Breaking the Mould: Cataloguing the archives of Spencer Moulton and Dr Alex Moulton

on Thursday, 29 April 2021.

In the summer of 2019, with support from the Alex Moulton Charitable Trust we received a grant from The National Archives to begin cataloguing the archives of Spencer Moulton & Co and the papers of Dr Alex Moulton. The project was due to start in early 2020; unfortunately Covid-19 and the national lockdowns delayed us until January this year, but work has finally started. The project aims to make these nationally important archives accessible to the public, which will help researchers explore Wiltshire’s less well-known industrial heritage, as well as the social and cultural history of Bradford on Avon.

Line drawn map showing the Kingston Mills site alongside the River Avon
The Kingston Mills site, Bradford on Avon, in the 1950s ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

Spencer Moulton were pioneering rubber manufacturers and the firm was founded, as Stephen Moulton & Co, in Bradford on Avon in 1848. Stephen Moulton was a friend and agent of Charles Goodyear, and one of the first people to bring vulcanised rubber to this country – before vulcanisation, rubber had a tendency to melt when it was too hot or become brittle when it was too cold. Moulton’s factory site in Bradford on Avon eventually grew from a single converted mill to a sprawling complex that occupied a large portion of the town, and the firm eventually supplied rubber products to the British Army, the rail, motor and aviation industries, as well as developing their own line of sports products, becoming the town’s largest employer in the process. Thought to be one of the most complete company archives in the UK, the collection covers the company’s founding in 1848 through to its acquisition by Avon Rubber in 1956 and totals more than 9 cubic metres of material.

Shelving rack in an archive strongroom with boxes and volumes filling shelves
One aisle of the Spencer Moulton collection

Dr Alex Moulton was Stephen Moulton’s great-grandson and a pioneering engineer, inventor and designer. Alex Moulton’s passion and talent for engineering manifested itself at an early age when built a steam-powered car as a teenager. He then went on to work for the Bristol Aeroplane Company during the Second World War. In 1945 he joined the family firm as an assistant to the works manager, eventually becoming a member of the Board of Directors. He left the firm in 1956 to start his own company, Moulton Developments, and from there he worked with Alec Issigonis on the suspension for the Mini (his suspension systems have been used in more than twelve million British cars), and in 1962 he launched the small-wheeled bicycle which was to become one of the most popular bikes in the country and, along with the Mini, an icon of 1960s British design. The collection covers Alex Moulton’s life (the earliest material comes from his school days at Marlborough) and consists of around 4 cubic metres of documents.

Alex Moulton holds a measuring device and looks over his glasses
Alex Moulton ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

We may have been delayed in starting due to Covid, but luckily it hasn’t hindered our progress and we’ve already made great strides. Ironically the project officially started the day before the third national lockdown began, but we were fortunate to quickly be given permission for an archivist to work on cataloguing the project over the lockdown period. Since mid-January we have catalogued more than 240 volumes (including an almost complete run of wage books from 1850 to the 1940s), 3600 plans and over 700 bundles of material, and the collection has already thrown up some exciting material.

A woman is cycling down a road in a rural location with forested hills in the background
The Moulton Bicycle ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

The documents from the Spencer Moulton collection offer a fascinating glimpse into the industrial history of Wiltshire, from the development of the factory site to details of rubber compound testing. The three photographs below show the production of railway buffers (shock absorbers based on rubber springs, fitted at each end of a train carriage), one of Spencer Moulton’s main products from the nineteenth century onwards. The images seem strangely out of place for supposedly ‘rural’ Wiltshire, and offer an evocative glimpse of life inside the Kingston Mill factories.

Production line of wagon buffers with worker
Manufacturing wagon buffers at the Kingston Mills, 1950s ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

The archives also contain many photographs of Moulton bicycles and their riders around the world. Alex Moulton’s experience with rubber suspension systems whilst working for Spencer Moulton served him well when he set up his own firm, with the small-wheeled Moulton bicycle. Moulton felt that smaller wheels would increase acceleration and decrease rolling resistance, making the bicycle faster overall. However smaller wheels and high-pressure tyres also made for a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride, so a front and rear rubber suspension system was added to improve comfort (foreshadowing modern mountain bike suspension by at least two decades). It certainly seemed to work: in August 1986 Jim Glover rode a Moulton bicycle with a full-fairing (an aerodynamic cover around the frame) to break the human-powered speed record over 200 metres, averaging 51.29mph. In 1988 Dave Bogdan rode a Moulton in the Race Across America (RAAM). He covered 3,073 miles (4,944km) in 10 days 15 hours and 1 minute – an average of 289 miles per day, finishing in 8th place.

Jim Glover sat in his fully-faired Moulton Bicycle and 3 supporters next to him
Jim Glover in a fully-faired Moulton bicycle ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of the Moulton Bicycle Company

 

The archives also have much to offer for women’s history. Much of the attention on the firm has focused on the men of the family, but Alex Moulton’s grandmother Alice Blanche Moulton (née Coney) was an impressive and influential figure in her own right. Her son Eric was killed in action in World War One, her husband John Moulton passed away in 1926, and her second son John Coney Moulton died of appendicitis in 1926; Alice was left to manage to family estates and bring up three young grandchildren alone. She successfully steered the estate and family through the turmoil of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and brought up Alex Moulton, his brother John and sister Dione – truly an incredible lady. Alex Moulton’s records contain several of Alice’s photo albums as well as some of her personal diaries and accounts.

A woman in a long skirt and high collared white shirt reclines on a patterned armchair reading a letter
Alice Blanche Moulton ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

The family estate was centred around The Hall, a Grade I listed building built around 1610 for the clothier John Hall. It was bought by Stephen Moulton in 1848 and remained in family ownership until Alex Moulton’s death in 2012. The Moulton archives are a rich source for building historians, as they contain drawings and photographs of The Hall throughout its long history, building plans and a great deal of correspondence about proposed alterations to the building.

An ornate gothic building sits above lawns and two topiary trees with steps leading up to it
The Hall c1950 ©Alex Moulton Charitable Trust

Now in the care of the Alex Moulton Charitable Trust, The Hall is surrounded by formal landscaped gardens (including Californian Redwoods planted by Stephen Moulton) and outbuildings, some of which were designed by the architect Harold Brakspear. The Hall’s gardens will be open every Friday in May and are well worth a visit; tickets can be bought on the day but booking is advisable as spaces are limited.

Tom Plant, Project Archivist
Breaking the Mould: the Spencer Moulton and Dr Alex Moulton archives

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