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Our William

And why Woodsmoor is the perfect place for a car show!

It seems appropriate to start the WCCS blog series by writing about some local Woodsmoor history from almost a century ago which culminated in something all car enthusiasts will recognise and which demonstrates why Woodsmoor in Stockport has a very special place in car history.

You see, every now and again you hear some information that leaves you, as the UK vernacular goes: 'gobsmacked!' It doesn’t often happen to me and that’s not to claim I know everything by the way, I’m simply more blasé than most I suspect. However, when I recently discovered that Woodsmoor in Stockport (in northern England) was ground zero for Jaguar cars you could have slapped my face and called me Susan in the time it took for that info’ to register. Talk about confused! Questions revolved in my head: Woodsmoor? In Stockport? The Jaguar cars? Here? Where I live? Are you sure? Really? What? How? Errrrhm? And it’s true – who would have thought it?

The narrative goes that William Walmsley, the son of a wealthy Stockport coal merchant, returned from serving in World War One and started to make motorcycle sidecars in his shed in the grounds of an imposing Victorian villa on Flowery Fields in Woodsmoor. And what creations they were; so beautiful, so elegant; they sold like the proverbial ‘hot cakes’. He called them Swallow Sidecars, also known as ‘Stockport Zeppelins’, due to their dirigible airship-like structure and shiny aluminium cladding. Soon Walmsley had to move to a bigger unit in Stockport in order to scale up production to meet the ever-growing demand.

It was only when William’s family moved, taking the fledgling side-car business with them, to Blackpool on the English Fylde coast that the story really moves on. Enter one William Lyons. He was younger than Walmsley and much more entrepreneurial. He spotted the commercial potential of William’s creations and formed a partnership with him. Soon they built up the sidecar business and further diversified into building bespoke coach-works for established manufacturers, including the Standard Swallow, all too great effect. As the business progressed it eventually moved to Coventry in the English Midlands to be nearer the epicentre of British car manufacture and during this journey the Stockport storyline starts to lose its grip.

In 1935 Walmsley, a somewhat reluctant businessman had had one too many fall outs with Lyons and chose to dissolve the partnership. He sold his shares, moved back to Blackpool and quietly removed himself from automotive history choosing instead to start a small company designing caravans and trailers. Lyons on the other hand pounced and went on to form Jaguar cars. Eventually he was granted a knighthood for creating an international prestige car brand. Over the years Walmsley’s contribution was gently edged out of Jaguar’s official canon giving most the impression that Blackpool, Lyon’s birthplace, is where Jaguar had its genesis. We know better now don’t we and perhaps you’re as surprised as I was?

You see, my Dad after having owned a Mark 2 upgraded to a Mark 10 Jag in the early seventies – it was a huge whale of a thing I don’t know how he drove it. My father-in-law had a white XJS in the eighties which I’m pretty sure is now a pile of rust. Fictional detective Inspector Morse famously drives a cranky old Mark 2. Enzo Ferrari described the E-Type Jag as one of the prettiest cars ever made. All of this would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the efforts of a bored ex-serviceman living and working in the post-industrial northern mill town I call home.

How can we know how many Jags in the intervening decades have cruised down the M60 motorway under the magnificent Stockport viaduct? How many Big Cats have been parked in Woodsmoor the owners ignorant of the historical thread that extends from years earlier, snaking through the borough, from the old century into the new, coiling ever tighter until coalescing into the high-end motor they will fret over as they leave it at the kerbside.

History is a beguiling thing. It’s the collective story of how tragedy, ambition, accident, stupidity and serendipity collude to instigate the events that form the future. And in this process, alongside orthodox history as we know it, if one cares to look, there are also parallel stories of small beginnings, unsung heroes and also-rans: the victims of bad luck or misplaced credit. Walmsley's story just happens to be closer to home than most and to me, here in Stockport, is definitely that bit more interesting.

As a coda to all this, apparently there are moves to get a commemorative blue plaque mounted on the house in Woodsmoor where the Jaguar story began. It can't be too soon to my mind. And, just around the corner from the former site of William’s humble shed, some new houses have been built one of which is known as Walmsley Cottage. It’s not much to mark William Walmsley’s considerable and local contribution to our classic car world but perhaps, given his low-key nature, it’s just enough.

Originally published on the Sylvian Scribblings Classic Car Blog in January 2015. sylvianscribblings.blogspot.co.uk

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