Yeovil Trades & Traders
Sir Ernest Willoughby petter
Engine & Aircraft Manufacturer
Ernest Willoughby Petter was born in Yeovil on 26 May 1873, the son of James Bazeley Petter and Charlotte Waddams née Branscombe. Ernest was the twin brother of Percival, known as Percy. His father was a successful ironmonger with a shop in the Borough, over which the family lived, as well as an ironfounder with a foundry in Hendford.
In the 1881 census James and Charlotte were living above the ironmongery shop in the Borough. By this time they had nine of their children living with them. James listed his occupation as Ironmonger (Master) and the four eldest boys were all ironmongers' apprentices - James JB aged 19, twins Ernest and Percival aged 17 and Hugh aged 16. The remaining children were all listed as scholars. Also living in was another apprentice as well as a cook, housemaid and nurse.
The twins were educated first in Sherborne, then at Yeovil Grammar School and finally at the age of fourteen both boys were sent to Mount Radford School in Exeter. In 1890 both Ernest and Percy left school to start their apprenticeship in their father's ironmongery and foundry business. While Percy entered the foundry to learn that side of the business, Ernest's abilities were inclined towards finance and accounting.
By 1892 the brothers had designed and produced a self-propelled oil engine and in 1895 they developed a new engine of one horse-power designed specifically to propel a 'horseless carriage'. They, together with their inventive Engineer and designer Ben Jacobs, produced the first motor car with an internal combustion engine to be made in the United Kingdom, using a converted four wheel Hill & Boll horse-drawn phaeton and a 3hp Petter horizontal oil engine. The vehicle was constructed at the carriage works of Hill and Boll in Park Street. It weighed 9cwt (457kg), including the 120lb (54kg) of the Petter engine with its flywheel and side bars, and had a top speed of 12 miles per hour.
In the late 1890's the Petters established the Yeovil Motor Car Co Ltd with the intent of manufacturing automobiles. Initially the company produced a small motor carriage for two but eventually twelve different models were designed and produced although sales did not meet the anticipated targets. In 1897 the Petters entered the 'Yeovil Car' for trials at Chelsea organised by the Engineer magazine with a thousand guinea first prize. However they failed to win the prize and also failed to achieve the commercial success they had hoped for with automobiles and consequently adapted their engines for agricultural and industrial use.
In 1901 Ernest and Percy bought the business from their father following which they reorganised and renamed it as James B Petter & Sons with both the sons as joint managing directors. At this time their father, James, retired from business. Ernest and Percy concentrated their efforts in designing and building stationary and marine oil engines.
During the First World War the brothers set up Westland Ltd to produce military aircraft, which they continued to do after the war. In 1925 Ernest was on the board of directors of Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd which was a company set up to build economic and radical Nissen-Petren housing after the war.
Ernest wrote several pamphlets on industrial economics and was President of the British Engineers Association from 1923 to 1925. He was also a Member of Executive of the Federation of British Industries and Vice-President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He was knighted in 1925.
Deeply interested in politics Ernest stood for Parliament several times, contesting Bristol North as a Conservative in 1918 and again in 1923, and as an Independent Conservative contesting St George’s, Westminster in 1931. He was unsuccessful in all three elections. In 1938 he retired, resigning as vice-chairman of Petters Ltd on the sale of the company to Brush Electrical Engineering. This same year he emigrated to Victoria, British Colombia, the westernmost province of Canada. He returned to live in England in early 1954 but died on 18 July 1954 at New Milton, Hampshire.
James Bazeley Petter (steering) sitting next to Herbert Southcombe, with twin sons Percy (left) and Ernest (right) in the rear seat, on one of their automobiles in a photograph of about 1897. Percy Petter later wrote in his memoirs "In those days the law required that every mechanically propelled vehicle should be proceeded by a man walking with a red flag, and, as the horses were quite unaccustomed to 'Horseless Carriages,' they usually took fright when they saw one coming, and this gave us a lot of trouble." Percy Petter later wrote in his memoirs "In those days the law required that every mechanically propelled vehicle should be proceeded by a man walking with a red flag, and, as the horses were quite unaccustomed to 'Horseless Carriages,' they usually took fright when they saw one coming, and this gave us a lot of trouble."
The Petter twins - Ernest at left and Percy at right - probably taken in the early 1950's.