Category Archives: Industrial

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.

Robert Dick (1820 – 1891) and James Dick (1823 – 1902) were the sons of a Kilmarnock sailor. Robert trained as a jeweller, and James was apprenticed to an upholsterer.

The two brothers entered into partnership as R & J Dick from 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 as one of the richest British businessmen of his era. His estate was 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.

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.

Blue Circle: cementing its place in history

Associated Portland Cement was the largest manufacturer of cement in the world throughout much of the twentieth century. It became best known for its Blue Circle brand.

Faced with increased competition from Continental and American producers, 24 British cement manufacturers, mostly based in the Thames area, merged to form Associated Portland Cement (APC) in 1900.

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

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.

APC made its first overseas investment when it acquired the Tolceta works in Mexico in 1909. 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 intention to maintain prices in the domestic market at just below those of foreign imports.

During the First World War APC received large orders 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.

APC established 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 was comprised 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 the APC 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 had declined to just 70 percent by 1960.

Post Second World War period
Cement works in Australia and New Zealand were acquired after the Second World War. 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 its 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 a 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 (born 1924) was appointed managing director from 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.

The UK workforce was reduced by more than half to 6,500 between 1974 and 1982. 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 move 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 relocation 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.

Bermid Qualcast, a cooker and lawnmower manufacturer, was acquired 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 had 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.

On the skids: Dunlop Rubber

Dunlop Rubber was once a leading British multinational. Its presence at Fort Dunlop, Birmingham ended in 2014 after almost 100 years.

John Boyd Dunlop (1840 – 1921) was a Scotsman who developed the pneumatic tyre. In 1889 a company, led by Harvey du Cros, was established in Dublin to manufacture bicycle tyres based on Dunlop’s discovery. Dunlop himself was sceptical of the commercial potential of the product, and took a 20 percent stake in the venture.

The product was tested by the greatest cyclist of the era, Willie Hume (1862 – 1941), who won seven races out of eight in a trial of the new tyre.

Manufacture was relocated from Dublin and Belfast to Coventry, the heart of the British cycle industry, from 1893. Factories were also established in the United States, France and Japan.

John Boyd Dunlop divested his shareholding in 1895, and the company was sold to the financier Ernest Terah Hooley (1859 – 1947) for £3 million in 1896. Within a matter of months, by bringing on aristocratic directors and garnering press attention, Hooley was able to publicly float the company for £5 million.

Dunlop produced its first tyre for a motor car in 1906. The first rubber estates in Malaysia were acquired, in order to ensure a supply of raw material, in 1910.

Construction began on the 400 acre Fort Dunlop headquarters and production site in Birmingham in 1916.

Dunlop was the fourteenth largest manufacturing company in Britain by 1918, and its only large-scale tyre manufacturer. It had a market value of £8.9 million in 1919.

Dunlop began to diversify from tyres from 1924. It entered the sports market in earnest when it acquired the tennis racket manufacturer F A Davis. Charles Macintosh, the raincoat manufacturer, was acquired in 1926.

The Malaysian estates were expanded over time, and Dunlop was the largest single landowner in the British Empire by 1926.

By 1930, Dunlop was the eighth largest public company in Britain, with a market value of £28.2 million. The company was a major industrial supplier for Britain during the Second World War, producing the bulk of rubber tyres and boots for the war effort.

By 1946, Dunlop had 70,000 employees, and sales outlets in nearly every country in the world. By 1948 Dunlop  was the tenth largest British company, with a market value of £55.9 million.

Dunlop’s fortunes were closely interlinked with the British car industry. In 1950 Britain was the world’s second largest car manufacturer, and the world’s largest exporter of cars. Many of these cars were fitted with Dunlop tyres. In the 1950s Dunlop accounted for almost half of all tyre sales by value in Britain.

By 1955 Dunlop employed 100,000 people, and was the second largest private employer in Britain after ICI. In 1959 Dunlop was the twelfth largest company in the world outside the US.

Dunlop began to decline from the early 1960s as it was slow to adapt to the new market for steel-belted radial tyres. Performance was also undermined by the decline of the British car industry.

In 1970, a long strike at Fort Dunlop resulted in a loss of £3 million at the group’s British operations: the first in its history. As a result, the largest British car manufacturer, British Leyland, which had previously acquired all of its tyres from Dunlop, adopted a policy of dual sourcing to ensure supply.

In the late 1960s, Dunlop was the 35th largest company outside of the United States. In 1973, Dunlop was the eleventh largest British industrial company, with a turnover of £495 million and capital of £290 million.

In 1971, the company merged with Pirelli of Italy, to create the world’s third largest tyre manufacturer. The combined group had a turnover of almost £900 million.

The merger was a disaster: the Pirelli branch lost money every year until 1980. The merger was undone in 1981, but it was too late: Dunlop had amassed massive debts and was almost bankrupt. Dunlop shed over 19,000 employees between 1978 and 1982.

By 1978 Dunlop’s tyre manufacturing operations ran at an increasing loss. By the late 1970s, the Washington plant near Newcastle upon Tyne was the only profitable factory among Dunlop’s eight European sites. Tyre operations lost £22 million in 1980.

In 1981 Dunlop sold its 51 percent stake in its Malaysian rubber estates for £60 million to Multi-Purpose Holdings, a Chinese-Malaysian group. The Dunlop estates were Malaysia’s sixth largest plantation group, covering over 55,000 acres.

In 1983, Dunlop’s European tyre business was sold to its former Japanese subsidiary, Sumitomo, for £82 million.

Between 1970 and 1983, Dunlop had shed over half of its employees, from 107,000 people to 53,000.

The remnant of Dunlop was acquired by the industrial conglomerate BTR plc for £101 million in 1985. BTR sold the US tyre business to its management for £142 million.

In 1996, BTR began to sell its remaining Dunlop businesses to various interests around the world. The sporting arm, Dunlop Slazenger, was sold to private equity firm Cinven for £372 million. Dunlop Standard, the aerospace group, was sold to private equity firm Doughty Hanson for £510 million.