Part One: The Petters - Oil and other Engines

John Petter of Barnstaple came to Yeovil in 1865 to acquire the long-established High Street ironmonger's business of Josiah Hannam as a wedding gift to his son James Bazeley Petter.

‘J.B.', with the enterprise which was to be a characteristic of his family, soon expanded by taking a partner and setting up a foundry from which, as Petter and Edgar, they produced agricultural implements and machinery from firstly a works in Hendford and then moving to Huish where, earlier, Sansbury and Savery had a brass and iron foundry. 


But what really led to the prosperous company which was to follow, was James Petter's novel invention of the ‘Nautilus' grate. Produced in several models, including a gas burning version, this soon became a country-wide success, so much so that they were installed in Queen Victoria's residences at Osborne House and Balmoral. 

The design of these grates was based on the internal shape of a nautilus shell by which means smoke and fumes circulated in this kind of chamber before being expelled through a flue.

Edgar died after only a few years of the partnership, and then James's twin sons, Ernest and Percy, joined the firm. In 1895, the brothers, having already produced a self propelled oil engine in 1892, set about designing the one horsepower engine which is displayed in this museum, with the express purpose of making it drive a ‘horseless carriage'. 

The vehicle, one of the first motor cars to be built in the country, was constructed by Hill and Boll in their Park Road carriage works, and with the engine fitted weighed 9 cwt (457 kg) of which the Petter engine with flywheel and side bars accounted for 120 lbs (54.5 kg).

When ‘The Engineer' published a report on this early British car, on 3 April the following year, it stated:

'The carriage is intended for two persons, with which a speed of ten miles an hour is obtained on level road. It will mount the hills of the neighbourhood with two persons, but larger power would be used for four persons ..... The exhaust is, we are informed, quite invisible, and the engine almost noiseless'. The removable handle (indicated in the plan drawing) was used to start the engine 'in the first place, and an arrangement is made so that the handle, when put in position, automatically opens the exhaust valve which closes instantly when, a good impulse being given, the handle is withdrawn and the engine starts .... Tube ignition is adopted, and a small heating lamp is used ... The engine starts in ten minutes and runs, we are told, without attention.' The larger road wheels of the vehicle were 42 ins. (1.07 m.) in diameter.

The Petter / Hill & Boll 
Horseless Carriage

     The Petter twins went on to develop a series of twelve new vehicles, the latest of which they entered in a competition in 1897 with prize money of 1,100 guineas. 

Shown at the Crystal Palace the vehicle was unsuccessful and the disappointed brothers turned their attention for the time being to the development of oil engines, and in 1902 they produced the first true agricultural tractor powered by a 30 horsepower horizontal oil engine.

Oil engines were now being produced in quantity and a private company James B. Petter & Co. Ltd. was established early in the new century to be followed in ten years by a public company. The Nautilus Works in Reckleford, now partly used as a bus depot and offices, commenced production in 1912.

‘The Engineer' visited the new works, reporting in detail on the factory and its products. Engines were being produced at the rate of 1,500 annually with a workforce of 500. The foundry produced 40 tons of castings a week, ranging from 4 ton items to half an ounce! The factory was to continually expand to cope with increasing business, and it possessed its own power station, set centrally, which consisted of two 100 horsepower gas engines and gas generators, the entire works being lit by electricity, which also supplied a certain amount for power plant. In 1913 streets in the centre of Yeovil were lit by electricity for the first time with a supply from this generating station.

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the necessity for armament production, Sir Ernest Petter offered to place the entire manufacturing resources of the company at the disposal of the Government for war work and Westland Aircraft came into being, with orders placed by the Admiralty. The story of aircraft production, properly belongs to a separate section, so suffice it, for the moment, to say that an initial contract was placed for supplying Short 184 float planes, the first being delivered by January 1916.

The end of the war in 1918 saw the cancellation of government contracts, and Petters - as distinct from Westland Aircraft - now concentrated on marine, and agricultural engines and machinery. In addition, before the age of micro-chip technology, Guy Petter, in 1922 produced an adding machine - the Petometer - this being sold to the Bell Punch Company in 1936 was later remodelled to become the first of a highly successful range of Sumlock adding machines.

The Seaton-Petter car. 1926

      In 1926 there was a return to the design and production of motor cars. This year saw the introduction of the ‘Seaton-Petter', which was hailed at the time as something entirely new. Aimed at the colonial market, it catered particularly for expedition and cross country work. ‘The Motor' of 23 February 1926 gave a description under the heading

‘The 10-18 horsepower Seaton-Petter-Anew British car which will run 15,000 miles without decarbonizing, seats five in comfort, and costs £150. Only five moving parts in engine'.

The following is taken from the report:

‘We first made the acquaintance of the car by being driven round and round a yard on the premises of the British Dominion Car Co. Ltd., at Yeovil, the manufacturers of the Seaton-Petter. This yard was in effect, the floor of a large machine shop which had been dismantled, leaving mountains of sticky clay three or four feet high and strewn for several square yards with great blocks of masonry, at least a cubic foot in shape and size. Here and there were slopes of 1 in 3 or 1 in 4, where steps had once existed, the irregular surface was strewn with old bricks, bits of corrugated iron etc. We were asked to sit in the car with Mr. Douglas Seaton, one of the directors of the concern, who proceeded to rush over every obstacle at 15 or 20 m.p.h. Approaching the field of boulders by charging across a 1 in 3 ramp at right angles to the slope, we turned on full lock in the midst of the blocks of masonry, and continued round the yard, climbing steep mounds of soft clay en route. This wild rush continued for several 'laps' on one of which the blocks of masonry were taken a little too fast, and the car charged the spiked iron railing. Nothing daunted, Mr. Seaton slammed in reverse gear and rushed backwards at speed, bursting a front tyre in the process, after which the car, at what appeared a perilous angle, turned round on a full lock on a steep slope and scraped along the side of a galvanized iron shed. During these operations, no undue jolting was experienced, and there was never the slightest feeling of insecurity, despite the angle to which the car was tilted'. A further road run attempted to climb the 1 in 3¾ gradient at Yarcombe 'and got a considerable distance up this before the car came to a standstill through wheelspin'. A maximum speed of about 40 m.p.h. could 'be maintained all day without any harm ensuing .... the tax is only £10 per annum'

Despite its low price, eventually reduced to £100, and good performance it was not a success - only some seventy cars being produced. The world-wide depression of the time, when other then well-known car manufacturers were closing their works, resulted in production being stopped in 1927.

In July 1933 a new one-ton auto truck, powered by a Petter PU8 engine was shown for the first time at the Royal Agricultural Show, and in September a marine version of the engine was demonstrated at the Marine Welding Exhibition. Its instant reverse mechanism enabled it to go from full ahead to full astern in just four seconds.

The Yeovil Nautilus factory and foundry closed in 1939 following Petters becoming part of the Brush Group, the entire production then being transferred to Loughborough and the long and successful manufacture of Petter engines in Yeovil came to an end.


Historical Monograph No 1
© 2004. South Somerset District Council and Leslie Brooke