Friday, June 10, 2011

Sheared Sheep, A Classic British Marque and Bathroom Faucets

Are you aware of a connection between a classic (and, sadly, defunct) British marque and a US purveyor of kitchen and bath plumbing supplies?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

An Australian concern that manufactured sheep shearing equipment employed a young British engineer named Herbert Austin who caught the bug that many other young, enterprising men did at the turn of the twentieth century - the desire to build his own car. While he was employed in Australia, young Herbert met, wooed and married his wife and when the firm decided to uproot from Melbourne and move the works to the industrial heartland of England, he followed.

Wolseley Tri-Car
Setting up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company factory in Birmingham allowed the business to be closer to to their suppliers, but the 'off season' meant that other work had to be performed to prevent losing skilled workers to layoffs (or redundancy, as it is termed in the UK). Herbert saw that bicycle manufacturing would fill the niche nicely and the Wolseley bicycle was born.When motorized bicycles came on the scene, Herbert saw a good fit for his factory, as he was now works manager.

The first Wolseley car of 1895 was more of a powered cart, as many others were at the time, with the driver and passenger sitting back to back on the three-wheeled, tiller-steered contraption. In 1901, the automobile division was spun off as an independent business. From this humble beginning, Wolseley would become the leading producer of automobiles in the pre- WW I period.

In 1905, Herbert Austin left the Wolseley automobile firm and raised enough capital to put an all-new design in production and the Austin automobile marque was born.  The sheep shearing equipment stayed with the original Wosleley firm and and Austin was lured back as chairman of that division - post he held from 1911 until 1933.

1909 Austin
By 1927, things weren't looking so good for the Wolseley automobile group and it was purchased by William Morris (of the Morris Automobile concern) as his personal property. 

The original Wolsleley group continued to produce its' sheep sharing equipment and worked actively to diversify itself into other fields and it successfully entered the electric fencing, industrial wheels and building supply businesses in the UK. In the US, the modern Wolseley firm purchased a plumbing and industrial supply firm in 1982 called Ferguson Enterprises.

Today, Ferguson is known for its high end kitchen and bath showrooms in North America. But they don't sell sheep shears.

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