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.

The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter XXII

From Graces Guide



Whilst steam as a prime mover in all industrial operations owes its origin to British talent and energy, electricity as a motive power cannot be said to have been a British home-created industry. Electrical projects were at the outset regarded with suspicion by British engineers. They could not accept the possibility of practical rivalry between electricity and steam. The study of electricity was, in consequence, neglected, and its development for industrial and lighting purposes left to the United States, France and Germany. Such interest as was taken in this country in electrical matters forty years ago was mostly confined to speculation in the shares of what was called "Father Brush" and other companies formed for the purpose of exploiting lighting inventions. Most of them came to nothing.

Electricians, however, forged ahead elsewhere, and electric railways were actually running on the continent of Europe before British engineers had come to regard electrical traction as a practical proposition. The first British railway to adopt electrical traction was the Metropolitan. Before a decision was arrived at to abandon steam, the late Thomas Parker, the technical adviser of the line, accompanied by the present writer, visited Italy and Switzerland to observe the working of electric railways in those countries. The public then urgently demanded a faster and more frequent service of trains in better atmospheric conditions. When the railway company was prepared to make this change, British firms of engineers were ready to turn their hand to the work of equipping the line. Contracts, however, were entered into and carried out without the help of American or German engineers. Since those days British mechanical engineers have bestirred themselves to such an extent that the country is now covered with a vast number of small and large firms engaged in the production of electrical apparatus of every kind. But there are among these four outstanding companies who are practically at the head of the heavy engineering work connected with electricity, and who also produce small parts on a very large scale. There is hardly an electric power station in Great Britain whose huge and elaborate machinery has not been made by one or other of these great firms.

The electrical companies referred to are the British Thomson-Houston Co, the General Electric Co of England, the English Electric Co and the Metropolitan-Vickers Company. These are regarded in the trade as the "Big Four." The magnitude of the business which these great Companies operate is illustrated by the statistical figures for the year 1925. Great Britain alone spent £57,000,000 on electrical goods, a figure, by the way, less than that spent in Germany — viz. £90,000,000 - and vastly smaller than the £279,000,000 spent in the United States. The total world expenditure, for that year, omitting India and China, was £556,000,000. The value of the exports from Great Britain was £17,500,000 in 1925, as compared with £16,000,000 from the United States and £16,000,000 from Germany. Great Britain secured 35 per cent. of the world exports, as compared with 31.8 per cent from Germany and 33 per cent from the United States. Nevertheless Great Britain imported in that year £5,179,000 worth of these goods. But she is still the leading exporting supplier of heavy electrical plant, though Germany at present controls the European market.

The capital required for the production of electrical machinery and apparatus at the present day is enormous. Many contracts amount to well over £1,000,000, and even moderate-sized installations run up to several hundred thousand pounds. It is obvious, therefore, that large financial resources are requisite. The magnitude of the units produced has been greatly increased in recent years. A few years ago a steam turbo-alternator set of 10,000 kilowatts was considered the limit of manufacturing design; but now turbo-alternators of 30,000 kilowatts are constructed to run at a speed of 3,300 revolutions per minute. Generating sets of 50,000 kilowatts designed to run at lower speeds have been constructed. Sets of 100,000 kilowatts have been ordered, and this figure will be largely exceeded, inasmuch as overhead main transmission lines are now operating in several countries at 220,000 volts, and the tendency is to greatly increase this pressure. The fuel economy arrived at since recent generating developments have been established is such that, while ten years ago it required 2.25 lb. of coal to generate one unit of electricity, today 1 lb. of coal will produce the same result. These figures show that only a few firms, such as those above mentioned, can handle effectively the immense turbo-alternators and the control and transmission apparatus demanded for world supply. Indeed, there are not more than thirty firms in existence anywhere who can deal with these high powers.

Though mostly competing with one another, the "Big Four" do occasionally co-operate; sometimes all four together and sometimes two or three against the fourth, according to circumstances. But apparently, as in the case of so many other British steel and engineering firms, they all agree in undercutting each other when quoting prices for contracts abroad. Every large city in the Empire, South America, China and Japan has four fully equipped British selling organisations in competition, while the German is working at lower selling costs with a unified selling organisation a quarter of the size in Berlin. If sales and production were co-ordinated, British firms could supply the British and the foreign consumer at lower prices and beat back German competition while increasing their own profits for dividends.

But such is the zeal of the Works Manager that these new, wide-awake industries follow in the footsteps of the Sheffield and Cleveland steel-makers, let the sales take charge of the works department, and chase each other in rivalry down the hill — an interesting if not a profitable occupation. The British electrical companies, like the Sheffield steel-makers, suffer also from wasteful competition due to so many firms making the same products. Where the demand is large enough for each competitor to manufacture on an efficient production basis, no great harm is done, but when the quantities required are small, each manufacturer injures the industry as a whole, whilst doing himself no good.


The business now carried on by the General Electric Co began in a small office in the City in 1889, where Mr. Hugo Hirst and his partner, Mr. Gustaf Byng, established a reputation for supplying lamp-holders and small electrical fitments. Mr., now Sir Hugo Hirst, saw the possibilities of an electrical Selfridge's, and for years conducted an emporium for every conceivable kind of electrical fitting, none of which he manufactured. He bought the Pope Carbon Lamp Co, and from that moment his success was assured. The firm was registered as a Company in 1900. His world patents on lamps have been unassailable, and this has enabled international arrangements to operate which gave, even in free-trade countries, stronger protection to the home manufacturer than any tariff could have done, while in America and Germany the position was equally strong. The policy of granting licences with a limited output stifled public criticism as to the price of lamps, and to-day the General Electric Co. is financially one of the strongest. War profits and further international lamp arrangements put it into such a position that by the purchase of one or two small companies such as the Fraser and Chalmers Turbine Co, it was able to attack at very low prices the markets in heavy types of plant.

The firms with which the General Electric Co. is associated are: Pirelli-General Cable Works, the Osram Lamp Works, Chamberlain and Hookham, Express Lift Co, M-O. Valve Co, and Electricity Supply Companies at Frinton and Macclesfield.

It has works at Manchester, Coventry, Witton near Birmingham and Erith. The share capital of the Company is now £6,000,000, with a Mortgage Debenture Stock of over £3,000,000. Sir Hugo Hirst is Chairman, and among the Directors are Sir Newton Moore, K.C.M.G., M.P., and Sir William Noble.


The British Thomson-Houston Co is really the General Electrical Co. of America established in England. It was registered in 1896. It has the use of all the American patents and the experience of the parent company, and makes every form of heavy plant, together with electric lamps, etc. Its earliest efforts were to force on the English market plant of American design. This did not produce good financial results. In later years, however, the Company modified its American designs, and in some cases entirely re-designed apparatus suited to the British and Colonial markets. This judicious combination of American and English experience has resulted in a first-class product. The share capital is £3,500,000 paid up, with over £1,500,000 Debenture Stock. The Chairman is Mr. H. C. Levis, and the Rt. Hon. Earl Buxton and Lord Carmichael are among the Directors. The works at Rugby, Birmingham, Coventry and Willesden employ at least 12,000 hands. At the main works at Rugby are made turbo plant, heavy machinery, electric traction equipments and lighting and radio material. At Birmingham the firm makes electric motors, at Coventry radio apparatus and fractional horse-power motors, and at Willesden switch gear.


What is now the Metropolitan Vickers Co was established in 1899 by the Westinghouse Co. of America under the name of the British Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. Its authorised share capital has been twice written down and again increased, and now stands at £6,395,000, with Debentures of more than £1,000,000. The Westinghouse interest was purchased in 1919 by the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co, through Mr. F. Dudley Docker, C.B., and the name was changed to the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Co. It is known among other things for the electric locomotives used on the Metropolitan and other railways, and for the large-scale power plants erected in various localities. It has also pushed into the electric fittings business.

The Chairman is Sir Philip Nash, K.C.M.G., and among the Directors are Sir Vincent Caillard, Mr. Douglas Vickers and Lord Wargrave. The Works are at Trafford Park, Manchester. The Company is controlled by the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co and the Vickers Co.

English Electric Co

The English Electric Co is an amalgamation since the War of Willans and Robinson of Rugby, Siemens of Stafford, Phoenix Works of Bradford, Dick, Kerr and Co of Preston and Coventry and the Coventry Ordnance Works. Its business is chiefly in heavy electrical machinery, rolling-stock and machine tools. Its oil engines and other heavy mechanical appliances bring it into competition with certain of the purely mechanical concerns. It differs from the British Thomson-Houston Co., and is similar to the English General Electric, in so far as it originates its own designs and is independent of any foreign control. It loses, of course, the advantage of having at its disposal the designs of great undertakings like the General Electric of America or the Westinghouse Co. of America, but it gains on the other hand by having a free market in every part of the world without territorial restriction. The works originally belonging to Dick, Kerr and Co of Preston have been brought thoroughly up to date, and are divided into two factories. In one, motors and control gear are made, and in the other trucks and car bodies are constructed and assembled. The factory as a whole turns out electrical passenger locomotives and rolling-stock of all classes, industrial locomotives, tramcars, railless cars and motorbus bodies.

Naturally a very large proportion of the output is for foreign countries. A special feature is the Traction Research Department, complete with a fully-equipped test track in several gauges, enabling running tests to be made under service conditions. The Siemens and English Electrical Lamp Co. occupies adjacent works, where all types of lamps and lighting supplies are made, employing 800 men. The entire capital of the Coventry Ordnance Works is held by the English Electric Co. The Coventry Ordnance Works, a Company which, since the War has been put into voluntary liquidation, was founded with Col. Manson (now Col. Sir W. I. Manson, K.B.E.), as Chairman, and Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, K.C.B., as Managing Director, to compete with the Vickers and Armstrong Companies in the manufacture of heavy naval guns and gun mountings, heavy and field howitzers, field equipments and other types of ordnance. Its works employed during the War many thousands of hands. John Brown and Co and Cammell, Laird and Co of Sheffield controlled the concern jointly. Consequently about 40 per cent of the Ordinary and Preferred Share capital of the English Electric Co., which amounts to £2,647,000 paid up, with a Debenture debt of £2,180,916, a large part of which was taken over from the Coventry Ordnance Works, is held by the two Sheffield firms. The Prudential Assurance Co. is a large shareholder. The Chairman who last year succeeded Sir Charles Ellis, K.C.B., is Mr. P. J. Pybus, C.B.E. Among the Directors are Mr. W. L. Hichens, Sir J. Aspinall, Sir A. Gracie, K.B.E., Lt.-Col. Sir J. H. Mansell, K.B.E., and Lord Meston, K.C.G.I.

There is amongst the four big concerns a large amount of common ground as regards their manufacture. All make turbo-generators, rotary converters and heavy electric plant of all kinds, including motors for every class of industrial drive. The electric railways, tramways, electric power and lighting stations in Great Britain, as well as factories and workshops running by electricity, all bear evidence to the enterprise and wide range of these firms.

Brush Electrical Machines

The Brush Electrical Engineering Co dates back to 1879, when, as the Anglo-American Brush Electric Light Corporation, it was established in Lambeth for the manufacture of the dynamo and arc lamp invented by C. F. Brush of Cleveland, U.S.A., and the other equipment necessary for electric-lighting installation. In spite of the extreme difficulties of the electrical industry in those pioneer days, the concern grew in importance, and, as increased manufacturing facilities became an urgent need, the Falcon Works at Loughborough were acquired, and in 1889 the Company adopted its present title. Since then its business has expanded, until at the present day it holds an important position in the electrical industry as manufacturers of the well-known Brush Ljungstrom turbo alternators, transformers, motors and generators of all kinds, railway and tramway rolling-stock and motor-bus bodies.

The Falcon Works to-day cover an area of 33 acres. The number of employees is about 1,700. The issued capital of the Company consists of £458,563 in Ordinary Shares. The Debentures outstanding amount to about £300,000. The Chairman is Mr. E. Garcke, who has for many years taken a leading part in the practical as well as the theoretical side of electric science. Mr. W. Johnstone is Managing Director, and on the Board is the Rt. Hon. Lord Vaux of Harrowden.

Associated Companies

In connection with the electrical industry there are fifteen makers of insulated cables, twelve of whom are in an association for maintaining prices. The other three tender at lower prices. The total output of the trade is very large.

Heavy electrical switch-gear is manufactured by Reyrolle and Co, dynamo electrical machinery by Crompton and Co, Bruce Peebles and Co, the Lancashire Dynamo and Motor Co, Electro Motors, and F. and A. Parkinson. These firms are carrying out very much the same class of work as the "Big Four," and are well known by all buyers of electrical plant. The British Electric Transformer Co is at the head of the transformer trade, while the great firm of C. A. Parsons and Co, more particularly referred to in Chapter XI, has a close association with British electric engineering. The Parsons turbines are essential in the machinery turned out by the electric engineers, and they all work intimately with this outstanding Tyneside firm.

In motor control gear the firms of Allen West and Co, the Electrical Apparatus Co, of Vauxhall, the Brookhirst Switchgear, George Ellison, and Igranic Electric Co take a leading place. Electrical instruments are made by Nalder Brothers and Thompson, Elliott Brothers, Evershed and Vignoles, Everett, Edgcumbe and Co, Ferranti and Electrical Apparatus Co. Probably there are at least one hundred other firms of a really important class engaged in these branches of the industry. There is naturally a good deal of unnecessary and wasteful competition in the trade, and the lesser firms complain that their business, with no real advantage to the consumer, is trenched upon by the larger firms, whose energies it is contended would be better employed in heavy work, leaving to minor houses the manufacture of smaller components in which many firms specialise.

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