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British Industrial History

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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter XXI

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Of all the limited companies originating from, and connected with, the South Staffordshire and Birmingham district, the firm of Guest Keen and Nettlefolds is the largest. Its name is the result of the amalgamation in 1902, of two old businesses, each of which had previously absorbed other smaller firms trading on similar lines. The first firm was Guest Keen and Co. It was registered in 1900 on the amalgamation of Guest and Co with the Patent Nut and Bolt Co, and carried on a large business in pig iron, heavy steel materials, ship and boiler plates, steel rails and bolts and nuts, having besides considerable colliery interests. At the Dowlais Ironworks of the Guest firm in the year 1865 the first Bessemer acid steel rails were rolled in this country, but some of the Welsh works under its control date back to 1758 and 1800. The other firm was Nettlefolds, which has passed through many phases. Founded in 1854, it became Nettlefold and Chamberlain, absorbing during the period to 1874 many smaller firms. In 1874 it became Nettlefolds, and it is interesting as being the business with which the Chamberlain family, which has produced so many statesmen, has been long connected.

More recently the united firm has secured controlling interests in John Lysaght of Bristol, Joseph Sankey and Sons of Bilston, Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss of Wolverhampton, and four firms at Darlaston making bolts and nuts, besides other local industries. In South Wales the Meiros Collieries, the Consolidated Cambrian Co and the Gwaun Cae Gurwen Colliery Co of Swansea, as well as the great exporting firm of L. Gueret and Co. of Cardiff; have all come under the firm's control. It owns a large share in the Orconera Mines in Spain and in Tarmac (S. Wales). In this sense it is entirely self-supporting, as it produces its raw material as well as finished products of all kinds. The capital is £15,000,000. The Chairman was Mr. Edward Steer. He has just been succeeded by Lord Buckland, formerly Mr. Berry. Among the Directors the names of Lysaght, Barry and Callaghan are represented.

N. Hingley and Sons

The firm of N. Hingley and Sons was founded near Dudley 100 years ago by Noah Hingley, and was formed into a limited company in 1890, with a capital of £400,000. As owner of collieries, blast furnaces and iron-rolling mills, it produces about 80,000 tons of iron per annum. It is very well known as the largest maker of chain cables, anchors and forgings, in which branch of business it is unrivalled.

W. T. Avery

About 200 years ago the business of W. and T. Avery, makers of weighing, counting and testing machines, was commenced at West Bromwich. Its works are now in Soho, Birmingham. It was incorporated as a public company in 1894, with a paid-up capital of £724,698. Its Chairman is Sir James Fortescue-Flannery, Bart., and it employs 3,000 hands.

Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co

In the construction of railway and tramway rolling-stock, the Birmingham district plays a leading part. The largest rolling-stock company in the kingdom is the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co. This Company has absorbed the Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Co of Openshaw, a very well-known private firm, as well as Brown, Marshalls and Co of Birmingham, the Lancaster Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Co of Saltley, and the Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, whose works lie between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The combination has also acquired the Patent Shaft and Axletree Co, of Wednesbury, with a number of subsidiary steel and engineering works in that district. This amalgamation is remarkable for being created without any watering of capital intended to be placed on the market. No new capital was issued and no inflation took place. The new Company was formed on the basis of throwing the shares of all the component firms, and their reserve funds, together. The total paid-up capital to-day is £10,675,000. There are no debentures. Over 99 per cent. of the share capital is held by Vickers.

Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co

The Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, whose Chairman is Mr. A. R. Windle, O.B.E., has works at Handsworth, with an authorised capital of £1,500,000, of which more than half is issued and paid up. The Midland Railway Carriage and Wagon Co. has works at Birmingham and Shrewsbury. The Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Co., with a share capital of £1,500,000, possesses works at Gloucester, and manufactures railway and road vehicles. The Bristol Wagon and Carriage Co has its centre in Bristol itself. The repairing business of some of these firms has been transferred to a company called Wagon Repairs, referred to below.

Although not in the Birmingham district, there are other Midland carriage-building concerns which may be mentioned here, such as Cravens of Darnall, near Sheffield (which, as also the Leeds Forge Co, is referred to in other chapters), Turners of Langley Mill, Renshaw and Co of Stoke-on-Trent, Stablefords of Coalville, and Charles Roberts and Co of Wakefield. These are wagon-builders and makers of pressed wheels and steel railway wagons, together with material of different kinds used in the construction of railways and railway plant, but they are all buyers of bar iron, tyres, axles, and rolled and pressed material from the heavy steel-makers of Sheffield, as well as from Leeds and the Birmingham and Wolverhampton districts.


The Birmingham Small Arms Co was founded in 1861 by the principal gunsmiths of Birmingham, who, in order to compete with the Government plant at Enfield, established a small-arms factory of their own. For the first nineteen years of its existence, from 1861 to 1880, the B.S.A., as it is usually called, was fully and exclusively occupied with orders for military arms. In the latter year, however, this trade decreased to such a point that the directors turned their attention to the field of cycle manufacture. Between 1880 and 1887 the Company made a variety of cycles, but from 1887 to 1893 the works were again exclusively occupied with small arms. In the latter year their manufacture returned to cycle components, and from 1908 onwards to cycles, motor cycles and motor-cars.

The following firms are now controlled by the Company—

In Birmingham: B.S.A. Cycles, B.S.A. Tools, B.S.A. Guns, B.S.A. Radio. In Coventry: Daimler. In Sheffield: William Jessop and Sons, J. J. Saville and Co, British Abrasive Wheel Co In London: Daimler Hire, Associated Daimler Co., Burton Griffiths and Co.

The Chairman is Sir H. Rogers, and Sir Edward Manville is Deputy-Chairman. The Company's issued capital consists of 2,815,172 Ordinary and 350,580 Preference Shares of £1 each, and a debt secured by Notes amounting to 42,500,000.


The business of Tangyes, was started at Mount Street, Birmingham, in March 1857, by the brothers James, Joseph and Richard Tangye, under the title of James Tangye and Bros. In 1859, two other brothers, Edward and George, with George Price, joined the firm. Their principal manufactures were hydraulic appliances. In 1861 the patent of the Differential Pulley Block was acquired, and in 1862 James Tangye invented the Tangye Patent Hydraulic Jack. The manufacture of these two inventions fully occupied the works, which went in 1864 to the present site in Soho, Birmingham. In 1867 the patent for a new type of Direct-acting Steam Pump was acquired, and in 1870 the firm commenced the manufacture of steam engines. In 1872 the two youngest brothers, Richard and George, became sole proprietors.

In 1881 the first gas engine, a I-n.h.p. two-cycle type, was sold. In 1890 the firm commenced the manufacture of the four-cycle gas engine, in 1894 of the oil engine, in 1919 of the cold starting type oil engine, and in 1920 of the inter-fuel engine — all of which are well known in connection with the name of Tangye. At the end of 1881 a limited liability company was formed, in which the majority of the shares were held by the Tangye family. After the deaths of Richard and George Tangye in 1906 and 1920, their sons entered the business. Mr. William Tangye is the present Chairman and Managing Director, Sir Lincoln Tangye is Vice-Chairman, and Mr. Harry Tangye and Major Gilbert Tangye are Directors. The Company is a private one, with a capital in Preference and Ordinary Shares of £525,000.


The works of the Austin Motor Co were founded in 1905 at Longbridge, Birmingham, by Sir Herbert Austin, as a private Company, with himself, Capt. Frank Kayser and Mr. Harvey Du Cros as Directors. At that time the works covered 2.5 acres, employed about 270 men, and had an annual output of 120 cars. Rapid extensions took place in 1910 and 1912, and in 1914 the firm was converted into a public company. During the War further large extensions took place, and no fewer than 22,000 workpeople were engaged upon munitions, armoured cars, aeroplanes, lorries, 4.5 in. howitzer guns and other munitions. The aftermath of the War, however, and the collapse of trade in 1920, caused the firm many troubles and great losses. The capital of the Company and the Board were reconstructed in the early part of 1922, but Sir Herbert Austin, K.B.E., remained Chairman and Mr. Harvey Du Cros a Director. Since then the Company has shown satisfactory progress, and is now in a sound position, with a paid-up share capital of £3,350,000. The works cover an area of 62 acres. There are over 8,000 workers employed.

James Archdale and Co

In the year 1875 the late James Archdale, then connected with the firm of Tangyes in their machine tool works, founded the firm of James Archdale and Co, which specialises in making precision lathes and other high- class machinery. Prior to the War, nearly every type of medium-weight machine tool was manufactured at its Birmingham works, but at a later period the Company restricted its operations to medium-size drilling and milling machines. New works have been organised at Blackpole in Worcestershire. The registered capital is £130,000.


The organisation which produces the Morris-Oxford and Morris-Cowley cars and Morris - Commercial trucks and vans — among the most remarkable industrial successes of modern times — was founded in 1912 by William Richard Morris as W. R. M. Motors, Ltd., in Oxford. The Company was really a development of the garage business which it still carries on, under the name of Morris Garages, Oxford. The works were housed in an old military college at Cowley, and the original cars were built up from components supplied to suit the firm's requirements.

During 1913, 400 cars were manufactured, but in 1914 the output was interrupted by the War. The firm during the War period manufactured very few cars, but produced a large output of mine sinkers and Stokes trench mortar bombs. At the end of the War motor-car manufacturing was resumed. The output grew rapidly, and in 1923 the firm purchased the works of Hotchkiss et Cie, Coventry, who had been supplying it with engines and gear-boxes since 1920. It acquired also the business of Hollick and Pratt, body-makers, Coventry, and the works of the Osberton Radiator Co of Oxford. In 1924 the firm took over the factory previously occupied by E. G. Wrigley, in Birmingham, and there commenced the manufacture of Morris Ton Trucks and Commercial Vehicles. The present output of the Birmingham factory is about 200 trucks and vans per week. The output of the works at Cowley (referred to in Chapter XXIV) is over 50,000 light cars a year, or one car every three minutes of a working day. This is probably the most striking example of mass production in this country. It is stated that there are 10,000 separate parts in a Morris car. The supplies of these parts have to be so controlled as to enable over 1,000 cars to be produced every week. Thousands of tons of steel and of malleable iron, hundreds of thousands of forgings and castings, acres of plate glass and celluloid, millions of bolts and nuts and washers, tens of thousands of miles of insulated copper wire and steel tubing must be dealt with every year, and examined and delivered at the points required in order to keep up this schedule of time. Subdivision of work is the basis of all mass production. The front axle of a car alone involves fifteen special assembly operations. Forty acres of body work for the Morris cars are painted every week.

The success of the Morris car, of which 4,765 were exported in 1924-1925, is partly due to the re-imposition of the McKenna Duties, but chiefly to the fact that it is a reliable and very efficient car for its price, and therefore appeals to the wants of the small car user, who, thanks to the development of suburban dwellings with small garages attached, now considers a light car one of the ordinary necessaries of life. In July 1926 Morris Motors was formed into a public amalgamating company, known as Morris Motors (1926), Ltd., by the issue of 3,000,000 7.5 per cent. Cumulative Preference Shares of £1 each. The whole of the Ordinary Share capital was retained by W. R. Morris. The annual average profits of the organisation during the three years 1923-1925 were £1,034,305.

Walter Somers

One of the largest firms in the steel-forging trade is Walter Somers, which was founded at Haywood Forge in 1866 by the late Walter Somers, and converted into a private limited company in 1895. Mr. Seth S. Somers, the son of the founder, became Chairman in 1917. The works cover an area of nearly 15 acres, and comprise machine shops and forges. These are equipped with twelve steam hammers, ranging up to 12 tons, and seven hydraulic presses ranging up to 3,600 tons, which enable the firm to deal with forgings up to 200 tons in weight. Its machine tools are capable of dealing with the heaviest forgings, including shafts up to 120 ft. in length. A Heat Treatment Department and Laboratory enable the firm to turn out forgings for turbines and electrical machinery.

Wagon Repairs

Wagon Repairs has its headquarters in Birmingham. It was founded to acquire the wagon-repairing business of some well-known wagon-building firms, some of which are referred to above — viz., the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, The British Wagon Co, S. J. Claye, the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, Harrison and Camm, Hurst, Nelson and Co, Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co, the Midland Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, and the North Central Wagon Co. The paid-up Ordinary Share capital is £500,000 and Preference £701,854. The Chairman is Mr. F. Nelson.

Wellman Smith Owen Engineering Corporation

The Wellman Smith Owen Engineering Corporation, with works at Darlaston, was founded in 1919. It is a British engineering company, which owns the majority of the common stock in the American company of the same name associated with the Carnegie Steel Co. of the United States. The capital is £160,000. It contracts for the design, manufacture and installation of steel and other plants connected with the heavy engineering industry. S. D. Wellman, the founder of the American company, invented a tilting open-hearth furnace and many other furnace-charging and handling devices for saving labour and increasing the output of steel works. The Chairman and two of the Directors are also Directors of the American company. There is a strong working connection between the American and English companies, and between the other companies in Germany, Belgium and France. The Company has taken over the firm of Wellman Seaver and Head and the Wellman Seaver Rolling Mill Co, which specialise in machinery and plant for the manufacture of weldless steel tubes, and sundry other special lines of mill work which hitherto have been almost entirely in the hands of Continental firms.

Alfred Herbert

The firm of Alfred Herbert Ltd manufactures machine tools at Coventry. It is the largest firm of machine-tool makers in Europe, and was founded in 1889 by the present sole governing director, Sir Alfred Herbert, K.B.E. It began by building special machines for the cycle industry, then the only branch of engineering in which repetition production was practised, and, by holding to the idea of repetition, the firm extended this method to other branches of engineering. The progress of the motor industry in this country created an immense demand for machine tools; hence the great development of the business. The firm makes coal-pulverising machinery also. The works cover 17 acres and employ 3,000 persons.

Taylor and Challen

Taylor and Challen is a company producing machinery for dealing with sheet metals, including coinage plant, as well as components for bicycles. It was founded in Birmingham in 1849 by Joseph Taylor in a small shop in Brasshouse Passage, and moved at intervals to larger and larger workshops as the business increased. Mr. S. W. Challen joined the firm, now a limited company, in 1875. He is now Chairman. The firm employs 500 hands.

Thomas Smith's Stamping Works

Thomas Smith's Stamping Works is a company formed in 1896 to acquire the business of Thomas Smith, iron and steel stamper. In the earlier days, its outlook was confined to the cycle trade, but with the development of motors the business expanded, and War-time requirements for aircraft, especially drop forgings conforming to Aircraft Specifications, became an important branch of the business. Five large stamp shops are equipped with a complete range of hammers from a few hundredweights up to 5 tons top weight, as well as the most advanced types of steam and friction lifters, steam hammers, friction board hammers, hydraulic presses, horizontal forging machines and a 500-ton steam hydraulic intensifier press. There are Heat-treating and Testing Departments, and a Laboratory on the most modern lines. The company has considerable interests in steel-making plants elsewhere, and possesses its own rolling-mills in the business of J. and W. Marshall and Co, of Walsall, of which it is owner. Baldwins, Ltd., a very large combine of Midland and Welsh firms, is referred to in Chapter XVII.

Conclusion and Summary

The above-mentioned leading companies in the Birmingham region are typical of many others of importance, but not quite of the same wide-reaching character, or so highly capitalised. They illustrate the variety of operations carried on throughout the Staffordshire and Warwickshire area. The magnitude of these operations, as well as the long metallurgical history behind most of these firms, gives to Staffordshire great weight in all matters affecting the iron trade. Indeed, its influence is paramount, and the general relations of employer and employed, as well as the trend of prices, are largely governed by this old but very live trade centre.

It is interesting to record that the iron trade of South Staffordshire was the first to resort to conciliation by means of a representative Wages Board for the settlement of all labour disputes. By this means industrial peace in that industry, with the exception of the short general strike of 1926, has been maintained unbroken for upwards of so years. In 1872 the first "Conciliation Board" was formed, but without any provision for arbitration. Four years later it was reconstructed as "the Staffordshire Mill and Forge Wages Board," with an independent President as Arbitrator to act if and when called upon. In 1880 the sliding-scale, based on ascertained average selling prices, was adopted. In 1887 the scope of the Board was enlarged so as to embrace other districts. It finally included South Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire, North and South Wales, Lancashire and Cheshire, representing upwards of so,000 ironworkers. It is known as the Midland Iron and Steel Wages Board. The President is Mr. George Hatton, C.B.E.

In addition to the President, the Board consists of a Chairman appointed by the employers, and a Vice-Chairman appointed by operatives through their Iron and Steel Workers' Federation (at the head of which are Mr. Pugh and Mr. John Hodges), as well as an employers' representative and an operatives' representative from each works elected annually. There is a paid Secretary appointed by the employers and a paid Secretary appointed by the operatives, and a Treasurer appointed jointly. The full Board elect an Executive Committee, which meets at least half yearly, and oftener if necessary. Wages are advanced, reduced or confirmed bi-monthly on the basis of the average selling price of certain selected firms, ascertained and declared by paid chartered accountants. Any individual disputes (other than sliding-scale disputes) are settled by the Executive Committee, who if necessary appoint a Sub-committee, consisting of two employer members and two operative members with the two Secretaries. This system was subsequently adopted by the North of England iron trade, where it has met with similar success. The sheet metal trade of South Wales, which until a year ago had regulated its wages by the Midland scale, has now adopted a scale based upon the selling price of its own products.

It is significant of the continued influence of the Midlands that iron selling prices are practically settled there. A widespread interest is maintained in the meetings of the iron trade, which are held in Birmingham on the second Thursday in every quarter. This institution has had a progressive career during the last century, and is to-day the most important gathering of the iron trade in England. It is always attended by great numbers of iron-masters and representatives of producing companies from London, South Wales, the Midlands, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Middlesbrough.

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