Not many graves I visit accommodate knights but Herbert Austin was one. He was a tenacious car designer, employer of tens of thousands of folk and a huge help in World War One. He owned the Austin Motor Company and as a lad I can remember seeing lots of his cars. The Austin family still have a crest of arms and the Northfield bypass is called "Sir Herbert Austin Way" after him. Here I am at his fairly small grave (was expecting a big whopper) and at Lickley Grange the mansion where he lived in splendour.
Early beginnings didn’t suggest he’d build a massive car company as he started life on a farm in Buckinghamshire. Aged 18 Herbert emigrated to Australia to live with his uncle in Melbourne. He had various jobs and but were no hints he’d become an immensely successful businessman except that he liked designing. He entered a competition held by the government and submitted a design for a swing bridge over the Yarra River (didn’t win.) Aged 21 got married to Helen and they’d go on to have three children. He started working for a company that made sheep-shearing machines. After being sent to a sheep station to study these machines he patented his own improvements and exchanged it for shares in the company he worked for. Oddly his employer was Frederick Wolseley who would go on to build his own car design company.
When the company was wound up both Herbert and Frederick returned to England and set up a factory manufacturing sheep-shearing equipment. Sales of equipment were high before the long Australian summers but he needed to make something else to keep his workers busy. First they built bicycles but Herbert became interested in these new things called motor cars. Aged 34 he had built three different designs (all three-wheelers) but the naively the board saw no future in making things for the motor industry. The big Vickers Company did though and Herbert was 35 when they bought the company’s car interests.
Aged 39 Herbert resigned and set up his own company, taking vital staff with him. He borrowed what equates to £4.5 million and searched for a factory where he could transform his idea into a car. He found a 400 acre site - now the whopping Longbridge plant. By 1908 cars were rolling off the lines and glittering success loomed. The First World War interrupted things and the factory made munitions instead of cars. Herbert was later knighted for his services to the war effort - also for employing 3,000 Belgian refugees. The war nearly killed things though and the business almost went bankrupt (a receiver was appointed.) Herbert was now 56 and had to come up with something. He did: a budget car called the "Baby Austin" for sale at £225 (about £12,500 now.) People who hadn't been able to afford a car found they now could and within four years 25,000 cars per year were being built. The Austin 12/6 and then the Austin 12/4 followed.
Away from the car plant Herbert was Conservative Member of Parliament for about six years and a philanthropist donating huge sums to educational institutions. The family home was Lickey Grange, a large mansion befitting a hugely successful employer. He died at home aged 74 of a heart attack and a bout of pneumonia. The title would have continued down the line but his son Vernon was killed fighting in the war and the peerage became extinct.
His grave isn’t far from his former home at Holy Trinity Church in Lickey. I soon found it by a hedge at the rear. I thought there'd be a bigger stone but it's humbly small. He'd come a long way from the lad who spent hours at the large table making freehand drawings of machines. There wasn’t a single flower on the headstone nor a “Sir” before his name. It says “1st Baron Austin” on it though and perhaps this was due as just when his car company was advancing he gave it all up to make stuff for the government. The company specialised in making everything from jerry cans to tommy guns, Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, aircraft fuselages, specialist army vehicles, machine guns and marine engines. Yeah he deserved that knighthood.
I drove to Lickey Grange, the former home of the Austin family where Herbert finally conked out. I couldn’t get in though - too secure, too many cameras. When Herbert was 44 he moved here with his family, a Victorian house with a 100-acre estate. The small Austin 7 was designed here in the snooker room in private (the other directors preferred the bigger 12 hp-engine cars.) After his death a charity for blind people took over the estate and then it was a school in the fifties. Houses were built for the teachers as were hostel blocks, classrooms and a swimming pool for the pupils. Nowadays it’s a gated community of up-market homes so I scruffy, dirty, smelly man like me could only salute at the main gate.
At the entrance to Lickey Grange...
The Longbridge plant these days...