The faces of history – Percy Walter Winchurch

My grandfather, Percy Walter Winchurch, was a major figure in my childhood and had a massive influence on all of those around him.

As a child, I adored him. As an adult, my respect and affection for him has not diminished and I want this to be a lasting tribute to the man and his achievements.

Percy - about 1939
Percy – about 1939

Percy was born on 15 April 1882 at 83, King Edward Street Birmingham. He was the seventh child of Benjamin Winchurch and Eliza (née Tester). Benjamin was a glassblower and at times publican of the Cross Keys public house in Upper Windsor Street, Aston. Percy’s grandparents, Thomas and Ann Winchurch had kept the Cross Keys since about 1855.

Percy was therefore well acquainted as a child with the effects of too much alcohol on those around him and cited this as the reason for his lifelong teetotallism.

In Kelly’s directory of 1880 Benjamin is listed as a shopkeeper at 83 King Edwards Rd, the address at which Percy was born two years later.

Eliza with her younger sons. Percy and Roland have hats
Eliza with her younger sons. Percy and Roland have hats

In the 1880 Kelly’s directory of Birmingham, Thomas Winchurch (almost certainly Benjamin’s older brother) is listed as a glass maker in Phillip Street; surrounded by gun manufacturers and finishers.

The proliferation of new businesses and technologies in this area must have made it the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the late nineteenth century.

Benjamin died in 1891 at the age of sixty two, around the time of Percy’s ninth birthday.

Later, Eliza had a grocer’s shop. In the 1901 census she is described as a widow aged 58, Head of household. Shopkeeper Grocer ‘on own account’ (i.e. supporting herself) ‘at home’ at 64/65 Wheeleys Road Birmingham.

At the same address were:
Percy aged 18, an Engineer fitter, Roland aged 17, a Machine Tool Maker and Lizzie Smith aged 15, a servant

How difficult life was financially at this time is difficult to judge, but Eliza was certainly concerned about money, or at least the mysterious ‘Tester fortune’. I heard as a child Percy joke about being ‘descended from a German Baron’. He was not alone in the family to have heard of an ‘unclaimed will’ originating from the early 1800s. I have copies of the letters between Eliza, her youngest sister Clara and their cousin Maria about the existence of a will and their mutual cousin Betsy’s attempts to lay claim to any proceeds.

I believe that Eliza was a driving force behind her sons’ successes. My grandmother, Marion described her as a formidable lady and she was not given to exaggeration.

Several of the Winchurch boys became keen cyclists as this photo of Percy with a cycling club about 1901 indicates. (Click to enlarge)

Birmingham cycling group about 1901
Birmingham cycling group, with Percy highlighted. About 1901

Winchurch Brothers cycle shop preceded the garage started by Percy and his younger brother, Roland.

How many of the brothers were involved in addition to Roland and Percy, I don’t know, but it is fair to assume that the cycle business prospered, because in 1905 Percy and Roland set up ‘Winchurch Brothers Limited ‘. The business was initially at 152a Ladypool Road  (Kelly 1907 and 1908 )

By 1912, no less than four cycle shops are listed by Kelly at Ladypool Road, Moseley, Waterloo Road in Smethwick and at 134 Sandon Road in Bearwood.

Percy outside the cycle shop in Ladypool Road. 1904

At some point after 1912 ‘Edgbaston Garage’ in Sandon Road Bearwood was opened. The premises eventually occupied numbers 102 – 120 involving the demolition of several houses as it expanded. Certainly the earliest driving licence I have for Percy, dated 20 October 1914, lists Sandon Road as his business address.

The selection of the name ‘Edgbaston Garage’ is in itself interesting since, as anyone familiar with districts of Birmingham will be aware, Edgbaston is (even now) very much more ‘upmarket’ than Aston.

This seems to have been part of a shrewd move by Percy and Roland to target a wealthy section of the population who were about to lead the country into a long lasting love affair with the motor car. In the same year as Winchurch Brothers’ foundation, Herbert Austin formed the Austin Motor Company and began production at Longbridge in 1906.

There are gaps in my knowledge of many aspects of Winchurch Brothers in the early years, from 1905 until my father’s earliest memories from around 1918. Percy’s surviving driving licences from 1914 to 1919 include an endorsement ordered by Kings Heath Police Court on 21 November 1916 for ‘not obscuring headlights’ on 29 October 1916, for which he was fined 10 shillings. This was, of course at the height of the Great War, but how much real risk ‘not obscuring headlights’ caused is a matter of speculation !

Percy Walter Winchurch married Marion Brown, the daughter of Henry Ambrose Brown, a tailor, and Alice Plucknett Brown (nee Sternberg) on 18 April 1911.

Harry Brown and Edith, his wife.
Back row: Marion Sternberg, Henry Ambrose Brown (Marion’s father), Roland Winchurch, Percy, another Winchurch brother (Harry?) with wife ? Middle: Alice Brown (Marion’s mother) Mildred Brown, Marion, Employee (French ?), Eliza Winchurch (Percy’s mother) Front: Harry Brown and Edith, his wife.

Percy was 29 and Marion 28.

On their marriage certificate Percy’s address is 11 Newton Road and his occupation is ‘Cycle Dealer’, underlining the fact that the motor side of the business was less important than bike sales in the early years.

Their first child, Francis Victor Winchurch, known for most of his eighty three years as ‘Vic’ was born on 5 February 1914 at 12,Waterloo Road in Bearwood not far from the garage. His birthplace was the family home where Percy, Marion and Vic lived until the move to Pargeter Road (I think in around 1918). Interestingly, Percy is described on Vic’s birth certificate as a ‘Motor Engineer’. So only three years later, the motor side of the business had presumably become the more important.

Jeanne Marion Winchurch was born on 5 July 1919.

The business clearly prospered during the 1920s since photographs show Percy and his family in increasingly comfortable surroundings and on holiday in Devon and later Cornwall. The children both had private educations and  lifestyles befitting the rising generation of a ‘well off’ family

Percy, Jeanne,Vic, Horace Bench (husband of Millie, Marion's younger sister), Millie, Mary Bench, Alice Brown (Marion's mother). About 1925 at Meadfoot Beach, Torquay.
Percy, Jeanne,Vic, Horace Bench (husband of Millie, Marion’s younger sister), Millie, Mary Bench, Alice Brown (Marion’s mother). About 1925 at Meadfoot Beach, Torquay.

Roland meanwhile had Married Alice Wood in 1914. They had four children, Barry, Betty, Molly and Pat between 1915 and 1927.
The brothers bought houses in the newly expanding suburb of Quinton. Roland, with his larger family, probably moved from Galton Road to 757 Hagley Road West in 1931, with Percy following to 755 a year later. A high wooden fence separated the back gardens !
The brothers also owned the semi detached ‘other half’ of Percy’s house 753, which was rented to a childless couple from London called Perrott. Hugh Perrott was a travelling salesman for a childrens clothing manufacturer.

In February 1930, Vic was 16 and a pupil at King Edward VI Grammar School at Five Ways. He took his School Certificate examination that year and in January 1931 he began training with Smethwick Borough Council as a weights and Measures inspector.
Clearly a decision had to be taken in the long term with regard to his involvement, if any, in Winchurch Brothers. Correspondence between Roland and Percy in 1936 touches on this subject and the parallel matter of Roland’s son, Barry.

The Regent Billiard Hall about 1947. Notice the newly installed fluorescent lights - a pioneering feature.
The Regent Billiard Hall about 1947. Notice the newly installed fluorescent lights – a pioneering feature.

The Billiard Hall referred to in these letters, (or to give it its full name ‘The Regent Billiard Hall’) was situated adjacent to the garage fronting onto Bearwood High Street. It features in Kelly’s 1933 trade index to Birmingham and judging by references to its profitability in 1936, it had only been running for a few years. My guess is 1932.
I remember Fred Winchurch and Fred Payton serving behind the bar in the late 1940s. That bar, however served only non alcoholic drinks, a legacy of the aversion to alcohol that Percy had throughout his life, resulting from his upbringing as a publican’s son.

The years during the war cannot have been easy. Car production ceased and fuel was rationed.Vic joined the Royal Navy in January 1941 and became an operator of the new equipment known as Radar.

Percy, along with a large part of the population on Britain, ‘dug for victory’ growing vegetables and keeping hens.He slept at Sandon Road on fire watch on a regular basis in a concrete ‘Pill Box’ next to the showroom.

Birmingham was bombed by the Luftwaffe on several occasions between August 1940 and May 1941 and Bearwood Road School was hit, fortunately at night and there were no casualties. I don’t know how much fuel was stored at the garage at this time, but it can’t have been a comfortable place to be. I still have Percy’s wooden and canvas camp bed from this time. It became my bed for several years when I was a child.
In the post war years, the business prospered. Restrictions on prices meant that second hand cars with low mileage were more valuable than new ones. Consequently, Percy and to a lesser extent, I think, Roland had a succession of new cars often for no more than six months. I can remember well the excitement of being collected in the latest of ‘Grandpa’s new cars’

My brother David Christopher Winchurch had been born a few months earlier on 13 December 1946 and I can now understand how Percy must have felt at this point that he was laying a path for all of us for the future.

Vic had been added to the payroll of Winchurch Brothers after demobilisation from the Navy in 1946. I don’t think his employment did anything to remove Percy’s earlier misgivings about his involvement in the business. After a spell in the workshop, which I believe was not a great success, he was moved to the stores ! My pleasure as a result of this was derived from having a typewriter to play with when I called there. David remembers that too and additionally a narrow passageway between the back of the line of timber buildings and a brick wall behind. We both think used engine oil was stored there before being burned as fuel in the heating system.

The minutes of a meeting and the associated financial report from 1947 reveal that Winchurch Brothers Limited was on a sound financial footing. Percy proposed that the directors’ fees be increased to £520 per annum from 1 October 1946, This was carried.

Some £1500 was paid out in dividends that year and I believe that at this point only Percy and Roland were shareholders.

Percy made a move in 1947 to appoint three extra directors, Horace Bench, his brother in law through Millie, Marion’s sister plus Vic and Frank Angel, the company secretary, of whom I know very little, but he seems to have had a legal background since he was asked to produce a report on the operation of the company if these appointments took place and also in the light of a further proposal by Percy to issue shares to Vic, Jeanne, Betty, Molly and Pat ( but excluding Barry, who seems to have left the family behind him by this time – he eventually died in Rochdale in 1975)

This is quite clearly marks the intention, on Percy’s part to marginalise Roland and lead to a breakup, or takeover, of Winchurch Brothers.

In the same year, 1947, Percy staged a dinner and concert at the Red Cow Hotel in Smethwick

‘To commemorate the completion of 25 years service of Miss O. Parr with Messrs Winchurch Brothers Limited’

It is noticeable that it was Percy who sent out the invitations although Roland does seem to have been present to perform the presentation to Olive. He is, however totally absent from photos I have from that evening.

About this time, Millie Bench reported with some amusement that Roland had sidled up to her, cigarette in mouth and in his broad Birmingham accent enquired :
‘D’yow think as ower Percy’s susceptible to flattery’ ? Her reply was ‘Yes Roland, I think  he probably is’. Millie had a wry sense of humour.

Whatever form Percy and Olive’s relationship took at this time ( he was now 65 and Olive 46 ) there was no attempt to conceal it. Olive acted as chauffeuse on family outings as well as business and her family, particularly her sister Hilda Martin, husband Harold and children Denise and Roddy, were part of a large circle that Percy gathered around them.

This behaviour earned the vociferous contempt of Margaret, my mother, particularly when Olive went on holiday with Percy, Marion and entourage.

Percy however had no evident signs of acceptance the received morality of a late Victorian childhood !

He was equally contemptuous about organised religion. I remember how, towards the end of his life, on a trip to Pembrokeshire with Marion, Jenny, (Fred’s widow) and myself in the car, he replied to Jenny’s favourable comments about the picturesque appearance and setting of St Issels church at Saundersfoot with the remark :

‘Yes Olive and Midge went there one Sunday. God knows why. Some time when they were feeling extra religious, I suppose.’

I can still hear those words today, over fifty years later and to me as a ten year old, such deliciously daring blasphemy both amused and horrified me.

I don’t think I ever told my mother !

Life with Percy was fun. I often sat on his lap in the front passenger seat of the car up to the age of about six. There were, of course, no seat belts in cars before the late 1950’s. Percy would often sing along with the car radio as Olive drove us to Wales, Malvern, or in this case, Sutton Park :

Percy with a rather scared looking John at Sutton Amusement Park  about 1948
Percy with a rather scared looking John at Sutton Amusement Park about 1948
John Winchurch, Denise and Roddy Martin. Sand Bay (?) about 1948
John Winchurch, Denise and Roddy Martin. Sand Bay (?) about 1948
Winchurch Brothers with flags and bunting flying for the 1953 Coronation, three months before Percy died
Winchurch Brothers with flags and bunting flying for the 1953 Coronation, three months before Percy died

In June 1949, Jeanne commited suicide, as I have reported on the pages that I have written about her here

The plans that Percy Winchurch made in the four years after Jeanne’s death were far reaching and profoundly affected my life and the lives of many members of my family.

In 1939 Percy, Marion and the Paytons (Fred and Beattie) had gone to Pembrokeshire instead of the more customary West Country. I think this might have been on the recommendation of Frank Collins, who was a Winchurch Bros employee and who later retired to Penally, I believe.

After Jeanne died in June 1949, Percy and Marion immediately put the house in Hagley Road West on the market and they moved to Stennels Avenue in Halesowen within months. Devon and Cornwall would have brought back painful memories, I guess and Percy’s thoughts must have turned to alternative holiday destinations. Pembrokeshire quickly moved to prime position and he began to make retirement plans. These included roles for my father and David and me (his grandsons). I don’t know whose idea boatbuilding was, but it clearly had links with my father’s wartime service in the Royal Navy.

Percy entered into negotiations with Vic Morris, who owned St Brides Garage in Saundersfoot, to either purchase the business outright or go into partnership. I don’t know how the formula was arrived at, but plans were drawn up to add a boatbuilding venture to the motor business, to be known as ‘Saundersfoot Marine Company Limited’.

Then, early in September 1953, Percy suffered a major stroke. He was taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, but never regained consciousness and was dead within twenty four hours on 9 September 1953.

Suddenly, Francis Victor Winchurch, was thrust into the limelight.


2 thoughts on “The faces of history – Percy Walter Winchurch

  1. my mother inlaw was a winchurch and talked about her grandfather who was a Ben Winchurch and a cinder track record holding cyclist, surely he must be a relation of yours, I saw a picture of him with his cycle in the old science museam in newhall street any years a ago

  2. Hello Gill
    Ben Winchurch was my great uncle, an older brother of Percy, my grandfather. I believe the record he held was the distance cycled in 24 hours. I had an email from Valerie Smith (nee Webb) whose mother Dorothy was your husband’s aunt I think ?

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