Bonallack's - coach-builders of Forest Gate

Wednesday 18 July 2018

This site has previously featured manufacturing based in Forest Gate, notably bicycles and the many workshops in the area a hundred years ago. This article features a local company Bonallack’s that made bodies for vehicles, and then later spawned a car dealership surviving till 1990's. There may be a link - see below.

McDonald's now, Bonallack's then

A note on vehicle coach-building

Commercial vehicle building often involves two distinct phases, and often two different companies. A chassis and cab is built by one company say Ford or Volvo.  Then the chassis/cab goes to a bodybuilder to say construct a furniture lorry or tipper truck. 

Historically these bodybuilding companies often grew out of coach-building for horse drawn vehicles (building coaches), and to this day are sometimes referred to as coach builders. So, why should Bonallack's have chosen Forest Gate to establish themselves?

Previous articles on this site - see footnotes for details - have featured a very vibrant cycle-building cottage industry in Forest Gate in the late 1890's. As we have suggested, the "bike craze" may have tapered off around the turn of the century, and there would have been a ready pool of local, Forest Gate, labour capable of providing relevant skills to the still infant industry of commercial vehicle manufacture - in the days before production lines etc.

This article concerns a Forest Gate coach-builder Bonallack and Sons Ltd.

One of their vehicles from just before WW1,
made for a Forest Gate confectioner –
outside Bonallack’s premises in Cable
Street near Aldgate (Museum of London blog)
Bonallack’s is a very old established firm and features in the Victoria County History (VCH) for Essex.

Jacob Bonallack came from Cornwall to London in 1825 to build horse wagons, which became renowned for their quality and were exported all over the world. In 1846 he went into partnership with Joseph Briggs as coach makers and coach and cart wheelwrights, at Hanbury Field, Brick Lane, with a shop in John Street. In the 1850s he was making ‘staves and stays for vans and cart bodies’.

In 1870s he handed over running of the business to his grandsons William, John and Walter styled Bonallack and Sons Ltd., wheelwrights of 149 Cable Street (see here). Their connection to this part of East London appears to stem from them taking over in 1886 Stephen Gowar & Co., coach-builder, The Broadway, Stratford, a firm founded in 1839 (see here).

This is an Edwardian postcard image dating
 from 1900-1905 of the old Stratford Town Hall.
To the right you can clearly see the premises
 of Bonallack’s, Stratford Broadway. In 1905
Bonallack’s building was sold to the council
and used to substantially extend
Stratford fire station. This building survives,
now much modified. (Picture from collection
of postcards owned by Tony Morrison).
The left hand end of the Bonallack building in
2008, then with council offices above. The
appliance bays from the fire station are clearly
visible. It was a fire station 1906-1964. Top left
plaque says West Ham Fire Brigade station.
In 1905 Bonallack & Sons made the transition from horse drawn vehicles and built a factory in Nursery Lane, Forest Gate, to make motor vehicle bodies, and opened showrooms in Romford Road. The factory was transferred to Nevedon, Basildon in 1953, one of the post war new towns, and they were one of the first companies to relocate there (see here). Bonallack's survived until the early '90's as a subsidiary of James Booth Aluminium Ltd (see here).

The Romford Road showroom in Forest Gate survived well into the 1990's as a Leyland motor dealership, an enterprise separate from the commercial bodybuilder, but no doubt founded by another family member. Then that motor firm went bust and the garage was demolished. Forest Gate's McDonald's restaurant was built on the site. Sadly, we have been unable to source a photo of the garage. We would appreciate receiving one, should any reader have access to one.

Advert from around WW1. Note address in 
bottom right hand corner (source: here).
To quote from a piece in Commercial Motor magazine, 18 March 1955, by BG Bonallack, joint Managing Director, Bonallack and Sons Ltd:

As one of the oldest concerns of commercial body-builders still controlled by the founder family, Bonallack and Sons Ltd, find it most pleasant to be able to congratulate the Commercial Motor on having attained its 50th birthday.
Showroom on Romford Road in 1936, before
moving to the larger site on the same road
 that now hosts McDonalds
To launch such a lusty infant on to the world in 1905 was a brave venture. Private motoring at that time was still largely a hobby of the eccentric rich, and commercial vehicles must have been very rare birds, indeed. When we look at the commanding position occupied by this journal in its own sphere today, it is fitting to pay tribute to the enterprise that started it.
We ourselves at that time were barely looking beyond the horse age. It is almost 50 years ago since the first motor body was built in our shops. One or two foremen - grey-haired men now, but lusty apprentices then - and some of our pensioners remember it. They will tell even today of the new problems that were faced then; and how "Mr Walter" (now our chairman, in his 84th year) spent hours in the shops deciding how every angle of the matter was to be approached.
The ancient trade, as practised by our founder, Jacob Bonallack, Cornishman, four generations ago, was in full flower around the first motor body. The wheelwrights were following their craft, striking double-handed with a full swing of the hammer on the ends of the unrimmed spokes. The blacksmiths were shrinking their white-hot steel tires on the ash of the felloes (see here, for source). 

Ordnance Survey 1914, showing Nursery Lane,
the first turning on the right, travelling along
Upton Lane from Romford Road. Bonallack's may
well have occupied the long building
behind Sylvan Road.

 The Nursery Lane factory (now lost under the Mother's Pride bread factory) even built an extraordinary fire engine based on a Rolls Royce car, for Borough Green and District Fire Brigade in Kent. This volunteer fire brigade bout a 1921 Silver Ghost from Lord Kelmsley, second hand, for £26 and Walter Bonallack converted it into a fire engine in 1938. Walter lived near Kelmsley.

A Rolls Royce Silver Ghost/Bonallack fire
appliance in the late 1930's (see here)
The famous toy maker, Matchbox (based across the borough boundary, in Hackney) even made a model of the Rolls Royce at 1:48 scale. Here is their version, numbered Y6 in Yesteryears collection:

In fact, it seems Bonallack's built a number of wooden bodies on various car chassis, what were termed shooting breaks - the archetype of the Woody was the Morris 1000 Traveller, with its wooden-framed body.

See this extract from British Woodies: From the 1920's to the 1950's (see here):


A. The author is a local historian, but also has also written extensively about the history of the fire service, including a book on West Ham Fire Brigade which ran the old Stratford fire station featured here. He also bought a second hand car from Bonallack’s in Forest Gate shortly before it went bust. The MG Maestro had serious defects and he went to Newham Trading Standards for redress without success as the company had disappeared by then.

B. References

1. Bonallack & Sons had a repair/body shop in Freshwater Road/Selinas Lane Dagenham, with Bonallack above the door. This would have been in the late '60's/early '70's (see here).

2. The story of the Borough Green Rolls is here
3. They built one modern fire engine, here

4. They also built several outside broadcast units for the BBC at Basildon, here

5. They seem to have built bodies for Riley cars in Forest Gate (here).

6. 1869 company restructure, here

7. Bonallack at Basildon built many ambulances for the British military based on Land Rovers, here

C. Previous hyper-linked articles on cycle workshops:

Forest Gate: hub of Victorian bike manufacturers

Bike building in Forest Gate

Cycling in Victorian Forest Gate
Forest Gate Cycling Club and life on the road at the end of the C19th


  1. Dear Sir

    Thank you for bringing back memories of Bonallacks,as a school boy of 16, I remember well seeing a red mini outside being prepared for delivery in September 1959. once again Thank You

    Kindest Regards

    Keith R Murray

    PS. My school was Pitman's College on the Romford Road near Newbury Radio and opposite The Princess Alice Pub then a bomb site!

  2. Hi, As a onetime E7 resident - I lived in Sylvan Road between 1982 and 1991 - I was fascinated to recently come across information on the firm of Bonallacks. Well, they were almost neighbours in Nursery Lane - yes, they moved out about 30 years before I got there, but you know what I mean :) Any way, I thought I'd point out that the showroom at No 268 in the second picture above was at 268 Romford Road, not Cable Street (next to the sadly now closed Live & Let Live pub). This info is confirmed by their entry in the 1920 Motor, Marine and Aircraft Red Book, details on the Grace's Guide website,_Marine_and_Aircraft_Red_Book:_Company_B All the best, Jim Clay

  3. I agree with Jim that the photograph outside 268 would be in Romford Road, next to The Live & Let Live, (as an ex-employee 1965-1981) I cut my teeth learning the art of car sales and have very fond memories of my time there. Both at 268 & 324 Romford Road

  4. I have a lapel badge from sixties when I was a collector

    1. Two memories I have of Bonallacks. First the imposing showroom in Romford Road turned into a carpet showroom for a few years until McDonalds mover in. They were actually a very good friendly and reputable dealership and I used to find them helpful and able to source parts for my first car, an Austin 1100 whereas the other dealers in the area showed aloofness unless you had bought a new car from them and paid their astronomical labour rates (and sometimes for shoddy workmanship). Secondly, their new car stocks were stored in a compound on the Manor Park and Ilford border on the north side of Romford Road. The compound still exists next to Kwik Fit and in the shadow of the A406 flyover.

    2. Oh! And they had brisk trade on their petrol forecourt.

  5. One of the post-war managers of the firm, Basil Bonallack, wrote of his military experiences during the war, and his poem, 'Retreat from Dunkirk' is one of the classic poems of WW2.

  6. I was a lapel badge collector in the 60s and have a pristine badge and letter from that company


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