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Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum
156 High St
Biggar, ML12 6DH

Biggar Museum Trust SCIO, a registered charity in Scotland. Charity number: SC003695

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Thomas Blackwood Murray of Biggar

Automobile Pioneer

The Albion dog-cart which arrived at the museum on 10th March 2020, has only been open to viewing since August 2021. In a previous blog, we looked at the Biggar connections of the car’s first owner, John Lamb Murray and here we focus on his son Thomas Blackwood Murray, described by one writer as “the most outstanding of all the pioneering figures in Scotland’s automobile industry.

In this blog, Charles Rigg assesses Tom’s role in laying the foundations of the Albion Motor Company‘s remarkable success story.

(Elaine Edwards, Curator/Manager, 5.9.21)

Early Life of Thomas Blackwood Murray

Thomas Blackwood Murray was born in 1871 and given the same name as his grandfather. He was only five when his mother died from tuberculosis, a disease which later would claim the life of his sister in 1915 and ultimately himself. A close relationship between father and son developed through their shared interest in all things mechanical and there is no doubt that both worked together at their Heavyside home to develop the first Albion dog-cart.

After attending school at Biggar and then George Watson’s in Edinburgh, Tom completed an engineering degree at Edinburgh University in 1890. Six years later he joined the Mo-Car syndicate where he met a kindred spirit in Norman Osborne Fulton. 1899 was a momentous year in Tom’s life: he and Norman agreed to put down £2,000 each to start a motor company and Tom also got married to Hettie Rusack.

Tom Murray with his wife Hettie Rusack
Thomas Blackwood Murray with his wife Hettie Rusack, daughter of the owner of Rusack’s Marine Hotel, St Andrews, 1900 (McKinstry, Sure as Sunrise, Fig 12.1)

Friends in Partnership: Establishing the Albion Motor Company

When Tom and Norman embarked on their business adventure there was no guarantee their fledgling company would succeed. Albion was just one of fifty motor firms set up in Scotland during the first fourteen years of the twentieth century, and there were other rivals from England and Europe. Survival was not going to be easy.

The Murray-Fulton partnership was fundamental to the early success of the company. Tom and Norman’s specialist interests were different but complemented each other. Tom was focused on the technical side and his engineering brilliance produced three inventions which helped establish Albion’s reputation for reliability – the Low Tension Magneto, the Mechanical Lubricator, and the Engine Speed Governor. Norman’s interest was on the production side and from his year in America learned the value of producing standardised components of such precise dimensions that spares were guaranteed to fit. They put this into practice and it became an important selling point in early Albion sales publicity.

A photo image of Norman Fulton (nearest the camera) and Thomas Blackwood Murray appeared in the first Albion sales brochure.

The Albion Motor Company Grows

The marriage of Tom’s sister to Norman appeared to strengthen what was already a very close bond between the two men. The Murray-Fulton partnership was added with the recruitment of Tom’s friend John Francis

Henderson in 1902 when the company was in need of further investment to expand. Five years later, family connections were further strengthened when Norman’s brother, Hugh Ernest Fulton, became a director and took charge of sales. As chairman, Tom was arguably the most important of the four; however, the contribution of the others, and Norman in particular, should not be underestimated.

The early success of the Company necessitated a move to larger and more suitable premises than the cramped upper level floor at 169 Finneston Street, Glasgow. Tom and Norman had always viewed it as a temporary location and had sensibly negotiated an opt-out clause after the third year of a five-year lease. They activated this after purchasing two and three-quarters of ground at Scotstoun, a well-chosen greenfield site in Glasgow close to a railway siding and the majority of Albion suppliers. The move to Scotstoun reflected a confidence that motor vehicles would ultimately win the battle over horse-drawn vehicles. The new premises allowed the labour force to rapidly increase from 68 in 1903 to 1,050 in 1914.

Albion Car Company upper floor premises at 169 Finneston Street, Glasgow.
Upper floor premises at 169 Finneston Street, Glasgow. Bodyworks were not made at Finnieston but supplied by companies like Penman of Dumfries. The finished bodywork was transported to Glasgow where it was bolted on to the chassis. Albion Catalogue 1902, p3

Entering the Commercial Vehicle Market

Prior to relocating to Scotstoun the company had made the astute decision to move into the commercial vehicle market. This was relatively straightforward as the chassis remained the same, only the style of bodywork changed. The 10 cwt van body of the first Albion van was bolted on to the first chassis Albion produced. This made it both the first car and first commercial vehicle in Albion’s history. In 1908 Albion presented it to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum.

An early example of an Albion Commercial vehicle.

Small local businesses, like the joiner Hugh Ross in Biggar, wasted little time in purchasing such vehicles, but it was a tie-up with the Long Acre Car Company of London in December 1904 which was a masterstroke in successfully promoting the sale of Albion vans to England and Wales. Although the association was to end in acrimony and an expensive legal battle it did establish Albion in London and elsewhere. In particular, large fleets of Albions were taken up by Harrods before the outbreak of the 1914 war and many other companies followed suit including Boots, Cadbury, Jacobs, McVittie & Price, Shell, Tennents, and the Post Office.

In 1912 almost three-quarters of the 554 Albions made that year were commercial vehicles. It only seemed a matter of time before the company would take the next logical step and stop the production of cars all together. This critical decision was taken and came into effect in November 1913, 10 months before the outbreak of the First World War.

Albion Motor Company Consolidates and Thrives

Under Tom Murray’s stewardship Albion avoided the mistakes of another Scottish company which at one stage turned out more vehicles than any manufacturer in Europe. Argyll overstretched themselves and went into liquidation before the war. Albion had cleverly diversified, exploited the export market to the Empire, and established a reputation for reliability. That reputation was further enhanced during the war as Albion vehicles saw service in France, West Africa and India. Four years of government contracts left Albion in a strong financial position and able to withstand the economic challenges which followed the end of the war.

View the Albion Dog-Cart

The Albion Car is currently on display inside Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum. It can be found to the rear of the museum and is part of the Victorian Streetscape Gladstone Court.

Author: Charles Rigg
Date: 22nd Oct 2021 Back to Blog
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