Colonial Capers - Blackbourn

By: Rob Blackbourn, Photography by: Rob Blackbourn/Unique Cars Archives

There must have been something in our Victorian-era water judging by the subsequent careers of these visitors from the Sceptred Isle.

Colonial Capers - Blackbourn
This sign caught Rob's eye...

The interesting little Wolseley electric-fence sign (pictured) caught my eye as I helped tidy up a local property.

It interested me because I’ve long been aware that Dublin-born Frederick Wolseley had invented a successful mechanical sheep-shearing machine here in the colonies as a young bloke in the pre-motor-car Victorian era.

The Wolseley shearing-machine business he established in Australia ultimately gave birth to Wolseley Motors Limited in the UK. But a Wolseley electric-fence was something new altogether…

As I parked near the newsagent on the way home a 1929 Austin 7 Chummy tourer pulled in behind me – not a thing that happens every day.

So as you do, I chatted with new acquaintance John Needham about his Seven. Readers may recall an early Unique Cars column of mine about my own student-days Austin 7 misadventures in the cockpit of another version of the mighty two-main-bearing 1929 model, a two-seater Meteor sports.

It turns out that John has a long connection with classic cars and motorsport and that many readers will know him from the ‘Old Car Gearboxes’ business in Moorabbin (Vic).

When I mentioned my Wolseley-sign find and Wolseley’s connection with colonial Australia, John reminded me that Herbert Austin had also spent time here as a young fella before returning to the UK to make his significant automotive mark.

John gives his Seven a little love.

My personal connection with Wolseley cars is minimal with my main awareness of the marque being the role of the 6/80 and 6/90 models as police cars in British film and TV – often equipped (surely as some sort of Pythonesque joke) with a shiny bumper-mounted bell.

To be fair though, I spent a lot of enjoyable Saturday nights in the ‘death seat’ of my mate’s ZB MG Magnette heading to dances.

The Magnette was effectively a re-badged Wolseley 4/44. 

Frederick Wolseley was well on his way to success in business by 1887 when he set up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in Sydney. Within two years however Wolseley and the business head office had relocated to London.

Five years later Wolseley retired from the business, ironically a year before the company completed its first prototype car. The plot thickens when the identity of the designer of the first Wolseley car is revealed – it’s the young Herbert Austin.

Austin had arrived in Australia in 1883 at age 17 and worked a number of jobs before taking on an engineering role at Wolseley’s shearing machine business.

By 1893 he had become sufficiently influential to not only convince the company to set up a new manufacturing facility in Birmingham, but also to score the general manager position.

It was in Birmingham that Austin began working on vehicle designs with Frederick Wolseley’s support. 

The motor car division of Wolseley was established in 1901 as a partnership between Herbert Austin and the Vickers armaments company with Austin as managing director.

During Austin’s five years with Wolseley Motors Limited it produced 1500 vehicles establishing both the Wolseley brand and Herbert Austin’s personal reputation in the motor industry.

Austin went on to set up his Austin Motor Vehicle Company at Longbridge in 1905. It prospered and by 1910 employed 1000 workers.

"Settle down son, or I'll ring my big bell very loudly!"

The mighty little Austin 7 that ran from 1923-39, the British-market equivalent of Henry Ford’s ‘everyman-car’ – the Model T, sold a total of 290,000 units. Herbert Austin was knighted in 1917 and became Lord Austin in 1936. 

The destinies of both the Austin and Wolseley brands became intertwined over the years through numerous acquisitions and mergers.

William Morris bought Wolseley at its low point in 1927 and consequently from the mid-1930s Wolseleys shared basic architecture with equivalent Morris models.

The post-WWII merger of Morris and Austin as the new British Motor Corporation meant our two featured marques were then under the one corporate ‘roof’.

The Wolseley and Austin brands survived until 1975 and 1988 respectively under the ownership of various subsequent corporate structures.

At the end of the day I’m happy to now know a lot more about the relationship between Herbert Austin and Frederick Wolseley, but here’s the thing – I still know practically nothing about Wolseley electric fences.

However I did pick up something entirely different about electric fences from John Needham. Speaking from personal experience he explained that you can successfully power an electric fence using a Ford Model T ‘trembler’ coil as the power source. That’s another box ticked…

From Unique Cars #483, Sept 2023

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