The story of the 1921 Atco Lawnmower by Andrew Hall
This is the centenary year for Charles H Pugh’s Ltd famous brand Atco lawn mowers, though the roots go back many years before.
The Founder Charles H Pugh was born on June 6th 1840.The second Son of Richard Pugh, of Newtown Montgomery, Charles was schooled at Welshpool Grammar. On leaving school he travelled by steam to Canada to earn his fortune but by the time he was eighteen he was back in Montgomery and working in his father’s ironmongery business. By 1860 he had moved, becoming the manager of Messers Mellard of Uttoxeter, manufacturers in dairy equipment, where he had his first patent in the improvement of cheese making machinery. The patent proved very successful.
By 1867 he was married to Elizabeth Vernon of Uttoxeter and had purchased his first business, Messers Brooks of Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This was a jewellery business but also an ironmongery wholesaler for the repetition industry which served the textile mills in Yorkshire and Lancashire, selling parts such as lappets, threadguards, and snarlcatchers.
Five years on, in 1872, Charles H Pugh had sold that business and moved his family of five children to Birmingham, the powerhouse of the world for the metal industry at that time. First, he founded a screw, rivet and bolt works in Dean Street and Bishop Street, then building new premises in Rea Street which he named Whitworth Works.
The census of 1881 listed him as a bed manufacturer. It appears that he was following manufacturing trends and becoming very successful at it.
The largest explosion in trends was that of cycle manufacture. In 1886 Charles H Pugh’s first son Charles Vernon joined the business and by 1890 had become a partner. The family buisness became manufacturers and suppliers of screws, ironmonger’s sundries and suppliers of bicycle fitting and stampings, to other trade manufacturers.
In 1891, Charles H Pugh entered his own bicycle manufacture and formed the Whitworth Cycle Company with his first son Charles Vernon Pugh becoming MD and his second son John Vernon Pugh, works manager. The business had rapid success and by 1893 had become a private Limited Company with a capital of £50,000 in £1 shares. Looking for larger premises, in 1894 Whitworth’s amalgamated with the Rudge Cycle Co, Coventry and formed Rudge Whitworth Ltd. This same year, after years in development, Charles developed a jointless wheel from steel, and opened another business called the Jointless Rim Co. By 1897 Charles H Pugh was suffering with illness and sold his interests in the business, spending his last few years travelling in the USA. He died at his home in Penns, near Birmingham on April 9th 1901, in his 61st year.
After Charles H Pugh’s death in 1901, his founding business became public, Charles H Pugh Ltd. In 1902 Charles Vernon Pugh became Chairman and the business moved to a new site in Tilton Road, Birmingham. Charles Vernon, along with his brother John, also had interests with mechanical engineering.
Charles Vernon became Chairman of Lanchester Motor Co in 1899 with his brother John becoming a director in 1900. By 1905 Charles Vernon was Chairman of Rudge Whitworth Ltd.
In 1911, John Vernon patented the Senspray carburettor which was used on early Rudge motorcycles as well as other engine manufacturers including Villiers. Pugh’s by this time had been collecting companies which worked under the same umbrella; an example was Alfred Appleby Cycle Chain.
In 1914, with the Great War, the factories began to produce munitions; charger clips for guns, mess tins, wire cutters for the Royal Engineers, and cycle chains. They also made Claudel Hobson carburettors for a sub-contract with Rolls Royce for Vimy aircraft. The war ended in 1918 and the factories became redeployed for civilian needs. Regeneration was slow and by 1919 Charles H Pugh Ltd was on the outlook for fresh fields.
There are many different stories told of how the famous Atco Standard lawn mower came about. My own involvement with Atco (in the early 1980’s) together with researching original boardroom notes, I came to the following conclusion. Charles Vernon Pugh had extensive lawns around his house which were cut with a mower pulled by a donkey. When the donkey died, Charles, being interested with early motoring, asked Bull, MD of the Atlas Chain Co, (a subsidiary of Charles H Pugh Ltd) to design a motor mower which could be used on his grounds and the local cricket pitch. This could account for the unusual cutting width of 22 inches.
The machine produced proved to run quite well with the engine built high above the frame and the cutting cylinder. This idea was not theirs alone however, as other small contempory businesses were developing similar motor mowers on open frame work but possibly not with the same acumen as Pugh’s (by chance this prototype still survives and is within the Hall & Duck Trust). The frame is all cast iron; the sides appearing to be solid but then profiled out to present a frame. The engine, an original Villiers 2 stroke of 269cc, with a Senspray carburettor made by Charles H Pugh Ltd.
At the end of 1919, Charles Vernon secured an agreement from his board to proceed on this new project, which was financed in 1920 with a £50,000 bank loan.
The brand name of Atco came from the Atlas Chain Company - having to be short and catchy. It was registered wherever possible across the world by Charles H Pugh Ltd.
The production of the first Atco Standards in 1921 met with many setbacks. The worst drought since 1911, a post war slump, plus the triple lock National strikes from the railways and a drop in coal prices. Also, Pugh’s malleable iron foundries were closed. The job of casting the frames was farmed out to Qualcast of Derby. Nine hundred 22-inch width machines, powered by a modified Villiers 2 stroke engine of 249cc, were made available.
Trying to sell into a new area where long-established businesses had their own dealerships, Pugh’s approach was to lead on price and direct selling. £75 for their machines, after a no-obligation home trial. Delivery was organised with the aid of their subsidiary company, Rudge Whitworth Ltd, using a converted motorbike and side trailer.
On 23rd August 1921 Charles Vernon Pugh died, never to see the full development of the Atco motor mower. His successor as MD, was his son John Jeffery Pugh. In 1922, Pugh’s set up their own service branches starting with London, Sheffield and Reading. They were producing their own frames in malleable iron. Charles H Pugh’s name was on the castings and a new machine of 16 inches was introduced.
As in all productions, there were inevitably modifications. Some of the 1922 malleable iron framed Atco Standards had the earlier 1921 Villiers engines. The first trade advert appeared in The Ironmonger on March 11th 1922, and direct to the public in The Gardeners Chronicle May 27th.
1923 brought in a further new size; 30 inches powered by a 4-stroke engine, made for large areas. Sales increased.
By 1932 all the cast malleable framed Atco Standards had been modified to the new all steel framed Deluxe Motor Mowers.
The Atco Standard is a fine branded machine and an icon of a vintage age. Its resilience over time is a tribute to a truly British product.
The Hall & Duck Trust.
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Atco 1920 Prototype owned by HD Trust
The Atco London Depot
Please click on any photograph to view an enlarged image
Atco Standard 22 inch
Atco Standard 22 inch 1921 Season
22 inch 1923 Season
Atco Standard 16 inch Season 1926
In 1925 The RHS had Motor Mower trials in Regents Park, London. Atco sent the largest contingent of motor mowers: three 16 inches, two 22 inches and a 30-inch machine and all were highly commended by the judges. Atco’s Service Branches expanded to 10 including Glasgow and Dublin, with 32 Sub branches and 55 representatives.
In 1926, 3 further models were added to the range. 14 inches for small lawns, 18 inches for larger lawns, and a 24 inch with a 4 stroke JAP engine for large areas. A trailer seat was introduced for the 24 inch and 30-inch machine. Sales across the range increased to over 10,000 machines, but following the General Strike, the starting price in the range was reduced to 30 Guineas for the 14-inch machine. In 1929 a new deluxe range of the Standard was produced for small gardens. 12 inches and 14 inches, these internally were called the HY series. The main notable difference being they had no cooling fan. They were first shown at The British Industrial Fair.
Two ATCO Motor Mower brochures issues in 1926 either side of the 1928 brochure.
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The death of the donkey led to the design of the motor mower
The 1926 Rudge converted motobike and side trailer
Atco 1920 prototype - (owned by the HD Trust)
Contemporary Atco mower advert
Atco Standard 24
inch 1928 Season