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British Industrial History

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William Beardmore by William S. Murphy

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Note: This is a sub-section of William Beardmore

From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


PARKHEAD FORCE employs over 3000 men, but they are not the principal workers there. The greater part of the work is done by gigantic machines, huge monsters built of iron and steel, controlled by levers, moved by wire cable, or steel chains, weighing many tons, and standing so broad and high as to make the men who rule them appear like pigmies perched in the lap of a giant. The operations of the forge are many, and its products various; over an area of thirty acres, workshop, foundry, furnace extend in long ranges of brick buildings or steel-framed sheds; but the root and source of this many-branched industry is the ingot or block of steel. The ingot is a square block of metal, weighing in some instances twenty tons, and from this mass it is the business of the forge-worker to evolve armour plates, bridge beams, engine rods, pistons, propeller shafts, boiler plates.

Almost in the heart of the works are the furnaces, near which stand huge stacks of pig iron on the one side and on the other piled ranges of Swedish iron, ready to be cast into the smelting heat. The centre furnaces number fourteen, producing weekly 3000 tons of steel, belching forth at intervals rivers of blazing metal, veritable streams of molten light, rushing with a force that seems irresistible, yet quietly caught in mould or ladle and cooled for further manipulation. Here the dramatic play of human intellect versus the elements of nature is seen at its highest. Formidable fire bursts forth in tragic fury, which, uncontrolled, would devastate a city, and led through appropriate channels reaches the appointed haven harmless and useful. Small ingots weighing about a ton are hurried, red and fiery, to the plate-rolling machines and laid under heavy rollers which press them broad and broader, longer and longer, working them forward and backward till the glowing steel — no more a square block, but a flat sheet — is hurled out on to the workshop floor, ready to be utilised as a boiler plate. Larger ingots go under huge hydraulic presses that squeeze them into waggon axle tree, engine shaft, piston, or what not. The great steam hammer, capable of striking a blow of 500 tons, thunders down on the glowing metal held by chains to the anvil beneath, and shapes the stubborn steel into the form desired. A mighty hammer this, of imposing appearance and terrible in action. Yet Parkhead Forge has a worker compared with which that hammer is as a Titan to a giant. This is the hydraulic press, used chiefly for the forging of armour plates, exerting a pressure of 2,000 tons. The principle of its construction is not unlike that of the steam hammer, two towers of steel supporting a solid steel shaft, which, receiving the hydraulic pressure from overhead, conducts it to the base. The engine which pumps the water pressure on to the press is 500 H.P. Under this huge press go the vast blocks of steel which, having been brought to welding-heat in the furnaces near at hand, are slowly wrought out into plates, measuring, on the average, 20 ft. by 8 ft. 8 in. thick. Those plates are the clothing and panoply in which our great battleships go out to meet the foe.

When they leave the press the armour plates are by no means ready for the ships. Some have to be bent round to form gun-turrets, some bent at right angles for shell-proof coverings, others slightly curved to fit the tapering hull, and all have to be cut, planed, bored, pierced like so many wooden boards. The machines which perform those operations stand in mammoth rows in a hall 430 ft. long by 70 broad, the monstrous slabs of steel creeping slowly in and out beneath grinding planes and cutters, drills and knives, driven by a pressure that makes, the very earth vibrate. Nor are armour plates the only products being wrought in this arena of mammoths. Here a propeller shaft 70 ft. long is smoothed and bored, and there a great cylinder is being hollowed out of a solid pillar of steel. All through the works the men move from point to point, from act to act with precision, dexterity, and disciplined order like an army in action. It is interesting to watch those companies of well-drilled soldiers of industry. You hear the roar of an opened furnace and see the waterfall of molten steel. Instantly a gang of workmen appear, and when the fiery stream has ceased to flow the huge ladle is dexterously drawn along under the overhead crane, attached to the crane hook and swung to where the open mould waits to be filled. At a signal the liquid steel is released and poured into the mould. One little slip, the failure of a single man to act in unison with his fellows, and the operation, so simple and so easy looking, had been a disastrous catastrophe. In every department the same discipline and well-directed activity appear, Though dwarfed in size beside the monsters they guide and control, here, as everywhere in industry, the men are the masters; the human spirit rules the powers of nature and bids them obey. By his skill and gift man calls into being monsters of matchless power, bids iron break iron, and steel cut steel, compels water to bear ponderous burdens, rouses fire to furious heat in his service.

Parkhead Forge, however, is not an exhibition specially got up for the purpose of demonstrating the might of man, not an arena where the gladiators, man and metal, struggle for the plaudits of a crowded circus, nor even, to descend to the probable, a place the merits of which can be conveyed by abstract and poetic reflections. It is a business carried on for purely practical purposes, developed by the energy, skill, and intelligence of those who conduct it. How old the forge may be, the record sayeth not. Perhaps on some spot in the vast area a little smithy stood, the sole occupant a brawny blacksmith, who plied bellows and sledge-hammer to shape the glowing iron into horseshoe or ploughshare. Be that as it may, the forge began to have a history when it came into the possession of Mr. Robert Napier, the famous shipbuilder. With a view to utilising the forge for his own business, Mr. Napier gave it into the hands of his son-in-law, Mr. Rigby, though leaving the latter gentleman absolutely free to develop the business as he pleased. Mr. Rigby invited Mr. William Beardmore (father of the present head of the firm), then an engineer in London, to become his partner. About a year after the partnership was consummated, Mr. Rigby died, leaving Mr. William Beardmore sole director of the concern. Under the London engineer's able control Parkhead Forge flourished and grew, adding furnace to furnace, shed to shed, workshop to workshop, sending its products all over the civilised world, employing a staff of 1200 workmen and extending over an area of thirty acres.

Mr. William Beardmore, the sole owner of the firm, was born in London, but his early years were spent in Scotland. Educated at Glasgow High School and Ayr Academy, he entered Parkhead Forge at the age of fourteen, and thus early began his apprenticeship for the government of the great industry. Mr. Beardmore's training was rigorous; he had to take his share of the labour in every department while learning his craft. Conscious that his school career had been too short for culture, and inadequate to fit him for coping with the problems his position in modern industry would require him to solve, with a humility and practical sense admirable in a high-spirited youth he attended the evening classes of Anderson's College, taking special delight in mathematics and practical chemistry. For further technical equipment Mr. Beardmore went to London, and for two and a half years attended the South Kensington School of Mines, studying metallurgy, chemistry, and cognate branches of science. Those preliminaries over, the young ironworker returned to his duties at Parkhead, acting as assistant, till in 1886 he succeeded to headship of the forge. So simple a life story might be the record of many men destined to occupy humble spheres of action; but developed within it was a spirit whose activity and energy seem untiring.

In 1886 the forge was chiefly employed on ship and general work; but Mr. Beardmore ventured to believe that Sheffield was not the only place in Great Britain where armour plates could be forged. Devising a patent process of his own, setting. up plant and appliances suited for the work, he boldly undertook the making of armour plates. Success rewarded his adventure. He has clad cruisers, destroyers, and battleships for the British Admiralty, the navies of Holland, Italy, and Japan. The Cressy issued forth panoplied by Parkhead Forge; the Aboukir and other great fighting machines built and being built derive their protecting armour from the Glasgow workman's hands. Not for fighting alone does the Parkhead forgeman devise new machines and enter fresh fields. Waggon tyres, steamship propellers, engine shafts, cylinders-to each he gives the attention of an alert intelligence, devises improvement either in the process of making or in the product, and obtains the market. The turnover of Parkhead Forge amounts to over one million pounds sterling in value, and year by year further surpasses that huge total. The works have lately been extended. Within the crowded area of thirty acres, additional furnaces have been built, and sheds run up that roofed over all the available space. Further developments arise which required more ground, and in view of this Mr. Beardmore acquired twelve acres to the east of the forge.

Employing close on 4000 men, Mr. Beardmore is deeply interested in working-class questions. He harbours no prejudice. The latest Workmen's Compensation Act he considers a good measure, only requiring amendment in the interests of the recipients of compensation, and accepts as just the principle that an industry should bear the cost of whatever loss of life or limb may be incurred in its conduct Technical education is, in Mr. Beardmore's opinion, a "sine qua non" of modern industry. He is a member of the Institute of Naval Architects, Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Iron and Steel Institute, and Institution of Shipbuilders and Engineers in Scotland. A tall, soldierly looking man, in the full prime of life, he has all the aspect of a commander of men. He is inspired with the true captain's pride in the prowess of his soldiers, and it is with no martinet's eye he watches them at work, but rather with a keen appreciation of their dexterity and intelligence. Mr. Beardmore has a herculean task, but in the midst of the rush and bustle of business he keeps the dignity and courtesy of the gentleman.

We have further to record a dramatic fact. Mr. Beardmore's firm has acquired the shipbuilding and engineering business of R. Napier and Sons, Govan and Lancefield, and has thus brought about one of those remarkable coincidences which sometimes occur in business. As already mentioned, Mr. Robert Napier, the famous shipbuilder, acquired Parkhead Forge in its early days; and now the business which he founded has become associated with it as the shipbuilding branch of the once great concern. This shipbuilding and engineering branch is still carried on at Govan and Lancefield, but Mr. Beardmore has purchased ground at Dalmuir - over seventy acres — to which it will ultimately be transferred. In this new yard and engine works everything will be of the most modern design, and the dimensions such that the largest battleships, cruisers, and modern mail steamers will be easily undertaken.

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