Features Walthamstow

Walthamstow’s place in automative history

Engineer Frederick Bremer made a crucial breakthrough in the late Victorian age but was later persecuted for his German heritage, writes local historian Patrick Smith

The Bremer Car at Vestry House Museum (credit The Wub/Wikimedia Commons)
The Bremer Car at Vestry House Museum (credit The Wub/Wikimedia Commons)

Frederick William Bremer was born in Stepney in 1872, the son of Gerberd Bremer, a German immigrant.

The young Bremer had a good mix of high-demand employable occupations such as gas-fitter, plumber and mechanical engineer, and used these skills so expertly that he became a pioneer inventor of Britain’s first-known internal combustion engine – a single cylinder, with twin-pulley speeds and flywheel – known as the `Bremer Car’.

Bremer’s prototype model only took paraffin fuel, had no reverse gear, used a water vapouriser, and had steering that was “primitive but effective, if somewhat precarious” and tended to rock the car driver from side-to-side.

The Bremer Car was first road tested at 4am one winter morning in 1894 and was driven by Frederick himself around Connaught Road in Walthamstow, where he then lived, accompanied by his engineer collaborator Tom Bates – waving a red flag to warn any shocked local residents! The new monster motor vehicle could offer a frightening top speed of 10mph.

Later, after the First World War, Tom Bates was to join the new Bremer Engineering Company that he helped set up in with the illustrious Bremer Car inventor in Grosvenor Park Road, Walthamstow, and was to provide the secluded premises for further motor car designs that were largely untried and untested. This included one four-cylinder petrol driven car whose technical details have been lost in the ether of time and posterity.

Frederick and Tom worked hard on new motor car models, but failed to attract any new investment to develop design technology due to the impending veil of hostility against German immigrants and people with German ancestry. There had been plenty of local homes in Leytonstone and Walthamstow hit by the silent aerial menace of the Zeppelins, which made east-enders incensed by this total war against innocent non-combatant civilians.

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The fact that many German-settled families were highly skilled made little difference – all Germans were mistrusted and many were arrested in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking in 1915. In order to protect his new wife Lily, Frederick Bremer opted to change their surnames to Brewer.

The stark paradox of the injudicious property attacks against many innocent British patriot German immigrants was that the Saxe-Coburgs of the British royal family were also forced to change their names – to Windsor.

The gifted Bremer Car inventor had to endure many years of persecution, alongside other German immigrant families in Walthamstow, and would have lived in fear of their prized mechanical engineering firm coming under attack.

A blue plaque can be found on Frederick Bremer's former home in Connaught Avenue, Walthamstow (credit Spudgun67/Wikimedia Commons)
A blue plaque can be found on Frederick Bremer’s former home in Connaught Avenue, Walthamstow (credit Spudgun67/Wikimedia Commons)

But the Bremers – or ‘Brewers’ – continued living locally and, shortly after Vestry House Museum opened in 1929, Frederick proudly drove and deposited his Bremer Car there, where it remains on display today. He was particularly overwhelmed by the great interest from local schools and their pupils on group visits.

When Frederick William Bremer died in the middle of the Second World War, his grave was nondescript, with no headstone, and is almost invisible in a far corner of St Mary’s Churchyard in Walthamstow Village. Given all this, is it not time to bear a new testament to Bremer’s incredible mechanical invention of the first British car powered by an internal combustion engine? Could we provide a new tablet to mark his death as one of the most significant residents in Walthamstow’s history?

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