Rose Bros. The Albion Engineering Works, Ropery Road, Gainsborough.
1903 – 1906.
Born in November 1856, William Rose was the sixth of seven children. His father died when he was only three years old, leaving the family in considerable poverty.
Fortunes began to improve after William’s mother, Alice, remarried in 1862. By 1865, she was able to rent a house on Market Street, in the centre of Gainsborough, part of which she sub-let to a barber, by the name of Mr Kelsey.
At the age of eleven, William began work as a riveter’s assistant in a Gainsborough boatyard, but by fourteen he was employed, at his mother’s request, as an apprentice with Mr Kelsey.
Working in the barber’s was certainly more comfortable than crawling under the keel of a boat, but there was, nevertheless, something of a problem for young William.
As well as providing customers with a shave or a haircut, Mr Kelsey’s shop also served as a tobacconist’s. It was therefore not uncommon for William to have to break off from shaving or lathering a customer to go next door and measure out half an ounce of tobacco or snuff. Clearly this was not ideal, and it seems to have set William thinking as to how the problem might be solved.
One obvious solution was to weigh and package the tobacco beforehand, but this did not seem to entirely satisfy the young man. William’s main objective was to find a way of packaging the tobacco mechanically, so that it could be sold and distributed far more efficiently than was the custom of the time.
Solving this problem was not easy for someone with little formal education. However, the young man does seem to have had considerable innate technical and mechanical ability, and a huge amount of determination. He also had the invaluable support of a small group of friends and relatives that included a cabinet maker, a pattern maker, and a fitter, his brother-in-law, Fred King.
For seven years William Rose worked on the development of a machine that would accurately weigh and wrap tobacco into neat ½ oz. cylindrical packets. In January 1881, having taken over ownership of both the barber’s and tobacconist’s, he applied for his first patent for what was described as “an improved machine for wrapping up or making packets of tobacco or similar material”.
With a prototype now developed, William’s brother-in-law, Fred, took the invention to the leading tobacco firm of W. D. and H. O. Wills, based in Bristol. Henry Herbert Wills, the son of the founder, was very impressed with what he saw and lent William Rose £200 to further develop the machine, enabling another patent to be taken out in 1885 in their joint names. (Wills later renounced all claims to patent rights.)
William’s next piece of good fortune came when Richard Harvey Wright, an American tobacco salesman and manufacturer visiting London, spotted William’s neatly wrapped packets on sale in a tobacconist’s on Piccadilly. Believing these to be far superior to the hand-wrapped packets of tobacco available in the States, and discovering that they had been wrapped by machine, he travelled up to Gainsborough and concluded a deal for the exclusive right to make and sell the Rose Tobacco Packer throughout North America.
The early 1890s were, for William Rose, a period of considerable growth. By 1895, he was employing 72 people and, in the same year, his brother, Henry, was taken into the business. By this stage the company was selling machines designed to wrap many other products, including tea, chocolate, cornflour, and the laundry aid, Reckitt‘s Blue.
With the continued growth and success of Rose Brothers, it was perhaps not surprising that William began to take an interest in motoring. He was not the first person to own a car in Gainsborough, although we do know that by 1903 he was a member of the Lincolnshire Automobile Club (A.C), and owned a 10 h.p Wolseley.
It is believed that the first experiments in car production in Gainsborough were undertaken by Baines Bros, general engineers and manufacturers of Aegir Cycles. In early 1900, they announced what Autocar described as a “cycle-built” car, with four wheels, and a 2¼ h.p De Dion air-cooled engine.
Shortly afterwards, Baines began collaborating with William Rose in the construction of an 8 h.p, three-cylinder car, for which the name Rose National was chosen.
Most of the cars on British roads at the turn of the century were neither designed nor built in Britain, and William Rose’s choice of name may well have been to emphasise that his car was very much of British manufacture. Every component, except the coil, accumulator and radiator, was made in Britain.
In July 1903, the Lincolnshire A.C visited the Rose factory to look at the packaging machinery, but also, reportedly, saw “new cars under construction”.
Car production on a commercial scale began at Rose Bros. in 1904. In May of that year the Lincolnshire A.C met at the Angel Inn, in the market town of Brigg, where amongst those present were Mr R and Mr W Connell, in what was described as a “trial” National car. Mr R Connell was private secretary to Sir Hickman Bacon, owner of Thonock Hall just outside Gainsborough, and the first president of the county’s Automobile Club.
Three months later, a National car was awarded second prize at a Lincolnshire A.C meeting, held in the grounds of Lincoln Castle. The owner on this occasion was Mr W.T Gent, of Misterton in Nottinghamshire.
The first National cars were fitted with Rose’s own three-cylinder, 3.1-litre, 15-17 h.p engine. By 1905, this had been enlarged to 3.6-litres, and output increased to 18-20 h.p, and it was this engine that was probably fitted to most of the cars produced. A four-cylinder, 4.9-litre, 20-24 h.p engine was installed from 1906, but the proposed six-cylinder model does not seem to have seen the light of day.
By early 1905, newspapers and motoring journals were reporting on the National in some detail. Although road tests of the time were rarely critical, it is noticeable that the car received high praise from virtually all quarters.
Not untypical was the report in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of the 26th August 1905:
“Fitted up with a slow-running engine, there is an ease and an elasticity about the car which makes travelling a pleasure, and there is practically no vibration whatsoever.
“There is the provision made for every moving part to be lubricated – not that a hole is merely drilled through so that grit as well as oil may be shoved in at the same time, for a special spring lubricator is fitted which provides that the oiling is done effectively, and no grit can possibly enter.
“Each part of the engine and gear is oiled by an independent side-fitting lubricator, mounted on the dash-board…..The chassis is of ample length to take a side-entrance touring body, without making the car unwieldy.
“The first hundred yards was taken in top gear, the car running smoothly and sweetly, afterwards the second speed was used for a few yards, when the top gear was again put on, and the steep incline was covered swiftly and silently.”
The test concluded:
“This, by the way, was not a new car, but one which has run over nine thousand miles recently, and it runs as smoothly as when it left the makers’ hands.”
Smooth-running and flexibility seems to have been a hallmark of the National. On testing the car in January 1905, The Motor magazine stated:
” … a great point in favour of the car is that it is rarely necessary to change the gears. It is nearly always driven in top gear.”
The article went on to say that a National car had been driven from London to Birmingham without once changing gear, and had achieved the same result on a run to Brighton and back.
A similar story was reported about a National car in Lincoln which “easily” ascended the city’s Steep Hill (the fourth steepest street in England) in second gear, with four passengers on board. The climb was then repeated with eight people, plus the driver – for which first gear was required.
The National was available in a variety of body styles; most seemed be with an open or closed tonneau, and sometimes with a side-entrance body. These coachbuilders included Flewitt & Co from Birmingham, Hamshaws of Leicester, and the London firm of Holland & Holland. In addition, at least one luxurious side-entranced car was made by Mulliner of Northampton.
Rose National cars seem to have made relatively little impact in the world of motor sport, although entries in two events are quite frequently reported.
In July 1905, the first Brighton Speed Trials were run over a period of four days, and an 18 h.p Rose National was entered in two of the events. In the first, it won two heats, missing out in the semi-final to a Darracq. One source suggests that this car was driven by William Rose himself, although another states that the driver was Mr Ridley who, just a few weeks before, had taken the car up Steep Hill, and had just arrived in Brighton from Gainsborough shortly before the start of the event.
On the final day of the Trials, a National, driven (and/or entered) by Percy Lamb, Rose’s main distributor, was beaten by a 30 h.p Daimler.
It is also reported that an engine built by Rose Bros. was raced at Brooklands in 1908. The engine was later brought back to the factory, and installed in the works’ fire engine, and is currently (2023) on show at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life.
Despite the undoubted success of his car, William Rose decided, in 1906, to cease automobile manufacture, and to concentrate instead on his original core business. However, the experience gained in fabricating so many parts for both his motor cars and packaging machines led him to believe that there was considerable potential in the manufacture of worm drives and gear wheels.
To this end, in September 1906, he formed the Northern Manufacturing Company, in premises adjoining the main factory buildings, and for the next 63 years, the company built all manner of gears for a huge range of applications. These included military work, during both World Wars, and also as major suppliers to the motor industry. Later customers, during the 1950s, included racing car manufacturers: Vanwall, Connaught, and BRM.
During the Second World War, Rose Bros. had established a ‘dispersed’ satellite factory in Saxilby, just outside Lincoln. At the end of hostilities, production came to focus on the manufacture of spherical bearings and rod ends. These too had many different applications which, once again, included motor sport. Such was the company’s involvement that, in 1970, Rose Bros sponsored their own racing driver, a young James Hunt (later to become Formula One World Champion), and a year later ran their own Formula Three team. Rose Bearings were also used in 1983 in Richard Noble's land-speed record car, Thrust 2.
It is unlikely that more than 50 Rose Nationals were constructed in all and, as far as we know, none survive – other than the engine of the car that reportedly ran at Brooklands. However, it would not be an overestimation to say that the business on which Rose Bros was founded – the manufacture of packaging machinery – has had a worldwide impact. Medicines, cleaning products, cigarettes, soft drinks, beers, sweets, chocolates, tea, biscuits, bread, and many other products were packaged in Britain and overseas by the machines originally made and designed in Gainsborough.
The business continued much in the same way after William Rose’s death in 1929, although from the mid-1930s onwards, the company took on more and more and military work, working particularly closely with the Royal Air Force. In 1961, Rose Bros. was taken over by Baker Perkins Ltd., suppliers to the baking and food technology industry.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the manufacture of packaging machinery and specialised components for the arms industry continued, side-by-side, in the Gainsborough factory. However, the recession of the early 1980s led to falling demand for Rose’s packaging machinery, together with a significant reduction in the company’s defence work. Following a major re-structuring in 1986, the company closed a year later, with production being transferred to Leeds.
However, the story doesn’t quite end there. In 1990, the Rose division was sold to AMG Packaging, which now, trading as AMPRose, continues to build packaging machinery for the food industry and to service and maintain some of the original machines made by Rose Bros. In keeping with tradition, AMPRose, is too, based in Gainsborough.
With thanks to Andrew Birkitt, Gordon Brooks, and staff at the Gainsborough Heritage Centre for their help in the preparation of this article.
• Exhibits at the Gainsborough Heritage Centre give a detailed insight into the history of Rose Bros., www.gainsboroughheritage.co.uk.
• Rose Brothers (Gainsborough) Ltd., S Edlington & Dr D Rose, Gainsborough Heritage Association, 2009.
• The History of Baker Perkins, Augustus Muir, W Heffer & Sons, 1968.
• Motor Makers of Lincolnshire, Stephen Pullen, Tucann, 2007.
The Albion Engineering Works, Ropery Road, Gainsborough.
A short-lived marque, whose founder's influence extended far beyond the manufacture of cars.