Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire is known for its links to Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, but less is known about the man responsible for keeping Kenilworth open to the public. Sir John Siddeley bought the castle in the 1930s, and opened its doors for future generations to enjoy. Senior Curator of Collections, Martin Allfrey, examines Siddeley’s story and his impact on Kenilworth’s direction at a time of uncertainty.
Who was Sir John Siddeley?
Born on the outskirts of Manchester in 1866, John Davenport Siddeley began his engineering career as a draughtsman for the Humber Cycle Company. In 1893 he joined the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, moving to Coventry where he became their representative. Shortly afterwards, he set up the rival Clipper Tyre Company, which still exists as Continental. Siddeley had a keen eye for marketing as well as a passion for technical advancement. In 1898 he arranged for a cyclist to ride a bicycle fitted with Clipper tyres from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and ensured that the run achieved maximum publicity by sending regular updates to national newspapers.
Siddeley began developing racing bicycles in the 1890s. By 1902 he had started his own company, Siddeley Autocars, importing Peugeot engines at first but later designing and building cars using his own mechanical components. This ambition soon led Siddeley to create the hugely successful British engineering group, Amstrong Siddeley, best known for producing luxury motor cars and aircraft engines at the Parkside Works in Coventry, near Kenilworth.
In the interwar years, Armstrong Siddeley was celebrated for its luxurious cars, supplying wealthy clients such as the future King George VI, who took the Queen Mother on their honeymoon in his own Siddeley in 1923. In 1935, Siddeley arranged a merger with Hawker Aircraft, resulting in the creation of Hawker Siddeley, a partnership which became vital to the war effort during the Second World War.
Purchased for the Nation
The Hawker Siddeley merger made Siddeley a very rich man, earning a reputed £1 million. That’s about £45 million in today’s money. This wealth gave him the freedom to indulge in charitable works, and he bought Kenilworth Castle in 1937. Siddeley placed the building in the care of the Ministry of Works, and made a substantial sum available to fund repairs.
This enabled the castle to be opened to the public, and the same year Siddeley was given a peerage, becoming Baron Kenilworth. During the Second World War, the Parkside production plant was devoted entirely to war work. Along with large areas of Coventry, the factory was badly damaged in German air raids on the city, and some staff members lost their lives.
The Siddeley connection today
Working with the Armstrong Siddeley Heritage Trust, English Heritage has brought Siddeley’s story to life through information and artefacts from his lifelong association with the glamorous worlds of motoring and aviation. A landmark new exhibition – ‘Speed and Power: John Siddeley, Pioneer of the Motor Age’ – is now open on the first floor of the gatehouse at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.
The exhibition once again brings the glamour of Armstrong Siddeley’s cars and aeroplanes to Kenilworth Castle. The centrepiece, loaned by the Siddeley family, is a 1937 painting of Siddeley himself. The painting is by Frank Salisbury, the celebrated artist known for his portraits of Winston Churchill, the Queen and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Also on display are the Grand Prix d’Honneur trophy won by one of Siddeley’s cars in the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally, and an anvil made from a yew tree which stood beside the Parkside Works until it was felled during an air raid on 14 November 1940.
Young motor enthusiasts can take part in family activities, including designing their own Armstrong Siddeley car and a game based on an epic 1933 journey from London to Istanbul in a Siddeley Special car.
About the author
Martin Allfrey is Senior Curator of Collections at English Heritage.
Today we are exploring the beautiful Kenilworth Castle & Gardens ahead of the Grand Medieval Joust this weekend. You can see more of our discoveries of this beautiful place on our Instagram stories if you are quick! #englishheritage #kenilworth #kenilworthcastle #history #garden #castle #englishheritagesites #conservation #museum #conservation #history #heritage