Looking back with Mr.H.W.Butcher

From time to time Mr. Harold Butcher has shown interest in items about happenings in the Herefordshire country where he grew up which have appeared in Motor Sport and, realising that he knew intimately the Motor Trade during its formative years, I asked him to tell me more.

His father, Mr. George Henry Butcher (1875-1961) began his transport connections in the cycle-business, being Works Manager of Truscott & Son of Stonehouse, where the Wycliffe bicycles were made. There is a catalogue showing him mounted on a sports model, whereas Mr. Truscott and his son are on more sedate mounts. At the turn of the century Mr. Butcher, Senr., joined his cousins in business at Ross-on-Wye and saw the opening of the garage in Brookend Street. Wanting to gain more widespread driving experience, he went in 1906 to work for Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Foster, of Brockhampton Court near Ross, where they kept two Brasiers, one a 1905 40/50. Mrs. Foster, a rich American lady, liked being driven fast, whereas her husband, who was fond of horses, did not. Mr. Butcher would put Mr. Foster on a train at Fawley, near Brockhampton, and drive Mrs. Foster to London in the Big Brasier, and in-spite of the bad roads, towns like Oxford and High Wycombe to be negotiated, and Birdlip hill to be climbed, be waiting for his master at Paddington before the fast train arrived. The journey time from the house to Mann & Overton’s in London used, in fact, to take about 41 hours. One imagines that it was the influence of Mrs. Foster that resulted in the 40/50 Brasier being entered for Fromes Hill Climb. The Brasier had a Herline body with cane embellishments; there were no doors to the front compartment so the driver wore a fur coat. His log includes such sidelights on these fast runs as “Ran over duck -cost 2/6d,” and “Lamps caught fire, providing excitement for the populace and burnt fingers for the driver”.

Now the business of James Fryer comes into the story. This Welsh border coal merchant opened a bicycle business and showroom in Kington, to which he introduced cars from 1899. He had no mechanical knowledge but could price a car and spot a good driver. Later he drove, but only the Model-T Ford, it is thought. His business prospered and he opened in Leominster in 1907, and in Hereford in 1908, the latter premises being behind the Green Dragon Hotel coach-houses, the place then unroofed except for the lock-ups. The offices consisted of the stables with stone-sett floor. Mr. Fryer had met Mr. Butcher, Senr., at a dinner and he put him in charge of the Hereford garage. Three other premises were acquired later. Obviously Mr. Fryer was a man of considerable drive. He had signed for the Wolseley agency in 1904, the fifth to do so, and that year, before he had a Hereford branch, he had a tent put up in Eign Street by Barton Station Bridge during the period of the Hereford Small Car Trials, with a notice on it: “Come, Try, and Buy a Wolseley from James Fryer”. In 1913, when Fryer’s became a limited company, it was claimed to be the biggest in the West of England.

Mr. Butcher’s father saw plenty of motoring while with this concern. He was a very good salesman. At the 1909 Olympia Show he sold a 40-h.p. Austin Chassis to a complete stranger, a Mr. Bacon of Norwich, because he was the only salesman who answered all the questions put to him without recourse to a catalogue. (When I was pursuing the fate of the team of four 1908 GP Austins in Motor Sport many years ago the name of Mr. Hickman Bacon crops up, as a keen Austin owner.) There is a story that when Mr. Butcher ran out of petrol late at night, at Leigh Sinton before the first World War, he knocked-up a car-owner, and while borrowing some petrol sold him a Sunbeam….

He had commenced his practical motoring in the true pioneer days, one photograph in his son’s possession showing him astride a De Dion motor-tricycle in Chase Road, Ross. It is attached to a trailer, in which are seated Mrs. Butcher and two young daughters. With a rifle-carrier on tow instead of the “Basket”, Mr. Butcher used to go off to the Volunteer manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, a very considerable ride in those days, apart from this surely being one of the earliest examples of Army mechanisation!

When they were living at Ross he had taught A. F. Winnington-Ingram, who became the Bishop of London, to ride a bicycle in the Rectory garden and in later years, when he knew Lord Nuffield very well, he used to challenge him to cycle races round the Morris works, but the former racing cyclist always refused. On one of these occasions Mr. Butcher cycled from Hereford to Oxford in the day, at the age of 68, for an AGM. At these meetings the former William Morris used to ask him to jump up quickly after the presentation of the accounts, and propose adoption, so that no shareholder should object, as once happened!

His interest in the motor racing and hill-climbing of the day brought him into contact with many other famous personalities. On one occasion, around 1910, he raced a Minerva up Fromes Hill, against Louis Coatalen driving a Sunbeam. The Minerva proved the faster car, whereupon Coatalen returned later with a faster Sunbeam, able to reach 40 m.p.h. in the middle of the hill, which began with a sharp bend that prevented it from being rushed. They used to time one another, from the respective passenger’s seats. On this second occasion Coatalen gave Butcher a start, but he had brought a better Minerva and won again!

Another person whom Mr. Butcher knew very well was Herbert Austin. He had reason to drive him to the station early in their acquaintance and Austin asked “Who taught you to change gear?” “Self-taught” was the reply, to which Austin remarked “I wish you’d teach some of the b — here”. It is said that Austin used to wait for railwaymen coming off duty in Birmingham and offer them better pay to work for him. If they could use a spanner or grease a signal it was a start. He might gather 100 men on a Saturday morning and tell them that it was up to them; he would teach them, but would require only 25 men at the end of the morning. Instruction would then commence, Herbert Austin swearing like a trooper at anyone who misused a file, etc.

Mr. Butcher, Senr., went to the 1913 French GP (his son still has the programme) and after the war he and his son were regular attenders at Shelsley-Walsh and Brooklands, etc. During the first World War the elder Butcher had won the MBE for his ploughing organisation. Using a chain-steered American Overtime tractor, the Hereford team won the British Shield and the Gordon Selfridge Cup for the most acreage ploughed in three months. Not to be outdone, the young Butcher in his best suit, spent a day with a cousin on a 3-ton Titan and returned home looking as if he had been through a flour mill. (Later Fryer’s sold International and then Nuffield tractors). One of the Fryer employees at that time was Eric Williams, who had won the 1914 Junior TT and did so again in 1921 (on AJS machines). Herbert “Mickey” Minton was a motorcycle mechanic of theirs, whose somersault from a Norton when practising for the TT let Graham Walker into the team. A great push-cyclist, Minton was known locally as “Mickey-on-the-mile”.

After the war was over there was such a shortage of new cars that Fryer’s took any agency they could get hold of, the Michelin Guide of 1920 listing them with 26. But when the slump came in 1921 it was a very different story –they failed to sell an English-bodied Cadillac at half price and things such as big pre-war Mercedes went for about £7.10/-. One lucky sale at this time was a new Buick -to General Motors! They wanted one urgently and Fryer’s happened to have it.

Naturally, all the local speed events were attended and it was this that first caused Harold Butcher to write to me. He had seen the reference in Motor Sport to Len Weston’s Hillman at the Upton Bishop hill-climb and told me that this came to their Widmarsh Street works in the winter of 1921/22, after George Bedford, the works racing driver, had finished with it. It bore the racing number 25 from the 200 mile Race in which it was seventh and was driven from Coventry with open exhaust by Col. John Eason Wilks, a Fryer Director, his younger brothers being Spencer and Maurice, of Hillman and Rover fame. This racing Hillman was priced at £500 and sold to Reg Brown, the well-known Sunbeam TT rider who passed it on to Len Weston of Weston’s Cider, who used it in the Hereford and Upton Bishop sprint events, etc. (Incidentally, Mr. Butcher says the course of the latter event did not take in the S-bend through the village, as had supposed, but a hill further along the road towards Gloucester, which I mention in case anyone goes chasing history.) Len Weston was of Much Marcie, apparently a close friend of the Chief Constable and the story is that this Mr. Rawson begged him to sell the Hillman, before one of his constables ran him in!

George Bedford did some of the drawings for a two-stroke Hillman which Fryer’s tried out in the 19205 before Hillman’s abandoned the idea. This had a four-cylinder engine of the same size as the normal ti h.p. Hillman of the period. Fryer’s garage at this time contained the racing Hillman, the new 1921 Sunbeam 12.9-h.p. tourer, and a t6-valve Bugatti owned by Mr. Bruckevitch, a dapper little man never parted from his bowler-hat and a tightly-rolled umbrella, but who loved this Bugatti and even ran it in the 1922 Hereford speed-trials. They supplied two new VS Guy cars to the Dent cousins, hop-growers in the Frome valley, also a 1919 24-h.p. s.v. Sunbeam two-seater and a 1924 zo/6o Sunbeam tourer; in the latter Harold Butcher once took three motorcycles and their riders to the Black Mountains and back, to ride in the hills.

At that time Fryer’s used a 1908 Talbot as a tow-car, fitted with a more modern carburetter that gave 20 m.p.g but, being high up, necessitated reversing up the steeper hills. Our references to Randolph Trafford of Escley Court, Michaelchurch, remind Harold Butcher of how he drove a 40/so Rolls-Royce two-seater with his mother, umbrellas up on wet days, as it had no hood, and of how, arriving home from Hereford, Mr. Trafford would turn the car into his drive by using full-lock and full-throttle! J. C. Wilding, who had the garage at Vowchurch, is remembered as a great rose-breeder.

One of Fryer’s apprentices was R. T. Horton, who later became a very successful MG racing-driver, winning a 500-mile Race at Brooklands with Jack Bartlett. Mr. Butcher says he was never allowed to take nervous passengers to the station and is remembered for his Morgan 3-wheeler corning into the Widmarsh garage too fast, being unable to stop, and climbing a heap of scrap. “That’s the best place for it”, shouted the Foreman. Incidentally, the first, and at the time only, employee at the Widmarsh garage when it opened in 1908 was re-employed by Mr. Butcher just 50 years later, as a car-washer on his retirement. By then, Henly’s had taken over, as they eventually did Hunt’s garage in Leominster afterwards a Fryer’s garage, where the Harry Hawker aero-engined Mercedes once served as a breakdown-car. In those days, Mr. Butcher recalls, the Michelin-man would arrive in a Standard 14 tourer to demonstrate the new well-base rim and balloon tyres,, one of which he would deflate. He would then tear up the street, lock hard over at about 35 m.p.h. and slam on the transmission foot-brake. As the car spun through 180 deg. A Scottish voice would call out: “Och! Still on the wheel, still on the wheel!” A nasty accident on the Leominster-Hereford road happened when the driver of an Overland tried to overtake a horse-drawn timber wagon, the pulled-in again. The car hit the wagon pole, which passed through the radiator, somehow missed the cylinder block and steering column, and went through the man’s stomach.

In later years the Wolseley, Morris and MG side of the business prospered. There is a picture of the Easter delivery of 1933 – six Morris, two Wolseley, a Triumph, all but one saloons, and an MG J2. Mr. Butcher met many of the Abingdon personnel and recalls exciting demonstration runs with Fred Kindell, such as sown the Newbury road in the then-new M-type Midget and later in the F-type Magna, and at stupendous revs, in an L-type Magna, along the Hereford-Ross road. They had a Mk. 1 MG saloon in which Mr. Butcher, Senr. Sometimes went up to the golf-links. Its Reg. No. was VJ 2000 and one Sunday morning it was waved-on by a policeman to whom they at times gave lifts, but he stopped all their friends for a licence check. “Why didn’t he stop me?” asked Mr. Butcher. “Because he was afraid you might not have a licence”, his fellow-golfers replied! Later the Butchers had an MG KN Magnette saloon, which ended its days towing a fish-cart in Buxton. As another period of petrol rationing loomed up, cars were sold off for very low prices, especially during the war, such as 30/- for Morris-Cowleys, a 1919 Sunbeam for 50/- and a 1911 Rolls-Royce Hooper limousine with gas-lighting and a circa 1912 30-h.p. Austin for £8 each. A Rolls-Royce was rigged-up as a crane and an 1898 Daimler, found in NW Herefordshire with “flats” worn on its solid tyres, was purchased in 1938 “for pea-nuts”, nuts”, made to run and is now in the Coventry Museum. An old 8/10-h.p. Talbot, dated 1906 or 1908 depending on which part you looked at, went to Mr. Emmett of Kington, who fully restored it. The rural aspect of Widmarsh Street has long since gone. In the 1920s, when the garage was being erected, Harold Butcher could walk home through a gate beside it, from the High School, and there was a cottage in the background, demolished in 1951 when Henley’s extended the showrooms. There is a picture of the Aubrey Street garage prior to the first World War, before it was roofed-over, with Mr. Butcher, Senr. At the wheel of a La Buire belonging to Mr. U. R. Corbett-Winder, who used to have a garage in Commercial Road (now Ravenhill’s, the Ford dealers), and became Master of Foxhounds to the S. Herefordshire Hunt in the 1920s.

During the Second World War the Widmarsh Street garage was first requisitioned as an opinion store, and then used for aircraft production. The old atmosphere never quite returned, afterwards. As Harold Butcher says, it is odd how cars once regarded as “two a penny” are now in Museums and how people flock to see “King George V” run slowly back and forth in Bulmer’s sidings, whereas heads hardly turned in the days when this splendid locomotive steamed regularly into Hereford Station. I only wish I had room for all the anecdotes this active 73-year-old (living in “injury time” as he puts it”) has of those long-gone pre-war days. – W.B.