The Bentall family of Heybridge

PUBLISHED: 10:41 25 August 2015 | UPDATED: 10:41 25 August 2015

Essex History

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Underpinning the Industrial Revolution was an evolution in agricultural machinery and the innovations of The Bentall family from Heybridge played a key role in the developments of the industry. Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office shares more of their story

EH Bentall & Co of Heybridge was a well-known agricultural engineering firm, which exported products all over the world. A family firm handed down from father to son, it had its roots in the late 1700s and continued work into the 1980s.

Improvements in agricultural methods and equipment were hot topics in the 18th and 19th centuries. More efficient farming meant more food could be produced to support a bigger population. Greater efficiency and mechanisation also meant that fewer people would be needed to work on the land, and would be freed up for other occupations. This agricultural revolution was the underpinning for the industrial revolution and the Bentall company played an important part in designing and supplying innovative farming equipment.

The firm began with William Bentall (1779-1836), a farmer who lived in Goldhanger. He designed a new kind of plough for use on his own farm, which he Christened the Goldhanger plough. It was so effective he equipped his whole farm with them, and soon other local farmers wanted them too. Initially the ploughs would probably have been made by the local blacksmith, but as word spread and demand grew Bentall set up a small foundry of his own on his farm. In 1795 he decided to give up farming and focus full-time on agricultural engineering.

In 1805 he moved the business 3 miles to Heybridge, on a site adjacent to the recently-opened Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Demand for agricultural equipment was high, as the Napoleonic Wars limited the amount of food being imported from overseas and more land was pressed into agricultural service. The business grew and grew, expanding from ploughs into other kinds of agricultural equipment, and Bentall became a wealthy man.

William’s son, Edward Hammond Bentall (1814-1898), shared his father’s inventiveness and aptitude for engineering and took over the company in 1836 aged 22. The business underwent rapid expansion under his leadership and in 1839 he established it as EH Bentall & Co. Sales expanded not only throughout Britain but to the overseas Colonies.

Edward Bentall patented new designs including an improved version of the Goldhanger plough and the Broad Share Cultivator which won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and three first prizes at the Royal Agricultural Society Show in 1859. Its reputation spread and orders came in from all over the world.

Edward Bentall’s spirit of inventiveness was also evident in the house that he designed for his family in Heybridge in 1873. The Towers was a large Italianate building which pioneered concrete block construction and which was heated by hot-air ducts rather than fireplaces (although some were added for decoration). The house was designed to accommodate his hobbies of astronomy, natural history, botany and spiritualism. Bentall was also a keen yachtsman and experimented with yacht design. He built the Jullanar in Heybridge Basin which set the fashion of racing yacht design for years to come.

Edward’s son, Edmund Ernest Bentall (1855-1945), began to take over the business in 1889. During his time in charge, the company began to experiment with the internal combustion engine and the Bentall design engine became an important part of the factory’s output. It was one of the cheapest petrol engines on the market with low fuel consumption and designed for ease of repair.

Edmund was a keen motorist and was the first man to own and drive a car in Maldon. He also designed a car including a Bentall engine and about 100 of them were made, although they were not a commercial success. By the time they were launched, technology had already left them behind and car manufacture at Heybridge was discontinued. Just one of the cars still survives.

It was not, however, a wasted experience and the lessons learned shaped improvements to the Bentall engine, resulting in the first horizontal petrol engine to be produced in Britain. It also began Bentall’s manufacture of valves, which from 1904 was an important part of their output, as the factory produced more than a million of them a year.

During World War I, part of the works was given over to the production of shell cases, and with the addition of women to the workforce many millions were made. Likewise, during World War II, part of the factory was engaged in wartime production, producing parts for aircraft. They continued, however, to produce agricultural machinery, which was much in demand due to the difficulty of importing food.

Bentall’s was an important part of local life in Heybridge for over 150 years, employing hundreds of people. The business continued to operate through the 20th century, but closed down in the 1980s, after nearly 200 years of innovation.

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