W. W. Buncombe

Walter William Buncombe will be remembered for Steamrollers. He was born in Highbridge on September 27th 1879 and died at Pawlett June 16th 1935. During his adult years he brought to the town a thriving business.

The first was at 34 Huntspill Road, Highbridge in the late 1890’s/early 1900’s; this was Bicycle and Motor Cycle Engineering; selling and repairing machines. (Selling bicycles at £2.00) In 1908 he purchased the Congregational Chapel opposite 34 Huntspill Road with the view to turn it into a garage and eventually to sell petrol and run a taxi service. With the motorcar becoming a popular means of transport it was increasingly obvious that road conditions would need to be improved. He therefore founded the Steamroller firm early in the 1900’s, the roller yard was situated on the Huntspill Road near the River Brue, and a garage now stands on the site. During the 1930/40’s he sometimes had as many as 150 rollers in the yard, these being available for hire to help with the construction of the countries roads.

Companies like Aveling & Porter, Wallis & Stephens, Marshall, Babcock & Wilcox, Clayton & Shuttleworth, Thomas Green & Son and John Fowler manufactured the majority of these vehicles. Names that have, like the ‘giants’ they produced, now disappeared from our roads.  Steamrollers were often exported by Buncombe’s to aid road construction overseas; the Air Ministry in Singapore (in 1927) and to India were such examples, they were not returned.

During World War Two the rollers were in constant use for many purposes; where their weight was essential, including building a railway marshalling yard for the American Forces near Newbury, Berkshire. Making barrack squares at Ashchurch(Glos), and other Army bases, plus runways at Weston Zoyland, Ilton, Wroughton, Yeovilton and Colerne there was also work in Savernake Forest for a munitions site. Come the end of the war the Steamrollers were again in demand all over the country to help reconstruct the nation’s highways; County Councils in the South West and East Anglia constantly used this local firms’ vehicles to improve its road networks. When a roller was needed a long way from its base the driver went with it, usually in his own little home, this was a caravan (perhaps primitive by today’s standard) that contained his bed and a small kitchen. On some occasions the driver would take his family with him and thus they would be together during his time away from Highbridge. One roller went from Somerset to Northumberland on a job, it took three weeks and three days to get there, later low-loaders were used and these obviously drastically reduced the ‘travelling’ time.

Steamrollers needed a supply of coal and this was delivered to the Buncombe Siding at Highbridge Station and stored until required by the roller out on the road.

It was during the early 1960’s that diesel started to replace coal as a means of producing power on the rollers and the familiar steamroller soon started to disappear. There was certain glamour about the steamroller that diesel would never replace, but with diesel all you had to do was press a button and it started. The days were gone where you had to build up steam first thing on a cold frosty morning before you could move. Buncombes’ kept up to date with the changes and these vehicles were at Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station helping to lay roads etc, also with other construction companies that were carrying out similar work.

When more modern units were introduced to the construction industry, many rollers were scrapped due to replacements and parts became difficult to obtain. Some became the prized possessions of the enthusiastic fans that were prepared to pay from £250-£300 for a good model. A few went to Preservation Societies and can now be seen at Steam Rallies about the country, such as the Great Dorset Seam Fair.

A Buncombe Steamroller, an Aveling & Porter unit No 44 built in 1922 was featured in the Channel 4 Film “Salvage Squad”.

Mr Walter William Buncombe had three sons Sidney, Norman and John, who later helped run the roller business. He was also a councillor, on the Highbridge Urban District Council.

(Information supplied by Gerald Buncombe)

16 responses to “W. W. Buncombe

  1. Good to see such comprehensive info re: my grandfather. I am the daughter of the late John Buncombe, his youngest son. Many thanks to my cousin Gerald for providing the material. I never knew my grandfather, as he died before my parents, John & Marjory, were married. He certainly founded a thriving business & his wife, Alice, the 3 sons & 3 daughters were all involved. My father used to tell lots of tales of the days he delivered coal to the rollers all over the West Country, stopping at all the cake shops to sustain himself.
    They were extremely busy in the war years constructing the aerodromes & I have asked the Imperial War Museum if they could include some of this history in their museums, but they tell me they have so much in their archives they have not managed to get round to this yet. Many thanks for a very interesting website.

    • Hi my name is Iain Morrison and I work for Doosan Babcock (formally Babcock & Wilcox UK, in Renfrew Scotland), and in our works we have a “near working” Steam Road Roller (Lacks the boiler certificate, but was staeaming about five years ago), her details are…….

      Registration Number YB5090
      Weight is 10 Tonnes
      Built in 1926 and No. 4012
      Power is 5 Horse Power (5NHP)

      From what I have found out through internet trawls …………..
      She is one of 5 known remaining Babcock & Wilcox Steam Road Rollers in existence in the UK (These were originally W.W. Buncome Engines she still has the W.W. Buncombe name plate on the side)
      I understand that our companies involvement in Steam Road Roller activities commenced in 1924, when Babcock & Wilcox bought the Boiler Works, Engine Shops and Foundry of Clayton and Shuttleworth in Lincoln were purchased, by Babcock & Wilcox. The Lincoln branch produced pulverised fuel plants, steam winches, high-speed steam engines, structural work and power-station plant.

      I would greatly appreciate if there is some details that could be had, history filled in (“properly”….perhaps I’ve pick up something wrong). We intend to have her fully restored, but we seem to lack some details, still in the boiler game though it is large coal fired stations (are there previous pictures of the engine, the workshop, the people, etc, or engineering drawings available somewhere, even the original coulours etc.)

      Thanks
      Iain Morrison
      Tel No 01418853206
      iain.morrison@doosan.com

  2. My Grandfather was a steamroller driver for the Buncombe family, George Sartin.I can remember him driving up Glastonbury high street, about 1958 with his caravan in tow on his way to South Wales or the Glos area. I still have his whistle and a brass hoarse from his roller.Can anyone remember him or anyrecords of his work at Buncombe. Great to read the history of the family firm.

  3. My Grandmother Mrs Stokes owned the George hotel and when I used to stay on a visit at the George i can remember quite vividly the rows of steam rollers which must have been around 1950 ish, I do not think at that time that they ever moved.

  4. W.W.Buncombe & Sons Ltd at one time traded as The Highbridge Steam Roller Co. I have seen a photograph in the possession ofThe Road Locomotive Society which shows three members of the Buncombe family, in oder of age there is W.W., Norman.D., & J., [W.W., had another son Sidney].
    On a January day in1926 they are standing next to a long line of 6 low railway wagons that have recently arrived at Highbridge, each of which is loaded with a new Clayton & Shuttleworth steam roller. Buncombe’s was the largest operators of the Lincoln based maker of rollers in the country. In fact Buncombe’s custom must have been sufficiently important as the 1923/4 new design roller was partly designed for
    them. Norman Buncombe said that C&S rollers were faster, more economical and better steamers than the well known Aveling & Porter roller. This picture is probably the last consignment of C&S rollers because the company ceased trading in 1926, although some of its rollers were completed by Babcock & Wilcox. Buncombe’s did purchase a number of new engines from Aveling, possibly after C&S ceased trading.
    The company was well established by the 1920’s to such an extent that they won, year after year, the contract for the rolling of West Suffolk roads! One reason may be that the drivers were willing to work away from home for long periods of time, living with their engine.
    They were a member of the Road Roller Owners’ Association, started in 1927, to ensure that the rates for contract work paid for by county councils. This was set up because of dubious tender practices by some councils. In the post war years Buncombe’s work was confined to a much smaller area of the country.
    Much of this information is from the Road Locomotive Society archives and R.A.Whitehead’s book, ‘A Century of Steam Rolling’.
    It would be wonderful if anyone has photos of the yard in Highbridge or of Buncombe’s rollers at work.

  5. My Grandfather George SARTIN worked for Buncombe,s as a driver we had many photos of him at work with his roller and caravan, he was away from home working on roads in glos IN 1954 .I have his whistle and brass hoarse, that was presented to him.

  6. hello. my name is terry smith of wellingborough northamptonshire. last september i purchased an aveling @ porter 12 ton compound. reg YA 893 WORKS NO 6970. the engine was in two haives when i got it. had new box tubes tube plate and numerous other works done. alltho not completed ready for this season . ie cladding etc i have rallyed it this year. i have most of history of this Buncombe eng . but if anyone has pics or can help trace family that worked with my engine i would be most greatfull for any of this info. as am trying to put complete history together. my email address is tps_69@live.co.uk. any one wishing to contact me . please do so via email and i will give phone number etc. yours terry smith.

  7. I volunteer at the Shuttleworth Collection and they have a Clayton & Shuttleworth engine (works no.46817) reg. YA2095. She was built as a 10ton roller, but is now a traction engine. 6th June 2014 is her centenary and we are looking to put together a display for her covering her history. I do know she was first sold to Stockton on Tees Council. it is alleged that she saw service with the War Department in WWI and then W Buncombe. I would be grateful for any information that anyone might be able to give me about her history. My address is james.michell.svas@hotmail.co.uk should anyone be able to give me some information.

  8. I currently have a Steam Apprenticeship on Aveling And Porter roller 5623 works no. 123 reg. no HR3510 owned by Richard Newman of Huntspill, This roller of which was supplied to W.W. Buncombes.

  9. In the ’60’s a Mrs Buncombe(I think) would serve petrol. What relation was she. Very energetic and businesslike. I think her son was a rally driver

    • The lady was Margery Buncombe, wife of John Buncombe. Their son, Jonathon, was a racing driver. I went to Weston-super-Mare Technical College with him in the middle 1960s and well remember riding in his road-going racing mini which he called “The Boff”.

  10. Hi,
    I’m abaout to restore what I believe is a Buncombe’s Living Van; doeas anyone have any pictures, plans etc.

  11. Hi my name is Bobby harris and my great grandad was a driver for w w buncombe his name was William trott . And I’m trying to find information about him and his engine that he drove . The last job he worked on was at Hinckley point I believe can any one point me in the right direction as I would love to see pictures or even better if his engine is still running many thanks

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