Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wallis & Steevens, George & Uncle Dudley, and Hants & Brazil

Wallis and Steevens began doing business in 1840 as merchants and carriers of corn, coal, and salt under the name R. Wallis and Sons in Hampshire, England. They soon became ironmongers, and later opened a foundry for iron and brass.

By 1860, the firm was producing machinery and was taking its first steps toward producing steam engines. By the end of the decade, the firm, then known as 'Wallis and Steevens' after Charles Steevens came aboard, was producing threshing machines and steam engines, including steam engines as English farming went large scale and threshing contractors moved from farm to farm.

Their steam engines soon became portable, and in the 1870s, trade was opened with Denmark, Bavaria, and South Africa for their award-winning agricultural machinery. Development continued on portable steam and traction engines, but, after a series of poor summers, an agricultural depression hit England by 1879.

The company soon developed the first portable engine developed specifically to produce electrical light, and 1882 saw the construction of the two largest engines ever built by the company. Trade in fixed engines remained steady as family member and mechanical engineer William Alfred Wallis joined the firm as a junior partner in 1888.

In the 1890s, Wallis and Steevens begins producing road rollers [pictured, right] and low pressure steam engines. Trade with South Africa diminished when Herbert Wallis died in Johannesberg in 1894, but a year later the company debuted the first 'road locomotive.' The company contemplated making smaller engines while, in 1896, Frank and Alfred Wallis attended the Motor Car exhibtion at the Crystal Palace and determined that the "future lies with light steam traction engines." [In hindsight, it seems that decision may have been a tad short-sighted.]

The company was disappointed in sales of a larger tractor they produced after road restrictions were eased from three tons to four in 1904. By 1906, the firm added a reverse gear to their engines, but by 1910, the agricultural side of the business diminishes in favor of road vehicles.

In 1913, the company decided to reverse gear themselves, and were moving toward creation of an internal combustion engine when further development was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War. By 1914, the company was producing shell casings as well as road rollers and traction engines for the War Department.

A loan opportunity for Brazil extended from Britain was withdrawn due to the onset of global hostilities, and it wasn't until well after unrestricted submarine warfare was begun by Germany that the country of Brazil, along with the United States, entered the Great War.

With many prior trading partners suddenly embroiled in the war, Wallis and Steevens was likely doing everything it could to find new trading partners to supplement its government contracts. Brazil, one of the four most powerful nations in the Americas, and South America's foremost power, would have been a good bet for trade among then-neutral nations early in the conflict. U-boats had not, at that point in 1914, begun sinking merchant vessels from neutral nations.

It was the sinking of a non-neutral ship, the R.M.S. Lusitania, on 7 May 1915 off the coast of Ireland that turned public opinion in non-aggressor nations worldwide against Germany, and probably changed the trading plans of Alfred Wallis of Wallis and Steevens who had been in South America with an entourage in early 1915.

The manifest [seen below, right; click to enlarge] of the Avon, a steamer sailing for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, states that the ship sailed into Liverpool on 15 March 1915 from Buenos Aires, by way of Montevideo [where Wallis, et al, had boarded], Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Leixões, and Vigo.

Wallis had been sailing with a brace of apprentice engineers: James Young, 19; Albert Hopson, 17; John Thomas, 21; and George Mills, 19.

It's not a stretch to think that a teenage George Millshaving left Harrow in 1912 and seemingly not immediately interested in continuing his education in the classroom—had begun an apprenticeship in the years between his time as a Harrovian and when he's sworn into the army. It would also go a long way toward explaining why a fellow who'd departed Harrow four years before had listed himself as a "student" when called upon to provide his current occupation at the enlistment office in Kensington in 1916.

Traveling by rail to Basingstoke would have meant he would have a trip of a mere 40 miles or so from home. An apprenticeship with prestigious Wallis and Steevens would have kept him relatively close to the family in a geographical sense, and he'd have been "close" to a family member in another way as well: George's uncle, Major Dudley Acland Mills, had served for decades as an officer in the Royal Engineers [some of whom are pictured in 1914, below left]. Dudley's work took him the world over, China, India, Canada, the South Seas, and he eventually was named a governor of Jamaica. I'd be stunned to find that, as a boy, George hadn't keenly admired his exceptionally interesting Uncle Dudley.

As an engineer, Major Mills would have been intimately acquainted with the terrain, climate, people, navigable waterways, railways, roads, potential roads, weather patterns, peoples, customs, and the laws of a plethora of nations, spanning the globe. According to his obituary in the London Times on 22 February 1938, Uncle Dudley was "an authority on things Chinese and early maps and a man of all-round culture and knowledge."

It must have been a thrill for young nephew George to have Uncle Dudley visit with tales of his latest travels and exploits. And, as George grew older and cast about for a career of his own, Uncle Dudley's Royal Engineers simultaneously would have been the delighted recipients of the War Department's First World War contracts with Wallis and Steevens for "traction engines and road rollers." The connection there is obvious.

George at that point in his life seems to have shown none of the passion for religion that his father, Rev. Barton R. V. Mills had shown, or a desire for a prolonged career as a military man as both his Uncle Dudley and half-brother, Arthur F. H. Mills, had shown. His career path evolved in a different direction.

As far as the skills George later exhibited in life, he was a talented writer, and had helped write, produce, and compose songs for dramatic productions at Windlesham House School. He had some bookkeeping, if not accounting, skills that enabled him to re-enter the military as an officer in the Royal Army Pay Corps in 1940, but those seemingly were not apparent when he enlisted the first time in 1916 and was apparently assigned to the Rifle Depot.

He was also a schoolmaster based on time spent at Oxford after WW I. Presumably, it was also that time spent at Oxford [Had he also told the military that he was a graduate?] that afforded him a commission as an officer in the Pay Corps.

There's just no evidence to indicate that the vocations and talents he exhibited throughout what we know of the rest of his life could have evolved out of a 4-year student apprenticeship in industry between 1912 and 1916. He must have been involved in trying some other line of work, and his connections to engineering make it likely that those "missing years" in the life of the adolescent George Mills had been spent near those blazing Wallis and Steevens foundries at Blasingstoke in Hants. Mills was alwas creative, as we know, and the industry was, at the time, growing quickly and always seeking the next great idea or design.

We clearly know that Mills had perennial trouble settling into a single career, job, or long-term home in his adult life. Would it seem highly unlikely that, after dabbling in what I assume was the quite serious, material business of engineering and manufacturing, George eschewed that industry for a return to the abstractions of the classroom in Christ Church and Oxford following his demobilisation from the armed forces in 1919?

My position is that it would not be a quantum leap to suppose that—despite Stanley Elkin's suppostion that the world was, is, and always will be populated by armies of indistinguishable George Millses—the George Mills, sailing in his 19th year, that steamed into Liverpool out of Buenos Aires on 20 March 1915 was, indeed, the George Mills of our interest here.

As always, however, I invite your thoughts, additional information, or informed speculation on my hypothesis—a speculation that, as much of a long-shot as it may be, seems to be the only one for which I can find any evidence at all!

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