Category Archives: Industrial

Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Palmer’s was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Due to its influence on its Tyneside community, Jarrow was nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.

The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer's shipyard in 1912
The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer’s shipyard in 1912

Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907), a colliery-owner, and his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne in 1851.

They launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852.

Palmer’s received its first Royal Navy contract in 1856. The HMS Terror was the first rolled-iron, armour-plated ship. The Royal Navy association would remain throughout the history of the company.

Four blast-furnaces were built in 1857, and rolling mills in 1859.

Palmer’s was the largest shipbuilder in the world by 1859.

The business employed 3,500 men, consumed 18,000 tons of iron, and produced over 22,000 tons of shipping every year by the early 1860s.

Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow in 1864,

The firm was registered in 1865 as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd.

Rolling mills were established in 1874.

In 1874 C M Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament. However the business suffered without his presence, and he was forced to return in 1876 to save the company. Various members of management were dismissed.

In 1883 Palmer broke the record for the largest shipping tonnage (61,113) produced in a single year. Palmer was largely producing cargo-carrying steamships for the coal and iron industries of the North of England.

By 1886 the majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants. In 1893 the shipbuilding works employed 7,600 workers.

The works began to make a loss, and Palmer, facing bankruptcy, resigned as head of the company in 1893.

In 1899 Palmer was the sixth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage. By 1900 just under 10,000 men were employed by the company. Between 1852 and 1900, nearly 1.25 million tons of shipping were produced, more than any other company.


Palmer died in 1907, and Arthur Bryan Gowan (born 1862), a former draughtsman from Berwick upon Tweed, was appointed managing director.

The company employed 7,500 people in 1908, and was amongst the top thirty largest British manufacturing employers. In 1910 the Jarrow works covered nearly three quarters of a mile along the River Tyne, and about 100 acres. The works included a steel-producing plant and five blast furnaces.

In 1910 Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company. Furness planned to extend and consolidate the firm. Under his impetus, in 1911 the firm acquired Robert Stephenson & Sons, with a shipyard at Hebburn. The Hebburn site included the largest dry dock on the East coast; the only one capable of accommodating the new dreadnought battleships. Hebburn would take on merchant work, and Jarrow would be largely dedicated to naval contracts.

Following a reluctance of shareholders to contribute further capital to the company, as well as his ailing health, Furness resigned in 1912. The national coal strike of 1912 cost the firm £30,000.

By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard. In 1919 the firm had a capital of £883,145. In 1921 the steel plant alone employed 2,500 men. By 1926 the firm employed 10,000 people when operating at full capacity. Palmer’s built its thousandth vessel in 1930.

Palmer’s shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.

In 1934 Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield, a dismantling firm, acquired the Jarrow blast furnaces and steel works. The company acquired the yard in 1935.

Vickers Armstrong Ltd acquired the Hebburn site in 1935, which continued to be operated under its old management.

The poverty that ensued among  former Palmers workers led to the Jarrow March of 1936.

Rich indeed: Smeed Dean

Smeed Dean operated the largest brickworks in the world. Its bricks were used in Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.

George Smeed (1811 – 1881) of Sittingbourne in Kent received little education. For a period he was a hawker, sleeping at night underneath bushes on roadsides. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a small public house.

Smeed acquired a plot of land at Sittingbourne in 1845 and established a brickworks.

Smeed succeeded due to his business acumen, energy and foresight. A John Bull-type figure, he was a colourful man, inclined to use strong language. He was illiterate, and long after he became wealthy he could barely sign his name.

Smeed became one of the largest employers in Kent. He was the largest brickmaker in England by 1871.

Smeed’s son in law, George Hambrook Dean (1834 – 1924), joined the business to form Smeed Dean & Co in 1875.

Smeed Dean produced over 60 million bricks in 1877, and was the largest brick manufacturer in Britain.

In 1878, Smeed was presented with a portrait, funded by public subscription, in honour of his charitable works. He was a Liberal in politics.

When Smeed died in 1881 he operated the largest brickmaking works in the world. His obituary in the Western Press hailed him as “the making of Sittingbourne”. He left a personal estate of £160,000. Dean succeeded him as head of the company.

Smeed Dean employed 1,400 workers by 1902, and paid £70,000 to £80,000 a year in wages.

Dean died in 1924 with an estate valued at £184,929. He left bequests to various Baptist organisations, and insisted upon a humble funeral.

Following the death of Dean the firm was registered as Smeed Dean & Co Ltd. The company estimated that three billion Smeed Dean bricks had been used in London alone by 1925. The company was the largest producer of stock bricks in Britain in 1926.

2,000 men at the North East Kent brickworks went on strike regarding pay in 1926.

Smeed Dean was acquired by Dunstable Portland Cement Company in 1927. The Sittingbourne site was modernised at a cost of nearly £100,000.

Dunstable Portland Cement Company was acquired by Red Triangle for £1 million in 1928. It created one of the largest cement and brick manufacturers in Britain, and was the largest supplier of general building materials.

An automated brickmaking plant had been installed at Sittingbourne by 1929. It was capable of manufacturing 20 million London stock bricks per annum, and was the largest of its kind in Europe. In total Smeed Dean produced 60 million bricks a year at Sittingbourne; London stock, red facing and multi-coloured. The company owned 80 barges for brick transportation.

Red Triangle was acquired by Associated Portland Cement, best known for the Blue Circle brand, in 1931.

The Sittingbourne site manufactured 14 million yellow bricks in 1980.

Pale yellow Smeed Dean bricks are still manufactured at Sittingbourne as of 2016.

R & J Dick of Greenhead

R & J Dick was the largest boot manufacturer in the world. Dick’s established the first national shoe shop chain in Britain. The business was later reinvented to become the largest manufacturer of industrial belting.

R & J Dick was established by two brothers, Robert (1820 – 1891), a jeweller, and James Dick (1823 – 1902), an upholsterer, in 1846.

The brothers utilised gutta-percha, a gum-based leather substitute. Robert made the moulds and James prepared the material. Soon, they were able to offer a low-cost boot with a watertight gutta-percha sole.

R & J Dick employed six men and three boys in 1851. Robert was the inventor, whereas James was more business-minded.

A four-storey factory was acquired at Greenhead, Glasgow in 1859. R & J Dick employed 100 men, 100 boys and 200 girls by 1861.

R & J Dick supplied the greater part of the insulation for underwater telegraph cables.

Retail shops were introduced, and R & J Dick became the first national shoe shop chain in Britain.

R & J Dick operated the largest footwear factory in the world by 1866. 60,000 pairs of boots were manufactured every week.

R & J Dick employed between 1,400 and 1,500 workers by 1867. That year the factory was struck by a fire which caused damage to the value of £25,000.

The business was flagging by the early 1880s: the price of gutta-percha had risen exponentially as demand had increased, and the boots and shoes could no longer be manufactured at a competitive price.

R & J Dick employed 610 men, 83 boys, 204 women and 46 girls in 1881.

James Dick became fatigued with business, and his health began to suffer. He married one of his employees in 1885, and emigrated to Australia.

In his brother’s absence, Robert invented a mechanical belt using balata gum. It was immensely strong, and resistant to oxidisation and moisture.

There were 1,500 employees in 1886.

Robert Dick died in 1891, and James reluctantly returned to manage the business.

James Dick
James Dick (1823 – 1902)

The balata belting patents expired in 1900, but the firm continued to hold a considerable share of the market.

James Dick died in 1902 with an estate valued at £887,651. He was childless, and dedicated his wealth to charities and employees.

John Edward Audsley (1824 – 1920), an employee of 40 years, took over management of the company.

R & J Dick was converted into a company in 1908 with a capital of £650,000.

A new American tariff on belting imports led the company to build a factory at Passaic, New Jersey in 1909. It could match the belting production levels of the Greenhead factory.

R & J Dick balata belting was used across the world by 1911. The product was advertised in languages as diverse as Burmese, Romanian and Hindustani.

R & J Dick acquired estates in Venezuela to provide balata gum in 1918.

R & J Dick had an authorised capital of £925,000 by 1920.

R & J Dick sustained heavy losses relating to its Venezuelan operation in 1921, following a slump in balata prices, and was forced to mortgage its properties in order to maintain sufficient working capital. The trading loss for the year amounted to £298,463.

J Parker Smith, company chairman, blamed the losses on the “extravagance and laxity” of the Venezuelan manager.

After sustaining continued losses, a shareholder criticised the loss-making New Jersey factory as a “white elephant” in 1923.

Shoe production was discontinued in 1923. Retail shop leases were allowed to expire. The company sold 12 retail shops in Scotland to Greenlees & Son of Glasgow in 1935. The boot manufacturing business was divested in 1935.

R & J Dick employed just 235 people in 1961.

The company was acquired by the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co in 1962, in a share transaction which valued the company at £1,075,000.

Swan Hunter of Wallsend

Swan Hunter was the largest shipbuilder in the world by the early twentieth century. The yard built 1,600 ships, including the RMS Mauretania (1906), HMS Ark Royal and numerous super tankers before its closure in 2006.

George Burton Hunter (1846 – 1937) partnered with the widow of Charles Sheridan Swan and became managing director of a new shipbuilding firm, C S Swan & Hunter, with a yard at Wallsend, Tyneside from 1879.

The seven acre site had 600 to 700 employees. The business steadily expanded under boom conditions and able leadership from Hunter.

The name of the firm was changed to Swan Hunter from 1880.

Swan Hunter became the leading Tyneside shipbuilder, in terms of tonnage constructed, for the first time in 1893.

Swan Hunter was established as a limited liability company, with Hunter as chairman, in 1895.

An evangelical Anglican, Hunter was a strong temperance advocate. He was regarded as a fair and just employer.

The company shipyards (not including the engine works) employed 2,500 men by July 1897. The works covered over 33 acres.

The neighbouring yard of Schlesinger, Davis & Co was acquired in 1897, and thereafter used to build floating docks.

Swan Hunter was the second largest shipbuilder in Britain in 1898, as measured by tonnage. The following year it was the seventh largest.

Swan Hunter differed from competitors in that it built ships inside large sheds, which allowed work to continue during poor weather conditions.

The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900
The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900

After winning a valuable contract with Cunard, Swan Hunter merged with Wigham Richardson & Co of Tyneside to create the largest shipbuilder in Britain, with a share capital of £1.5 million, in 1903. The company employed 4,600 people.

Swan Hunter broke the world record for tonnage produced (126,000) in 1906.

The building of the RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, brought the company worldwide repute. At 30,000 tons, she was the largest ship in the world until the completion of the RMS Olympic in 1911, and the fastest until the maiden voyage of the Bremen in 1929.

Swan Hunter had the largest aggregate production of any British shipbuilder between 1902 and 1909: 150 vessels of a total of 569,842 tons.

Swan Hunter had the largest output of any shipbuilding business in the world between 1910 and 1913. The company launched 21 ships with a combined tonnage of over 126,000 in 1912. The works on Tyneside covered 78 acres.

Barclay Curle & Co of Glasgow was acquired in 1913. The merged company had a combined annual tonnage of 230,000. The Clydeside works covered 60 acres.

During the First World War the firm built over 100 warships and 230 other vessels.

Swan Hunter employed 10,000 people across a 100 acre site by 1920.

In 1921 G B Hunter lamented that American shipyards were twice as efficient as British ones, which were hampered by restrictive trade union practices.

Swan Hunter had the largest output of any British shipbuilding company, with a tonnage of just under 120,000 in 1922.

Swan Hunter employed 10,000 men and boys during regular periods by 1928.

G B Hunter retired in 1928, and died in 1937.

Following a recommendation in the Government’s Geddes Report, Swan Hunter merged with fellow Tyneside shipbuilders Vickers, R & W Hawthorne Leslie & Co and John Readhead & Sons in 1968. It thus became the largest shipbuilding group in Britain, with 20,000 employees. It held one third of British shipbuilding and repairing capacity.

The British shipbuilding industry was largely nationalised by the government in 1977, and Swan Hunter, with 11,000 employees, became a part of British Shipbuilders.

Swan Hunter regained its independence in a £5 million management buyout in 1986. 4,500 people were employed.

Swan Hunter entered into receivership in 1993. It was acquired by a Dutchman, Jaap Kroese (1939 – 2015), for £4 million in 1995.

Swan Hunter ceased to build ships on Tyneside in 2006. The company’s last cranes on the River Tyne were shipped to India in 2009.

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 the Hartlepool Iron Works at Middleton, situated between West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool, from 1847. The firm built colliery engines, and employed around 300 people.

Thomas Richardson was succeeded by his son, also called Thomas Richardson (1821 -1890), from 1850. The firm was constructing ship engines and boilers by 1857.

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.

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.

A trade depression effected 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 Britain’s largest manufacturer of slow speed marine diesel engines in 1973.

Richardsons Westgarth closed its Hartlepool operations in 1982.

Richardsons Westgarth, which had reinvented itself as a steel stockholder headquartered in Kidderminster, was acquired by Klockner, a German metals trader, for £25 million in 1999.

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

Head of steam: William Gray & Co

William Gray & Co was the largest shipbuilder in the world. The founder, Sir William Gray, was largely responsible for the growth of Hartlepool.

William Gray (1823 – 1898) was born in Blyth, Northumberland. He established himself as a draper in the growing port town of Hartlepool from 1843. The business proved a success, and Gray reinvested his profits in sailing ships. William Gray had become the largest owner of wooden ship tonnage in Hartlepool by 1863.

Gray entered into partnership with John Punshon Denton (1800 -1871), a well-established Hartlepool shipbuilder, from 1862. Denton & Gray launched their first ship the following year. The firm concentrated on constructing the new iron ships which were increasingly replacing wooden vessels.

In 1869 Denton & Gray took over three shipyards from Pile Spence & Co, who had pioneered iron steamship construction in Hartlepool in 1855. Pile Spence had entered liquidation due to the failure of the Overend Gurney bank.

Denton died in 1871 and the business became known as William Gray & Co. By this time the firm was established as the largest shipbuilder in West Hartlepool, with annual production of 16,490 tons.

In 1879 William Gray & Co became the largest shipbuilder in the world, as measured by tonnage, for the first time. The ships were largely mid-sized cargo steamers.

By 1880 the yard had produced 157 iron vessels to the aggregate value of £3.1 million. The firm employed 1,400 workmen, and was indisputably the largest industrial firm in Hartlepool.

Gray established the Central Marine Engineering Works in 1884 to manufacture steam engines. The chairman was G H Baines and the managing director was Thomas Mudd (1852 – 1898), one of the most talented engineers in the country.

A large factor in Gray’s success was his willingness to extend credit to ship owners, or to take stakes in the ships themselves. He was a man known for his energy, perseverance and integrity.

A warm and amiable man, Gray was a staunch Presbyterian. In 1881 he donated thousands of pounds to the non-conformist chapels of Hartlepool. In 1887 Gray was nominated the first Mayor of West Hartlepool.

Sir William Gray
Sir William Gray (1823 – 1898)

The firm became a limited company in 1888, with a capital of £350,000. Weekly pay to employees in 1889 amounted to over £8,000.

As demand for oil tankers grew, the firm was quick to respond. Bakuin (1886) was the first oil tanker for a British owner. The Murex (1892) was the first oil tanker to navigate the Suez Canal, and the first of a number of tankers built for Shell.

By 1890 Gray & Co had launched around 350 vessels, almost all steamships. William Gray was also one of the largest shipowners in the United Kingdom. Gray & Co employed 4000 to 4,500 men and boys; a third of the population of Hartlepool. An American newspaper reported that he “almost owned the town”.

Gray was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1890. In 1891 he became president of the Chamber of Shipping for the United Kingdom. In 1892 he became High Sheriff of Durham.

For most of his life a Liberal, in 1891 Gray stood as the Unionist parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool. He lost to fellow Hartlepool industrialist Christopher Furness, and was said to have been “beside himself with rage and disappointment” that his own employees helped to elect a rival. Gray was a good employer, but the electorate preferred the rival Liberal policies. It was alleged that Furness had promised his employees to only hire union labour if he was elected.

In 1898 a statue of Gray was erected in Hartlepool, paid for by public subscription. Gray died later that year worth over £1.5 million.

Gray was succeeded in business by his only surviving son, William Cresswell Gray (1867 – 1924). In 1899 he cleared the debts of all the churches and chapels of Hartlepool, amounting to £9,000.

In 1897 the firm employed over 2,000 men. In 1898 Gray & Co was the largest shipbuilder in the world, as measured by tonnage, and the second largest the following year. In 1900 it again won the title of the largest shipbuilder in the world. By 1901 the company employed 2,000 to 3,000 workers.

In aggregate between 1901 and 1909, Gray & Co launched the sixth largest tonnage of shipping among British companies. In 1912 the firm built 20 ships of over 80,000 gross tons, the fourth highest total in Britain. In 1915 Gray & Co was the fourth largest shipbuilder in the world.

The end of the First World War witnessed a boom for shipbuilders. To meet demand, a new shipyard was established at Pallion on the River Wear.

Although Christopher Furness had attempted to do so, unsuccessfully, it was William Gray & Co that introduced the first large-scale profit-sharing scheme for shipbuilding industry workers, in 1919. Every employee received a 20 percent share of net profits.

A shipyard fire caused damage estimated at £250,000 in 1920.

In 1920 the firm gifted a park and a worker’s institute to the people of Hartlepool at a cost of £35,000. They also opened a convalescent home at the cost of £10,000.

In 1921 the firm distributed £31,784 to 4,262 employees as part of a profit-sharing scheme.

Sir W C Gray died in 1924, and he was succeeded by his son, Sir William Gray, as chairman in 1925.

In 1928 17 vessels with a total tonnage of 107,393 were launched. In 1929 Gray launched its thousandth ship. By this time the firm had built 774 marine engines, and 2,196 boilers. 3,500 men were employed.

The Wearside yard was closed in 1930, and sold to National Shipbuilders Security Ltd in 1936.

The firm was the second largest British shipbuilder in 1932. During the Second World War, Gray had the second largest output of any shipbuilder in the North East of England, building 90 vessels. At its peak, the firm employed 3,545 men in the shipyard and 1,400 in the engine works.

However, by 1950 they had slipped to eleventh place in the region. The firm received no orders in 1952 or 1953. 300 men were laid off in 1959.

The last ship was launched in 1961, after which the firm was solely engaged in repair work. Amid a trade recession in the early 1960s, the firm was forced to take on conversion work at a loss to provide employment for its workers. 450 men were made redundant in 1962, leaving a workforce of just under 1,000. The firm entered liquidation in 1963.

Ship shape: Furness Withy

Furness Withy was one of the “Big Five” British shipping companies alongside Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.

John Furness was a West Hartlepool coal trimmer who married the daughter of his employer, Averil Wilson. He established a provisions and grocery business.

His son, Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), joined the family business at an early age. Under the leadership of Christopher’s elder brother Thomas, the provisions business developed into one of the largest of its kind in the North of England.

The firm was spending a significant amount on shipping costs, and in 1877 acquired its own vessels and inaugurated a regular service between Boston, Massachusetts and West Hartlepool.

Differences of opinion saw Christopher’s older brother Thomas take full control of the provisions concern from 1882, while Christopher took over the shipping business. Christopher Furness & Co was established as a private company with a capital of £100,000.

A portrait of Christopher Furness
A portrait of Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912)

The firm, with 18 wholly-owned steamers, and stakes in 21 other ships, merged with the West Hartlepool shipbuilding firm of Edward Withy & Co in 1891. The new concern, Furness Withy & Co, had a capital of £700,000.

Christopher Furness was knighted in 1895.

The British Maritime Trust, with 26 ships, was acquired in 1896.

A stake in the marine engineering business of Richardsons, Westgarth & Co of West Hartlepool was acquired in 1900.

The Gulf Line, with seven ships, was acquired in 1902.

Company capital had increased to £3.5 million by 1907. By this time Furness Withy was one of the largest owners of British shipping tonnage.

A stake in Irvine’s shipyard at West Hartlepool was acquired in 1908.

Christopher Furness was a Methodist, and enjoyed good relations with his workforce. He introduced a pioneering co-partnership scheme which enabled employees at his shipbuilding works to purchase shares from 1908. It was the largest scheme of its kind yet introduced in England. Unfortunately the scheme had been quashed by the unions by 1910.

Furness had a restless energy and a thorough knowledge of the shipping industry. Furness was a Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from the 1890s. He was a radical Liberal.

Furness was raised to the Peerage as Baron Furness of Grantley in 1910. He had eleven live-in servants by 1911. When he died in 1912 he left probate of £1.8 million.

By 1910 Furness Withy was one of the Big Five of British shipping, which also included Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.

Furness Withy was among the hundred largest publicly-quoted companies in Britain by 1911, with a capital of £3.5 million.

A large interest in Houlder Brothers & Co was acquired in 1911. In 1912 the Warren Line of Liverpool was acquired. By 1913 Furness Withy was the third largest British shipping line, as measured by tonnage. By 1914 Furness Withy controlled over one million gross tons of shipping.

In 1916 the firm acquired full control of the Johnston Line of Liverpool. This was followed by the Prince Line of Newcastle, with 38 ships, for £3.3 million.

Through the ownership of the Furness, Manchester and Johnston lines, Furness Withy largely controlled the North Atlantic cargo trade by 1918. It also had an interest in the Argentine meat trade through the Houlder line. The Prince line ran boats to South America and South Africa from New York.

The family interest in Furness Withy was bought out in 1919 and Frederick W Lewis became chairman. By this time group assets were valued at £34 million. Company capital was increased to £5.5 million.

During the Second World War the company lost 42 vessels and 1,078 men to enemy action.

F W Lewis (by now Lord Essendon) died in 1944, and was succeeded as chairman by Ernest H Murrant.

The firm took time to regain the number of ships lost during the war. In 1951 it controlled 81 ships with an aggregate of 680,000 gross tons.

Royal Mail Lines and the Pacific Steam Navigation Co were acquired in 1965. Following the acquisitions Furness Withy operated 64 ships with a 600,000 tonnage.

The Furness repair yard in Hartlepool was acquired by Swan Hunter in 1967.

In 1970 the firm had a fleet of just over 100, and a tonnage of just over one million. The firm employed 9,500 people in the United Kingdom.

Furness Withy had 50 ships of one million tonnes when it was acquired by Orient Overseas Container (Holdings) of Hong Kong for nearly £97 million in 1980.

Furness Withy was sold to Oetker Group, its present owner, in 1990.

Weaving history: John Crossley & Sons

John Crossley & Sons was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Based at Halifax in Yorkshire, it declined as cheaper imports arrived from overseas, and the factory closed in 1982.

John Crossley (1772 – 1837) was a carpet weaver in Halifax, Yorkshire. He was promoted to mill manager. He then leased a mill at Dean Clough. Eventually Crossley bought the mill outright.

John Crossley died in 1837, and his three sons, John, Joseph and Francis took over the business. By this time the business had 300 employees and the fourth largest mill in Britain.

Francis Crossley (1817 – 1872) was responsible for the company’s rapid expansion throughout the mid-nineteenth century. He pioneered the development of steam-powered carpet manufacturing, which gave the company an enormous advantage in terms of cost of production. Licensing the use of their patents to other carpet manufacturers brought in substantial revenues from royalties alone.

Unusually for the time, Francis Crossley operated a policy of paying women equal wages to men for doing the same job. Many of the Crossley family values were inspired by their Congregationalist faith.

John Crossley & Sons was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world by 1862. In 1864 the firm became a joint-stock company, with the primary aim of allowing its 3,500 employees to become shareholders. 20 percent of the company was sold to the employees at preferential rates. They were perhaps the first large industrial employer to profit share with their employees.

In 1868 John Crossley & Sons was the largest publicly quoted industrial company in Britain, with an ordinary share capitalization of £2.2 million (about £220 million in 2014). 5,000 people were employed. By 1872 the company had annual carpet sales of £1.1 million, including exports to the United States valued at nearly £500,000. The buildings at Dean Clough Mill covered 20 acres, where concentration of production at a single site lowered costs.

By 1877 the company was one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world.

In 1903 the company employed 3,770 people.

In 1923 the firm employed about 5,000 people at the largest carpet works in the world.

During the Second World War the company was largely engaged in cotton spinning (identified by the government as an essential industry) from its mill in Rochdale as well as the carpet export trade.

In 1953, John Crossley & Sons merged with Carpet Trades Ltd of Kidderminster, but the two companies continued to be managed separately. A new factory was opened in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, to produce the new, cheaper, tufted-style carpets, which were sold under the Kosset brand, using “new” American marketing techniques.

In 1963 the company had net assets of £9.64 million (around £175 million in 2014).

In 1969 Crossley merged with Carpet Manufacturing Company of Kidderminster to form Carpets International, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, with 29 percent of United Kingdom sales. In 1970 the headquarters of the group was moved to Kidderminster. By 1977 the number employed had declined to around 1,700 people.

In 1982 production at Dean Clough Mills was shut down, following two years of heavy losses at Carpets International. A factory in Kiddiminster was also closed down, and between them, 500 jobs were lost. The company blamed the economic recession and subsidised American and Belgian imports.

In 2003 Carpets International went into administration, and 1,200 jobs were lost. The company blamed increasing imports and a growing preference among British consumers for wooden laminate-style flooring. Almost no carpets were imported into the UK in 1970. By 2003, 63 percent came from overseas.

Blue Circle: cementing its place in history

Best known for the Blue Circle brand, Associated Portland Cement was the largest manufacturer of cement in the world throughout much of the twentieth century.

Associated Portland Cement (APC) was formed from the amalgamation of 24 British cement manufacturers, mostly based in the Thames area, in 1900. The consolidation was triggered by increased Continental and American competition, and formed the largest cement company in the world.

The merger was organised by Henry Osborne O’Hagan (1853 – 1930) who became vice chairman of the company.

APC held a 45 percent share of the British cement market and employed 6,147 people in 1903. It had the eighth highest capitalisation of any publicly quoted company in Britain in 1905, ahead of Guinness, Dunlop and Lever Brothers.

The company made its first overseas investment when it acquired the Tolceta works in Mexico in 1909. In the following years before the First World War, works were also acquired in South Africa and British Colombia.

APC acquired a further 33 British competitors in 1911, giving it control of 80 percent of the productive capacity of the British cement industry. The company was a cartel, with the intent to maintain prices in the domestic market at just below those of foreign imports.

APC received large orders during the First World War for the construction of trenches.

O’Hagan stepped down in the post-war period, after he opposed the proposed further expansion of the company.

Alfred Cecil Critchley (1890 – 1963), a board member in the post-war period, suggested that the company use a single brand name, Blue Circle, for its cement products.

Alfred Cecil Critchley (1890 – 1963) in 1942

APC controlled 75 percent of British cement production in 1922.

The company opened the largest cement works in Europe at Bevans, Northfleet in 1926.

APC was the 15th most valuable public British company in 1930, with an estimated market value of £13.9 million. It employed 6,720 people in 1935. The company had 16 managing directors, and no central chairman. Instead, each managing director was allocated responsibility for a committee within the company, i.e. sales or finance. Because APC consisted of numerous component companies, there were an additional 40 ordinary directors .

P. L. Payne argued that the company failed to turn its monopoly power to its advantage. It has been suggested that APC’s acquisitions destroyed, rather than added, value. The economist George Stigler (1911 – 1991) calculated that between 1900 and 1960, APC acquired 125 percent of British cement production capacity, yet its market share in 1960 was just 70 percent.

Post Second World War period
Following the Second World War, cement works in Australia and New Zealand were acquired. A new cement plant in Malaysia was established in 1954. APC operated 26 cement works in Britain alone by 1955.

APC employed 11,000 people in 1955. It was the largest cement group in the world in 1960. It was the 15th largest public company in Britain in 1965, with a market capitalization of £138.3 million.

APC built plants overseas, and became known for expertise in low-cost cement manufacturing. A notable APC contract was the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which used 150,000 tons of cement.

APC established a new cement works at Northfleet, Kent, in 1968. The plant cost £35 million and had an output of 3.5 million tons a year.

APC employed capital of £246 million in 1974, and had a British workforce of 18,325.

Difficulties, diversification and sale
APC struggled when the 1970s oil crisis led to increased fuel prices, due to the highly energy intensive nature of cement production. It was also overdependent on a shrinking domestic market which accounted for 52 percent of profits in 1975.

John Milne was appointed managing director in 1975. Faced with a declining domestic cement market, Milne hired McKinsey & Co, management consultants, in 1975.

APC changed its name to Blue Circle from 1978.

The Aberthaw Cement Works, Wales in 2009. The site was acquired by Blue Circle in 1983.

Between 1974 and 1982 the UK workforce more than halved to 6,500. It was announced that 1,198 more jobs would be lost in 1983, including 400 office jobs.

Blue Circle was the 74th most highly valued public company in Europe in 1982.

Milne relocated company headquarters from London to Berkshire, on the basis that it was closer to his own home. The site chosen, at Aldermaston, also housed the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear weapons research facility. The company staff association protested such a risky relocation during the Cold War. Milne stood up at the annual general meeting and declared that if nuclear war was announced, he wanted to be under the first bomb, and the move went ahead.

A declining UK cement market saw Blue Circle consolidate; it acquired Aberthaw Cement Works, the fourth largest cement manufacturer in Britain, for £26.3 million in 1983.

Following advice from McKinsey, Blue Circle also began to diversify. It acquired Armitage Shanks of Staffordshire, the largest manufacturer of ceramic baths, sinks and toilet bowls in Britain, for £35 million in 1980. It also acquired Bermid Qualcast, a cooker and lawnmower manufacturer, in a hostile takeover which valued the company at £217 million, in 1987.

Diversification aided profits in the short term, but disguised the fact that cement sales were declining. Blue Circle was forced to pay £58 million to reduce its cement production capacity by 15 percent in 1992.

Blue Circle declined to become the third largest cement manufacturer in the world by 1991. That year the bathrooms business was sold to American Standard for £253 million, and the heating business was sold to Baxi for £480 million.

Blue Circle employed 19,690 people in 1992.

Blue Circle was forced to leave its Aldermaston headquarters in 1993, following a nuclear leak from the MOD facility.

Blue Circle was the sixth largest cement manufacturer in the world when it was acquired by its French rival, Lafarge, for £3.4 billion in 2001. The merger created the largest cement manufacturer in the world.

The Northfleet Cement Works was closed with the loss of 240 jobs in 2005. The site had exhausted its raw materials. All workers were offered jobs at other Lafarge sites.

The British car industry

In 1929 France overtook England as the second largest manufacturer of cars in the world.

By 1938 car manufacturing was the third largest industry in Britain.

By 1952 cars were the largest British export.

In 1960 British Motor Corporation was the tenth largest company in the world outside the United States, with annual sales of $969 million. Ford Motor of Britain was the 19th largest company outside the US, with annual sales of $753 million.

In 1965 British Ford employed 62,418 people and had capital of £195 million. BMC employed 93,000 people and had capital of £118 million. Leyland Motor had capital of £96 million. Vauxhall Motors had capital of £83 million and employed 33,754 people. Rootes had capital of £46 million.

BMC became British Leyland, and was, by 1970, the largest single exporter in Britain, shipping goods worth £320 million (equivalent to £4.3 billion today). Its marques included Rover, Morris, Mini, MG, Land Rover, Range Rover and Jaguar.

The company was brought to its knees by flawed car designs, poor management and excessive strikes by its workforce. While Rover and Morris had been merged in 1968, the constituent companies continued to act like independent companies, stealing market share from each other and failing to share information and skills.

British Leyland demonstrates the danger of grouping various companies under one management system: what if that management is incompetent? Amalgamation often makes sense (the strength in numbers argument), but mergers can also result in weak companies dragging strong companies down with them.

In 2015, the Nissan plant in Sunderland, North East England, produces more cars annually (500,000) than Italy (400,000). This demonstrates clearly that there is no inherent reason why cars can not be profitably manufactured in Britain.