Kent Messenger Maidstone
One man business empire built around steam engines
TODAY, Maidstone is perhaps best known as a shopping destination, with a host of independent and chain stores to choose from. It’s hard to imagine that it was once a renowned manufacturing hub, especially for the transport industry. We may remember Rootes and Tilling Stevens, but before even them, there was Jesse Ellis. Mr Ellis was born at Cranbrook, on April 14, 1846, and worked for his father George in the Baltic saw mill at Maidstone until he was 18, when he went to work at the Thomas Aveling steam engine works in Rochester. There he developed a lifetime passion for the vehicles. At the age of 20, he married Mary Mosely, of Yalding, and the couple went on to have eight children: Edith, Minnie, Jesse Junior, Arthur, Mabel, Daisy, May and Douglas. By the age of 21, he had his own business. Mr Ellis began as a road haulier, using the traction engines and trailers of the day to cart loads around the country. The business expanded into road maintenance, and he utilised steam engines to lay road surfaces around the county. In 1895, he also won the prestigious contract to re-make the Thames embankment in London. A photograph exists depicting him in top hat and tails as he supervised the work beneath the shadow of Cleopatra’s Needle. His biggest contract, however, was with Kent County Council (KCC), and his company had responsibility for maintaining many of the roads in Tonbridge and Maidstone. The firm was based initially in Union Street, by what is now Starnes Court, but later moved to bigger premises at the Invicta Works and Sufferance Wharf in St Peter’s Street. Ellis had his own South Eastern and Chatham railway siding, run directly into his works and he also owned a ragstone quarry at Boughton Monchelsea to supply the necessary stone for roadmaking. In 1897, he began to design and manufacture his own steam wagons and his first design was the Buck Wagon, looking not unlike a South African Boer ox-wagon, with the engine at the rear. Ellis experimented with many different designs of frames and boilers, some water-tube, some fire-tube and ones with curved tubes which was to stop the ends leaking with the expansion of the firebox. He made wagons with double frames to add strength and rigidity. His wagons were sold all over the UK and also shipped to India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He personally introduced the steam motor wagon to Egypt in 1902, for which he was received and complimented by the Sirdar, Sir Reginald Wingate. Ellis found upright boilers were good for short journeys, but did not make good steam pressure, so he settled on a locomotivetype boiler, which ran at a higher working pressure, making it better for longer journeys and steep hills. Unfortunately, the cost of developing and marketing the vehicles was high and he found it hard to compete with the likes of Foden and Sentinel. The company was then dealt a major blow when KCC took the decision to manage its roads directly and cancelled its contract. The part of the business that was funding the cash to experiment with steam wagons was lost and the company went into receivership.
There is an exhibition of old photographs and documents related to Jesse Ellis and Co within the new Making Art Work centre at 23 Union Street, Maidstone. The building is the original headquarters of the Ellis company. The exhibition is free and can be visited between 10am and 4pm today (Friday), Saturday and Sunday, as well as next Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Jesse Ellis, pictured, was said to be a likeable and jolly man. He was a prominent figure in the Maidstone business community, a founder member of the Automobile Club and a Quarter Master Sergeant of the West Kent Yeomanry Cavalry for 25 years. He was a freemason and a founder member of the Robinson Lodge No 2046. Mr Ellis died in 1916, but his line continues through his son Arthur, and Arthur’s son Walter, to David Ellis, who lives today in London Road, Allington. David Ellis, who has inherited much of his great grandfather’s enthusiasm for steam engines, owning one of his own, said: “It’s a Foden. Unfortunately, there are no Jesse Ellis steam wagons left as far as we know, apart from one in New Zealand that is currently undergoing restoration.”
Mr Ellis is keen to hear from anyone who may have old photographs or memorabilia connected to Ellis and Co. He can be contacted directly on 07875 575827.