal from local mines, but it wasn’t a great success, John Stanning was said to have lost an election because of the damage it had caused to the roads.

The wagon’s last ill-fated trip, with James’s brother William acting as flag boy, took four days to cover the 15 miles from Leyland to Ormskirk.

A more successful venture was a steam tricycle built by the brothers.

A small, twin cylinder engine and an oil-fired boiler were fitted to a tricycle, and James and William used this to speed through the local lanes.

The Locomotive Act or ‘Red Flag Act’ of 1865 limited the speed of all road locomotives to 4mph in the country, and 2mph in the towns. It also called for a crew of three, one of whom was required to walk 60 yards ahead of the vehicle carrying a red flag.

The brothers were repeatedly stopped by the police who pointed this out to them, but the vehicle was too fast for a red flag man.

They were eventually fined a shilling by local magistrates, and another vehicle was taken off the road.

In 1892, James inherited the family business, and could now devote his efforts to powered machinery.

His first success came when he fitted the steam engine from the tricycle to a lawn mower and went on to win first prize at the Royal Lancashire Show.

Rugby School was the first to buy one, followed by Dr W G Grace, whose machine was used at The Oval for years.

In 1895, he fitted the engine to a three-wheel car for Theodore Carr, the biscuit manufacturer from Carlisle.

This proved a success, and an improved version was produced the next year.As trade increased Sumner moved to premises in Herbert Street, Leyland and was in need of more capital. J Sumner Ltd was formed with Preston engineering firm Coulthard & Co holding a half share. The involvement of the Spurrier family began when the agricultural engineers Stott of Manchester took over Coulthard’s. George Spurrier was working for Stott’s when his brother Henry became interested in Sumner’s.

The 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act lifted the red flag restrictions from vehicles under three tons, and raised the speed limit to 14mph. This made steam wagons viable, and the Spurrier brothers persuaded their father to invest in the business, and The Lancashire Steam Motor Company was formed in 1896.

By the end of the year, they had produced their first steam van; it had an oil-fired boiler, four gears, used a tiller for steering and could carry 30 cwt. Henry drove the vehicle to the 1897 trials for self-propelled vehicles organised by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, in Manchester, and despite demolishing a drinking fountain on the journey it went on to win the highest award, a Silver Medal.

After the trial Henry Spurrier said: “If we don’t make this firm a success now, we deserve to be kicked. We’ve got the world by the pants and a downhill pull!”

Spurred by this success they went on to built a bigger and better vehicle, capable of carrying three tons.

At this time, the working day at Herbert Street started at 6.15am and ended at 5.45pm, with a half-day Saturday.

There was an 8am start on a Monday to allow time to recover from the weekend, and the average wage for an engineer was 28/- a week.