John Marston; His Family, and His Career

by Bev Parker

Introduction

John Marston was an extremely successful Victorian manufacturer whose goods helped to make the name Wolverhampton synonymous with quality. He became one of the country's largest manufacturers of japanware, and later made bicycles, motorcycles and cars, that were second to none. He also had an active public life and was Lord Mayor of the town for two consecutive years.

The Early Years

John was born at Ludlow on May 6th 1836 into an old, possibly Norman family who where prosperous landowners. The family could trace their roots back to 1202, since when descendants have settled throughout the UK and as far afield as North America. John’s parents were Richard Marston and Mary, daughter of Thomas White of Ludlow. Richard was born at Hopesay on 3rd November, 1792 and became an Alderman, J.P. and Mayor of Ludlow. He died at the age of 74 on 12th November, 1866 and was buried at Hopesay.

John was educated at St. Lawrence's Grammar School, Ludlow, and afterwards at Christ's Hospital School, London. When he had reached the age of 15 in 1851, his parents decided that John’s future lay in manufacturing. He was initially sent to Darby’s Iron Works and then to the Wolverhampton firm of Richard Perry, Son & Co., tinsmiths and japanners, where John and his father signed indentures. He was apprenticed to Edward Perry to learn the metalware and japanning trade.

Richard Perry learned his trade at the Old Hall, Wolverhampton in the 1790s before moving to 32 Brickkiln Street, where he had a workshop. By 1828 his business had moved to Temple Street. His son Edward was born on 15th November, 1800 and by 1828 had his own japanning business at 7 Queen Street. Edward and his wife Sophia lived at Stonley House, Wolverhampton. He wanted to expand his business and so moved to Jeddo Works sometime before 1842.

Jeddo works was on the west side of Tall House Lane, renamed Pool Street in about 1851. It stood just off the Penn Road, in the centre of the site that would later become Sunbeamland. John was possibly attracted to Wolverhampton because at the time it was the most important manufacturing town in Staffordshire. When his apprenticeship ended he purchased Daniel Smith Lester's japanning business at Bilston which had amalgamated with Frederick Walton & Company, and Thurston and Company. John was just 23 years old.


An advert from 1861.


John and Ellen Marston. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

Little is known about Daniel Smith Lester and his business. It is listed in White's 1851 History and Gazetteer of Staffordshire under Japanners, Tin Plate, and Iron Plate Workers, and was situated in Lester Street, Bilston. Frederick Walton & Company was based in the Old Hall works, and was started by his father Benjamin.

In 1865 John married Ellen Edge, the second daughter of Charles Edge of Edgbaston, Birmingham. She was seven years his junior. They were to have 10 children:

Edith, born 23rd January, 1866; Charles, born April 6th, 1867;  John Harold (Jack), born 29th September, 1868; Katherine Maud, born 27th July, 1870; Roland, born 2nd March, 1872; Ida Margaret, born 27th September, 1873; Frederick Milward, born 8th September, 1875; Norman, born 4th September, 1879; Henry Clive, date of birth not known; and Ellen Allerton, born 27th December, 1886.

Unfortunately two of the children, Edith and Henry Clive died at an early age, and John and Ellen were to outlive several of the others.

John’s business prospered, and in 1871 he purchased Edward Perry's Jeddo works, after Perry's death in 1869. John became one of the major manufacturers of japanware in the town.

John and Ellen lived at the Oaks in Merridale Road, a beautiful Victorian house with a large garden, which in those days was on the outskirts of the town.

Ellen’s elder sister Fanny married Frederick Milward of Redditch, whose family owned the large needle making company Henry Milward and Sons, Limited, Birmingham. Her brothers were prominent architects and lawyers in Birmingham.


Ellen Marston. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

Sunbeamland from the 1914 Sunbeam catalogue. Paul Street is at the front and Pool Street is on the left. The original Jeddo works were in the courtyard just behind the buildings on the left.
In 1877 Jeddo works were extended into Paul Street. The product range included bread dishes, dish covers, pots, pans, kettles, spirit lamps, foot warmers and black enamel ware. John even invented a machine for melting snow, but it was not successful.

The company became one of the two largest makers of black enamelled ware in the country.


The Oaks, the family's Wolverhampton home.


Sunbeamland today. Sadly the building is now empty and in a state of disrepair. Hopefully this situation will soon change.

John became a member of the School Board in 1882 and was chairman in 1886, 1887 and 1888. In 1885 he became a local councillor for St. Paul's ward, where Jeddo works were situated. 

John and Ellen’s eldest sons Charles and Jack both went to Wolverhampton Grammar School. Jack was considered to be the clever one.

When he left the grammar school he obtained a degree at Merton College, Oxford and became a barrister. Unfortunately his life came to an early end when he died of an incurable disease in his early forties.

After leaving the Grammar School in 1885, at the age of 18, Charles entered his father’s business as an apprentice. A practical approach to chemistry was considered to be an essential part of his training and so he attended a part-time chemistry course at Mason College, which is now part of Birmingham University. At the time he kept a diary and recorded each day’s events:

After arriving at the factory with his father, he spent each morning on clerical duties such as invoicing and then caught the 11.38 train to Birmingham for his chemistry class.

On reaching Birmingham he would have lunch with friends at Pattison's or Benson's, and after the lecture caught the 1.40 p.m. North Western train back to Wolverhampton.

On arrival at the factory he worked in the dispatch department, sending off the orders and would arrive home at about 6 o'clock. After tea he usually had a singing lesson, practiced the organ, or played whist with two of his sisters, and sometimes with a visiting cousin.


Charles Marston. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.


Members of the staff at Sunbeamland. 2nd from the left is Roland Marston, Charles is on the right. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

Each Sunday started with a Sunday school class at 10 o’clock followed by the regular morning service. There would be another service in the evening.

Charles taught at the Sunday school at St. Jude’s Church and also acted as a lay reader during church services.

He took this very seriously and started making a study of the Bible, which was an important influence throughout his life.

The family often went out for a day with the ladies riding in a carriage and the gentleman riding on cycles and tricycles. They had a summer house at Colwyn Bay, North Wales were they spent as much time as possible each summer.

The Marstons were keen cyclists and Charles records a trip he took with Jack to Colwyn Bay on an August Bank Holiday. The two boys rode the 115 miles or so from Wolverhampton to Colwyn Bay at an average speed, including stops, of just over 8 miles an hour. They left Wolverhampton on their tricycles at 5.58 a.m. and reached Shifnal in just over one hour in the face of a strong wind, which would remain against them for the first 60 miles. By 8.55 a.m. they had reached Shrewsbury where they had breakfast and exchanged tricycles. They left Shrewsbury at 9.30 a.m. and felt “utterly done up” during the last three miles to Llangollen. Once there they had a good dinner with brandy and water at the Hand Hotel where they recuperated. The pair then went on to Corwen and a short stay in the Owen Glendower, followed by a 12 mile hill climb in the face of a strong wind that led them to Pentrevolas. Once there they had a good tea and speeded down hill to Llanrwst, where after another drink they went on to Colwyn Bay, arriving there at 9.25 p.m.

In his diary Charles mentions that his father was a champion tricyclist and described one of his journeys: "'Papa' who was a champion tricyclist all his life, started from Merridale Road at 9 a.m. on a spring day, cold with showers, to cycle to Ludlow, 34 miles distant.

After stopping for lunch he arrived there at 3.30 p.m. in the afternoon, sending a telegram to his family to announce his safe arrival. Staying the night with relatives he rode on to Shrewsbury the following day, a further 28 miles, returning from Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton by train." He was well into his fifty's at the time.


John Marston and son Norman. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.
Charles also tells of a family outing to Shropshire one Saturday: “On a lovely, cloudless day in July, Mother, with a friend and the five youngest children went in the morning to Bridgnorth via Shifnal in a carriage. The ‘wheel’ party (Peter, two friends, one a lady, Jack and Charles) started at 2 o’clock and reached the Fox at Shipley in 48 minutes. On arrival at Bridgnorth, we put our machines at the Lower Town in a ‘Public’ and awaited the arrival of the carriage party.” An aunt gave them tea and some of the family had a look at the church. The tricycle party started back around 7.30p.m. and reached home two hours later. Charles mentioned that he “got up the Hermitage Hill with two momentary stops and a slight push from Jack.”

The Sunbeam Cycle


John in 1916.

John was a strict disciplinarian, and a hard worker who worked long hours. He expected his workforce to do the same. He kept a close eye on them and insisted on high standards of workmanship from everyone. Anyone whose work was below standard would instantly be dismissed.

The japanware business continued to thrive until about 1885, after which time production started to decline. Clearly something new was required to sustain growth and John was continually urged to consider a new product; the bicycle.

The story goes that he discussed the matter whilst riding home from work with Charles, and took the decision there and then to change the direction of the business.

As a keen cyclist he became interested in trying to improve the machines of the day. In 1887 William Newill, the works foreman, built a special cycle for John, at Paul Street. It had a low frame as John had short legs and was finished in the usual japanning colours of black and gold leaf, and to the usual high standard. He was so pleased with the bicycle that he considered manufacturing them. The story is told that John's wife, Ellen saw the sun reflected in the high gloss finish, and so the bicycle was called 'The Sunbeam'. The name was registered in 1888.

John initially intended to make only tricycles, but at the time the modern safety bicycles were all the rage and so most Sunbeam cycles were of this type.

In the middle of 1887 he told one of his men “to draw him out an estimate of the cost of going into the bicycle business”. This must have been favourable because by December of that year the first Sunbeam bicycle had been turned out at the works.

He gave William Newill a partnership, and the company began to change direction from making pots and pans to engineering.

The Paul Street works first became known as Sunbeamland in 1888 and Thomas Cureton, who had joined the company as an apprentice from Rugby School was starting to make a name for himself at the works. He would go on to become John’s right-hand man.

Charles Marston. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.
Charles relaxing. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.
Charles reached the age of 21 in1888, and a big celebration followed. The day began with letters and telegrams of congratulation.

His presents included a cheque for £10, a pair of gold cuff links, a gold tie pin, and a silver fitted Gladstone bag.

At the works 3 fire balloons were let off and a lot of explosions made with iron dies. The flag was flown from the new flagstaff and many congratulations were given.

In the evening a dinner was held in his honour at the Star & Garter Hotel, with all of the work's employees as guests, as well as many friends. At the time there were just under 200 employees.

Mr. Underwood's string band played and much wine was consumed. After the meal the tin plate foreman presented him with an inscribed gold chronometer, and another member of staff presented him with a decorated bible.

It was a very enjoyable evening for all. Charles’ apprenticeship was now over and from then on he would receive a salary from the company, initially of £8 a month, soon followed by an increase to £15 a month.

John Marston. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.
Public Life
John in his mayoral robes. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.
In 1889 the Marston's celebrated their silver wedding anniversary and in November of the same year John became Mayor of Wolverhampton, and retained the position the following year.

During his time as mayor we worked hard with a number of committees including the Sewerage Committee and the Waterworks Committee to improve sanitation in the town.

Thanks to his efforts the Sewerage Committee obtained compulsory powers to purchase land for the much needed extension of the waterworks at Barnhurst Farm and the Waterworks Committee arranged the completion of the much needed water pumping machinery by the building of a set of duplicate condensing engines.

Each engine was capable of lifting four million gallons of absolutely pure water per day. This ensured the reliability of the supply should one of the machines break down.

During his mayoralty the Royal assent was obtained to empower the council to build a power station to supply electricity for electric lighting throughout the borough. John also became chairman of the Finance Committee after Alderman Thorne’s retirement and presided over the difficult and delicate negotiations with Staffordshire County Council for a fair adjustment of the finances after the passing of the Local Government Act of 1888, by which Wolverhampton became a County Borough.

On the occasion of his silver wedding the members of the council presented John with a handsome silver plate in celebration of the event and also to show their appreciation for his services to the council.

On his retirement as mayor in 1891, he was appointed an Alderman of the Borough, and a member of the County Commission. He continued for many years in his position as chairman of the Waterworks Committee and was instrumental in ensuring an adequate water supply to Wolverhampton for the years to come. At the time the town’s population was greatly increasing and extra wells were required. The Council twice applied to Parliament to sink wells at Stableford and Hilton and each time the Bill was rejected. Undaunted, the Water Committee arranged the construction of large filters at Cosford, close to Cosford’s River Worfe, so that water from the brook could be purified and added to the existing supply. The river water was passed through Jewell Rapid Filters, sterilised and mixed with the water from the boreholes and artesian wells.

Read about the Water Committee and their achievements

John also served on other municipal committees including the General Purpose Committee, the Watch Committee, and the Distress Committee. He was also a Justice of the Peace.

In 1900 John, Ellen and their family moved to "The Gables" in Wood Road, Tettenhall, where the Nuffield Hospital stands today. The house was originally called "Glen Bank" and is believed to have been built in around 1865 for Samuel Small Mander and his family. Samuel died in 1881 and his wife Mary lived there until her death in 1900. The house had extensive grounds including woods which went down the hill as far as Henwood Road.

The Gables. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives

Back at the works

In February 1889 Sunbeams were exhibited at the Stanley Show. There were 13 bicycles and tricycles on display, including J. Harrison Carter's Oil Tight Chain Lubricator & Gear Cover Chaincase.

This was an important discovery for Sunbeam, which became an important feature of their bicycles, and later their motorcycles.

In 1889 a showroom and depot was opened at 38 Holborn Viaduct in London, followed by three more depots in 1895. Also that year the business was incorporated as John Marston Limited.

The Marston family. Left to right: Louise, Jack, Norman, John (seated), Katie, Roland, Ellen (seated), Charles, Marguerite, Ida, and Fred (seated). Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

Sales rocketed and there was an urgent need for expansion, particularly in the supply of components such as pedals. As room could not be found on the existing site, John purchased a factory in Villiers Street belonging to Edward Bullivant, a tinner and japanner. He set up a new company in the factory, called the Villiers Cycle Components Company. It was founded in July 1898 to make pedals and cycle components for Sunbeam, with Charles Marston in charge. Charles had previously been on a sales trip to America, and while there he visited Pratt & Whitney of Hartford, Connecticut. After discussions he returned with patterns of pedals, and the necessary machinery specifications for making them.

A catalogue, issued by John Marston Ltd. from their Paul Street works, in 1896, is for "Koh-i-noor Letters and Artistic Advertising".  These appear to have been individual letters and complete signs made in copper.  Nothing else is known about these products but they serve to show Marston's willingness to take up a variety of business opportunities.  The project was doubtless short lived and probably abandoned when the japanning business was sold.
     

View the Koh-i-noor catalogue
        
Whilst in America Charles met Louise Johnson of New York City. He went to America several times to visit her and they were married at All Souls Episcopal Church, New York, on January 30th, 1895. On their return to Wolverhampton they moved into a new home at Penn called 'Highfields'. Three years later they had a daughter called Marjorie, and moved to a larger house in Tettenhall Wood, which Charles called 'Afcot'.

Sunbeam Cars

John was always a perfectionist and his bicycles were finished to the highest standard. In 1899 he experimented with his first prototype car, built to a specification drawn up by himself and Thomas Cureton. The car was purely experimental and most of the parts were made at Sunbeamland or machined there from locally made castings. The vehicle was built by Henry Dinsdale of the Villiers Cycle Components Company and some of his staff in a disused coach-house in Upper Villiers Street, to a fairly conventional design with a 6 hp. single cylinder engine, two speed gear and belt drive.

On completion a road test was organised. Dinsdale favoured the hilly route from Wolverhampton to Bridgnorth, whereas Cureton decided on a journey from Wolverhampton to Stafford which was flat and included railway stations if necessary. They travelled at 14 mph., a speed that they carefully kept hidden from John Marston.


A Sunbeam Mabley. Courtesy of Jim Boulton.

A second, similar car was produced in 1900 and exhibited at the Crystal Palace Show in 1901, in company with another prototype car designed by Mr. Maberley Smith. He offered his car to Sunbeam as a way for them to enter the car market without any development costs and the Sunbeam Mabley was born.

In 1902 the remaining metalware and japanning part of the business was sold to Orme Evans & Co. to enable Sunbeam to concentrate solely on vehicle production.

The cars sold quite well and so it seemed necessary to re-equip part of the works to expand production, but because of the financial pressures this caused, the decision was taken to turn this part of the business into a separate company.

In March 1905 the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. Ltd was formed with a starting capital of £40,000 and John Marston as Chairman. Cars were made at Moorfield Works, off Villiers Street and there were satellite factories at Owen Road, Temple Street, and Ablow Street, where amongst other components car radiators were made.

Sunbeam Motorcycles

During 1903 and 1904 John Marston and his sons were experimenting with motorcycles. It is thought that they were using a Swiss “Motosacoche” engine mounted on a modified Sunbeam bicycle. Some of the Sunbeam employees were clearly giving thought to motorcycle production because in 1903 James Morgan, the Deputy Works Manager patented a “Little Oil Bath” for chain driven motorcycles. The experimental work came to an end in 1904 when one of the company’s employees was killed on one of the experimental prototypes. After the accident John Marston decreed that no more work would be carried out on these machines in his factory. It seems that he never liked them in the first place.

John’s aversion for motorcycles continued for several years, during which time much of the early development had taken place and many successful machines were manufactured locally. His thoughts eventually turned back to this direction in 1911/1912 and he engaged John Greenwood who had previously worked for Rover and JAP to develop a Sunbeam motorcycle.

The best local motorcycle designer was Harry Stevens, one of the four Stevens brothers who ran A. J. Stevens & Company Limited, just up the road in Retreat Street. Harry would later become well known for his A.J.S. motorcycles that were produced in vast numbers at Graiseley Hill.

Harry was employed by Sunbeam as a consulting engineer and he designed the first Sunbeam motorcycle, a 349 cc. single cylinder side-valve machine, with two speed transmission and a forward magneto. John Greenwood then had the task of preparing it for production. He only made two major modifications which were to place the magneto behind the cylinder and to change the drive system. The first machines went into production in 1912 and were soon a great success and would eventually overshadow the company’s bicycles. They became known as “The Gentleman's Motorcycle”.


Harry Stevens.

The Later Years
Ellen Marston at home with her grandchildren in 1914 at their last home in Wolverhampton; "The Gables". Left to right:

Melissa Marston, Joyce Deanesly, Christopher Deanesly, John Marston junior, Ellen, Marjorie Marston, Dick Deanesly, Pat Marston (on the floor), Ruth Deanesly (rear), Brenda Marston, Diana Deanesly.

Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

John continued to ride his cycle and used it as his personal transport to work. Each morning an employee in uniform would set off to the Chairman's house, riding a cycle and propelling the Chairman's machine by hand. On arrival at the Oaks, the employee would hand over the cycle and John would mount his machine and set off for the works. The employee would follow behind at a discrete distance. John also liked a Reynolds currant bun with his morning tea, and so each morning an employee would walk to Reynolds Restaurant in Queen Square and collect one for him.

In 1901 John was elected chairman of the governors of the Grammar School, and became an Honorary Freeman of the Borough on 14th October, 1909. He was also a member of the Board of Management of the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire General Hospital, and became its chairman on the death of Mr. A. C. Twentyman. He held the position until 1909.

John also became a member of the Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce, and the first president of the Wolverhampton Automobile Club. He was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party and became president of the West Wolverhampton Conservative Association, and chairman of the Wolverhampton Conservative Club.

After attending St. Mark's Church for many years he became a regular worshiper at Christ Church in Tettenhall Wood when the family moved to "The Gables". John was also a Freemason and a member of the Lodge of Honour.

He finally retired in 1916 at the age of 80, but his retirement was to be short-lived. Two years later John and Ellen were resting at their house in Colwyn Bay when they heard some terrible news. Their third son Roland had died suddenly at the age of 45. It was planned for Roland to succeed John as Chairman of the company. John had outlived five of his children, but the shock of Roland's death was too much. John and Ellen went to Roland's funeral on Thursday March 7th, 1918, but grief stricken John died the next day at around 9 p.m. at Colwyn Bay. Ellen died six weeks later, also from grief.

John and Ellen were buried at Colwyn Bay, and not Wolverhampton, for reasons connected with the war, possibly transportation problems. A public service was held in Wolverhampton for the man who had done so much for the town, and had brought much employment to the area. A commemorative tablet was erected at St. Peter's Church by the employees of the company.

The location of John and Ellen's grave has recently been discovered by Angela and Trevor Davies after some clever detective work. It is in Saint Trillo's Church graveyard, Llandudno Road, Rhos-on-Sea.


John and Ellen's grave. Courtesy of Angela and Trevor Davies.


Another view of the grave. Courtesy of Angela and Trevor Davies.


This is a reconstruction to show how the grave originally looked.

After facing a claim for death duties, Charles sold his shares in John Marston Ltd to a number of wartime munitions manufacturers.

Charles was interested in archaeology and had become an enthusiastic archaeologist. He was a member of the Shropshire Archaeological Society and became very interested in Roman Britain. 1921 was a tragic year, as Louise died after a long illness, in an American nursing home near New York.

Charles married again the following year. His new wife was Ruth Miller Bayne, an old family friend, also from America. She had a daughter, Margaret from a previous marriage. Charles was heavily involved with the Conservative Party and received a Knighthood in 1926.

He was elected for the diocese of Lichfield as a member of the House of Laity of the Church Assembly, and remained a member for twenty years. He wrote a number of archaeological books on excavations in Palestine, and visited the country with Ruth on a number of occasions.

Charles in later life. Courtesy of the Marston Wolverhampton Heritage Trust archives.

They moved to a new home called 'Elmdene', at Camden Park, Tunbridge Wells. Sadly Ruth developed breast cancer in 1933, and died a short while later. She is buried in the family's grave at Tettenhall.

In 1935 during another visit to America, he met and married his third wife, Mary Battey Bonney from Atlanta, Georgia. After the marriage they went on a trip around the world. They returned to Tunbridge Wells and stayed there until 1940, after which they moved to Stratford-on-Avon, to avoid the air raids that were taking place at the beginning of the war. Charles died on May 21st, 1946 at the age of 79.

Other Marston family graves can be found in the graveyard at St. Michael and All Angels Church, Tettenhall.

The Marston family's graves at St. Michael and All Angels.

Charles' grave is in the foreground with Roland, and his wife Elaine's grave behind on the left. Behind on the right is Norman and John Harold's grave.

The inscription on Roland and Elaine's grave is as follows:

Sacred to the dear memory of Roland, husband of Elaine Marston. Died February 28th 1918. Aged 45 years. Peace Perfect Peace.

Elaine, wife of Roland Marston. Died February 18th, 1949. Aged 65 years. Peace Perfect Peace.

The inscription on Norman and John Harold's grave on the right is as follows:

In Loving Memory. Norman Marston. January 3rd 1906. Aged 26 years. Son of John and Ellen Marston of Tettenhall.

Also of John Harold Marston. October 3rd 1912. Aged 44 years.

The inscription on the final grave reads:

Charles Marston

Born April 6th, 1867 Died May 21st, 1946.

And his wife Louise Isabel Marston who died December 28th, 1921 aged 46 years.

Also his second wife Ruth Marston who died December 14th, 1934 aged 34 years.

And Melissa Wheelock Johnson mother of Louise Isabel Marston who died February 27th 1907 aged 69 years.


References:

Marjorie von Harten and Melissa Marston, Man of Wolverhampton, Coombe Springs Press.

John Jones, The Mayors of Wolverhampton, Volume 2, Whitehead Bros., 1893.

W. H. Jones, Municipal Life of Wolverhampton, Alexander and Shepheard, 1903.

Robert Cordon Champ, The Sunbeam Motorcycle, Haynes Publishing Group, 1986.

John A. Chambers, A History of "Glen Bank" or as it was later called "The Gables", 1994.


 
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