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Britain By Car - A Motoring History


Created Date:

02 December 2022

Last Modified:

15 December 2023
Manchester

The Midland Hotel

The location of Charles Rolls & Henry Royce's historic meeting where they agreed to manufacture cars under the name of Rolls-Royce.  

Location 
The Midland Hotel, 16 Peter Street, Manchester, M60 2DS.

Date
4th May 1904.

  • The Midland Hotel, Manchester, 2015, © Peter McDermott, via Geograph
    The Midland Hotel, Manchester, 2015, © Peter McDermott, via Geograph
  • A photograph of Henry Royce, published in 1906, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    A photograph of Henry Royce, published in 1906, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • A.J Adams and John de Looze, who both worked for Royce, riding in the first Royce, taken outside the company works on Cooke Street, spring 1904, source: Wikimedia Commons
    A.J Adams and John de Looze, who both worked for Royce, riding in the first Royce, taken outside the company works on Cooke Street, spring 1904, source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Supplied by Charles Rolls, this generous birthday present was given to Lord Dalweny in 1903, he later became a county cricketer and successful politician, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Supplied by Charles Rolls, this generous birthday present was given to Lord Dalweny in 1903, he later became a county cricketer and successful politician, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Henry Edmunds, 1903; he was responsible for bring Charles Rolls and Henry Royce together, and is described today as “The Godfather of Rolls-Royce”, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Henry Edmunds, 1903; he was responsible for bring Charles Rolls and Henry Royce together, and is described today as “The Godfather of Rolls-Royce”, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Fitted to a 10 h.p Royce, Parsons Non-Skid Chains were winners of the Side-Slip Trials, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Fitted to a 10 h.p Royce, Parsons Non-Skid Chains were winners of the Side-Slip Trials, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Possibly reference to the new Royce …., source: Westminster Gazette, 27th July 1904
    Possibly reference to the new Royce …., source: Westminster Gazette, 27th July 1904
  • A commemorative terracotta plaque of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce located at the St Peter’s Square entrance to the Midland Hotel created by sculptor Lynda Addison, 1999, © Nick Harrison, via Flickr
    A commemorative terracotta plaque of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce located at the St Peter’s Square entrance to the Midland Hotel created by sculptor Lynda Addison, 1999, © Nick Harrison, via Flickr
  • A commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Midland Hotel, presented by Rolls-Royce in 2004 to mark the centenary of the historic meeting of the company’s founders, © Adam Fagan, via Flickr.
    A commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Midland Hotel, presented by Rolls-Royce in 2004 to mark the centenary of the historic meeting of the company’s founders, © Adam Fagan, via Flickr.

Commentary
At the top of the steps at the main entrance to the Midland Hotel in Manchester, a plaque, presented by Rolls-Royce in 2004, commemorates the centenary of the first meeting between Charles Rolls and Henry Royce which led to their partnership, and the creation of Rolls-Royce Ltd. 

Born on the 27th March 1863, Henry Royce was an electrical and mechanical engineer by profession.  At the age of 21, he went into partnership with his friend Ernest Claremont, manufacturing domestic electrical fittings.  The business, based in a factory on Cooke Street in the Hulme district of Manchester, flourished and expanded to the extent that, in 1894, they registered F.H Royce & Co as a limited liability company and began making dynamos and electrically operated cranes.   

This success, however, came at some cost to Henry Royce’s health, not helped in 1901-02 by a severe downturn in business.  In order to regain his strength, Royce was persuaded to take a long holiday overseas, and it is thought that it was during this time that he decided to buy his first motor car – almost certainly with a view to entering motor manufacturing as an additional, or alternative, income stream.

In late 1902, or early 1903, Henry Royce took delivery of a two-cylinder French-made Decauville.  At the same time he told his fellow directors of his intention to build three prototype cars, of similar specification.  This decision, it has to be said, was not welcomed by Ernest Claremont, who was a cautious man by nature, and felt that the whole venture sounded far too risky. 

Although the Decauville was not a bad car for its time, Royce quickly found a number of shortcomings in its design and manufacture. 

In very simple terms, the development of Royce’s own car seems to have been achieved by a meticulous examination of what did (and did not) work well on the Decauville; and by using what he learnt from this, he built a car of his own. 

The first Royce was not dissimilar in general appearance to the French car.  However the detailed design of the engine, the cooling and electrical systems, together with many of the ancillaries were pure Henry Royce.  The key characteristic of his work was his attention to detail and quality – something of a difficulty at times for his employees, but a foretaste of what were to become the defining characteristics of Rolls-Royce cars: silent running and reliability. 

The first car was completed in the spring of 1904.  Its two-cylinder engine drove the rear wheels through a three-speed gearbox via a propeller shaft and differential.  Weighing about 14.5 cwt, it had a maximum speed of around 30 mph. 

Royce took the car on its first run outside the factory on 1st April 1904, driving to Knutsford and back, a distance of about 30 miles.  Presumably as a precaution, he had Eric Platford, one of his apprentices, follow him in the Decauville.  As far as we know, both cars ran without fault. 

By contrast, Charles Rolls was already well-known in motoring circles.  He had bought his first car almost ten years previously, and had spent much of his time since then attempting to popularise 'automobilism', frequently in opposition to those who wished to limit its development.  Winner of Britain’s first motor speed trial at Welbeck in 1900, he was also a leading figure in motor sport (as far as such a thing was permitted in Britain at the time). 

In 1902, he entered the motor trade, under the name of C.S Rolls & Co., servicing, repairing and upgrading customers’ cars at Lillie Hall, close to Earls Court.  A year later, in December 1903, he opened showrooms at 38, Brook Street, Mayfair, mainly demonstrating and selling new and second-hand Panhards. 

However, sales of the French car, were not particularly strong, and Rolls soon realised that he needed to develop links with other manufacturers.  He sold what he believed were the best cars available at the time but, deep down, he very much wanted to sell a car that was made in Britain, rather than overseas. 

One of Charles Rolls’ many motoring friends was Henry Edmunds, a pioneer of electric lighting, and an enthusiastic early motorist.  Edmunds had bought his first car in 1898, and the following year became a member of the Automobile Club of Great Britain, competing, like Rolls, in the 1900 Thousand Miles Trial

Edmunds work as an electrical engineer led him, in 1893, to be appointed Managing Director of W.T Glover, an electric cable manufacturer, based in Manchester.  Three or four years later, Ernest Claremont (Royce’s business partner) also joined the Glover Board.  There then seems to have been an exchange of shares between the two men; with Edmunds giving some of his shares in W.T Glover to Claremont who, in turn, gave Edmunds some of his own stock in Royce Ltd., as the company was by then known. 

As a shareholder, Edmunds almost certainly knew of Royce’s intention to move into motor production and, according to Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, was asked by Henry Royce if he would be interested in seeing the new car. 

Some time in early or mid-March 1904, Henry Edmunds told Charles Rolls about Royce's new car.  He knew that Rolls was looking for something more up-to-date than the current Panhards on offer, and thought that he would certainly welcome having a British-made car to offer to his customers.   

In response, Charles Rolls said that he would be pleased to meet Henry Royce in London to discuss possible sales, but made it clear that he had some dislike of two-cylinder cars, and would prefer a three- or four-cylinder model as a replacement for the Panhard. 

At this point, there seems to have been something of an impasse.  Charles Rolls said that he was too busy to travel to Manchester, preferring to meet in London, while Henry Royce was similarly pre-occupied in preparing his first car for the Sideslip Trials, a five-day test of various anti-skid devices, organised by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, and commencing on the 18th April. 

Still keen to bring the two men together, Henry Edmunds then sent Charles Rolls photographs and full details of the new car which, he said, “I think you will agree with me looks very promising,” adding “knowing, as I do, the skill of Mr Royce as a practical mechanical engineer, I feel one is very safe in taking up any work his firm may produce”. 

The information and assurances clearly had the desired effect.  On the 29th April, Charles Rolls wrote a note to Henry Edmunds asking his friend to travel to Manchester with him “any time next week”. 

According to Edmunds, he and Rolls travelled by train from London to Manchester on the 4th May, and met Henry Royce for lunch.  “Both men,” he stated, “took to each other at first sight”, and after lunch Royce showed Rolls what was probably the second of his three cars.

Following this meeting, there were further negotiations between the two men, eventually culminating in an agreement for C.S Rolls Ltd. to take all the cars built by Royce, which would be in the form of two-, three-, four-, and six-cylinder chassis, rated at between 10 and 30 h.p. 

In the months immediately following their meeting, Rolls continued to sell several different makes of car, including the Belgian Minerva; but by July 1904, he was advertising a “new motor landaulet … luxurious, elegant and noiseless” – quite possibly one of Royce’s early cars.  

By December 1904, these were now being sold under the name of Rolls-Royce.  Later in the month, Rolls-Royce was one of just three British marques (the two others being Argyll and Wolseley) at the international motor show held in the Grand Palais in Paris. 

Until August 1905, Rolls continued to advertise cars from a number of French manufacturers alongside those made by Rolls-Royce – but from this time onwards, his sales became increasingly focused just on the new British marque. 

In March 1906, Rolls-Royce Limited was formed, acquiring C.S Rolls Ltd in the process.  By contrast, Royce Ltd became a separate company, and continued to make electrically-driven cranes and other electrical and mechanical equipment.  

As a postscript, it is perhaps worth adding that a number of writers have questioned whether the Midland Hotel was, in fact, the location of the historic meeting between the two men, as there does not appear to be any contemporaneous written record of the event. 

The nearest thing we have is an account of the day, written some years later, by Henry Edmunds, and published under the title of “Reminiscences of a Pioneer” - a series of articles that appeared in the quarterly M & C Apprentices’ Magazine, published by Mavor & Coulson of Glasgow, manufacturers of electrically-powered mining equipment. 

Edmunds explained that, on the day in question, he and Charles Rolls travelled together by train from London to Manchester.  Unfortunately, he did not name the station from which they left the capital, of which there are four possibilities: Marylebone, St Pancras, King’s Cross and Euston! 

Henry Edmunds did, however, say that he particularly remembered the conversation they had in the dining car when Rolls outlined an ambition to have a motor car connected with his name that might in future become a household word.  He went on to state: “I remember we went to the Great Central Hotel in Manchester and lunched together.” 

And this is where the problem arises.  Not only is the Great Central Hotel not the Midland Hotel but, as far as anyone knows, Manchester has never had a hotel by the name of the Great Central.

Today, the generally accepted view is that Henry Edmunds simply made a mistake by mixing up the name of the hotel where they met, with the name of the station closest to it.  In other words: he and Rolls got off a London & North West Railway train at Manchester London Road, and travelled a short distance by cab to the newly-opened Midland Hotel, which adjoins Manchester Central Station.  Perhaps the hotel’s palatial fittings and its proximity to the Central Station caused Edmunds to remember it as the Great Central Hotel. 

(At the risk of creating even more confusion, had Rolls and Edmunds instead travelled to Manchester on the Great Central Railway - one of three further alternative routes - they would have walked passed the Great Central Hotel as they entered Marylebone Station in London.  Opulent and luxurious, its name could easily be confused with Manchester’s Midland.)

Other locations
Monmouth, Gwent.

Further details
• In the Beginning – the Manchester Origins of Rolls-Royce, Michael H Evans, Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust, 2004.
• Rolls-Royce, the Magic of a Name, Peter Pugh, Icon Books Ltd., 2015.           
• Rolls of Rolls-Royce, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Cassell, 1966.
• The Godfather of Rolls-Royce: the Life and Times of Henry Edmunds, Paul Tritton, Academy Books, 1993.
• Did Rolls Meet Royce at the Midland Hotel?, Craig Horner, SAHB Times, Autumn 2019.