The Chapman History
Chapman Seating is the re-named original A W Chapman Ltd that was founded by Mr Albert William Chapman in June 1901.
His first venture into seating was a patent developed in a small workshop in the Midlands. Hearing that fortunes were to be made in Scotland he moved across the border and purchased an old church. Here he set up a workshop, carved his name into the facia, and hoisted a flag to show he was in business.
The anticipated fortune did not materialise, and after learning that the streets of London were paved with gold, sold up and migrated south.
He purchased a large garage in Ranelagh Gardens, next door to Putney Bridge District Line Underground station, and much of his early days were taken up with the provision of horse drawn, and later motorised taxicabs from the station to the surrounding stockbroker Hurlingham Estate. Even up to the late 1960s the horse lashings were still to be seen in the assembly shop at Fulham!
Post first world war advertisements showed Chapman was purchasing ex-ministry and secondhand car chassis and building high class limousine bodies on them. A completely rebuilt 1916 Daimler (ex armoured car chassis) with a spacious saloon and tube and whistle intercom with the chauffeur sold for 950 guineas upholstered in leather. At that time Chapman advertised themselves as Engineers, Body Builders, Car Repairers, Car and Limousine Hirers, new and used cars and launches (yes, even the marine market did not evade Chapman!), and boasted a showroom of 100 cars for sale.
It was during the first world war that Albert's talents were put to the test with the designs for the War effort, although due to secrecy much of it was not recorded. In the post war years business really became busy, with his latest patented single line contact friction seat slide becoming in much demand by long demised vehicle manufacturers such as Armstrong Siddeley, Morris Motors, Austin Car Co, Hillman, Riley, Bean, Alvis, Swift, Crossley, Weymann, Lagonda, Barkers, Maythorne, H J Mullier, Chrysler, Freestone & Webb etc.
The rapid demand for motor cars in the 1920s led the way for much of Chapman's creative and ingenious talent to manifest itself, with products marketed under the trade name 'LEVEROLL', such as dual friction slides, basic seat tilt mechanisms, and duplex seat winder mechanism - very innovative for their day, and certainly first in the industry.
Other Chapman products appeared, such as: the Chapman Thermorad, the first car interior heater which drew its heat from the car exhaust, later versions being demanded by the Charabanc industry for passenger coaches; the Chapman Louvre, a self cleaning step mat to be placed on the running board at the door entrance; and the Chapman 'Nevajah' shock absorber, at the time the cheapest and most effective sprung damper on the market. Even a Chapman 'Pirouette' directional Wireless turntable hit the market in the 1930s, and the Chapman 'Ad-Ex' appeared in 1939 - a patented muscle exerciser for golfers!
At this time the Leveroll range of products were protected by over 30 world wide patents, and anyone who sought to infringe Chapman's jealously guarded inventions found it a very costly legal exercise.
It is recorded that on Saturday 7th January 1928 at 2am the River Thames burst its banks and Chapman's Showroom and workshop sank under 6 feet of muddy water. Advertisements were immediately placed in the AUTOCAR and showed Chapman's sense of humour at its best: He stated that the FLOOD of orders would not be affected, and that at the CURRENT time the clean up was going SWIMMINGLY, and whist there would be some delay in the FLOW of despatch, work was going on in the divers (diverse) task of clearing up. For years later advertisements carried 'established before the flood' quip.
The 1930s increasing popularity of the Motor Car and the Motor Coach brought new prosperity to Chapman, and with the declaration of War in September 1939, new fortunes were to be made under the guise of 'war effort'. Civilian production was suspended, and the whole production at Fulham was geared to the production of War Department requirements, although some records show that civilian supplies were manufactured and delivered during the war.
By the end of hostilities Chapman had produced about half a million seats and fittings for the military.
After the war the demand for adjustable seats became even greater, but a high level involvement with military orders continued. The Centurion, Matilda, Crusader, and Churchill tanks all carried Chapman seating as did Alvis armoured cars, including the Stalwart.
Considerable extensions were carried out at Ranelagh Gardens, with the purchase of land at the rear of the existing factory, and the renting of the land under Putney Bridge Station. Design and development continued apace to cop with the ever-growing demand from the private car and the bus and coach industries, which flourished with the new found post war prosperity.
New innovative products were launched, and up to the 1960s virtually every public service vehicle boasted a Chapman Driver's Seat. To cope with the demand, in 1960 a second factory at Riverside Road in Wimbledon was opened.
The product range, already including fully adjustable driver's seats and mechanisms, increased to include luxurious passenger seating for coaches, and high quality seat back adjusters for Aston Martin, Bristol, Rolls Royce and Bentley.
The late 1950's saw the sale of A W Chapman Limited to the Constructors Group in Birmingham who were then market leaders in metal office furniture and commercial shelving. A W Chapman Limited continued and grew under this ownership producing more and more innovative products in commercial seating and mechanisms.
By then the product range of A W Chapman Limited had grown to meet the ever demanding market of the private and commercial motor industry and from Chapman's original trade name of 'Leveroll' such brand names as 'Leverex', 'Levelride' and 'Dualac', appeared, which were innovative drivers fully adjustable seat mechanisms of various heights, some hydraulically dampened, some in steel, some in Aluminium alloy, for all applications and were highly accredited by both the Bus and Coach bodybuilders, construction industry plant manufacturers and the end operator.
Still in production at this time was specialised rugged military seating for the Ministry of Defence including the Drivers seat for the Vickers Armstrong produced Centurion Tank Mk5, Drivers and crew seats for the Alvis FV620 Stalwart, FV603 Saracen and FV601 Saladin armoured vehicles, Daimler Ferret Armoured reconnaissance vehicle and other 'odd' items such as Ambulance stretcher bases for Dennis Brothers at Guildford, and even seat adjusters for Barbers Chairs made by LaRein!
Commercial vehicle manufacturers relied heavily on the quality adjustable seating available from A W Chapman Limited for their cab seats, Albion Motors, Atkinson Vehicles, Commer, Dennis Brothers, Fodens, Guy Motors, Leyland Motors, Seddon Vehicles, Scammell Lorries and Thornycroft, Trojan, to name a few.
Chapman also supplied bus and coach bodybuilders including Walter Alexander & Co, Appleyard of Leeds, Bonallack & Sons, Burlington Motor Bodies, Duple Motor Bodies, Dennis Brothers, Eastern Coachworks, East Lancashire Coachbuilders, Hoopers, Herbert Lomas, Metro Cammell, Northern CountiesPark Royal Vehicles, Charles H Roe, Spurling Motor Bodies, Plaxtons, Reeve Burgess, Robert Wright & Sons, Weymanns, Willowbrooks.
The Construction machinery manufacturers including AWD-All wheel Drive, Aveling Barford, Babcock & Wilcox, Barfords of Belton, Boss Trucks, British Crane and Excavator Corp, Clarkes of Camberley, Coles Cranes, Hymac, JCB, Matbro, F E Weatherill, Winget, and many others all relied on the quality products made by Chapman, including many special versions of seats incorporating shock absorbers and large buckets seats, small pan seats with tip up armrests, swivel seats and even a special reversible backrest seat for crane cabs.
All of these were still being manufactured in the original factory at Ranelagh Gardens in Fulham, London, and at the Riverside Road Factory behind Wimbledon Stadium in Wandsworth, South London. Part of the Ranelagh Gardens original factory extended under the elevated Putney Bridge District Line Railway Station and used eight of the railway arches as part of their production facility, experimental facility, turning shop and storage. How they coped with trains thundering over their heads every five minutes one cannot imagine!
At that time the upholstery trim shop facility was situated just across the road from Ranelagh Gardens on two floors at the Fulham Pottery, a 1670's building with its own ghost John Dwight a master potter who perished in a kiln fire in 1703. He (apparently) is heard walking nightly, thus preventing many of the superstitious workforce from doing overtime after dark!
The Riverside factory also produced luxury fixed (Mk155) and reclining (Mk166) Passenger Seating for coaches, so advanced for their day that a set was used in the Sci-Fi film 2001 as space ship seats (remember that was a long time ago!) These were of such durable quality that they were sold on when the coach was scrapped, some sets surviving service in four different coaches.
In 1968 the whole Constructors group including Chapman Seating was purchased by the Slater Walker industrial giant and many changes took place, including the establishment of a further production facility and offices at Sullivan Road in Fulham, where the administration was moved for a short time.
The 70's saw a new bus and coach Passenger Seat designed and developed by Chapman Seating especially for the new National Bus contract - the Mk 188 'Chameleon' range of reclining seats with quickly changeable seat covers which had each coach fitted with half blue and half orange moquette seats - some still in service today!
In 1970 the owners, Slater Walker Group, decided to close both the original factory at Ranelagh Gardens and the Sullivan Road factory and move the whole Fulham production to the Constructors factory in Tyburn Road in Erdington, Birmingham close to Fort Dunlop. The Riverside Road factory in Wandsworth remained open. Subsequently, the original factory and car showroom at Ranelagh Gardens opened by Mr Albert William Chapman in 1901 was unceremoniously sold off.
The move to Birmingham involved some personnel redundancy, but most key production, design and administrative personnel moved up to Birmingham with the migration of the production facility and a culture shock followed trying to integrate both Midland and Southern workforces into common working practice.
Against all the Slater Walker Group efforts to rationalise the products into a common production facility, after two years of turmoil it was decided that the two businesses were not compatible and the ever profitable A W Chapman Limited products were sold to the Surrey based Rodd Engineering (1950) Limited who had factories at Walton Upon Thames, Shepperton in Middlesex, and Havant in Hampshire.
To ease a return to the South in 1971, Rodd Engineering made extensions to their Shepperton factory and the A W Chapman Ltd production was accommodated there being renamed CHAPMAN SEATING LIMITED.
The design department went to Shepperton and integrated alongside the Rodd administrative personnel, whilst the CHAPMAN SEATING sales took the top floor of the Fulham Pottery in London just above the trim shop. Great investment followed at Shepperton in automated seat slide production aimed at the lucrative automotive market mainly through Ford, whilst still responding to the bodybuilders needs of more sophisticated and comfortable Drivers seating, and a mutual development programme was established with Bremshey AG., a German market leader in commercial seating.
With the pending retirement of the two owners of Rodd Engineering Limited Mr Ted Cross and Mr Jack Baker, Chapman Seating was sold over a 5 year lease/hire period to a Mr John Harvey who instigated massive development programmes of seat slides and passenger seating.
Chapman Seating purchased Genyk Products Limited and their factory at Mitcham in South London from the Spillers Group and all the pet type products including bird and hamster cages ceased production as they were no longer economical or viable in a diminishing pet market. Chapman Seating moved to this factory and traded under the Genyk Products name for a while, but the trading name reverted to the well known and respected Chapman Seating again after two years.
The 1990's saw more investment in the design, development and production of a new range of railway passenger seating, which was extremely popular with the builders and end user but transferred to a third party in 2003 when the rail side of the business was sold off by the administrators.
In 2001 the group that owned Chapman Seating went in to receivership and there was a management buyout which saw Chapman rise again as Chapman Transport Seating. Much investment went in the passenger seating side of the business and despite a very buoyant order book, Chapman went into administration due to massive over-commitment to contracts which were then subsequently delayed. The rail driver and passenger seating side of the business was sold-off very quickly by the administrators, followed by the remainder of the driver seat business in January 2004 to OIC Partners Ltd who have since then traded as Chapman Driver Seating from their factory in Milton Keynes.
The much respected brand Chapman has now seen a new lease of life and the development of new products and improvements to some of the products dating back 50 years or more continues today. A concept of total focus on a limited range of products with an emphasis on service has seen the business rise again in the urban bus market. Whilst this market segment accounts for the largest proportion of the Chapman business, seats have been supplied for use in mining and military vehicles, lifeboats and cranes and a number of other applications.
August 2010 saw a change of ownership as Chapman Driver Seating was acquired by A.E Harris & Co. (Birmingham) Ltd. The Birmingham engineering business was a key supplier of metalwork to Chapman and was the ideal business to continue the Chapman brand. The business moved to the Harris’s Jewellery Quarter based factory in October 2010 and the previous owners of Chapman (Jerry Smith and David Cattanach) became directors of A E Harris. Over the next few years, A E Harris continued to develop Chapman products and bring all metal based manufacturing in-house.
Chapman exhibited every year at the main trade shows at the NEC and in 2014, debuted a new height adjuster which became an instant hit. The product was called SideRiser 2 (SR2) and has continued ever since as their best selling height adjuster and the standard product on all new vehicles for many UK operators.
After several years of planning applications following exchange of contracts with developers, December 2019 saw the planning application approved and completion of the factory sale to developers. The directors of A E Harris had been searching for a new property for some time and completion on a new 40,000 square foot site in West Bromwich finally took place in January 2020. During March 2020, the business relocated to their new site to continue the next chapter in their history.