by Mervyn Penny
A hundred years ago, in December 1896, a young man recently qualified as a blacksmith and farrier took over a blacksmith's shop at Ashbury - for which he paid £17.10s. He was William John Bunce and came from Aldbourne, in Wiltshire, where his father had been a shepherd. He rode to and fro on a pennyfarthing bicycle, and lodged in Ashbury. He carried out all the usual smithing jobs, punctuated with shoeing horses in downland barns. The latter work meant rising at 4 a.m. to get horses shod ready for a 7am start.
Hard though the early days were, William was an ingenious craftsman and soon was advertising his patent whippletrees which connected horses to the plough: made of iron tube, they were a great improvement on the wooden variety. He also repaired farm machinery, eventually selling other people's products too. As demand increased, he set up an iron foundry at Shrivenham railway station, where he made various manhole covers, gratings, cattle troughs, drinking bowls and so on. If you study the gratings in Swindon streets today, you will find some with 'Bunce, Shrivenham' moulded in them.
He moved to bigger premises at Ivy House, Ashbury, where he employed a saddler and a pattern maker, as well as his blacksmiths. Again expanding, he also brought the foundry to Ivy House.
He manufactured a heavy tyre bender for a while, and also made a sheet metal bender, manufacturing a special machine-driven 8ft wide pattern for the Sudan - his first
overseas order. "We gained much satisfaction from this order," says his daughter Doris, who, with Bert her brother and Irene her sister, were brought into the firm as equal partners with their father.
William John never rested on his laurels. He turned his thoughts to roads in winter and decided to convert his 'Berkshire' fertiliser spreader to a gritting machine for icy roads. This was met with enthusiasm by Swindon and other councils, and Bunce's gritters started to be used all over the country. He then devised a snow plough for tractors and lorries. This had a tripping blade which 'gave' when meeting immovable obstacles. Lt was patented in 1929, but the Bunce family waited, not too patiently, until February 1932 for the first snow fall large enough to test it. William was astute enough to patent all his ideas.
Doris often drove the lorry, demonstrating the machine, while William pointed out the finer points to his clients. This was a real family business always guided by Christian principles.
By 1940, Bunce's was in the forefront of snow clearing, and it was no surprise when some high-ranking RAF officers descended on the firm asking to borrow a demonstration model.
There was disbelief, however, when an order came for 666 ... Surely it must be a clerical error! The mistake was duly rectified - it should have read 1,320, please! How Bunce's coped with this workload remains a secret. They farmed out as much work as they could, assembling the ploughs at Ashbury and executing the order within one year. It is nice to think that Willliam Bunce's ideas helped win the War in the Air.
After the War, the firm expanded further, and became. an agent for snow blowers and salt-spreading machines. William John Bunce died in 1951, and his son Bert took over the running of the business. The agricultural side of the business closed in 1968, when the local farming fraternity gave the firm a dinner at the Goddard Arms in Swindon; a gesture of the appreciation they felt for William's company. When William'ssonBertdiedin 1966,hisson
David took over, and on David's retirement in 1988, his three Sons took over the helm.
Orders for snow ploughs and blowers came from Greece in 1993. Other far-away sales have come from Dubai, Jerusalem, Jordan and the Yemen. De-icing equipment was specially made for the Thames Bridge at Dartford and Bunce's has recently received an order for de-icing connected with the Channel
When William Bunce was a boy, his shepherd father, also William, told him that he was the biggest fool in the family. His mother thought differently. How right she was.
(Reprinted by kind permission of Faringdon Folly Newspaper, December 1996)
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