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British Industrial History

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Ernest Petter

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1896. Petter, Hill and Boll's Autocar. From Left to Right: (Front) James B. Petter, H. W. Southcombe, (Back) G. B. Petter and E. W. Petter.

Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter (1873-1954) - engine and aircraft manufacturer

1873 Born at Yeovil, Somerset. Son of James Bazeley Petter; twin brother of Percival Waddams Petter.

1890 Left school to start apprenticeship in father's ironmongery and foundry business.

1901 Mechanical engineer, employer, boarding in Hornsey[1]

1901 The twin brothers purchased the business from their father, becoming joint managing directors. Reorganized as James B. Petter and Sons Ltd.

1907 Married Angela Emma Petter, daughter of Henry Petter of Calcutta. One daughter and 3 sons, the eldest (William) Edward Willoughby[2] became an aircraft designer.

1915 Chairman of Petters Ltd.

1915 Westland Aircraft Ltd subsidiary formed; Ernest became chairman.

1918 Stood for Parliament (Bristol North); unsuccessful.

1918 Engineer of 72, Queen Victoria-street, London, E.C.4. [3]

1918 Patented a fuel pulveriser. [4]

1923 Stood for Parliament (Bristol North); unsuccessful.

1923 President of the British Engineers' Association (to 1925).

1925 Knighted

1931 Stood for Parliament (St George's Westminster); unsuccessful.

1934 Angela died

1935 Married Lucy Ellen Hopkins.

1938 Resigned as chairman of Petters and Westland.

1938 emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia.

1954 Returned to U.K.

1954 Died 18 July at New Milton, Hampshire.


1954 Obituary [5]

For many years up to his retirement in 1937, Sir Ernest Petter occupied a prominent place in the British oil engine industry. We regret having to record his death, which occurred, in the early hours of last Sunday, July 18th, at Bywell, New Milton, Hants, at the age of eighty-one.

Ernest Willoughby Petter, who was born in 1873, was one of the sons of the late James B. Petter, of Yeovil, Somerset. He was educated at Mount Radford School, Exeter.

When he left school, he served a five-year apprenticeship with the family engineering concern of James B. Petter and Sons, Nautilus Works, Yeovil, which at the time was concentrating upon the development of oil and petrol engines. Soon after his apprenticeship was completed, Ernest Petter, with his twin brother Percival, took a particular interest in the building of an "oil-motor carriage," which was undertaken by his firm in conjunction with Hill and Boll, carriage builders, of Yeovil. The power unit was a 1 h.p. oil engine, and, at the time of its appearance, we recorded that the total weight of the carriage, "with oil and water complete," was 9 cwt, of which "the engine proper, including fly-wheel and side bars," weighed 120 lb. With two people aboard, and travelling on level road, a speed or 10 miles an hour was claimed. In a description of the engine, we said that it started in ten minutes, ran without attention, and was "almost noiseless."

In 1897, Ernest Petter became a partner in the family firm, and a few years later, with his brother, P. W. Petter, reorganised the business which was thenceforward known as Petters, Ltd. It continued at Yeovil until 1937, and made many notable contributions to oil and petrol engine development in this country. Sir Ernest was joint managing director and subsequently chairman of the company. He was also managing director of Vickers Petters, Ltd., of Ipswich, in the formation of which company in 1919 he took a leading part.

In 1938, the oil engine assets of Petters, Ltd., were acquired by Brush Electrical Engineering Company, Ltd., Loughborough, and the manufacture of the firm's engines at Yeovil was terminated. Just prior to that event, Sir Ernest relinquished the chairmanship of the company, and for some years resided in British Columbia.

In addition to the demands of his business, Sir Ernest shared for several years in the work of the British Engineers' Association, of which he was president from 1923 to 1925. He was also a member of the executive of the Federation of British Industries.

For some years, too, he took an active part in politics, and produced a number of pamphlets on industrial and economic subjects.

Sir Ernest, whose knighthood was conferred in 1925, was elected an associate member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1900, and was promoted to full membership four years later. Subsequently, he was for a time a vice-president of the Institution.


1955 Obituary [6]

Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter, who was born in 1873, designed and built one of the first internal-combustion-engined motor cars made in Great Britain, in conjunction with his brother, Mr. P. W. Petter.

He was educated at Mount Radford School, Exeter, and privately, and afterwards served a five-year apprenticeship in the family works of J. B. Petter and Sons, Nautilus Works, Yeovil. Subsequently he was engaged in the construction and development of the Petter petroleum engine, and also superintended the construction of various water supply works. He became later managing partner of the London office of the family business.

For several years he was a Member of Council of the Institution, and a Past Vice-President. He was elected an Associate Member in 1900, and transferred to Membership in 1904. His death took place on 18th July, 1954.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter, by Anne Pimlott Baker, ODNB.