Retro: Sheffield’s colourful vehicle builder

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The Retro feature on mystery picture of Thomas Allsop’s two weeks ago has brought a response from a South Yorkshire transport historian.

The photographs featured two weeks ago were sent in by Retro reader Ray Hill, who wanted to know more about them. There are more photographs he has sent in on pages 6 and 7.

Paul Fox, who lives in Walkley, Sheffield, has sent in a report about the company, which is below.

Thirty years ago, in pursuit of my own research on South Yorkshire’s transport history, I corresponded with ST Allsop, the grandson of Thomas, who recalled: “My grandfather started in the motor trade in Matthew Street, Shalesmoor, dealing in 1914-18 war surplus vehicles. He was living at Linley Farm, Intake at this time.”

Likely quite quickly, the business moved to larger premises on Worthing Road, Attercliffe, where Thomas Allsop bought and sold large numbers of old lorries and vans, inevitably including the products of now long defunct manufacturers.

When the lease expired on the Worthing Road premises, Thomas Allsop moved to the old Sheffield Aerodrome, where he traded from Hangar H1, originally part of No1 (Northern) Air Repair Depot at Coal Aston.

The site of Hangar H1 is now occupied by Norton College and Sports Centre. Thomas Allsop was operating from Hangar H1 by April 1934 at the latest.

ST Allsop continued to reminisce about his grandfather’s entrepreneurial activities: “Grandfather rebuilt a large number of RAF Leylands – the modifications included a new nickel steel chassis of his own design, two inches deeper and longer, made for him by Rubury Owen at Darlaston; Tinker Taper roller bearings to front and rear axles in place of plain bearings; Michelin wheels and pneumatic tyres in place of solids and a 20ft platform body increasing the payload to eight tons!

“A lot were used in the steel trade, carrying steel bars to Birmingham.”

Whilst still dealing in secondhand lorries, during the thirties buses became an increasingly important part of Thomas Allsop’s business, old vehicles being acquired for the large operators all over the north of England and beyond.

Thomas Allsop made agreements with chassis builders such as Leyland Motors to dispose of old buses that had been accepted by the manufacturers in trade-in agreements against the supply of new vehicles.

Elsewhere, Thomas Allsop appears to have developed reciprocal business with the Sanderson Brothers, a Glasgow-based operation, likewise prominent dealers in secondhand buses. his grandson recalling that “Sanderson Brothers used to bring buses down to Penrith to be met by my grandfather’s men… and Sheffield Corporation bus drivers” the latter doubtlessly enjoying a ‘day out’ for which they would get a little cash in hand to supplement their drivers’ wages.

Gathered back at Hangar H1, the best of the buses would be sold to small operators all over the country, others were converted to lorries and those in poor condition were broken up for spares – the sale of which would have provided further valuable income!

Another useful sale for old buses in the thirties and forties was for conversion to caravans and, needless to say, Thomas Allsop likewise exploited this market over the years, his grandson recalling about the old buses: “Some my father took to Bridlington or Filey, removed the bodies, fixed a box to sit on and drove the chassis back to Sheffield!”, an activity that would quickly attract the unwelcome attention of the law today.

Whatever, we can be sure that Thomas Allsop contributed to stocking the numerous camp sites along the East Coast with ‘caravan buses’ before the strict days of town and country planning, vigorously applied from the mid-fifties onwards, outlawed the ‘eyesore’ of such conversions.

Thomas Allsop continued building lorry bodies for the steel and brewery trades, luxury horse boxes and vans, amidst all this frenetic dealing activity.

In the mid-thirties, Allsop formed a partnership with Arthur Kitson. Doubtlessly well known to Thomas Allsop, Kitson had been operating charabancs since the early twenties and was now in the process of divesting his operating interests to the fledgling Sheffield United Tours.

Working together, Allsop and Kitson built a new works on Penistone Road North, close to the junction with Herries Road South, where, before activities were interrupted by the Second World War, in addition to the traditional lorry building, at least three new bus bodies were constructed.

Sadly, little is known of Thomas Allsop during the war. An official builder’s photograph exists of one small van, proudly displaying the ‘Bodywork by Allsops Sheffield’ transfer in the nearside windscreen and fitted with wartime headlamps, masks, etc, otherwise the output of the new works appears to have gone completely unrecorded.

After the war, bus and coach operators were all desperate for new vehicles. Thus, for a short time, until the shortage was satisfied by the early fifties, the works was busy building new bus and coach bodies.

Nevertheless, known output was only 13 bodies, built on Albion, Austin, Bedford and Daimler chassis and all supplied to operators in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire again.

The biggest single contract undertaken was a batch of six Bedford OB chassis, bodied as 29-seat buses, for Booth and Fisher Motor Services at Halfway in 1948.

As Booth and Fisher eventually got 20 years’ service out of four of these six buses, we can perhaps assume that the Allsop product was a reasonably well built body.

ST Allsop notes: “In 1951, Sonny Kitson purchased grandfather’s share of Thomas Allsop Ltd, grandfather forming Thomas Allsop and Sons (Chesterfield) Ltd, Metal and Machinery Merchants, with siding as works at Grassmoor” after which, presumably, the Allsop family was not involved in the Penistone Road North business.

Certainly the extensive dealing in secondhand buses ceased after the war, though a colleague recalls the body of a former Rotherham trolleybus, bought in the late thirties and probably the only trolleybus ever purchased, still languishing in use as a shed at Penistone Road North into the fifties.

One interesting contract during the early fifties involved the construction of a small fleet of early Bloodmobiles for the Sheffield Regional Hospital Board of the Blood Transfusion Service, the local depot of which was then at Northfield Road in Crookes.

Constructed on Bedford chassis, these strange-looking vehicles had a ‘double-deck’ cab with accommodation for three staff on a bench immediately behind the driver and co-driver, together with four more on a second bench, mounted substantially higher and with forward visibility through a second set of front windscreens.

The van part of the body to the rear accommodated the paraphernalia required for the collection of blood.

Sadly, I know little else about Thomas Allsop Ltd. The Sheffield-based business was acquired by the Kennings organisation in the fifties and the premises at Penistone Road North finally closed in the late sixties.

To conclude, his grandson noted that Thomas Allsop “was very colourful character, he used to say he knew everybody who had a lorry in Sheffield! As well as coach building, he was a farmer and stock breeder.

“Having moved to Grove Farm, Holymoorside, Chesterfield in 1938, he bred and raced trotting ponies.”

Paul says that the charabanc photograph in the original picture spread was from Pilot Motors, a Doncaster-based company, but the style of body is earlier than any known to be built by Thomas Allsop. If the picture of the footballers is from the firm, he says it may have been taken at Grassmoor as there are rail wagons behind them.

Naturally, he is confused by the elephant picture! As he points out, it may have been a stray holiday snap.

The only thing that connects all those photographs is that they were in a little folder with the Allsop name on.

We’ve also had a letter on the issue from Sue Thompson.

She wrote: “The Retro article on Thomas Allsop’s brought back memories of my father who was the foreman there until his death in 1958.

“Allsops were coach bodybuilders and repairers, part of the original building still exists on Penistone Road opposite the Wednesday ground.

“They were early users of fibre glass in repairs and lorry cabs. As a child of eight or nine I took a piece of this “new glass” into school to demonstrate how I could drop the glass on the floor and it not break.

“My sister and I would sometimes go to work with our father and we would wander round the workshop, imagine health and safety now, where we would climb into ambulances, fire engines, lorries, ‘charabancs’ – coaches to you youngsters – and on one occasion even an ice cream van.

“I do not recognise any faces but the article brought back many happy memories.”