Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Arnold Frank Hills

From Graces Guide

Arnold Frank Hills (1857-1927), managing director of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co

1857 Born in March, third son of Frank Clarke Hills, and Ann Ellen (nee Rawlings).

1871 Educated at Harrow School and at University College, Oxford (1876–9).

1871 His father bought a controlling interest in Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co

1880 Became a director of Thames Ironworks. Sought to improve the lives of his workforce. For five years (1880–85) he lived in Canning Town, devoting his days to the shipyard and his evenings to the improvement and recreation of his workers.

1886 married Mary Elizabeth Lafone; they had one son and four daughters.

1895 Established the Thames Ironworks Football Club, it soon became highly successful; later (1900) known as West Ham United Football Club.

1896-1900 MD of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co when he was granted patents with George Hone on grabs, and on railway carriage couplings.

1897 Hills provided the club with its own ground.

c.1898 He introduced a 48 hour week, being one of the first employers to do so, and also set up a profit-sharing scheme. These measures, together with Hills's honesty and force of personality, won over his workers and industrial relations improved.

1898 As his father's executor he took his cousin, Arnold Edward Hills, to court over a debt[1]

At some point Arnold was appointed chairman of the company.

20th century: construction costs were high and the yard was hampered by the cramped nature of the site but Hills would not consider moving the yard.

1911 After the launch of HMS Thunderer, no further orders were forthcoming from the Admiralty, and the shipyard closed down at the end of 1912.

1927 Died at home on 7 March in Penshurst, Kent.

1927 Obituary [2]

1927 Obituary[3]


Mr. Arnold Hills, who died at- Penshurst on the 7th inst., was undoubtedly a very remarkable man, and though not himself an engineer, was for many years of his life the controlling spirit of a great engineering firm. Born in 1857, Mr. Hills was educated at Harrow and at Oxford, and at both he acquired a high reputation as an athlete. He was a “ Blue ” in 1877, 1878 and 1879, and in the latter year won the mile championship. He took his degree in 1879, securing a second-class in Modern History. Oxford has been dubbed the home of lost causes, and if this be true Mr. Hills might well serve as an example of a typical Oxonian. Throughout his life he had to fight a losing battle both against extreme ill-health and against social and economic conditions. He made a heroic struggle to maintain intact the Thames Ironworks, which, founded in 1864, was the direct heir of Messrs. Ditchburn and Mare, who, at first in partnership and later on independently, were responsible for the development of iron shipbuilding on the Thames, and through many prosperous years made the Thames the greatest shipbuilding centre in the world. Here in 1858-61 was constructed the Warrior, the first seagoing ironclad to be built, and almost innumerable vessels were built for our and for foreign navies, as well as many passenger and cargo vessels, and yachts. In spite of this immense influx of work the undertaking of Messrs. C. J. Mare and Company came to grief, and after a certain interregnum were taken over by a newly formed private company, which adopted the style of the Thames Ironworks, Shipbuilding, Engineering and Dry Dock Company, Limited. Amongst the directors was Mr. F. C. Hills, the father of Mr. Arnold Hills, who had amassed a large fortune as a manufacturing chemist, and who acquired ultimately a controlling interest in the Thames Ironworks. When his son, Mr. Arnold Hills came down from the University, he was immediately appointed a director.

Mr. Hills took not merely an active part in the management, but was deeply interested in social and economic questions. Possibly he was in part influenced by Besant’s “ All Sorts and Conditions of Men,” but whatever the source of his inspiration, he adopted the policy of the hero and heroine of that novel, and went to live amongst the workmen. For five years he resided in the East India Docks-road, devoting his evenings to the improvement and recreation of the men employed by his firm. This did not, however, prevent the outbreak of a long series of strikes, the wastefulness of which led Mr. Hills, as Sir George Livesey had done before him, to hope that by giving the men a more direct interest in their work, by a system of profit-sharing, prosperity might be restored to the Thames shipbuilding trade. For some time it seemed that success would crown his efforts. At the launch of the Thunderer he stated that over 100,000Z. had thus been distributed since the inauguration of the scheme. Moreover, owing to Mr. Hills’ firm being outside the Employers’ Federation, and to his having conceded the eight-hour day, work progressed on this ship whilst shipbuilding elsewhere was held up by the prolonged strike. When the latter ended, however, the conditions on the Thames proved too unfavourable for effective competition with the northern yards. In fact, Mr. Ditchbum, in promoting iron shipbuilding during the middle of last century, had helped to seal the fate of the Thames as a shipbuilding centre, since competing undertakings were nearer the sources of supply. That, in spite of these adverse conditions, the industry was so long maintained was due entirely to the resolution—and, it must be added, to the marvellous fortitude—of Mr. Hills. At a comparatively early age he was incapacitated by rheumatism, and for two years all work was impossible. At the end he was still unable to lift a finger, and he had to attend the launch of the Thunderer in an invalid chair. Shortly before the end of his life he recovered sufficiently to be able once more to sign his name. It is extraordinary that under such extreme disabilities, which made him practically unable to move, Mr. Hills was able to take the leading part in the activities of his firm.

With a view to interesting the men in the past history of this undertaking, and in the work in progress, he founded in 1896 The Thames Ironworks Gazette. This was issued quarterly, and Mr. Hills himself was a regular contributor. Much of what he wrote, or rather dictated, since, as indicated above, he was at that time unable even to sign his name, was devoted to urging the claims of vegetarianism and total abstinence, but he also dealt largely with social and economic matters. Still more important was the fact that he induced the late Mr. G. C. Mackrow to contribute a series of articles which constitute alrqpst a complete history of the development of iron shipbuilding on the Thames.

Not content with the active part he took in the proceedings of his own firm, Mr. Hills further attempted to resuscitate the Thames Steamboat services, which in the days of Thackeray and for some decades afterwards formed one of the most popular methods of transport in London. The growth of improvement in the railway, tube, tram and ’bus services rendered hopeless the prospects of success, and the attempt had to be abandoned.

With the closing of the Thames Ironworks Mr. Hills definitely retired to his home at Penshurst.

As will be seen, he was a man of great courage. In order to build the Thunderer, extensive and costly improvements and additions had to be made to the facilities of the yard, and this necessity was boldly faced. He was not afraid of new ideas, and in 1896 a method of rapid cable laying for war service, devised by Mr. C. S. Snell, received the strong support of Mr. Hills. The plan was intended to secure ready communication between a fleet and the shore by means of a submarine cable. In ordinary cable laying the speed of the cable ship does not exceed some 7 knots, but on the Snell system, cable could be laid at speeds of 224 knots or more. The cable was, in fact, shot overboard at a higher speed than that of the ship in the opposite direction. Any ship could be used as a cable layer, and a very ingenious provision was made by which, in effect, there was always some 2,000 ft. of slack cable kept under a constant tension interposed between the cable discharger and the cable store. In this way sudden variations in speed or in the contour of the sea bottom were provided for. Unfortunately for Mr. Hills, the introduction of wireless destroyed the utility of the scheme."

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Morning Post, July 23, 1898
  2. The Engineer 1927/03/11
  3. Engineering 1927/03/11
  • Biography of Alfred Frank Hills, ODNB