Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 14, 2019
Webpage updated: April 24, 2021




Messrs Davey, Sleep and Company Limited, agricultural implement manufacturers, were located in Laira Bridge Road, Plymouth.  Their premises were known as the Excelsior Engineering Works.

Messrs Davey, Sleep & Company's premises at Laira Bridge Road, Plymouth

An invoice from 1909 states in the heading that the business was established in 1800.

William Sleep (the middle name of Henry came later) was born in 1837 at Caerhayes, near Saint Austell, Cornwall.  He had an older sister, Melvina, and was soon to have another sister, Lucinda.  Sadly his father, Mr Henry Sleep, died in 1842 and his mother, Mrs Susanna Sleep, passed away in 1845, so the family were orphans before William reached the age of 9.

It is said that he started work as a farm boy at Mevagissey and later took up an apprenticeship with the village blacksmith.  While he was there he educated himself in the "Three R's".

Once his five years' apprenticeship was up he got a job with Mr John Davey (1815-1878), a blacksmith in the village of Crafthole, in the parish of Sheviock, Cornwall.  In 1861 Mr Davey employed three men and one boy and was also an agricultural engineer as well as being the blacksmith.  He also had a young apprentice, 14-years-old Master John Henry Davey, who was his nephew, while helping his wife, Elizabeth, was his 21-years-old niece, Miss Ann Davey.

With the fresh sea air off the English Channel and the endless sandy beach at Whitsands, love blossomed and Mr William Henry Sleep married Miss Ann Davey at Saint James the Great Church in Stoke Damerel on March 29th 1862.  That was the year that Mr Sleep officially became a partner.  Their first child, Lucinda, was born in Morice Town, Devonport, in 1863.

By 1864 he and Ann were back in Crafthole, where he was an agricultural smith, not a blacksmith.  By 1871 the family had grown, with Laura, Robert and John all being born at in Sheviock Parish.  William developed his new plough soon after he had completed his apprenticeship and it was so well received that he soon set his mind to making further improvements to it.

John Davey died in 1878 and in 1881 William, now aged 43, and his family were still at Crafthole, where he was employing ten men and one boy.   Thus, the business of Messrs Davey, Sleep and Company had already been started but was originally based at Crafthole and it would also appear that Mr John Davey was the "Davey" of the firm's title.  In 1883 it was known as the Excelsior Plough Works.

The brand new factory at Laira Bridge, which covered 103,388 square feet, was opened in August 1890, when the business acquired a new partner, a Mr G N Harris.  The firm thus became Messrs Davey, Sleep, Harris and Company.

For images from the Messrs Davey, Sleep, Harris and Company Catalogue for September 1893 CLICK HERE.

In 1891 Mr William Henry Sleep, his wife, Ann, and son Robert were living at 11 Tothill Avenue.  Robert was also an agricultural engineer but he left Plymouth and moved to Axminster, where he set up in business in partnership with Mr Thomas Henry Symons.

At the time of the 1901 census, and for a couple of years thereafter, Mr Sleep was living at 203 Embankment Road, overlooking the Works but he disappears after 1905.  Likewise, his son's business in Axminster, Messrs Sleep and Symons, disappeared in around 1910.  Mr Peter Hall, from New Zealand, his Great Grandson, revealed that Robert went to New Zealand and married Miss Nelle Ford in 1898.   They returned to Axminster, where they had three children.  In 1908 the family returned to New Zealand and settled in the Taranaki area, where Robert worked as an engineer on the farms.  He died in Gore, Southland Province, New Zealand in 1943.

Mr Sleep's youngest daughter, Laura, apparently married Cornishman, Mr Frederick Sargent, and moved to the United States of America.  It is believed that Frederick was one of the founders of Messrs Sargent and Lundy in 1891.   Presumably her father sold the business around 1905 and went out to join them in Chicago, Illinois, where he died.  One of his sons, Mr John Davey Sleep, had died there in 1891.

The heading from invoice number 5312 of 1909.
Author's collection.

The invoice from 1909 previously mentioned indicates that the firm's Defiance Plough cost 8 18s 6d.  For some reason they gave the purchaser, Mr F H Burgess, of the Agricultural Stores Eccleshall, Staffordshire, who bought two, a discount of 20% and still offered him a further 10% discount 'for prompt monthly payment'.  The goods were sent carriage paid by the London and South Western Railway Company to Badnall Wharf.  

From around the time of the Great War the managing director was Mr Richard Priest and when he died in 1924 he was followed his son, Mr William Hamilton Jollow Priest (1895-1957), who had been an apprentice with the Company many years previously.  In 1923 the works at Laira was almost destroyed by fire.

In any event, the onslaught of developments in the agricultural world, such as petrol-driven tractors replacing horses, slowly brought about the decline of the business.  The premises were valued on March 9th 1933 at 9,480.  It would appear that this was done on behalf of a prospective purchaser because correspondence survives about a possible mortgage of 6,000.  The site comprised a Moulding Shop of 122 feet by 44 feet; a Fitting Shop of 60 feet by 42 feet; another Fitting Shop plus Offices of 84 feet by 42 feet; a Store and Implement House measuring 99 feet by 34 feet; and Shop Stores of 60 feet by 20 feet 6 inches.  All the buildings were constructed of local limestone and had slate roofs except the last-named which had a corrugated iron roof.  In addition there were timber framed stores, loading bank and lavatories.

The sale must have fallen through because in 1935 Messrs Davey, Sleep and Company Limited was amalgamated with Messrs Bickle and Company, iron founders, at Millbay Docks and the site of the Works at Laira Bridge was taken over by the Western National Omnibus Company Limited for an extension to their depot.

Advert for Messrs Davey, Sleep, Harris and Company's "ACME" New Patent Portable Horse Rake.
September 1893.
From the author's collection.