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)