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The Basingstoke Factory, March 1919


By 1919, Thornycroft's Basingstoke factory had been in business for over two decades, and the firm was a seasoned manufacturing organisation respected both inside and outside the engineering industry. Thornycroft's manufacturing capacity made an important contribution to the national war effort of recently-ended WW1, not only in the manufacture of its normal products (e.g. vehicles) but also of munitions, weapons and other items.

WW1 created a large demand for lorries from the military, and Thornycroft supplied almost its entire output of the immortal Type J 4-tonner (4,064kg) to the War Office, a total of around 5,000 lorries. This output was broadly in line with some of the other British lorry manufacturers producing vehicles for military use, i.e. several thousand units each.



In March 1919, the Basingstoke factory's wartime production was being turned over to its peacetime core products of heavy vehicles and marine IC engines, with the expectation of turning out 30-35 lorries per week. Thornycroft had, by then, discontinued production of steam-powered vehicles, and its heavy vehicles were all powered by spark-ignition IC engines. In 1919, the firm's lorry production, entirely based at Basingstoke, covered the load range of 2 tons (2,032kg) to 5 tons (5,080kg) through four models, the BT lorry (2 tons (2,032kg)), X (3 tons (3,048kg)), 40hp J (4 tons (4,064kg)) and the 40hp Q (5 tons (5,080kg)).


In 1919 Thornycroft's Basingstoke works employed some 1,100 men and 400 women.

Site layout 

The works occupied an area of some 12 acres (4.86 hectares). Production facilities, workshops etc were separated from the office buildings by a large courtyard running parallel to the road outside the works. Office buildings were situated alongside the road. There was enough space in the yard for well over a hundred vehicles, on which minor adjustments were made out in the open. There were a canteen and rest rooms opposite the works, on the other side of the road. Several departments not immediately concerned with the manufacturing processes were isolated from factory. The works layout and that of the equipment inside the buildings were designed to minimise the time and cost of moving items around within the works.

Lorries parked in the factory yard at Basingstoke. HMAS

Facilities and services

Moving: Electrically-powered trolleys were used for transferring items between departments. Other powered moving or lifting devices included electric warping capstans, cranes and a power hoist.

Electricity generation: The Basingstoke factory generated its own electricity in-house to meet the site's power and lighting needs.

There were two power houses on the Basingstoke site in March 1919. The older one housed the original 50hp Bellis steam-powered generator set which supplied the plant from the outset in 1898. In due course, the Bellis set was supplemented by another set of 75hp, and then by a 75hp set powered by a paraffin marine type Thornycroft IC engine. This was followed by a steam set from a Thornycroft high-speed ship.

The newer power house contained modern plant comprising two Sulzer four-stroke diesel engines, each of which was direct coupled to a 180kw 220v generator. Foundations were being prepared for a third similar generator set, resulting in a trio of engines developing nearly 1,000hp.

Gas production: The site's requirement for gas, e.g. for firing plant for the heat treatment of manufactured components, was generated on site using refuse from the wood-working department. This producer gas, as it was called, was generated using plant by the Crossley and Ruston Proctor firms, and also made enough gas to drive a 100hp gas engine.

Metal stores: Castings and wrought material, such as bars and billets, were stored under cover along one side of the courtyard separating the offices from the factory. This method of storing these items had the advantage of seasoning them, and helped the pickling and sand blasting processes to which most of these stored items were eventually subjected.

Timber stores: A purpose-built two-floor timber storage and drying building had a capacity for £80,000 of timber at 1919 prices. Heavy pieces of timber were stored on the lower floor, while the upper floor was used to store scantlings and planks.

Finished parts stores: This store supplied spare parts to customers and, it is assumed, components for assembling vehicles within the works. The store was housed in a three-storey building and was served by a power hoist.

Vehicle repair shop: Having supplied many lorries to the War Department during the recently-ended WW1, Thornycroft set up a repair facility for these vehicles. This facility was in use in March 1919, and the WD vehicles under repair at that time had been damaged by enemy fire.

Inspection department: Manufactured components were inspected in this department after each principal manufacturing operation e.g. boring, milling and turning.

Lorries parked in the factory yard at Basingstoke. HMAS

Laboratory: The Basingstoke site's main laboratory was used for chemical and physical tests. In connection with the latter, the lab was equipped with a Buckton tensile testing machine and an Izod impact testing machine. A subsidiary section adjacent to the main laboratory was used for optical and less mechanical tests.

Engine testing: Newly-built engines were test run fuelled by gas, as an initial running-in process to bed down wearing parts, in a special running-in shop isolated from the factory. Each engine was located in a cubicle to make it easier for test staff to detect untoward noises, which might escape attention during the dynamometer water-brake testing which followed. The latter was a power-testing process, during which engines ran in batches using normal fuel. A further power test, for marine engines only, entailed coupling the engines to shafts driving propellers immersed in water tanks. Curiously, two tyre presses were installed in the engine test area, of 50 and 100 tons capacity respectively (50.8 and 101.6 tonnes).

Fuel and lubricant supply: Thornycroft took such precautions as it could to minimise the risk of fire in its works. Thus, besides having isolated engine running facilities, oil and petrol supply plant was isolated in an island building in the works yard. Fuel and oil were stored in underground tanks, and were pumped and measured by some 11 pumps in the island building. Vehicles were able to draw up alongside to have their tanks filled, and the petrol supplied was measured. Surplus liquids were returned to bulk without waste.

Employee facilities: There were separate works and staff canteens in those days, as well as rest rooms, accommodating 1,000 persons. The canteen building was comparatively recently-built in 1919, but staff facilities had been set up within two years of opening the works in 1898. In keeping with the thinking of the day, male and female workers were segregated into two canteen sections, separated by a central kitchen. Each canteen section had its own rest rooms and lounges.

Fire fighting: The works was equipped with fire-fighting appliances.

Factory processes

Introduction: Basingstoke produced most of the components needed for its chassis in-house. Major mechanical items sourced from outside comprised castings and drop forgings.

Machining: Basingstoke was a major factory carrying out most of its manufacturing and, as such, had machine tools to cover the complete range of metal-working activities - boring, turning, milling, grinding, gear cutting, drilling, etc. In at least one of the machine shops, a network of overhead line shafts drove the machines via pulleys, powered by overhead electric motors supplied with electricity generated in-house.

Two particular examples of equipment in the factory's machine tool inventory included:

  1. Sophisticated Fellows gear shapers, used to cut spiral gears to improve quality over that obtained from other methods of gear cutting, hence reducing gear noise;
  2. Ingersoll plano-millers, which were very large planers fitted with vertical and side-mounted powered milling heads. These machines handled workpieces on a batch basis.

Forge department: This department housed facilities for die-casting, sheet metal working, electric and acetylene welding, and equipment for use by copper smiths (see below), as well as a range of grinding plant with dust extractors for dealing with forgings etc. The use of Quasi-Arc electric welding plant was quite progressive for 1919 - i.e. the flux was provided in unit with the welding rod. Other equipment in the forge department comprised 12 power hack-saws for cutting up billets of varying thickness, and a metal band saw.

Die casting bearings: Bearings for crankshaft main and journal bearings were die-cast. There were two types of bearing 1) composite bronze shells lined with anti-friction alloy and 2) shells wholly of anti-friction alloy.

Copper smith and brazing work: IC marine engine production at Basingstoke accounted for a large section carrying out copper smith and brazing work, because much of the piping fitted to these engines was of copper with brazed flanges.

Heat treatment: Gas fired hardening muffles for the heat treatment of manufactured components were installed at Basingstoke, fired by producer gas generated in-house by refuse from the wood-working department. Water and oil boshes were used for quenching the heated components, after removal from the hardening muffles when they had reached the required temperature(s), as part of the hardening process. Component temperatures were measured by a Cambridge thermo-electric (i.e. thermocouple) pyrometer installation.

Woodworking: Timber was used for the construction of lorry bodies, although chassis could be dispatched to customers without bodies when preferred. The wood working plant was housed in a large area leading on to the body-building shop. Among plant in the wood-working shop was a three-in-one machine tool for simultaneously thicknessing, grooving, and spigoting vehicle floor boards, etc.


Fitting shop: Engines were assembled from their component parts on one side of the principal parts fitting shop, while gearbox, axles and steering gear etc were assembled on the other side. Both lines were divided by a broad central gangway.

A 40hp Type J chassis, probably pictured around 1920. HMAS

Chassis erecting shop: Chassis frames, power-trains, axles, steering gear, wheels, fittings, etc were assembled into ready-to-run chassis ready for their bodies to be attached, either at the works, or through the customer's own arrangements outside the factory.