Frederick Henry Royce was born in Alwalton, near Peterborough, in 1863. His parents, James Royce and Mary King had five children, Henry being the youngest. To support his family Royce moved to London and sold newspapers for W.H. Smith, and then became a telegraph boy for the Post Office, delivering telegrams around the West End.
Royce’s luck changed when an aunt offered to pay for an apprenticeship at the Great Northern Railway Works at Peterborough, the cradle of many great British engineers. At the age 14, he came indirectly under the influence of the outstanding engineer of the day, Patrick Stirling. Royce took every opportunity to improve his education. In the evenings he read books on algebra, French and the infant subject of electricity. He lodged with a Mr Yarrow who, in his garden shed, taught young Royce how to use hand and bench tools and a lathe. Royce’s self-taught knowledge got him a job with the Electric Light and Power Company in London. He continued his studies at night classes at the London Polytechnic.
In 1884 at the age of 21, Royce started his own business with a friend Ernest Claremont, calling it F.H. Royce and Co. They set up in rented accommodation in Cooke Street, Manchester with a joint capital of £70. Working around the clock, they started manufacturing small electrical components such as doorbells, lamp-holders, switches and fuses and later introduced measuring instruments, dynamos and switchboards.
In 1894 the company went public and the name was changed to Royce Ltd. The doorbell trade had expanded into the production of electrical motors and massive electric cranes. Royce developed the sparkless commutator, patented his improvements of the bayonet light bulb fitting (still in use today), and introduced into all his equipment the three-wire system, which became universally adopted.
Royce already owned a De Dion Quadricycle when he bought a second-hand, 10hp two-cylinder French Decauville. Royce wanted to improve its unreliable electrical system, general rough running and vibration that was the norm for vehicles of the time. Royce decided that he would build his own car and using the basic design of the Decauville. On the 1st April 1904, he left the factory to the cheers of the workforce for the first test run. He was so pleased that he drove all the way to Knutsford, 15 miles away, arriving without mishap.
Royce went on to make two more of these cars. Ernest Claremont had the second car and his friend Henry Edmunds had the third. Edmunds boasted of his wonderful car to another friend, Claude Johnson, who had joined C.S. Rolls and Co. in Fulham. Johnson passed on the news to Charles Rolls of a company that was producing a superb little twin-cylinder car that might be the best built in England.
Charles Rolls travelled to Manchester to meet Royce. The meeting went well considering their totally dissimilar backgrounds and the two men hit it off immediately. Rolls agreed to sell all the cars that Royce could build and it was also agreed that the cars would be known as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. The famous radiator shape was devised and shortly afterwards the badge of entwined first letters from each man’s surname.
Being exhausted through overwork, Royce was not in the best of health. Claude Johnson persuaded him to move to West Wittering in Sussex, and he also acquired a villa at Le Canadel on the French Riviera as a retreat from the English winters. Here for many years Royce carried out his design work. Although he never fully recovered his health, and despite his separation from the Derby factory, Royce managed to stay in charge of engineering, with the help of a constant flow of employees bringing parts, drawings and experimental cars for his comment and approval.
Royce was working as hard as ever right up to his death in 1933. His last car design, the V12 engined Phantom III, was a masterpiece, but it was left to his successors to make the car a reality in 1936.