The first Thornycroft in Hampshire

John Isaac Thornycroft

John Isaac Thornycroft
John and Blanche Thornycroft

One of Hampshire’s greatest industrial figures, John Isaac Thornycroft, was born on 1 February 1843 in Rome, where his father Thomas and mother Mary were both working as sculptors. John later attended the Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and built his first boat, a steam launch Nautilus, in 1862. The success of the launch, which proved to be the first steam vessel that could keep up with the university boat race, led to Thomas setting John up with his own boatyard on the Thames at Chiswick in 1864. It was also at Chiswick that John experimented with vehicle manufacture, producing the No.1 Steam Wagon in 1896.

Thomas Thornycroft on board Waterlily, made for him by John. The highest house in the background was the family home at Chiswick. Waterlily was made in 1866 and was the 5th vessel made by John.

The Hampshire connection came in 1898, when Thornycroft moved his fledgling vehicle manufacturing plant to Basingstoke.  This was quickly followed by the ship building side of the business moving to Woolston, Southampton in 1904. Both plants were major employers in Hampshire and, although the company has gone through transitions over the years from Thornycroft to Vosper-Thornycroft to BAE Systems, the ship building still continues.  The commercial vehicle business was split from the ship building and after a change of ownership in 1961 it was ultimately merged into British Leyland. The Basingstoke plant closed in the late 1960s.

John Thornycroft with No.1 Steam Wagon in 1896

Hampshire Cultural Trust hold a large Thornycroft archive, including many family photographs. The photographs suggest that as well as a successful businessman and engineer, John also enjoyed his family life. In 1870, John married Blanche Ada Coules and the couple went onto have two sons and five daughters.  The family retained the home near the Chiswick boatyard, but also had a home at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight where a boat hull testing tank was built in 1884. This mixing of business and pleasure does not seem to have been an exception as in around 1890 John bought the 300 tone yacht, Cecile so he could install and test a stabilisation system.  From the photographs in the collection it is clear that testing involved taking the family out on the water.

John and his family on board the yacht Cecile and 1891

The family spent a great deal of time at Bembridge - the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses all show John residing there. Both John and his daughter Blanche could continue their work at Bembridge on the development of boat hulls, the results of which proved successful on the Coastal Motor Boats during the First World War. John was always an engineer at heart and left the business side of things to partners and investors. By 1911 he had retired from the company and died on the 28 June 1928 at the family home in Bembridge.

John, probably with his son John Edward Thornycroft and his granddaughter Diana, around 1900

Further information on John Thornycroft and the family can be found here.

If you have enjoyed Culture on Call and you are able to make a donation, please click the link below. Any support you can give will help us keep communities connected to culture in these difficult times.

Donate Now | Hampshire Cultural Trust
Our venues are safe and inclusive spaces that provide great cultural experiences at the heart of our communities and connect everyone to Hampshire’s rich heritage.We welcome over 700,000 visitors to our venues each year and also work with over 2,000 people annually who are vulnerable or who otherwi…
This article was written by:
Author image

Hampshire Cultural Trust

From museums to galleries to arts centres, we manage and support attractions across the county, welcoming over 740,000 people each year. Our charitable purpose is changing lives through culture.
You've successfully subscribed to Culture on Call
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to Culture on Call
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.