Henry Royce: Huntingdonshire’s genius engineer

TUESDAY (March 27) was Henry Royce’s birthday. The great engineer was born 149 years ago on March 27, 1863. And like all the greatest people in history he was born in Huntingdonshire.

His father ran the water mill at Alwalton on the River Nene. Now almost surrounded by the new townships south of Peterborough, Alwalton was then a quiet country village. Too quiet for Henry’s father. The mill went out of business and the family moved to London, where the old miller died when Henry was only nine. He had to leave school and go out to work selling newspapers.

An aunt paid for him to serve an apprenticeship in the railway workshops at Peterborough. Then he went into electrical engineering before becoming interested in motor cars. He started to design and build his own cars, but not on some enormous production line. He built three cars in a corner of his workshop and one of them was shown to car salesman Charles Rolls. The rest is history – the first Rolls Royce was completed in December 1904.

Royce was a perfectionist who never stopped working. It was while walking on a beach in Sussex with some of his engineers that he started sketching some ideas on the sand with his walking stick.

The result was the “R” aero engine. It powered the first aircraft to fly at more than 400mph and was the forerunner of the Merlin engine used in the Spitfire. And the night before he died in April 1933, Henry sat up in bed to draw on the back of an envelope the design for the world’s first adjustable shock absorber.

The Huntingdonshire miller’s son had come a long way, but his travels didn’t end with his death. His ashes were placed in an urn beneath a bust of him in the Rolls Royce factory in Derby.

The workforce may have found it slightly odd having their old boss still on the premises keeping an eye on them. In any case, after a few years the urn was moved and Henry was brought back to Alwalton to be buried in the village where he was born.

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His memorial in the church there reveals another detail. Henry was his second name – our great engineer was actually christened Frederick. But somehow “Fred Royce” doesn’t sound quite right for the last word in luxury motoring.