Category Archives: Industrial

How the London Brick Company was built

How did London Brick become the largest brickmaker in the world?

John Cathles Hill establishes London Brick
John Cathles Hill (1857 – 1915) was born outside Dundee in Scotland. He followed his father into the wheelwright and cartwright profession.

John Cathles Hill (1857 – 1915)

Hill relocated to London in 1878 and worked as a joiner. He established his own business as J C Hill & Co with a capital of £300 and entered into the housebuilding trade from 1881.

Hill entered into brickmaking in 1889 with the acquisition of a small brickyard at Fletton, near Peterborough. The brickmaking business was incorporated as a private company called London Brick in 1900. It was probably the largest brickmaker in the world. There were factories at Fletton, Ponders End, and Great Bentley in Essex. 2.5 million bricks were produced every week. 1,500 people were employed.

Hill was declared bankrupt with liabilities of over £1.2 million in 1912. He suffered with cirrhosis of the liver for the last four years of his life and died in 1915. He was succeeded as manager of London Brick by his son, John Edgar Hill (1887 – 1937).

London Brick introduced the first fletton facing brick in 1923. It is a relatively inexpensive and versatile brick that used Lower Oxford Shale Clay. It is now readily identifiable as a standard housebuilding brick.

The Malcolm Stewart era
B J Forder & Son, controlled by Sir Halley Stewart (1838 – 1937), acquired London Brick in 1923. The merged business was known as London Brick Company & Forders. Stewart appointed his son, Malcolm Stewart (1872 – 1951), as company chairman in 1924.

Sir Malcolm Stewart (1872 – 1951)  in 1932. Image used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery.

London Brick Company & Forders was the largest brickmaker in the world by 1931. Four million bricks a day were produced.

London Brick Company & Forders extended its distribution throughout England during the interwar period.

The name of the company reverted to London Brick from 1936.

John Edgar Hill died with a net personalty valued at £344,807 in 1937.

Stewart was made a baronet in 1937.

A company record was broken in March 1938 when over 167 million bricks were produced. London Brick held around 25 percent of the British brick market.

With a production of 1.75 billion bricks per annum, London Brick had by far the largest capacity in the world by 1946.

Stewart retired as chairman in 1950 and died the following year. He left a net estate valued at £522,965.

Continued growth of the business
London Brick established the largest brickmaking works in the world at Stewartby in Bedfordshire in the early 1950s. Complete with a model village for the workforce, the site could produce twelve million bricks a week.

The Scottish market was entered in the 1950s.

The Calvert Works in Buckinghamshire were extended in 1962. A new kiln was installed to increase capacity by 50 million bricks per annum. After installation, the Calvert Works was established as the second largest brickmaking site in Britain.

A new brickworks was opened at King’s Dyke, near Peterborough, in the late 1960s.

By 1974 London Brick controlled the entire British fletton brick market, and 41 percent of the total British brick market, and was the largest brickmaker in the world.

Around 7,000 people were employed in 1982.

Hanson restructures the business
London Brick was acquired by Hanson Trust for £247 million in 1984. Hanson was already one of the largest brickmakers in Britain through its Buttlerley subsidiary.

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Hanson Trust typically acquired declining businesses, but Lord Hanson (1922 – 2004) asserted that London Brick was “essentially a well-run and managed company with a good market”. However upon acquiring the company he discovered that the industry was in steady decline. The kilns were inefficient and required replacement. London Brick’s British market share had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent between 1981 and 1985.

Lord Hanson fired the managing director, James Bristow, who later criticised Hanson’s “greed and misunderstanding of the industry … he was paying far too much for the business and couldn’t hope to get a proper return”.

1,264 people, a quarter of the London Brick workforce, were made redundant due to falling demand in 1985. Lord Hanson commented, “there are ups and downs in certain markets. We did not lay off people at London Brick to make more money. This was to save the company, which has lost market share.”

Hanson doubled profits at London Brick between 1984 and 1988.

The Stewartby works were the largest brickworks in the world in 1990, producing 10.5 million bricks a week.

The Calvert brickworks were closed with the loss of 336 jobs in 1991.

London Brick employed 1,750 people in 1992.

Hanson merged London Brick and Butterley in 1995. The two companies manufactured over one billion bricks a year, and held around 30 percent of the domestic market.

The post-Hanson era
Hanson was acquired by HeidelbergCement in 2007.

The Stewartby brickworks were closed in 2008. The site would have required substantial investment to meet UK limits for sulphur dioxide emissions due to the type of clay used.

HeidelbergCement sold its United States and British building products businesses to Lone Star Funds for $1.4 billion in 2015.

The British brickmaking business was listed on the London Stock Exchange as Forterra with a valuation of £360 million in 2016. Forterra was the second largest brickmaker in Britain, with a quarter of the market.

The London or fletton brick is still produced by Forterra at the King’s Dyke Works.

Fuelled growth: a history of F Perkins

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

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

Frank Perkins (1889 – 1967)

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

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

Over 600 engines a year were produced by 1938.

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

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

F Perkins was converted into a public company in 1951.

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

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

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

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

Massey-Ferguson was renamed Varity Corporation from 1982.

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

4,000 people were employed in Peterborough in 1997.

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

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

Bubble market: William Gossage & Sons

William Gossage & Sons was the largest soap manufacturer in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world, by 1877.

Early life and Stoke Prior
William Gossage (1799 – 1877) was born in Lincolnshire. After serving an apprenticeship to his uncle in Chesterfield, Gossage commenced trade as a chemist and druggist at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.

William Gossage (1799-1877)

Gossage was appointed chemist to the Stoke Prior Salt and Alkaki Works in Worcestershire from 1830. Gossage sank a shaft that was to prove highly successful in pumping brine. He was eventually appointed a director and managing partner of the business.

Gossage commences the manufacture of soap in Widnes
Gossage established a soda-making plant at Widnes, Merseyside, from 1850. He also produced alkali from crushed limestone. He soon gave up soda-making, and commenced the smelting of copper, which was to prove successful.

Soap prices increased during the Crimean War (1853 – 56) due to inflated tallow prices. Gossage began to manufacture a low-cost alternative soap of similar quality using sodium silicate and palm oil from 1855.

Gossage introduced blue mottled soap from 1857. Mottled soap served no superior utilitarian function, but gave the soap the pleasant aesthetic appearance of marble.

William Gossage was considered a model employer, and was highly popular with his workforce. He employed 80 men by 1861.

The two sons and T S Timmis enter the business
Alfred Howard Gossage (1831 – 1904) and Frederick Herbert Gossage (1832 – 1907), sons of William Gossage, had entered the business as partners by 1861.

Thomas Sutton Timmis (1830 – 1910) joined the business from 1865, and became a partner.

Thomas Sutton Timmis (1830 – 1910) c.1892

A H Gossage retired in 1866.

William Gossage & Sons held a contract to produce dry soap for R S Hudson from 1869.

William Gossage & Sons was the second largest soap manufacturer in Britain by 1870.

William Gossage retired from business due to ill health from 1874.

Frederick Gossage and Thomas Timmis were to drive the business forward. Gossage had the technical expertise, and Timmis possessed a keen aptitude for finance.

William Gossage & Sons was the largest soap manufacturer in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world by 1877, with an output of no less than 500 tons a week.

William Gossage & Sons employed 500 men and 40 boys by 1881.

Over 200,000 tons of mottled soap were produced between 1862 and 1887.

William Gossage & Sons held a contract to produce Sunlight soap during the early days of Lever Brothers. Frederick Gossage was said to have taught William Lever how to make soap.

Gossage and Timmis converted the business into a private limited company, William Gossage & Sons, from 1894.

William Gossage & Sons produced 1,400 tons of soap a week by 1897, and was probably the second largest soap manufacturer in the world after Lever Brothers. The business focused on the overseas trade, and had a large market in China.

Frederick Gossage died with a net personalty of £709,396 in 1907.

Thomas Timmis died in 1910 with a net personalty valued at £643,247.

Thousands of tons of blue mottled soap were produced annually by 1911. William Gossage & Sons accounted for 57 percent of all soap exported from the United Kingdom, and held 33 percent of the foreign soap trade worldwide.

Acquisition by Brunner Mond
Brunner Mond, the largest chemical manufacturer in the world, acquired William Gossage & Sons and Joseph Crosfield & Sons of Warrington, a rival soap manufacturer, in 1911. Brunner Mond was a major supplier of raw material for the soap industry, and the merger was motivated by an intent to create a strong competitor against the increasingly dominant Lever Brothers.

The Widnes site covered about fourteen acres by 1914. About 1,500 people were employed. Exports were strong throughout the British Empire, and in the Far East.

Sale to Lever Brothers
Lever Brothers acquired William Gossage & Sons and Joseph Crosfield & Sons in 1919.

William Gossage & Sons employed around 1,300 people in 1928.

The Widnes site was closed in 1932, and production was transferred to Lever Brothers-controlled plants in Bromborough and Warrington.

William Gossage & Sons was merged with Joseph Watson & Sons, a Leeds soap manufacturer that was also controlled by Lever Brothers, to form Watson & Gossage from 1937.

Life’s a bleach: a history of Domestos

How did Domestos become the leading bathroom disinfectant in the world?

W A Handley establishes the Domestos business
Wilfred Augustine Handley (1901 -1975), was the son of a blacksmith employed in the Tyneside shipbuilding industry.

W A Handley trained as a dental mechanic. As a side project, he manufactured chemicals in his garden shed. He acquired sodium hypochlorite, a waste product from the local chemical industries, including ICI Billingham, and manufactured a powerful disinfectant and sterilizer, which he called “Domestos”.

W A Handley established his “Hygienic Disinfectant Service” in 1929. Assisted by his wife Ivy, he established door-to-door sales of Domestos.

Domestos was incorporated as a private company in 1936. A factory was established at Albion Row in Byker.

Stergene, designed for washing woollens, was introduced in 1948.

Domestos enjoyed distribution across Britain by 1952.

Sqezy, the first washing-up liquid in squeezable bottles, was launched in 1957.

W A Handley placed Domestos into a company which was valued at £250,000 in 1957.

Unilever era
W A Handley required expansion capital, and the business was sold to Unilever for £2.5 million in 1961. Unilever lacked a bleach brand of its own, and was attracted to the strong growth at the company. Unilever provided managerial expertise. Handley was retained in a managerial capacity, but stepped down as chairman in 1962.

The Domestos blue plastic bottle was introduced from 1963.

The Domestos marketing and sales departments had been transferred to London by 1965.

Domestos employed 700 people by 1965.

Domestos sales continued to grow, but the Newcastle factory lacked space to expand. As a result, production of Domestos detergents including Sqezy and Stergene were transferred to the Unilever factory at Port Sunlight, Merseyside, from 1965. The customer service office was relocated to London.

Domestos held a third of the British bleach market by 1968.

Handley died with an estate valued at £172,786 in 1975.

The Domestos factory in Newcastle upon Tyne was closed with the loss of 160 jobs in 1975, and operations were relocated to Port Sunlight.

Domestos was sold throughout Europe by the end of the 1970s. It was introduced to Australia from 1981.

Domestos is a leading product in the Unilever Home Care division. Sales doubled between 2012 and 2022. Domestos is sold in over 45 countries, sometimes under different brand names, such as Domex (India and the Philippines), Glorix (Netherlands), Vim (Vietnam, Argentina and Brazil), Promax and Klinex (Greece). According to Unilever, Domestos is a leading brand in nearly every market where it is sold.

Ring their praises: Bell Brothers

Bell Brothers was the second largest producer of pig iron in the North of England.

Bell Brothers
Thomas Bell (1774 – 1845) was born at Lowhurst, Cumberland. He entered the business of Losh & Co of Newcastle upon Tyne, a firm of merchants which was branching out into the manufacture of alkali and iron, in 1808. He became a partner in the firm, which became known as Losh, Wilson & Bell.

Thomas Bell’s sons, Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) and John Bell (1818 – 1888), established Bell Brothers in 1844. They leased an iron smelting works at Wylam on Tyne.

Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) by Henry Tanworth Wells. Image used with permission from Middlesbrough Town Hall

Lowthian Bell was the senior partner. Educated in the sciences at the Sorbonne in France, he spoke fluent German, Danish and French. Bell would later be heralded as the first scientifically trained ironmaster.

John Vaughan discovered sizeable deposits of ironstone (from which iron ore could be extracted) at Eston in the Cleveland hills near Middlesbrough.

John Bell made his own ironstone discovery at Normanby, and leased the land from the Ward Jackson family. Two blast furnaces were erected at Port Clarence, Cleveland in 1853. Three more were built the following year.

Bell Brothers was registered as a limited liability company in 1873. The company remained entirely family controlled.

Two new blast furnaces were opened in 1874, and the company announced plans to increase capacity to 750 tons of iron per day.

Bell Brothers pioneered the Teesside salt industry. The company began to bore salt from 1882, and by the end of the year had a productive capacity of up to 400 tons of salt a week. The salt was sold to Tyneside chemical manufacturers, who used it to produce alkali. By April 1883 the company produced 860 tons of salt a week.

By this time, Teesside was the largest producer of iron in the world.

Bell Brothers operated twelve blast furnaces at Port Clarence by 1877. The company also operated ironstone mines, limestone quarries and collieries. Around £1 million in capital was invested in the business. The company was second only to Bolckow Vaughan in pig iron production in the North of England.

Thomas Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931), the son of Lowthian Bell, was responsible for managing the business by this time.

Thomas Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931) in the 1910s. Image used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery

Bell Brothers announced plans to develop a steel works at Port Clarence in 1887. The works would use the Siemens-Martin process, instead of the established Bessemer process, to manufacture steel from Cleveland pig iron. The strategy allowed the company to exit the increasingly competitive iron market.

Bell Brothers employed 4,500 men in 1898. The company had an authorised capital of £825,000.

Bell Brothers divested its salt interests to Salt Union and Brunner Mond in 1899.

Merger with Dorman Long
Dorman Long acquired half of Bell Brothers from Thomas Hugh Bell in 1899. The remaining half was acquired from Lowthian Bell in 1902.

Lowthian Bell became chairman of Dorman Long. With a capital of £1 million, the merged company was the largest iron and steel manufacturer in the North of England.

Bell Brothers produced 360,000 tons of pig iron in 1903. The number of blast furnaces had been reduced to eight by 1905.

Bell Brothers blast furnaces at Port Clarence in 1917

Lowthian Bell died with an estate valued at £768,676 in 1904.

The Bell Brothers subsidiary was formally liquidated in 1923.

Weetman Pearson: Britain’s oil baron

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

S Pearson & Son was a public works contractor founded by Samuel Pearson in Yorkshire in 1844. Weetman Pearson (1856 – 1927) entered the business founded by his grandfather at the age of 16.

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

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

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

Weetman Pearson (1856 – 1927) in 1917

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

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

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

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

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

Porfirio Diaz  (1830 – 1915) in 1907

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearson died with an estate valued at £4 million in 1927. According to his obituary in the Manchester Guardian, he “never lost his accent and pleasant Yorkshire ways”.

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

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

Further reading
Young, Desmond, Member for Mexico: a biography of Weetman Pearson, first Viscount Cowdray (1966)

Unravelling the history of the Belfast Ropework Co

The Belfast Ropework Co was the largest ropemaker in the world.

W H Smiles establishes the largest ropemaker in the world
William Holmes Smiles (1846 – 1904), the son of Self Help author Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), acquired a half share in a small Belfast ropewalk (a place where rope is made) in 1871.

Smiles established the Belfast Ropework Co as a limited company in 1876. He had three partners, including G W Wolff (1834 – 1913), of the Belfast shipbuilding firm Harland & Wolff.

G W Wolff was the chairman, and William Holmes Smiles was managing director. It was the organisational ability and energy of Smiles that would enable the venture to prosper.

50 people were initially employed on a four acre site at Connswater, Belfast.

Edward Harland (1831 – 1895), of Harland & Wolff, soon became a large shareholder.

The business grew in tandem with the growth of the Belfast shipbuilding industry. 300 people were employed at the works by 1880.

Progress was being made in export markets by 1880.

It was the largest rope works in the world by 1892, and the company employed a capital of £250,000.

W H Smiles would see his health broken due to overwork, and he died in 1904 with a relatively modest estate valued at £6,303. By this time the ropeworks spanned over 40 acres and employed 3,000 people.

Smiles was succeeded as managing director of the Belfast Ropework Co by his son, John Holmes Smiles (1875 – 1955). Between 1904 and 1910, Smiles managed to treble company profits.

In one year during the First World War the business produced 20,000 tons of twine, cord and rope.

Over 3,500 workers were employed by 1919, as well as a staff of over 150 clerks. The company served over 100,000 customers.

The Belfast Ropework Company was registered in London in 1930 with a nominal capital of £1 million. The works had a productive capacity of 350 tons of rope a week.

The Belfast Ropeworks site suffered heavy damage due to air raids during the Second World War, but continued to produce goods for the war effort, including camouflage nets.

Post-war decline and closure
The Belfast Ropeworks entered into decline following the end of the Second World War.

The company still operated the largest single rope factory in the world in 1957.

Belfast Ropeworks employed 1,000 people in 1968. However the business was loss-making, and it was sold to McCleery L’Amie in 1970.

McCleery L’Amie ended hemp rope production in favour of synthetic fibres from 1973.

A slump in demand for ropes and twines, as well as the growth of low-cost imports from overseas, particularly Portugal, saw the Belfast Ropeworks become loss-making, and the site was closed in 1978.

McCleery L’Amie was acquired by Lamont Holdings for £2.5 million in 1980.

The Connswater Shopping Centre was opened on the site of the Belfast Ropeworks in 1983.

How Bryant & May met their match

Bryant & May was the largest matchstick manufacturer in Britain. It remains a leading premium brand of matches.

William Bryant (1804 – 1874) and Francis May (1803 -1885), two Quakers from Plymouth, entered into partnership to manufacture tallow and candles from 1844.

Bryant & May acquired the British rights to the safety match from Carl Lundstrom (1823 – 1917) of Sweden in 1855. The product proved so successful that Lundstrom struggled to meet demand. A factory was established at Fairfield Road, Bow, London, from 1861. As was usual for the time, a workforce consisting partly of children was employed.

Remnants of the Bow factory

Wilberforce Bryant (1837 – 1906), the son of William Bryant, joined the partnership. Francis May left the partnership in 1864.

About 1,500 people were employed by 1871. The Graphic commented that the workforce were “by no means the miserable, emaciated, half-starved creatures whom some of our readers might expect to see. On the contrary they were, as a rule, stout, ruddy and decently dressed, and the younger children especially seemed full of spirit”.

William Bryant died with a personal estate valued at under £160,000 in 1874.

Introduction of white phosphorus matches
Bryant & May began to manufacture “strike anywhere” matches, which used white (also called yellow) phosphorous, which could cause phosphorus necrosis among workers.

Bryant & May employed at least 5,000 people by 1876.

A visitor in 1881 commented in the New Monthly Magazine on the “cheerful labour” of the workforce, and denied the existence of cruel managers, fire risk and ill health caused by phosphorus.

Bryant & May had developed a considerable export trade by 1881. The Fairfield Works covered over six acres. Matchbox making and labelling employed 3,000 females within their own homes throughout the local neighbourhood.

Bryant & May was registered as a limited liability company in 1884. That year, Bell & Black, its Bow rival, was acquired to form the largest match manufacturer in Britain.

Gilbert Bartholomew (1852 – 1911), the secretary and manager of Bell & Black, was appointed managing director of Bryant & May.

Bryant & May produced around 300 million matches a day by 1886.

1,200 young women went on strike at the Bow factory in 1887.

1,400 young women went on strike at the Bow factory in 1888. Bryant & May management acquiesced to almost all of the strikers’ demands. An unpopular system of fines for misbehaviour was ended. It appeared that foremen had misrepresented the strikers’ position to the company directors, who subsequently requested that complaints be addressed directly to them in future, in order to avoid further misunderstandings.

Bryant & May employed around 2,000 workers in 1895, including around 1,200 to 1,500 women and girls.

Operations were established in Brazil from 1895.

Phosphorus necrosis cover-up
Bryant & May recorded 47 cases of phosphorus necrosis amongst its workforce between 1878 and 1898. A new law meant that every case of phosphorus poisoning had to be referred to the Government from 1893. However the company failed to report 17 cases, including six deaths. None of the deaths were attributed to necrosis poisoning, but the disease may have been a contributory factor.

Gilbert Bartholomew readily admitted the company’s guilt. He argued that matchmaking was a safer trade than many others such as brick-making or linen-weaving, and suggested that Bryant & May would support a ban on the sale of phosphorus matches, which had around 90 percent of the market.

Bryant & May were liberal employers for the period. The deaths went unreported due to a desire to maintain that strong public image.

Wilberforce Bryant subsequently announced that the company would abolish the use of white phosphorus from 1900.

Twentieth century and growth through acquisition
Bryant & May soon found keen competition in the match market. The Diamond Match Company used a Beecher match-making machine which could manufacture superior matches at half the cost of the Bryant & May product. Bryant & May acquired the Diamond Match Company for £480,000 in order to avoid a costly trade war in 1901. The acquisition gave Bryant & May the rights to the Swan Vesta brand of matches, and a large factory in Litherland, Liverpool.

A 34 percent stake in the Lion Match Co of South Africa was acquired in 1905.

An Australian factory was established in Melbourne in 1909.

Bryant & May had a productive capacity of over 90 billion matches and over 100,000 miles of wax vestas and tapers per annum by 1909. The Litherland factory employed around 1,000 people.

Moreland & Son of Gloucester, manufacturer of England’s Glory matches, was acquired in 1913.

The Moreland factory

The Bow and Litherland factories each covered seven acres by 1914.

Bryant & May employed 3,500 workers by 1921.

A factory was established in Glasgow from 1921. The Scottish Bluebell matchstick brand was introduced.

Bryant & May acquired the English interests of Maguire, Paterson & Palmer, match manufacturers of Garston in Liverpool, in 1922. With the acquisition of its last substantial British rival, Bryant & May would only contend with competition from imported matches from Sweden.

Bryant & May had an authorised share capital of £2 million by 1922. The company owned, or had large stakes in, factories in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and South America.

Bryant & May had the largest share of the Brazilian match market by 1926.

Merger with Swedish Match
Bryant & May merged with the British subsidiary of the Swedish Match Company to form the British Match Corporation in 1927. The company had a nominal capital of £6 million. Swedish Match held a stake of approximately one third of British Match.

British Match employed 1,000 people and produced 45 billion matches in 1934. British Match was the 35th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £8.1 million by 1935.

The Litherland factory was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941, and production was relocated to Garston.

The decline of matchmaking
Bryant & May held around 55 percent of the British match market in 1971. However the market was in decline, and factory closures were to prove inevitable. The Bow factory closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 1971. British Match entered into disposable lighter production as matchstick sales declined.

British Match employed 12,200 people in 1973, including 4,600 in the United Kingdom.

British Match was keen to diversify its product portfolio. It acquired Wilkinson Sword, with around half of the British shaving razor market, for £19 million in 1973. The company was renamed Wilkinson Match.

The Gloucester match factory was closed in 1975.

Swedish Match sold its shareholding in Wilkinson Match to Allegheny of Pittsburgh, a large American steel business, in 1978.

The marketing and administration departments at Bow were transferred to the Wilkinson Sword headquarters at High Wycombe in 1980.

Allegheny acquired full control of Wilkinson Match in 1980.

The Glasgow factory was closed in 1981.

The Garston site had been largely automated by 1986. It was the last remaining match factory in Britain. It employed 317 people, and had a productive capacity of 35 billion matches per annum.

Allegheny sold Wilkinson Match to Swedish Match in 1987. This resulting in Swedish Match holding over 80 percent of the British match market, and nearly half of the disposable lighter market.

The Garston factory was closed with the loss of 96 jobs in 1994. It marked the end of match manufacturing in Britain. Sales had declined due to the decline of smoking and open fires, as well as the removal of excise duty from disposable lighters. Production was relocated to Sweden.

Steely resolve: Consett Iron Company

The Consett Iron Company was the largest steel manufacturer in the world.

The Derwent Iron Works were established Consett, County Durham, in 1840. The works were the largest in England by 1860, with eleven blast furnaces on a site of over 70 acres and a workforce of nearly 4,000 men and boys.

A view of the Consett steel works in 1979 (Credit to Wayne Phillips)

Despite its scale, the company was notoriously unprofitable. When the Northumberland and Durham District Bank failed, the Derwent Iron Works owed the bank £960,000.

The works were acquired by the newly-formed Consett Iron Company for £295,318 in 1864. Capital was £400,000. The company was controlled by John Henderson (1807 – 1884), and two Quakers, Joseph Whitwell Pease (1828 – 1903) and David Dale (1829 – 1906). The company had 18 blast furnaces, only seven of which were in use.

The Consett Iron Co employed 4,000 to 5,000 men in 1865.

William Jenkins (1825 – 1895), a Welshman, was appointed general manager from 1869, having previously managed the works of John Guest. Jenkins was largely credited with the turnaround of the Consett works.

A political Liberal, and a staunch churchgoer, Jenkins was a humane and kind man, and generally retained his workforce, even during slack trading periods. He had a keen commercial mind and was a strong judge of character.

45,038 tons of iron were produced in 1869. Company share capital amounted to £352,732.

The Consett Iron Co operated the largest iron plate works in the world by 1875. The company employed 5,000 people by 1878.

The Consett Iron Co manufactured 1,600 tons of iron plate every week by 1880. 132,085 tons of iron and steel were produced in 1890, and the company had a share capital of £736,000.

The Consett Iron Co was the largest steel manufacturer in the world by 1894. The company was remarkably profitable, a testament to its strong management.

The Consett Iron Co had a share capital of £3.5 million in 1922.

The Consett Iron Co established a steelworks at Jarrow, Tyneside from 1940.

The company’s seven collieries were nationalised in 1947.

The Consett Iron Co had an authorised capital of £19 million in 1955. 6,300 people were employed at the Consett and Jarrow sites.

The Consett Iron Co employed 7,337 people in 1965.

The Consett Iron Co was nationalised in 1967 and became a part of British Steel.

The Consett steel works were closed due to overcapacity in the industry in 1980. Almost 4,000 jobs were lost.

Building bridges: Dorman Long

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

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

Arthur John Dorman (1848 – 1931) in 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The North Eastern Steel Company was acquired in 1903.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

British Steel & Tube was nationalised later that year under the name British Steel. Redpath Dorman Long was formed as the heavy engineering and bridge-building subsidiary.

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

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

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

Cleveland Bridge continued to operate from a 22-acre site in Darlington, where it employed 250 people. The business entered into administration in 2021.