Edwin Ratcliffe (1848 -!916) was the son of a farmer in Berkshire and was apprenticed to John Hedges ,at his old established Iron Foundry in Bucklebury between Reading and Newbury. In 1870 Edwin married John Hedges daughter Ellen and they moved to Malmesbury where he set up his iron foundry in a cowshed at the western end of Westport.
The firm still occupies the original premises which has been enlarged and modified through the years. It gave the name of Foundry Road to the lane leading to the works. A forge, a machine shop and a woodworking facility were quickly added to the foundry. Although the establishment was originally a foundry, the working of hot metal in a forge rapidly became a part of the business. Iron gates and railings were always in demand and the company designed and produced iron gates for the Congregational Chapel Westport in 1884.
Initially the motive power was steam and since the local water supply has a high lime content it would fur up the boiler. Ratcliffe’s ingeniously stored rainwater from the roof in underground cisterns until needed. After forty years’ service the steam engine was replaced by an engine fuel by gas from the town’s supply. The workshops were originally lit by oil lamps but electric lights were installed when a 50 V DC generator was added which remained in use for some years even after the instalment of mains power.
Ratcliffe’s originally concentrated on repair work but demands for customer solutions to local engineering problems led them to produce original equipment of their own design. When Edwin opened the factory the horse was the main source of power on the fields and on the roads. Portable steam engines were used on farms to drive threshing machines but were hauled to site by horses. Ratcliffe’s worked on these steam engines at the foundry as well travelling to repair breakdowns on site. Showman’s steam engines were also overhauled by the Ratcliffe team however with the advent of the internal combustion engine cars became more common and practical.
Ratcliffe’s soon branched out into the motor trade and during the 1930’s and 1930’s they became the main local dealer for Morris cars as well as repairing and servicing any make of vehicle. In addition to selling and servicing cars the firm also offered chauffeur driven cars for hire.
Malmesbury is surrounded on three sides by water and the control of the two rivers from Sherston and Tetbury was always a major consideration. Ratcliffe and Son have played a major part in the enterprise. Ratcliffe’s involvement was twofold including both the design and manufacture of the equipment itself and the groundwork and installation on site.
The company’s client list included many important North Wiltshire families many of whom had waterwheels installed as power for grist mills and lifting water from a neighbouring river or stream. One of the most prestigious contracts was the internal engineering for the Tetbury Hand and Steam Laundry Company opened with great ceremony in 1930.
In the 1933 Malmesbury Almanack Ratcliffe and Son are shown as providing a diverse selection of services ranging from threshing machines to domestic radio sets. In the latter technology Ratcliffe’s were local pioneers and built their own wireless from a licenced design.
The Westport Ironworks is still a flourishing concern although the days when they cast waterwheels and other machinery are long gone. Much of the original machinery is still in regular use although the main business in the early 21st century is in the service and repair of light agriculture and horticultural machinery, particularly lawnmowers. The current owner is the founder’s great, great grandson.
Our booklet called Ratcliffe & Son Engineers of Malmesbury is an interesting record and can be found in the Museum Shop.