[My request that old chauffeurs with interesting driving careers behind them might get in touch with us, so that we might interview them for the purpose of recalling unusual cars they had in their care, the conditions appertaining to those days, when there was a decent relationship between employers and themselves, often extending over a lifetime, and when the cars they tended were valuable, individual aspects of a leisured family way of existence, has met with a sufficiently good response for old-time chauffeurs, an all but defunct breed, to be given a column of their own, so that we can recall experiences from an age that has departed and the like of which will never be seen again. — Ed.]
On a blazing hot day last August I drove a Triumph 2500S comfortable out through the SE suburbs of London and on the A21 towards Hastings, only to come upon long hold-ups beyond the Sevenoaks/Tonbridge By-pass, as coast-bound traffic came to a halt at Pembury. This caused me to arrive over an hour late for an interview with Mr. Dench, who had been a chauffeur in private service almost all his life. The meeting had been kindly arranged by one of his sons, Mr. B. A. Dench, a fruit-farmer who enjoys driving, now in a Peugeot estate-car, after a spell as a satisfied Renault owner.
His father was born in Crawley, Sussex, in 1892 and remembers being taken to see the Emancipation Run from London to Brighton in 1896. Leaving school at 14, he was apprenticed to Nightingale & Thorpe of Crawley; he has a fine framed photograph of the garage workshops at this time, in which beyond a line-up of period motor cars can be seen a tricycle the garage made for a local chemist whose injured leg made ordinary gear-changing impossible. Mr. Thorpe invented and installed and infinitely-variable belt drive on this tricycle, worked by moving a control lever to take the drive from a 5/7-h.p. Peugeot motorcycle engine. The cars young Dench worked on included tiller-steered Lanchester, two chain-drive Panhard-Levassors, chain-drive Lorraine Dietrich, etc. He learned about sprags, acetylene lamps that went out if water got into them, treating cone clutches with collan oil and bits of hack-saw blade, and about hot-tube ignition — concerning the latter, Mr. Dench remembers Mr. Thorpe buying an ancient Daimler and selling the platinum-tube in London for more than he had paid for the car. Another local car was an Arrol-Johnston dog-cart, owned by Mr. David Hoadley of Handcross. It was started by the driver first tilting the steering-wheel, then standing up and pulling the engine over with a rope — Mr. Dench gave me a demonstration of this cranking process of 70 years ago.
He recalls the local police traps of those days, when the fine for exceeding 10 m.p.h. beyond the Sun Hotel was a stiff £5. The AA scout in Crawley was Billy Beale, who used to warn drivers of an impending trap by standing outside the hotel with his AA disc reversed and painted red. Grateful autocarists would throw him tips as they slowed down. . . . The foreman, Mr. Nimmy Nichols, who had previously worked at Brooklands, used to trick the police operating the trap either by going into it at high speed and then pretending to break down before he had been timed, or by spinning his test chassis round on its steel-studded tyres and returning the way he had come!
Mr. Dench joined-up in 1915 and was posted to France, where for four years he drove sleeve-valve Daimler ambulances. He was attached at various times to most Divisions, picking up the wounded at RAPs and conveying them to MDS, or to CCS further back — some older readers will recall these first-aid posts. Where the Daimlers couldn’t go Model-T Fords with two stretchers were used.
Demobbed, the now experienced Dench went back to his job as chauffeur to Mrs. Cheape, mother of the famous polo-player, who lived four miles from Redditch. The mainstay of the motor stable was a pre-war 16/20 Wolseley-Siddeley, backed up by a Minerva of similar age and an Argyll. For three months in the summer the Wolseley-Siddeley was driven from Worcestershire to the owner’s three houses on the Isle of Mull. It was the first car to penetrate to that side of the Island, after being hauled off the ferry by ropes. Mr. Dench, who by this time had a second chauffeur to assist him, remembers taking the car back to Adderley Park for its annual overhaul, before the long journey to Scotland. This consisted of the car being completely stripped to its component parts, and a repainting of the body. Wolseley’s had a test-track round the factory, on which it would afterwards be tried out. On one occasion a mosquito had got under the layer of muslin used to protect the wet varnish and the chauffeur was not allowed to remove the car until it had been repainted. They were lent a Vulcan while this was going on.
When Mrs. Cheape died he took a job with Mrs. Edie of Rigby Hall near Bromsgrove. Here, besides having care of a 28-h.p. Daimler, he also had charge of the house lighting-plant, a Crossley gas-engine that required the assistance of the head gardener to get it started, and which had a tendency to blow out its porcelain plug.
On the death of Mrs. Edie he went to work for a Mr. Low in Essex, taking with him the Daimler which had been bought by his new employer. Other cars used by this family were a Calcott and a Wolseley Hornet. The son, who was at Cambridge, had a Salmson. When the Daimler was sold Mr. Dench went to Longbridge to take delivery of a new Austin Twenty.
In 1926 he took a job the other side of Tunbridge Wells, where they had a 30-h.p. Armstrong-Siddeley, backed up by smaller versions of this rugged make. He remembers the Armstrong-Siddeley 30 as under-tyred, so that he was always having to mend punctures with a Harvey-Frost vulcaniser. The car was prone to skidding and it needed expert judgement not to swipe a line of costers’ barrows if a slide started on London’s wood-blocks. When in London the cars were garaged in Grosvenor Crescent Mews. Later on, after a succession of Armstrong-Siddeleys, the family had several big Humbers including a Snipe and a Pullman, which he drove until he retired in 1970.
So the memories came flooding back. Of taking two Warland rims and three spare innertubes for the Wolseley-Siddeley to the Isle of Mull and using them all in one day. Of buying petrol, Pratts, Glico, or Carburine, in two-gallon cans charged at 3/- each, a shed being stocked with 30 such cans at a time, the cost per gallon varying from 8d to 10d. Of playing jokes on other chauffeurs, like asking one of them to swing a Napier, which had a left hand rotation of its starting-handle, or betting that the Wolseley-Siddeley, which had dual ignition with a trembler coil, would start “on the switch” from cold, on one occasion to the disbelief of Capt. Gibbs’ chauffeur, who drove a Hotchkiss, when they were waiting for orders at the Grand Hotel, Torquay. Also the Panhard, by the light of whose sparks from the trembler coil you “could read a newspaper”.
Mr. Dench has two Contour Books, with which he used to plan journeys, one of these detailing the hills to be avoided on more than 350 routes. He tells of the problems of mastering strange cars when guests came to dinner at the Hall and he was instructed to take their cars round to the stables, and of how, in the Army, there would be a call for Rolls-Royve drivers and, as these men stepped eagerly forward, they would be told to fall out and put their kit on a Model-T! He is adamant that “there was only one motor car”, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which was not bettered even by makes such as the Sheffield-Simplex. He also confirms what I have been told previously, namely that to be employed by a family before the war was a secure and satisfactory experience, especially if the Master was of the Nobility, rather than one who had mustered his wealth from trade. Not only was the family chauffeur well looked after, in return for working all the hours he was needed (a car would often be sent off on some errand, such as fetching a lady’s maid, when the train could have been used, and no matter at what hour it returned, it had to be washed and polished ready for use at 9 a.m. the next day — or the same day!) but his dependants were included and often, as in Mr. Dench’s case, a cottage on the estate was left to him on the death of his employer. Incidentally, he was driving his Humber Sceptre up to a few months ago. — W.B.