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Archives Biographies: Sir Frederick Henry Royce

Early life

Frederick Henry Royce was born in 1863 in Alwalton, Huntingdonshire, near Peterborough, to James and Mary Royce, the youngest of their five children. His father ran a flour mill but the business failed and so the family moved to London. 

His father died in 1872 and so Royce had to go to work selling newspapers and delivering telegrams, having had only year of formal schooling. At the age of 14, an aunt arranged for him to become an apprentice to the Great Northern Railway Company’s locomotive works in Peterborough. He stayed there for three years, where he gained an enthusiasm for engineering. 

In 1882 he became a tester with the London Electric Light and Power Company, installing electric arc and incandescent street lighting. At the same time, he also attended evening classes organised by the City and Guilds Institute. His employers, impressed by his dedication, appointed him chief electrical engineer of the Lancashire Maxim and Western Electric Company, a subsidiary of the London Electric Company to introduce electric lighting to Liverpool. In this capacity, Royce worked on theatre lighting, but unfortunately, the company went into liquidation and he again became unemployed.

Partnership with Ernest Albert Claremont

In 1884 he moved to Manchester and with Ernest Albert Claremont, who he had met while at Liverpool, founded an engineering business, F. H. Royce and Co., which manufactured switches, fuses and bell sets. In 1893, Royce married Minnie Grace Punt and set up home in Knutsford.

In 1894, Royce and Claremont converted their business into a limited company, Royce Ltd., which specialised in manufacturing dynamos and motors. With increased staff, Royce was free to spend time on his designs, including an electrically driven crane. While the company did well in the first couple of years, the war in South Africa in 1897 meant that domestic investment was reduced and the company lost out to more competitive businesses. At the same time, Royce became increasingly interested in road vehicles, a cause of concern for his colleagues.

In 1903, Royce bought his first motor vehicle, a second-hand 10 hp Decauville, and as it did not comply with his high standards, set about re-designing it. Later that year he announced his intention to build his own motor-car, which appeared in 1904. Royce had made most of it himself, with the help of two assistants. 

Three copies of the model were made, and due to Royce’s rigorous testing, were unusually reliable for the time. A colleague of Royce sent a photograph and specifications of the vehicle to Charles Stewart Rolls, who ran an agency for French cars in London. After having visited Royce in person, Rolls agreed to become his sole agent.  

The Rolls-Royce partnership

The first Rolls-Royce car, the Rolls-Royce 10 hp, was exhibited at the Paris salon in December 1904. The partnership was formalised in 1906 by creating Rolls-Royce Ltd., with Royce providing technical expertise, and Rolls the financial support and business skills. By 1907 the company was winning awards for the engineering reliability of its cars, with their most popular car being the Silver Ghost. To cope with demand, the works was moved from Manchester to Derby in 1908.

Royce’s decline in health

Around this time Royce’s health began to suffer as a result of four years of constant work, and in 1910 after Rolls’ untimely death, Royce suffered a physical breakdown. In spite of this, he returned to work, though he was prevented from visiting the factory. He split his time between his three homes, at West Wittering in Sussex, St. Margaret’s in Kent, and a villa in the south of France, personally checking every new design.

Aeronautical design

While Rolls had been interested in aeronautical engineering, Royce only became involved in designing aeroplanes after the outbreak of the First World War, when he modified a Silver Ghost engine for use in aeroplanes. In 1915 he produced the 200 hp Eagle for the Admiralty. Over 6,000 were ordered and it played a significant part in the war. 

In 1928, he began design of the ‘R’ engine, which was a modified version of the 850 hp Kestrel aeroplane engine. The next year, inset in the Supermarine S6 seaplane it set a new world air speed record of 357.7 miles per hour and was awarded the Schneider Trophy. Out of the experience gained from this, Royce created the prototype for the Merlin, a 12-cylinder V engine which powered Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Second World War. 

Royce was a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers. After the First World War Royce was awarded the OBE and in 1930 was created a Baronet, of Seaton in the County of Rutland, for his excellent contribution to British Aviation. He died at his house ‘Elmstead’, in West Wittering on 22 April 1933 at the age of 70.

The Henry Royce Memorial Lecture

The first Sir Henry Royce Memorial Lecture was organised in 1992 by the Institution of Incorporated Engineers (IIE), in association with the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation. Initially run biannually it is now given annually, as part of our EngTalks lecture series, by a distinguished speaker in the field of transport who has done much to perpetuate Sir Henry Royce's engineering philosophy- the pursuit of excellence. The Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation annually presents a gold medal to the speaker. We are proud to continue these lectures after the IEE and IIE joined together in 2006 to become the IET. 

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