Category Archives: Industrial

Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Palmer’s of Jarrow was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Jarrow became nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.

The Palmer brothers establish a shipbuilding works
Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) was born in South Shields, the son of a merchant and shipowner.

Charles Palmer partnered with John Bowes to establish a coke-making business. John Bowes & Co grew to become one of the largest colliery concerns in the North of England, producing one million tons of coal per annum.

The growth of the railway network meant that coal from the Midlands could be supplied to the large London market at a lower cost than coal from the North. Palmer believed that coal could be shipped to London at a lower cost if steam-powered vessels were used instead of wooden sailing ships.

Together with his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), Charles Palmer leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne from 1851. It had previously been used to make wooden frigates for the Royal Navy.

Palmer Brothers launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852. The John Bowes became the first steam ship to transport coal from the North of England to London.

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

Palmer Brothers soon became known for the quality of its ships,and 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 Brothers 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.

George Palmer retired from business in 1862.

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

Palmers is registered as a company
The business was registered as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd in 1865.

The Jarrow works covered nearly 100 acres of land by 1869. Four blast furnaces had a capacity of 60,000 tons of pig iron per annum. Around 5,000 men were employed.

Rolling mills were established from 1874.

Sir Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) in 1899

Charles Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament from 1874. 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.

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

A steel works was established from 1885.

Charles Palmer employed over 20,000 people by 1891, and was one of the largest employers of labour in the country.

The shipbuilding works employed 7,600 people in 1893. The majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants.

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

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

A steel-producing plant, the third of its kind in England, was opened in 1903.

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 five blast furnaces.

Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company from 1910. 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.

Palmer’s shipyard in the early twentieth century. Courtesy of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The San Hilario was launched in 1913. Built for the Eagle Oil Transport Company, it was the largest oil tank steamer afloat.

By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard.

During the First World War Palmers docked and repaired 347 warships and merchant vessels.

Palmers built its thousandth vessel in 1930.

Palmers enters into receivership
Palmers shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.

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

Building a business: Smeed Dean

How did an illiterate man establish the largest brickworks in Britain?

George Smeed
George Smeed (1811 – 1881) was born in Sittingbourne, Kent. He received little formal education. He worked for a period as a hawker, sleeping underneath roadside bushes at night. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a small public house.

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

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

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 Dean
Smeed was joined by his son-in-law, George Hambrook Dean (1834 – 1924), to form Smeed Dean & Co in 1875.

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

A portrait of George Smeed (1811 – 1881) by Eden Upton Ellis (1878). Image used with permission from Art UK.

Smeed was presented with a portrait, funded by public subscription, in recognition of his charitable works in 1878.

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 valued at £160,000. Dean succeeded him as head of the company.

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

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

Smeed Dean & Co
Following the death of Dean the business was registered as Smeed Dean & Co. 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 Smeed Dean pale yellow bricks in 1980.

Smeed Dean bricks continue to be manufactured at the Sittingbourne site.

By gum: R & J Dick of Greenhead

R & J Dick became the largest boot manufacturer in the world. The business established the first national shoe shop chain in Britain. R & J Dick later became the largest manufacturer of industrial belting.

Robert and James Dick establish the business
Robert Dick (1820 – 1891) and James Dick (1823 – 1902) were the sons of a sailor who had settled in Kilmarnock. The father died young, and the widowed mother relocated to Glasgow, where she opened a grocer’s shop.

Robert Dick was apprenticed to a watchmaker, and James Dick was apprenticed to an upholsterer.

The two men decided to utilise gutta-percha, a gum-based leather substitute, to produce a low-cost watertight-soled shoe. Robert Dick made the moulds and James Dick prepared the material. The partnership of R & J Dick was formed in 1846, with premises at Gallowgate.

R & J Dick employed nine people by 1851. Robert Dick was the engineer, and James Dick managed the business.

R & J Dick enters into mass production
A four-storey factory was acquired at Greenhead, Glasgow in 1859. R & J Dick employed 400 people by 1861.

R & J Dick supplied much of the insulation for underwater telegraph cables during this period.

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.

R & J Dick employed 943 people in 1881. 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.

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

Robert Dick invented a mechanical belt using balata gum in 1885. It was immensely strong, and resistant to oxidation, moisture and high temperatures.

R & J Dick employed 1,500 people in 1886.

Following the death of Robert Dick in 1891, James Dick reluctantly returned to manage the business. Before he left Australia, he acquired a one seventh share in the Broken Hill Silver Mine.

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 as one of the wealthiest British businessmen of his era 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 the management of the business.

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

A new American tariff on belting imports led the company to establish 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.

In order to secure a supply of balata gum, R & J Dick acquired estates in Venezuela in 1918.

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

Following a slump in balata prices, R & J Dick sustained heavy losses at its Venezuelan operation in 1921, and was forced to mortgage its properties in order to maintain sufficient working capital. The company 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 twelve 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.

R & J Dick was acquired by the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co for £1.1 million in 1962.

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.

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.

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.

At the turn of the twentieth century the British cement industry was faced with increasing competition from Continental and American producers. Henry Osborne O’Hagan (1853 – 1930) arranged for the merger of 24 British cement manufacturers, mostly based in the Thames area, to form Associated Portland Cement (APC) in 1900. O’Hagan was appointed vice chairman of the business, which 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 Columbia.

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 designed to maintain prices in the domestic market at just below those of foreign imports.

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

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.

Due to increasing sales of concrete, APC established the largest cement works in Europe at Northfleet in 1926. The works was well-sited for the raw materials of clay and chalk, and the location on the banks of the River Thames allowed for convenient export of finished product.

APC was the 15th most valuable public British company in 1930, with an estimated market value of £13.9 million.

The Red Triangle cement and brick group was acquired for over £2 million in 1931. Following the acquisition APC held 70 percent of the British cement market.

APC 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 .

APC acquired Alpha Cement in 1938. Following the takeover APC controlled 84 percent of the British cement market, and directly employed about 8,000 people.

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 was established at Selangor, Malaysia, in 1954.

Two new cement works were established at Cauldon in Staffordshire and Westbury in Wiltshire in 1954. Each site had an annual capacity of 175,000 tons, and the total cost amounted to £5 million. Following their construction, APC operated 26 cement works in Britain.

APC employed 11,000 people in 1955. It was the largest cement group in the world, and claimed to offer the product at the lowest cost.

APC enjoyed a huge growth in profits between 1955 and 1965. APC was the 15th largest public company in Britain in 1965, with a market capitalization of £138.3 million. It controlled two thirds of the British cement industry.

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 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 overly dependent on a shrinking domestic market which accounted for over half of profits.

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 British workforce was reduced by more than half to 6,500 between 1974 and 1982. It was announced that a further 1,200 jobs would be lost in 1983.

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 British 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 spent £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 invested £700 million to expand its presence in Asia. However subsequent price wars depressed the company’s share price, and rendered the business vulnerable to a takeover.

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

The Northfleet Cement Works were 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 one of the leading rubber manufacturers in the world. Its presence at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham ended after almost 100 years in 2014.

Establishment and growth of the business
John Boyd Dunlop (1840 – 1921) was a Scotsman who developed the pneumatic tyre. Harvey du Cros (1846 – 1918) established a company in Dublin to manufacture bicycle tyres based on Dunlop’s discovery in 1889. Dunlop himself was sceptical of the commercial potential of the product, and took a relatively modest 20 percent stake in the venture.

Dunlop’s first pneumatic bicycle tyre. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Dunlop tyre 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 product.

Manufacture was relocated from Dublin and Belfast to Coventry, the heart of the British cycle industry, from 1893. The business grew rapidly.

Dunlop becomes a public company
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.

Additional factories were established in the United States, France and Japan.

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.

Dunlop employed 30,000 people by 1916. That year construction began on the 400-acre Fort Dunlop headquarters and production site at Birmingham.

Fort Dunlop in Birmingham (2007). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Dunlop remained the largest tyre manufacturer in the world. Dunlop was the eighth-largest public company in Britain by 1930, with a market value of £28.2 million.

All of the 61 official world records for car speed had used Dunlop tyres by 1933.

Dunlop was a major industrial supplier for Britain during the Second World War, producing the bulk of rubber tyres and boots for the war effort.

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

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

Dunlop employed 100,000 people by 1955, and was the second-largest private employer in Britain after ICI. Dunlop was the twelfth-largest company in the world outside the United States in 1959.

Slazenger, the sporting goods business, was acquired in 1959.

Dunlop enters into decline
Dunlop was slow to adapt to the new market for steel-belted radial tyres, and had begun to decline by the early 1960s. Performance was also undermined by the decline of the British car industry.

A lengthy strike at Fort Dunlop resulted in a loss of £3 million at the group’s British operations in 1970: 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 in order to ensure supply.

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

Merger with Pirelli and break-up of the business
Dunlop merged with Pirelli of Italy to form the third-largest tyre manufacturer in the world, after Goodyear and Firestone, in 1971. The combined group had a turnover of almost £900 million.

The merger was to prove 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 reduced its workforce by over 19,000 between 1978 and 1982.

A modern Dunlop tyre. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dunlop’s tyre manufacturing operations ran at an increasing loss by 1978. Of eight European sites, only the Washington plant near Newcastle upon Tyne remained profitable by the late 1970s. The tyre operations lost £22 million in 1980.

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

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

The Dunlop workforce was reduced by half between 1970 and 1983, from 107,000 to 53,000 people.

The remnant of Dunlop was acquired by BTR, an industrial conglomerate, for £101 million in 1985.

BTR sold the United States tyre business to its management for £142 million.

Dunlop was the fourth-largest tyre brand in 1988, with sales of $3.45 billion.

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

The bulk of Sumitomo’s sales came from the Dunlop brand in 1999. Dunlop was the largest tyre supplier to Toyota and Mercedes-Benz, and one of the principal suppliers to Honda and Nissan.