Barwell Rubber Co: Memoir
Note: This is a sub-section of Barwell Rubber Co
BARWELL RUBBER COMPANY Ltd (This is NOT related to the company of this name which currently exists. The original company was rolled up into the group below and the name became unused and was taken up by another rubber company but (?) never used).
Barwell Machine and Rubber Group Ltd, Barwell International Ltd, Barwell Rubber Products Ltd, Barwell Machine Services Ltd, Barwell Technology Ltd, Barwell Inc (USA) et al.
The following has been written from memory by an ex-employee of the Barwell group with 29 years service. While the events themselves are all correct their dates and sequence should not, therefore, be taken as gospel!
During the early part of the 20th century the flock of a Cambridgeshire chicken farmer, John Barwell, was blighted by fowl pest, resulting in the entire flock being destroyed and the land being no longer suitable for the same purpose.
Looking for an alternative project Barwell started limited production of various rubber items in sheds on his farm behind his substantial Queen Anne house in the village of Swavesey. These included wellington boots and various rubber articles such as cutter flails, for the local farming community. With the upsurge in popular motoring Barwell saw a market for re-processed tyres (‘remoulds’) and started production of these also.
These were made by a process in which a shaped strip of rubber, known as ‘camelback’, was stuck to the de-treaded tyre carcass before it was put into a segmented tyre mould to be re-moulded and the new rubber vulcanised. This camelback had to be purchased from the likes of Dunlop and Avon and was very expensive.
After WWII the company looked for ways to make camelback for themselves and made a hydraulic ram operated barrel extruder using two naval gun barrels purchased as scrap. The hydraulic ram was only single acting so the ram was returned using a system of ropes and pulleys with sand bags as weights! Later developments led to a double-acting ram system with various modifications over the years, including a vacuum system to take the air out of the rubber barrel and a fast forward and reverse system for rapid loading cycles.
It was realised that, with the addition of a knife rotating across the face of the extruder die, the emerging rubber could be cut into small pieces which could be used as blanks for the now growing rubber products division of the company, and that by accurate manipulation of both the speed of the ram and of the knife very accurate sizes could be achieved. Clever design of the dies made very complex shapes achievable so that the blanks conformed closely to the mould, thereby saving waste and scrappage.
Much of the development of the company up to this point had been made by Barwell family members, including inter alia John Barwell’s son, (also John), a cousin Eric Barwell, (a WWII fighter piltot), and John Douglas Barwell, (known as ‘Douggy’ to avoid further confusion!), together with a team of very loyal employees many of whom joined on leaving school and left upon retirement, well into the 21st century, and many of whom were Italian and German ex-prisoners of war who chose to stay after 1945! Not least of these was Don Lanham, a talented ex British army engineer, who became a director of the group.
Having made such machines for their own use other rubber processors got to hear of them and the company received enquiries for purchase. So was born the machinery division of the company. Through the 1960s and early 1970s sales often outstripped capacity and the factory grew, like Topsy, across the old farm site, some of which also hosted a staff football pitch round which were stacked, for many years, scrap tyres that were unsuitable for remoulding. At its height the group employed nearly 300 people.
Other developments included a (not very successful) twin ram machine for continuous operation (one ram working while the other was being filled), and a tyre re-building machine which extruded hot rubber directly onto the tyre revolving on a mandrel. (This machine is still available in the 21st century.)
During the 1970s the remaining family members, most of whom were of pensionable age or over, decided to sell up and the group was purchased, in a management buyout, by newer members of the management team and others who were brought in, and funded in part by a loan from the former ‘Investors in Industry’ or ‘3i’. At the end of the decade, following a decline in some of the peripheral businesses that had grown up around the group, aircraft tyres being one, the group was radically restructured with over 1/3 of the workforce being made redundant and much of the disparate buildings that had been used being rented out.
During the 1980s the company earned two Queen’s Awards for Industry, one for exports and one for technological achievement. However sales started to become ever more difficult to achieve and the company needed a new source of finance. Various diversifications were attempted, most unsuccessful, one the acquisition of a hydraulic press servicing company, CDK Machine Tool Services Ltd of Cannock, which was eventually closed with the operation moving to Swavesey along with its principle engineer. A later diversification was the combination of the company’s technologies with screw extrusion applications.
A stop-gap was the sale of the company’s machine shop to another company which needed the additional capacity, with Barwell goods being made as a sub-contractor, still on site. Later, as the factory lay in the centre of a growing Cambridgeshire village, with heavy lorries driving in and out on a daily basis, the company negotiated with the County Council a ‘Section 52’ agreement whereby they were allowed to build a new factory estate on a green-field site away from the village (adjacent to the A14) funded by the sale of the existing site for housing and amenity space.
Unfortunately this came about just as the housing slump of the late 1980s took hold and, with the new site already purchased, the old site could not be sold at a price that would balance the books. The bank that had financed the deal was left with the choice of either putting the company into liquidation, thereby losing their money, or re-structuring the group to ring-fence the land and loans. The latter course was taken with the trading group being purchased by EIS Group plc which allowed it to continue trading with the existing directors and financed the building of a new £1m factory on land purchased from the bank on the proposed factory estate. The group moved in in February 1998 with the owner of the machine shop building a new factory on the adjacent plot. EIS Group plc was itself subsequently subject to acquisition, ultimately by Smiths Group plc which wanted the aviation companies which EIS owned. As Smiths did not want the various machinery companies, both Barwell and others, these were sold off to a private entrepreneur, with the Barwell group eventually being re-acquired by its own directors. However the market for the group’s products was shrinking and sales and margins ever more difficult to achieve over the next decade. Further finance was obtained by a ‘sale and leaseback’ arrangement for the new building.
The move of the manufacturing base to China enabled the group to move to much smaller premises and shed many of the manufacturing staff but in 2008, following the accidental death of the Managing Director, the group was put into administration, with the assets obtained by the Chinese group that was already making the machines.
A new phoenix company was formed, Barwell Global Limited, and at the time of writing (2014) still forms the design, sales, and service arm of the new operation. Information about the existing company can be found at www.barwell.com
Sources of Information
- RW 2014/10/29