A job offer from Herbert Austin

Simpson and Bibby (earlier Simpson and Bodman), Manchester’s first commercial vehicle firm, ceased their partnership in 1903. Simpson, as covered in a previous blog, left Manchester to take up the position of Consulting Engineer at Alley and Maclellan who had bought Simpson and Bibby vehicle designs. This blog post focuses on the life of his partner James Bibby, after a visit to view surviving material left by his grandson at the University of Liverpool Archives.

Bibby testing the vehicle on a slope.jpg
Bibby testing a Simpson and Bibby steam waggon on a slope.

James Bibby was born to a family of millers, in North-West Lancashire. The business was very successful, becoming J. Bibby and Sons in 1878, the year James was born. James was one of 8 brothers, and was the only one who didn’t enter the family business. Instead, James went and served an apprenticeship as an engineer, attending evening classes at the Municipal Technical School in Liverpool. He showed promise and won a scholarship for a degree in engineering at Liverpool University College (hence why his material has been collected by the University). He was described by one of his lecturers as “very earnest and zealous about his work, and I believe he would justify the most complete confidence as to the faithful discharge of any duties which he undertook.”

Mining material steam waggon.jpg
Specially made steam waggon destined for Africa.

In 1900, at the age of 21, he was offered the job of Works Manager at Simpson and Bibby (as it was to be renamed) after the former partner Walter Bodman had left to work in America. One of the projects Bibby worked on during his time at Simpson and Bibby was a specially built steam wagon for transporting mining material from the coast at Accra, West Africa (modern day Ghana), to the Goldfields of Eastern Akim Limited, situated about 70 miles inland, over roads newly constructed by the company (meaning poor ground!). This was a particular challenge in 1902, when motorised commercial vehicles were in their infancy. Also the only fuel available in West Africa was wood, which meant a much larger boiler; there were weight restrictions to consider and an increase in power needed due to the poor ground. The article in Engineering that describes the machine (pictured above) alludes to the success of the undertaking, which satisfied a number of independent tests.

James’ time at Simpson and Bibby was to be short lived, he was without a job in 1903. However this wasn’t to last long. A letter from Herbert Austin, the Works Manager of Wolseley Motors, offered James the job of Chief Draughtsman and Works Superintendent, the highest paid position at the firm, with a salary of £200, rising to £250 in six months. A copy of the letter is pictured below, sadly only page 2 survives. Bibby was to stay with Wolseley until 1905, when Austin left the firm to form Austin Motors which would go on to become one of Britain’s most successful motor manufacturers. Bibby didn’t follow Austin, and his association with the motor industry ceased. Bibby spent the rest of his career as Works Manager and Director at several distinguished engineering firms.

Letter to Bibby from Austin.jpg
Job offer from Austin to Bibby.

What is significant for the study of the Manchester motor industry is the esteem that all three (Simpson, Bodman and Bibby ) were held for their early work on steam waggons. All went on to have distinguished careers in British or American engineering. Important in this was the quality of education received at places like the Municipal Technical School in Liverpool and the Mechanics Institute in Manchester. Also significant was the experience gained in a very new field, in which there were relatively few engineers, especially at the turn of the 20th century. Above all, perhaps, the three young engineers were committed and passionate about their work.

Sources for James Bibby have come from the material at University of Liverpool Archives; his obituary in 1957 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries; A Miller’s Tale by J. B. Bibby and C. L. Bibby.

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