Thomas Silvey Ltd coal lorry 1953

Thomas Silvey Ltd coal lorry 1953

A delivery of coal Midland Road, Bristol.

In their early days, many of the firms depended on coal, and some of it was probably delivered by Thomas Silvey, from 1870 on.

Silvey, who was born in 1839, worked for the Gloucester Railway and Carriage Company, who built railway rolling stock, and he realised that money was being made by the owners of private wagon fleets. As the coal trade was the biggest user of railway wagons, he felt that as a coal merchant he would best be able to use his railway expertise.

Since coal was almost the sole source of energy, Thomas Silvey was soon supplying public utilities, industry and domestic users, and early customers were the gas companies at Bristol, Bath, Bridgwater, Thombury, Dursley, and most of the Cotswold towns. Similar electrical undertakings bought his coal, and his fleet of wagons was well used.

More industrial customers came along, like George’s Brewery, St. Anne’s Board Mills, Fry’s; the bacon curers in Wiltshire and the brick-works of Somerset and Gloucestershire were all supplied via railway sidings, or by road, using horses and carts.

Thomas Silvey’s second son Gilbert joined the firm, despite his ambitions to be a banker, and took over in 1900 when his father died. A family row followed. The eldest son Frank, seeing the success of the business, decided to leave his job and join the family firm, but the two brothers did not get on, so Frank left and set up a competing coal business in Fishponds. This business was amalgamated with the original firm nearly 70 years later.

Because many industrial customers were sited on docks in the Bristol Channel, the firm built up a fleet of small sailing colliers carrying coal from the South Wales and Forest of Dean pits. At the end of the First World War, these were replaced by motor-ships, the first being the m.v. Nigel, which had been built as a landing craft for the Gallipoli campaign but never used.

Gilbert Silvey’s son Thomas, who is now chairman, joined the family firm in 1930, at a time when it had been made sole agent in the South West for a number of the then privately owned collieries; in 1934, his brother Bryan joined, too. After the war came nationalisation; Silvey’s fleet of several hundred railway wagons was taken over, and the firm started investing in towing companies.

In 1963, Thomas Silvey II became President of the Coal Merchants’ Federation of Great Britain, and became involved with Dr. Beeching, of railway line cuts fame, and Alf Robens, during the negotiations to rationalise the railways — moves which brought tremendous changes for the coal trade.

The old m.v. Nigel, still going strong in 1963, was chartered to a developer of the Milford Haven oil refineries, and this pointed to a new direction for the firm, as the coal industry began to shrink. (Nowadays coal accounts for only 10 per cent of the turnover, while oil distribution and a chain of filling stations account for most of the rest.)

In 1964 the Nigel was equipped as a sand dredger, and that year was reported in Lloyds List as adrift in the Irish Sea. A dispute with the charter party followed, and one dark night a crew from Silvey’s secretly repossessed her at Milford Haven, and chartered her out to a sand dredging business — and this is how Silvey’s got into sand supplying. They are now the eighth largest sand dredging company in the country.

In 1976 the firm moved to Newfoundland Road, and two years later the fourth generation of the family, Thomas Michael Silvey became Managing Director.