Category Archives: Engineering

Fuelled growth: a history of F Perkins

How did F Perkins become the largest manufacturer of diesel engines in the world?

Establishment of F Perkins
Francis “Frank” Arthur Perkins (1889 – 1967) and Charles Wallace Chapman (1897 – 1979) decided to develop a lightweight diesel engine for use in trucks and lorries. They were convinced that a diesel engine could be made more reliable and efficient than their petrol equivalents.

Frank Perkins (1889 – 1967)

F Perkins was established at Queen Street, Peterborough in 1932. The company had a capital of £10,000, four directors and three employees. One engine a week was produced in the first year.

Frank Perkins broke the high speed world record for a diesel engine with a 100mph run in 1935.

Over 600 engines a year were produced by 1938.

F Perkins built marine engines for the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

Post-war expansion
F Perkins anticipated an increased demand for diesel engines in the post-war period, and built a new factory at Eastfield, Peterborough. The business operated 75 acres of factories by 1950.

F Perkins was converted into a public company in 1951.

F Perkins was the largest manufacturer of diesel engines in the world by 1953, with an annual production of 60,000. Almost 9,000 people were employed.

A diesel engine designed for motor cars was introduced from 1958.

Subsequent ownership
F Perkins began to appear vulnerable as the large vehicle manufacturers began to produce their own diesel engines. The business was acquired by Massey-Ferguson, the largest manufacturer of farm tractors in the world, for £4.5 million in 1959. Perkins was contracted to supply Massey-Ferguson with all of their engine requirements.

F Perkins employed 10,000 people by 1967, including 7,000 in Peterborough. 1,500 diesel engines could be produced every day.

Massey-Ferguson was renamed Varity Corporation from 1982.

Around 400,000 engines a year were built across 15 different countries by 1992.

4,000 people were employed in Peterborough in 1997.

LucasVarity sold Perkins to Caterpillar, the largest manufacturer of construction equipment in the world, for £803 million in 1998.

Perkins remains one of the largest diesel engine manufacturers in the world.

Weetman Pearson: Britain’s oil baron

Weetman Pearson was probably the most powerful British businessman in the early twentieth century. He transformed a family firm into the largest public works contractor in the world, before going on to develop the Mexican oil industry.

S Pearson & Son was a public works contractor founded by Samuel Pearson in Yorkshire in 1844.

Weetman Pearson (1856 – 1927) entered the business founded by his grandfather at the age of 16.

Weetman Pearson became a partner in the family firm from 1883. The headquarters of the firm were relocated to London.

Described as a “hard-headed Yorkshireman”, Weetman Pearson was credited with growing the family firm from a regional concern into an international player. Pearson modestly described himself as a “stolid, uninteresting slogger”.

Major public works contracts
S Pearson & Son won the contract to construct the Blackwall tunnel underneath the River Thames in London in 1892. It was the largest underwater tunnel in the world upon completion in 1897, and established the reputation of the firm.

Weetman Pearson (1856 – 1927) in 1917

Pearson embarked upon a £2 million project to provide a drainage canal for Mexico City, which had experienced seasonal flooding, in 1890. The Grand Canal in Mexico City was completed to schedule and on budget in 1896.

S Pearson & Son was registered as a private limited company with a capital of over £1 million in 1897.

Around the turn of the century, Pearson built three harbours, Vera Cruz, Salina Cruz and Puerto Mexico, as well as the Tehuantepec railway (completed 1905) which connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

S Pearson & Son employed 30,000 men by 1901.

Pearson enters the oil industry in Mexico
Weetman Pearson began to acquire oil concessions in Mexico from 1901. He was encouraged by President Porfirio Diaz (1830 – 1915), who was keen to develop a rival to Standard Oil, who controlled the industry in his country.

Porfirio Diaz  (1830 – 1915) in 1907

Pearson soon found himself in conflict with Standard Oil. He refused to back down however, saying, “in a mild way I am going to be ruthless”.

S Pearson & Son won a contract to tunnel the Hudson River and the East River in Long Island, thus linking Brooklyn and New Jersey by rail, in 1904.

S Pearson & Son was the largest engineering firm in the world by 1905, employing 60,000 men. Weetman Pearson was one of the wealthiest men in England.

Pearson struck oil in Mexico in around 1905. He agreed to supply C T Bowring, the largest distributor of petrol in Great Britain, with oil at a fixed price. Unfortunately, his well ran dry, and he was forced to buy crude from his rival, Standard Oil, at inflated prices in order to fulfil the contract.

Mexican Eagle
Pearson discovered the Dos Bocas oil reserves in 1908. With a daily output of 300,000 barrels, it was the largest deposit yet found in the world.

The Mexican Eagle Co, controlled by S Pearson & Son, was formed to exploit the Pearson oil assets.

Mexican Eagle went public in 1910, with a capital of £3 million. Its production output over the next two years was estimated at 750,000 tons.

Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell virtually controlled the global oil market at this time. Pearson was reluctant to rely on his competitors, and established the Eagle Oil Transport Co in 1912 to process and distribute his raw product.

The value of Mexican Eagle tripled between 1910 and 1913. Between 1912 and 1913, the company held an estimated 50 percent market share for fuel products in Great Britain. Production in 1913 was eleven million barrels. Mexican Eagle was the largest British company by 1913.

Mexico was the third largest oil producer in the world by 1914, after the United States and Russia, and Pearson controlled around 60 percent of the country’s output.

According to a contemporary quote from the Daily Mail, “oil is the new source of power that will govern the future industrial development of the world”.

Mexican Eagle was the second largest producer of oil in Mexico, with an output of nearly 19 million barrels in 1919.

With a market capitalization of £79 million, the Pearson group of companies ranked as by far the largest business in Britain by 1919, with a valuation more than 25 percent higher than its nearest rival, Burmah Oil.*

Pearson sells Mexican Eagle to Royal Dutch Shell
Pearson sold control of his oil interests, including 35 percent of the ordinary capital of Mexican Eagle, to Royal Dutch Shell for £15 million in 1919. The merger represented the takeover of the largest British company by the largest European company. Royal Dutch Shell had an output roughly double that of Mexican Eagle, at around 40 million oil barrels in 1918.

Royal Dutch Shell invested heavily to increase production in Mexico. Mexican Eagle produced over 32 million barrels in 1920, accounting for more than 20 percent of Mexican production. An estimated 50 million barrels were shipped in 1921. The company had a daily capacity of over 100,000 barrels.

Following a mild heart attack, Weetman Pearson exited the contracting business in 1926. S Pearson & Son would instead concentrate on its assets in electricals, oil, land and finance.

Pearson died with an estate valued at £4 million in 1827. According to his obituary in the Manchester Guardian, he “never lost his accent and pleasant Yorkshire ways”.

The Mexican oil industry was nationalised by the government in 1938.

* Bud Frierman, Lisa, Andrew C. Godley and Judith Wale, ‘Weetman Pearson in Mexico and the Emergence of a British Oil Major, 1901-1919’, Business History Review 81 (2007).

Building bridges: Dorman Long

Dorman Long was the largest steel and iron manufacturer in the British Empire, but is best known for its large structural engineering projects, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Arthur Dorman
Arthur John Dorman (1848 – 1931) was born in Ashford, Kent, the son of a tanning yard owner. He relocated to Middlesbrough in the North East of England to serve an apprenticeship to E G Johnson of Richard Johnson & Co, iron producers, in 1866.

Arthur John Dorman (1848 – 1931) in 1918

Dorman was not afraid to get his hands dirty, and although his spectacles and Southern accent caused great amusement to his fellow puddlers, he earned their respect in undertaking their strenuous work. A straightforward and likeable man, he rose to the position of assistant manager.

Dorman Long is established
Dorman partnered with Albert de Lande Long (1844 – 1917) to acquire the West Marsh Ironworks at Middlesbrough in 1876. With 20 puddling furnaces and three rolling mills, the business specialised in producing wrought iron bars and angles for the shipbuilding industry.

Developing trade led Dorman Long to acquire the Britannia Works from Bernhard Samuelson (1820 – 1905) and steel production commenced on a large scale.

Dorman Long became a limited company with a share capital of £350,000 in 1889. It had an annual output of 100,000 tons of steel.

Albert de Lande Long retired from active interest in Dorman Long in 1891.

A half share in Bell Brothers of Middlesbrough was acquired from Sir Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931) in 1899. Bell Brothers held extensive collieries, ironstone mines and limestone quarries.

Company capital was increased to £1 million in 1902 to purchase the remaining half of Bell Brothers from Sir Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904), who became company chairman. The firm was now the largest steel producer in the North of England, and the only one that was entirely vertically integrated.

The merger made logical sense as the result of increasing co-operation between the two firms. It was also a response to the formation of United States Steel, the largest manufacturer in the world, in 1901.

The North Eastern Steel Company was acquired in 1903.

Dorman Long was the first non-armaments company in Britain to dedicate itself to shell production during the First World War.

The six blast furnaces of Walker Maynard & Co at Redcar were acquired in 1915.

A £2 million steelworks was established at Redcar in 1917.

Sir B Samuelson & Co of Middlesbrough was also acquired in 1917.

Dorman Long was the largest iron and steel business in Britain by 1920. It had an annual production capacity of 1.25 million tons of pig iron and one million tons of steel.

The Redcar steelworks covered 150 acres and employed 2,500 men by 1923.

Richborough, the state-owned Kentish coal port which had been neglected since the war, was acquired in 1924.

Dorman Long enters the bridge-building industry
Dorman Long entered the bridge-building industry from 1924. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was their first contract, constructed at an estimated cost of £4.5 million.

Construction of the Tyne Bridge in 1928. Source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Dorman Long acquired Bolckow Vaughan in 1929. The merged company had an annual capacity of three million tons of steel (25 percent of British production) and two million tons of pig iron. The merger was motivated by a trade slump following the post-war boom, and neither company had issued a dividend since 1921.

Arthur Dorman died in 1931. His obituary in the Yorkshire Post heralded his strong relationship with his workforce of 25,000 people. By this time Dorman Long was the best-known bridge-builder in the world.

A keen Anglican and Conservative, Dorman was also a generous benefactor. He built Dormanstown garden village to improve the living standards of his workforce, and donated the Dorman Museum to the people of Middlesbrough.

Dorman Long struggled during the Great Depression, and entered into receivership in 1933. The board of directors was reconstituted, and managerial control was returned to Middlesbrough.

Dorman Long opened the second largest coking plant in Europe at their Cleveland Works in 1936.

Dorman Long employed 39,889 people in 1937, with the vast majority working in County Durham and Yorkshire. The wage bill for the year amounted to nearly £7 million.

Dorman Long built the second largest bridge in the world at their works in Middlesbrough in 1937. It was erected in Denmark and still stands.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge

Dorman Long controlled collieries with an annual output of four million tons, and ironstone mines with an annual capacity of 2.5 million tons by 1938. The South Bank works contained the largest coking plant in England.

By 1949 Dorman Long held 60 percent of the structural engineering industry in South Africa, and owned the largest structural engineering company in South America, British Structural Steel of Buenos Aires.

Relative decline of the business
Dorman Long entered into relative decline, and was the 38th largest steel manufacturer in the world by 1963, with an annual output of 1.745 million metric tons.

Dorman Long was responsible for 22 to 25 percent of British structural steel output in 1964, and employed a total of around 25,000 people.

Dorman Long merged with South Durham and Stewarts & Lloyds to create British Steel & Tube in 1967. The merged company was the largest steel producer in Britain, and one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world, with an annual output of over five million tons.

British Steel & Tube was nationalised later that year under the name British Steel.

Dorman Long reduced its workforce from 9,000 to 3,000 in the early 1980s, in response to large profit losses.

Trafalgar House acquired Dorman Long from British Steel for £10 million in 1982. Trafalgar House merged the business with its own Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Co to form the largest structural steel fabricator in Western Europe, with 7,000 employees.

Dorman Long Technology was demerged from Cleveland Bridge in 2000. It specialises in the construction of bridges. It has company headquarters in Northamptonshire, and maintains its North of England headquarters in Darlington.

Cleveland Bridge continues to operate from a 22-acre site in Darlington, where it employs 250 people.

A Wear we go: William Doxford

Doxford of Sunderland was the largest shipbuilder, and the largest manufacturer of marine engines in the world.

The business is established
William Doxford (1812–1882) established a shipyard at Coxgreen, Sunderland, from 1840. He built wooden sailing ships.

Doxford relocated the works to Pallion, Sunderland from 1858. Here, he began to build composite vessels; ships made from both wood and iron. From this time he was joined by his eldest son, William Theodore Doxford (1841 – 1916).

William Theodore Doxford (1841 – 1916) by Benjamin Stone in 1899. Image used with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Business expanded after the firm launched its first iron vessel in 1865.

A larger yard with a five berth capacity was acquired in 1870.

The first government contract, an order for three gunboats, arrived in 1872.

The engineering works were opened in 1878. The marine engines business was to become as important as shipbuilding to the firm.

The firm built the largest steamer afloat, the 4,500 ton Grecian, in 1879.

William Doxford Sr died in 1882, and Theodore William Doxford became the head of the business.

Theodore William Doxford was a firm supporter of trade unions, and stated his belief that, “the stronger the unions are the less likely there will be strikes”.

William Doxford & Sons is incorporated
The business was incorporated as William Doxford & Sons with a capital of £200,000, all owned by the Doxford family, in 1891.

William Doxford & Sons launched the first turret-deck steamer in 1892. The Samoa, the largest cargo vessel in the world, was launched in 1892.

William Doxford & Sons launched the largest cargo-carrying vessel ever built in England or Scotland in 1896. The Algoa, with a carrying capacity of 11,300 tons, was the second largest ship afloat.

William Theodore Doxford was knighted in 1900.

William Doxford & Sons laid down the largest private crane in the world in 1900.

William Doxford & Sons made a limited public offering of shares in 1900. The company had a share capital of £500,000. The works covered 32 acres.

An aerial view of the Doxford shipbuilding and engine works in 1967. Image used with permission from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The original five berths were replaced with three berths of greater length, each with the capacity for a 12,000 ton ship, from 1904.

William Doxford & Sons held the “Blue Ribbon” for the largest output of any British shipyard in 1905 and 1907. 20 vessels were launched in 1905 with a gross tonnage of 86,532. Output in 1906 was much larger, at 106,000 tons, although the shipyard did not win the Blue Ribbon that year.

William Doxford & Sons constructed its first oil-powered engine in 1912.

During the First World War the shipyard and engineering works concentrated on the construction of destroyers. 21 destroyers were built between 1914 and 1918.

Loss of independence and eventual closure
The Northumberland Shipbuilding Company, controlled by the Sperling Group, acquired William Doxford & Sons for over £3 million in 1919. Chaired by Viscount Furness (1883 – 1940), the combine was one of the largest industrial companies in Europe and the largest shipbuilding group in Britain.

The Doxford opposed-piston, airless injection oil engine was introduced from 1921.

At one point during the 1930s, 90 percent of the world’s diesel marine engines were designed or being built by William Doxford & Sons.

Charles David Doxford died in 1935, the last member of the Doxford family to take an active interest in the management of the business.

William Doxford & Sons launched its largest vessel to date, the 16,500 ton Charlton Venus tanker, in 1951.

Inside the Engine Works Fabricating department (1954). Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The Doxford engine held a 25 to 30 percent global market share throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The Doxford engine was also produced under licence by 25 different businesses around the world. However foreign competitors such as Sulzer Brothers of Switzerland and Burmeister & Wain of Denmark had begun to take market share.

The Sunderland Shipbuilding Dry Docks and Engineering Company was acquired in 1961. The amalgamation brought the largest engineering works on the River Wear and three shipyards under a single owner.

William Doxford & Sons was acquired by Court Line in 1972. Court Line ran into financial difficulties, and Doxford was starved of investment for research and development.

467 engine making jobs were lost in 1979.

The last Doxford engine was made in 1980. Across its history, 1,200 Doxford engines were sold.

The three Wearside yards of Sunderland Shipbuilders were closed with the loss of 2,500 jobs in 1990.



Engine of growth: Richardsons Westgarth

Richardsons Westgarth was the largest builder of marine engines in the world.

Thomas Richardson & Sons
Thomas Richardson (1793 -1850), a timber merchant turned shipbuilder, established an iron foundry in the village of Castle Eden, Durham in 1838.

Richardson relocated to more spacious premises at Middleton, situated between West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool, from 1846. The Hartlepool Iron Works was used to build colliery engines, and employed around 300 people.

Thomas Richardson was succeeded by his son, also called Thomas Richardson (1821 -1890), from 1850. The first marine engine was built in 1851.

Thomas Richardson & Sons, engineers and ironfounders, entered into receivership in 1875, after amassing debts of £280,000.

Thomas Richardson & Sons built its 636th pair of steamer engines in 1879.

Thomas Richardson & Sons produced twelve marine engines in 1886; the second largest total of any firm in Britain that year.

Donald Barns Morison (1860 -1925), a skilled engineer, became general manager of the business from 1888. The works could produce 30 to 40 sets of engines every year by 1890

Richardsons was a household name in Hartlepool by 1898, and the firm had a worldwide reputation in the shipping trade. It was the oldest established firm in the Parliamentary borough.

Thomas Richardson died in 1890, and was succeeded as proprietor by his son, also called Thomas Richardson (1846 – 1906). By this time Richardsons was one of the leading marine engineering works in the world, and employed around 2,000 people.

Thomas Richardson was knighted in 1897. In 1898 the Hartlepool Mail reported, “Sir Thomas is a Varsity man, but that has by no means damaged his capabilities as a man of business”.

The Hartlepool Engine Works covered over nine acres by 1900.

Richardson Westgarth & Co
T Richardson & Sons merged with Furness Westgarth & Co of Middlesbrough and W Allan & Co of Sunderland to form Richardson Westgarth & Co in 1900. The company employed thousands of people and had a share capital of £700,000.

Sir Christopher Furness was chairman, Sir Thomas Richardson was vice-chairman, and William John Richardson (1852 – 1918), W Allan and Stephen Furness were directors. Tom Westgarth (1852 – 1934) and D B Morison were joint-managing directors.

Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912) in 1902

Sir Christopher Furness was the largest single shareholder, and between them, the Furness and Richardson families had £450,000 to £500,000 invested in the company.

The merger allowed Richardson Westgarth to diversify its product range and combine its research and development talent. Some manufacturing was consolidated at Hartlepool. The affiliation with Christopher Furness also gave the company a ready market with his shipbuilding firms of Furness Withy and Irvine & Co.

Richardson Westgarth & Co built 55 engines with a combined horsepower of 106,300 in 1901; more than any other business in the world that year.

Tom Westgarth toured American and Continental iron, steel and engineering works in 1901. Upon his return, he warned that foreign competitors were gaining on British manufacturers. He called upon British workers to lose less time, take fewer holidays and to be more adaptable to changing conditions in order to ensure that indigenous industry remained competitive.

In 1911 Sir Christopher Furness criticised the irresponsibility of trade union leaders who identified foremost with political theories over practical business sense.

Richardson Westgarth employed 3,500 people in 1911, well within the top 100 largest British manufacturing employers.

Tom Westgarth retired from active control of the company in 1912 due to illness, but remained as a director.

Richardson Westgarth had never built an engine for the Admiralty, and at the beginning of the First World War, orders were slack. So the company wrote a letter to the government advertising its services, and war orders began from 1915. Between that time and the end of 1920, the firm engined 202 vessels, including 59 for the Admiralty, 57 for the Ministry of Shipping and 86 for the Mercantile Marine, with a total horsepower of 685,000. 51 ships were engined in 52 weeks in 1917 alone.

Richardson Westgarth built its first turbine engines during this period. The company also built 28 turbines for generating electric power onshore.

At the request of the Admiralty, Richardson Westgarth opened a shell manufacturing plant at Middlesbrough in 1915. Tom Westgarth supervised the project, and eventually, 4, 6 and 8 inch shells were being produced at the rate of 1,000 a week.

Investment in plant and machinery between 1915 and 1920 totalled over £300,000.

Following the death of W J Richardson in 1918, D B Morison became chairman and managing director.

Richardson Westgarth produced the largest number of marine engines in Britain in 1920, with a total horsepower of 96,000. Worldwide, the company ranked sixth among marine engine builders, behind five American firms. However, the profitability of the marine engines business had declined substantially since the pre-War period.

Richardson Westgarth constructed its first diesel engine in 1923.

D B Morison retired in 1924, and was succeeded as chairman by Tom Westgarth.

Merger and recent history
A trade depression affected shipping particularly badly, and Richardson Westgarth merged with North-Eastern Marine Engineering Co of Wallsend and George Clark Ltd of Sunderland in 1938. The new venture took on the Richardsons Westgarth name, but North-Eastern Marine Engineering held the largest stake, and company headquarters were transferred to Wallsend.

Richardsons Westgarth and Weir Group of Glasgow merged their seawater desalination businesses as Weir Westgarth to create a world leader in the field in 1962. Weir Westgarth offices were relocated from West Hartlepool to Glasgow from 1964. Weir Group bought out the Richardsons Westgarth stake in the venture in 1967, although the Weir Westgarth name was retained.

Turbine and generator production came to an end in Hartlepool in 1967, with the closure of the South Works, and the loss of around 400 jobs.

Richardsons Westgarth was the largest manufacturer of slow-speed marine diesel engines in Britain in 1973.

North-Eastern Marine Engineering and George Clark, which were profitable, were subject to compulsory nationalisation by the British Government in 1977.

Throughout the early to mid-1980s, Richardsons Westgarth divested all of its remaining engineering operations, which had become loss-making, and focused on its steel stockholding business, which remained profitable.

The nationalised boilermaking operations in Hartlepool were closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 1982.

RW Transmissions of Hebburn, a loss-making subsidiary engaged in gear manufacturing, was divested in 1984. This marked the end of Richardsons Westgarth’s association with the North East of England.

Richardsons Westgarth was acquired by Klockner, a German metals trader, for £25 million in 2000 to create the second largest steel distributor in Britain.

Meanwhile Weir Westgarth was acquired by Veolia Water in 2005 and offices were relocated to East Kilbride.