The very early years
The story of Watts began in the early 1800s in Devon with Joseph Watts, a carpenter, and his wife Prudence. Their son David, also a carpenter moved away from Devon to Lydney and it was here he met and married Elizabeth Stephens from Clearwell, Gloucestershire. Whilst It is with this couple that the very first Watts general store opened it is their son Josiah who set the foundation for the future.
In 1880, having completed an apprenticeship with an ironmonger in Bristol, Josiah was determined that he would operate his own business. He moved back to Lydney and with a £300 loan from his uncle bought the stock and goodwill from a local ironmonger and also took on the lease of the premises. These premises he later bought too. The business thrived and he quickly earned a reputation for being a hard worker and providing a good service. The variety of his wares increased and he had the ability to supply all sorts of businesses and by 1900 his business was described as a ‘Furnishing, Builders, Agricultural & General Ironmonger, Cutler and Tool Merchant’
The next generation
In 1905 Josiah’s son Arthur joined the business and 2 years later was followed by his brother Joh. This was at a time when the combustion engine was changing the face of transport and it was Arthur’s interest in all things mechanical and his experimental work on engines that can really be credited with much of the early growth of the Watts Group. Arthur himself owned a motorcycle and the brothers also bought a car in 1910. It was at this time that Arthur and John built their first garage in the garden behind the shop which gave Arthur more space and scope to work. So forward thinking was Arthur that he installed electricity in both the garage and store before it had arrived in Lydney as a whole.
By 1912 the Company were agents for both Triumph motorcycles and Ford vehicles.
Whilst Arthur’s interest in engines grew, John’s thoughts at this time had begun to turn to passenger vehicles.
The First World War
Arthur and John were both called up, along with many of their staff. The business was kept going by remaining family and those not yet called up for service. That war experience broadened Arthur and John’s experience of motors and engines with both of them working on engines during their war service. It also opened their eyes tgo the opportunities for the future. On returning from their service they continued with their complementary skills in the business; Arthur concentrating on engineering and John on transport. They had seen that war department vehicles were now beginning to be bought and converted in to buses and goods vehicles and it was this insight that led to the major change to dealing in commercial vehicles.
The Birth of Watts Garage Ltd
In 1920, spurred on by what was happening with war department vehicles, Arthur took a calculated risk. He took out a bank loan, went to Salonika in Greece and bought 200 vehicles, most of which were chain driven Albions that were now surplus to requirements following the war, along with tons of spare parts. This was all shipped back to Avonmouth and Newport in the UK and then driven or towed back to Lydney; a huge logistical undertaking. The vehicles were housed in an aircraft hangar that had been purchased from Salisbury, dismantled and then re-assembled in Lydney - another massive undertaking.
Over the next few years the vehicles were converted and repaired as necessary and sold across the country to all sorts of businesses; brewers, oil companies, dairies, transport, and haulage businesses to name but a few. Some chassis were also used to start the South Wales Valleys Bus Service.
At this time the building of the first commercial Watts garage was completed in Lydney. The purchase and conversion of the vehicles and the opening of the garage led to the development of Britain's principal fitting works for the maintenance of diesel engines and the repair of commercial vehicles.
Watts became one of the first distributors of Albion vehicles when appointed in 1922 to South Wales, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. The association continues today as through mergers and acquisitions, a line can be drawn from Albion to DAF.
The Continued Growth of Watts
For the next 20 years the company continued to grow and thrive with Arthur and John still working together but in their own areas of interest. John set up a bus service that ran throughout the 20s and 30s. He was instrumental in forming companies that were later to become the Red and White Bus company which were the largest to operate out of South Wales.
Arthur continued his interest in engines, working to invent and improve wherever possible. The 20s saw him develop better efficiencies in diesel engines. He also invented an oil vaporiser for bus operations based on the Fordson tractors they sold.
In the early 30s Watts were instrumental in converting fleets of passenger vehicles and lorries from petrol to Gardner diesel and in 1935 became the sole Gardner dealer for Wales and the South West of England.
Arthur also became involved in boiler-making. Initially he developed a conversion for existing boilers to improve performance, but in 1935 Watts went on to develop and manufacture their own gravity fed boiler and stockers. They began with just 4 models which increased to 23. By 1950 the factory were producing one thousand boilers a year. The boiler business continued to grow and it was eventually sold to Allied Ironfounders in 1960.
In the 30s Arthur, concerned by the expendability of tyres also turned his attention to the process of retreading and by 1938 had installed plant for the process at the back of the premises in Lydney. The tyre division had been born and in 1953 Watts Tyre and Rubber Co. Ltd was formed. The company became the manufacturer of Tyresole products for Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and South Wales. Watts began manufacturing industrial tyres in 1961 and became one of the largest suppliers of solid industrial tyres in the world. Watts sold its interest in its tyre manufacturing and servicing companies in 2008.
During the Second World War Watts were involved in the repair and overhaul of many types of military diesel vehicles but their commercial vehicle work continued.
Modern Day Watts Garages
Today, Watts Garage Ltd is known as Watts Truck & Van Ltd and the business continues to thrive. Watts have 3 centres serving South Wales, based in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. They supply and maintain vehicles and run 13 dedicated delivery vehicles for parts distribution. They are the current holders of the DAF Trucks UK Sword of Excellence for being the best Aftersales Dealer, as well as being Top Performing Sales Dealer and UK Parts Dealer of the Year. Investment continues with a new purpose built facility opening in Swansea in February, into which the current Swansea centre will relocate. Interestingly, it will be opening 100 years after the building of the first Watts garage commenced.
Watts Truck & Van Ltd are distributors of DAF commercial vehicles as well as providers of spare parts to the motor industry in general.
Watts Group Today
Watts Group is still a family-owned business and the head office remains in the Gloucestershire town of Lydney, where it was founded. There have been many changes in the business over the years resulting in the current 4 divisions which employ over 200 people in the UK.
- Watts Truck & Van Ltd
- Urethane: Producing castable polyurethane products for a large range of applications, from high speed motor sports components to durable street furniture.
- Plysolene: A manufacturer of extruded thermoplastic sheet, the core products of which are; Plyform high impact polystyrene, Plysolene PIB (Polyisobutylene) membrane sheeting, and Plyload damp proof course.
- Properties: Watts Properties owns and manages a varied portfolio of retail premises, trade counter properties and industrial units in the UK
Watts Group has a proud history and an enviable reputation built on more than a century of innovation and achievement. The group is passionate and dedicated to its people, businesses and community responsibilities.