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British Industrial History

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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter XXIII

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Nothing illustrates the importance of local conditions in the engineering trades more forcibly than the rise and fall of the shipbuilding and engineering works on the River Thames. In the Victorian period some of the principal British shipbuilders and engineers were running prosperous businesses at various points below London Bridge. Their names were better known than most of the North Country firms to whom reference has been made in preceding pages. Economic conditions in the present generation, however, have forced them out of existence. It is cheaper to use steel, iron and coal where it is produced than to bring it hundreds of miles by rail or water to the seat of manufacture. The skilled workman also prefers as a rule to live in that district where a great variety of work is carried on and where the conditions point to more constant employment and higher wages.

The result of the growth of these industries in the North was to deprive the Thames of its pre-eminence. Of all the great firms which flourished fifty or sixty years ago, hardly any, except Gwynne and Co of Hammersmith, whose capital account is being reconstructed, remain, unless they have migrated to some more suitable spot. The old Blackwall shipyard dated back to 1612, and was probably the longest-lived in this country. It was the cradle of the Orient Line, which was formed forty years ago, by the union of the two firms of Green and Anderson. Green's Line was founded 115 years ago, and the Anderson firm dated back to 1797. Humphreys Tennant and Co of Deptford was formed in 1852, and no longer exists. The Sun Ironworks at Millwall, formed in 1855, have vanished. Mare's Works at Blackwall were closed in 1857. The great Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co of Canning Town, which built in 1859 our first ironclad, the Warrior, and many of our finest warships in the early iron shipbuilding days, has also vanished, after completing the battleship Thunderer in 1911 and after a long struggle in the House of Commons for special terms from the Admiralty to enable it to continue its existence. Arnold Hills, a remarkable man, was Chairman of the Company, and, though a cripple for nearly all his life, took an active part in its management, and manfully faced a hopeless battle against economic facts in favour of Thames shipbuilding. This firm had acquired the well-known business of John Penn and Sons of Greenwich and Deptford, which also has consequently ceased to exist. John Penn, M.P., was the last Chairman of the firm, which had been founded by his grandfather, a millwright of remarkable gifts, and probably the leading marine engineer of his time. The Penn firm made most of the gunboat engines used in the Crimean War. Maudsley, Son and Field of Lambeth, one of the principal engineering firms of that century, founded in 1810, was closed down in 1900. The firm of Samuda Brothers, of Poplar, noted for warship building, was formed in 1832, and has since disappeared. The firm of Scott Russell and Robinson of Millwall was closed down in 1852, but the yard was taken afterwards by Scott Russell for the construction of the Great Eastern, the largest ship ever designed at that period. She was regarded in her day as one of the wonders of the world. This vessel failed to make good on the North Atlantic Service as a passenger vessel, but was afterwards used, and with success, for the laying of submarine cables.

A group of firms originating on the Thames have migrated elsewhere. J. I. Thornycroft and Co, formed in 1873 at Chiswick, has gone to Southampton. This firm is distinguished for fast boats, submarines, destroyers and private yachts. It is now building the destroyer Amazon. This and her sister ship, Ambuscade, recently completed by the Yarrow yard, are the first destroyers built since the War. These boats have a speed of 27 knots. Yarrow and Co, now amongst our best-known builders of fast vessels, left the Isle of Dogs after building the Poplar Works in 1901, and migrated to Scotstoun on the Clyde in 1906, where rates and wages are lower. Peter Brotherhood has migrated from Lambeth to Peterborough, where the firm has important works. Willans and Robinson left Thames Ditton for Rugby, where it established large works afterwards leased to the English Electric Co, which now controls this plant. J. Simpson and Co migrated to Newark in 1924, and is now known as Worthington-Simpson. A. Ransome and Co left Chelsea for Newark-on-Trent in 1901. J. and G. Rennie moved to Wivenhoe in 1912, and is now known as the Rennie Forrest Shipbuilding and Dry Docks Co. Alexander Wilson and Co of Wandsworth was absorbed by the Vauxhall Ironworks Co, and this firm left London for Luton in 1905. Bryan Donkin and Co of Bermondsey is now established at Chesterfield. Even Woolwich Dockyard, of historic fame, has ceased its connection with the Admiralty, whose requirements are met more cheaply, and perhaps more efficiently, by the great firms in the North. Woolwich Arsenal, however, flourishes as of yore. In its shops are bored, turned and finished the heavy gun forgings for our ships which are made in Darlington or other steel works in the North. Here are produced the field guns and artillery equipment for the land Services as well as lighter guns for the Navy. All ordnance repair work is done at the Arsenal. "The Shop" is the training school for gunners and sappers alike. Then there are the busy works of Siemens Brothers, also at Woolwich, and the Port of London Authority has created in connection with its docks large groups of workshops for the repair of vessels entering the Thames. These are now under the management of Harland and Wolff of Belfast. As in other large commercial centres, the Thames still demands engineering works large and small of every class for local requirements.

If the old and well-known shipbuilding and engineering establishments on the River Thames have vanished through the pressure of economic conditions, the industries of those who have maintained an independent existence have been continued on a much larger scale in the localities to which they have migrated. The workmen have, no doubt, in many cases followed their employers. But the great engineering shops of the railway companies which have been established by the companies themselves for supplying forgings, castings, steel rails, locomotives, electric machinery and all kinds of railway material have far more than filled the gap in our industries caused by the flight from the Thames. Although these railway works do no outside trade, and merely supply the companies to which they belong, they cover so wide an area that they cannot be omitted from this survey of our engineering plants.

Crewe Works

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Co. owns the Crewe Works, covering 143 acres, 52 of which are roofed in, and employing over 8,000 men. They are probably the largest and most celebrated works of the kind in the world, although Baldwin's in Pennsylvania may in some respects surpass them. These alone of the British railway works roll the steel rails forming the standard permanent way of the Company.

Horwich Works

The Horwich Works, formerly belonging to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Co., erected in i886, cover 116 acres, 17 under roof, and employ nearly 4,000 hands.

Derby Works

The Derby Works, which were founded by the Midland Railway Co., occupy 80 acres and employ 4,500 men. In addition to these great workshops, now part of the same capitalisation, the carriage and wagon works at Derby occupy 188 acres, 38 under roof, and employ 5,600 men.

Other LMSR Works

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Co. now owns also, as part of its amalgamated undertaking, carriage and wagon works at Wolverton, Earlstown, Newton Heath, Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, Barrow-in-Furness, Kilmarnock and Perth. At Glasgow and Kilmarnock its shops also undertake locomotive work.

LNER Works

The London and North-Eastern Railway Co., since its absorption of so many other lines, owns locomotive works at Darlington and Gateshead in Durham, Gorton near Manchester, Stratford in Essex, Doncaster and Glasgow, besides carriage and wagon works at York, Dukinfield, Temple Mills and other places. It employs in these works 25,500 men.

Swindon Works

The Great Western Railway Co. owns at Swindon, so to speak within a ringed fence, the most extensive collection of railway works in the world. They occupy an area of 309 acres, 65 under roof, and in normal times they employ 13,000 hands. These works are in addition to those at Wolverhampton and at Caerphilly and to the extensive repair shops belonging to the Companies amalgamated with the Great Western under the Act of 1921. In the South Wales area 4,400 men are employed.


The Southern Railway employs 13,000 shop men. Its western section has its locomotive works at Eastleigh, opened in 1911 in place of the old works at Nine Elms. In the central section its locomotive works adjoin the Brighton Central Station, and it has works at Lancing and elsewhere for steamboat repairs at Newhaven. The eastern section of this system has its works at Ashford in Kent, besides shops in London and at Exeter and Croydon.

The Metropolitan Railway Co. and the Underground Railway Co. of London have their locomotive repair works at Neasden, Ealing and Acton, respectively.

It is now too late to discuss the general policy of the railway companies in the Victorian period as to the erection of these great engineering works. No doubt for ordinary maintenance and repairs a great outlay was necessary, but it is generally agreed that the construction of locomotives, and probably of rolling-stock, and certainly the rolling of steel rails, have been a financial mistake from the beginning. All these products could have been bought outside at less than it has cost the railway companies to make them. It would be interesting to see audited figures, including overhead charges, debenture interest, depreciation and the like, relating to these construction works. They would probably compare very unfavourably with those of outside manufacturing firms.

Dotted up and down the country are many busy and efficient engineering works, shops not only fitted for repairs, but engaged in the production of special machinery required by the leading trade of the town in which they are situated. In Leicester are firms such as the Standard Engineering Co, of which Mr. Frank Pochin is Chairman, turning out shoe-making machines for the town and district. In Nottingham are firms producing lace- and hosiery-making machinery. These are typical of their class, and are not only useful, but necessary and well-managed. In Derby there is Haslam's Foundry and Engineering Co, which has built up a great trade in refrigerating machinery under the chairmanship of the late Sir Alfred Haslam, M.P. In Chesterfield the Chesterfield Tube Co holds a leading place, as well as the Plowright firm, which has built a very large number of the screening plants used in the Midland and other collieries.

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