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london's industrial heritage, geoff marshall

I’m so pleased about this book which has very recently been published, and I know of many others will be too. It covers a vast topic which as far as I know hasn’t properly been addressed as a popular history. I know already that this review won’t do it justice.

One is often inclined to relate the word “industrial” with regions far-flung from London, particularly the Midlands and “oop-North”.  One can also find it difficult to uncouple the word from “industrial revolution”, the idea that industry, even heavy industry didn’t exist before the late 18th Century. For these reasons alone, London’s Industrial Heritage is most welcome.

As you might expect, the book is organised by industry starting with emerging public utilities such as gas and electricity but including older ones like the postal service and fresh water.  Yes, we’re inclined to think of these last two as largely Victorian endeavours, Bazalgette, Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope and all that. But we discover that these gentlemen were more improvers and innovators of industries which were already technologically rather mature. The New River story (1613, 400 years old next month), was an astounding feat of pre-industrial engineering. Similarly, early plastics – typically used in combs, buttons etc. – were developed in London a good century before we think of their 20C ubiquity.

The drivers of industrial growth were need and opportunity. As London’s influence and wealth grew, so did its population which needed to be clothed, fed, housed, kept warm. Simultaneously, the rapidly developing  port and merchant marine made London ideally situated for goods in and out both domestically and on a global scale, leading to factories, chemicals, engineering and so on. These by dint of geography and prevailing westerly wind saw the East London in particular transformed into a steaming, stinking, noisy manufacturing global powerhouse.

Before modern concepts of branding, hundreds of enterprises sprang up with wonderful names of the type which have now all but disappeared: The Impermeable Collar and Cuff Company; The India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company; and so on. This last was based in Silvertown, named after industrialist Stephen Winkworth Silver. The area became the world capital of cable insulation at a time when the telegraph system was burgeoning around the globe with transatlantic and trans-Pacific cable being laid. At the same time, the post-Faraday generation of chemists were opening factories for dyes, acids, finishing agents and much besides. Again in Silvertown was the Brunner, Mond chemical works. Not a household name, for sure, but when it was converted to TNT manufacture during WWI, the perhaps inevitable result was the Silvertown Disaster of 19 January 1917, an explosion which killed 73 people and destroyed nearly a thousand homes.

brunner and mond

Brunner and Mond, archetypical late Victorian industrialists.

The coverage of industry in this absorbing book is comprehensive indeed: utilities, industrial chemicals as we have seen; transport; shoes and clothes; clockmaking; glass; pottery; print; shipyards; arms and munitions; silk, rope, brushes, matches, lighting, luxury goods, construction, textiles, leather goods, food; beer and spirits. The list is almost endless.

Among all of this, there are common themes. Rise and fall; mergers, acquisitions and unfortunately in most cases, extinction.  The companies with the exotic and evocative names, as noted. But of course, history is all about people, and where this book really scores for me is that the author has taken great care to weave into the narrative the stories of the businessmen and women, inventors, entrepreneurs, carpetbaggers, go-getters, chancers and visionaries who made London such a vibrant hub of commerce and manufacture. Many were Londoners, many more were attracted from elsewhere – even abroad – so compelling were the challenges and rewards of what had become the world’s largest city.

In fact, there is an astounding amount of close detail that the author has managed to cram into 250-odd pages, which include several dozen excellent photographs and illustrations, including a colour section in the middle. It’s a work of great detail without at any time being overbearing.

In summary, well-researched, well-written and well-overdue. Highly recommended.

London’s Industrial Heritage, 255pp, is published by the History Press with a cover price of £16.99.
Special Offer: London Historians members can purchase signed copies direct from the author for £10 + £2 shipping (UK residents). Details in August Members’ Newsletter!

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the trebor storyDoncaster Butterscotch. Treacle Jacks. Licorice Flaps. Grannies Chest Tablets. Fudge Fancy Boxes. These are some of the names which decorate the end papers of this handsome book. Okay, to our 21C ears I’ve chosen some slightly risqué examples, but they represent a handful of the 400-plus product lines produced by London confectionery company Trebor in the 1930s, when it was at the height of its powers. Today, just seven remain. They are market-leaders, it must be said, which is probably why they were hoovered up by Kraft* in the 2010 takeover of Cadbury which in its turn had swallowed Trebor itself in 1989.

The Trebor Story, by Matthew Crampton relates the 82 year history of this independent British sweet giant which was founded by four East London small-business entrepreneurs in 1907. Two were grocers, one a sweet salesman and one a sugar boiler: a perfect commercial pick n mix, if you will.

And so it proved. We learn how from these humble beginnings in London’s East End, Trebor grew to several plants in the area and then nationwide, employing thousands of staff and a huge fleet of brightly liveried trucks and vans (Trebor got motorised very early). Trebor spread its wings, opening factories in all around the Empire and Commonwealth, winning myriad export awards along the way. We share the vicissitudes of two World Wars, the Depression and perhaps most challenging of all – sweet rationing!

By mid-Century, the founders had retired and the next generation – notably John and Ian Marks, sons of one of the founders, chain-smoking Sydney Marks. But we also meet a remarkable group of talented businessmen and women whose expertise in sales, production, export and finance fuelled Trebor’s upward trajectory. These include the formidable Hilda Clark, who joined the company’s Forest Gate plant as a teenager in 1918, opened and ran the new Chesterfield manufacturing and distribution operation during the war and right up until her retirement in 1963, when the company gave her a car as a leaving present, an unheard of gesture hitherto.

This book has dozens of wonderful anecdotes such as these. Matthew Crampton has assembled a massively rich variety of pictures, photographs and documents. He has interviewed many employees and former employees going back many years. He has done much research. And remarkably, in best Ben Schott fashion, he has not only laid out the whole book himself, but done it with panache and skill that most large established publishers would struggle to match.

So. A lovely story, steeped in the most powerful nostalgia, with a sad ending. But an absolute  joy to read.

the trebor story

A typical spread. Lots of images, text and graphics beautifully laid out and balanced.

And finally. Trebor stands for Robert backwards, after founding partner Robert Robertson, right? Well, not quite. While the company was quite happy to perpetuate this myth, Trebor was named after the premises they moved into, Trebor Terrace, after the row’s builder, one Robert Cooper. So just a coincidence. Robertson & Woodcock, as the company was officially known, took on the moniker Trebor almost by a process of osmosis.

* Kraft has now decided to call its international snack division Mondelez. No kidding. With a crappy logo to match. On a par with Diageo, but better than Consignia, I suppose.

The Trebor Story (146 pp)  by Matthew Crampton is published by Muddler Books, officially priced at £18 but available for less. The author tweets as @Trebor_Story and has a nice try-before-you-buy web site here.

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Whitechapel Bell Foundry, LondonWhitechapel Bell Foundry in London E1 is Britain’s oldest existing business. Above the door it says 1570, but recent research indicates it may have been operating in the 1420s, and perhaps even earlier. The foundry’s business, quite obviously, is making bells. Church bells and hand bells mainly, but whatever your bell requirements, this is the place. This factory not only manufactured Big Ben and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, but has supplied thousands of churches in Britain and throughout the anglophone world. It also does a brisk business in maintenance, giving old bells a new lease of life and plenty of TLC.

Whitechapel bell foundry

Yesterday a group of London Historians took one of the foundry’s legendary tours. Our host and guide for the day was the the assured Alan Hughes, a consummate presenter whose persona reminded me a little of Edward Woodward: a man full of  acumen, confidence and knowledge, he kept us spellbound throughout. Authoritative and humourous with it.

Starting with church bells, Alan took us through the process. How moulds are made, what they comprise (sand, goat hair and horse poo, mainly), how they are shaped; the furnaces, one which can boil up to two tons of liquid bronze, the other up to six tons; the painstaking process of harmonically tuning each bell, which involves shaving metal from the inside surface of the bell – over and over again – until it is just right (fewer than 20 people in the world know how to do this); the workshop where the paraphernalia of hanging each bell is is assembled: the attachment assembly, the wooden wheels (comprising oak ash and birch) and the framed superstructure – thousands of nuts and bolts required; on to the cramped carpentry shop in the cramped loft of the building where the bell wheels are made (motto: Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself).

After that, we had a tour around the small stuff: the hand bells. Hand bells are made from the same bronze composition as their church bell brethren. The business of tuning them is less painstaking. But they are seen by the public, so they must gleam – the buffing and polishing go through many stages. Then they have their handles attached – these are made of leather – I never knew that.

As a finale, Alan swung the demonstration church bell in the garden. It is LOUD.

For about six centuries and possibly longer, hundreds – probably thousands – of craftsmen have been manufacturing bells in Whitechapel. None is apprenticed, so officially the Foundry’s staff are unskilled labour, though there cannot be a more skilled workforce anywhere. Our tour, I cannot emphasise enough, was an utter delight.

Because Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a working factory, it is only open to the public on Saturdays through the summer. Tickets are snapped up fast (I ordered ours last September). But at time of writing, they have about 140 tickets available for the rest of this year. I’d highly recommend you book yourself on a tour asap, or it’s 2013 for you. We, London Historians, will most definitely do this again next year.

Here are rather more photos than I normally post, justifiably so.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

A freshly cooked church bell.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Moulding gauges. The set on the left is Big Ben’s.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Alan Hughes on the bell-tuning platform, essentially a vertical lathe.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Where the bells are attached and hung onto their wheels and frames.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Wooden bell wheels in the carpentry shop.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

The carpentry shop motto.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Former bell makers remembered.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

A set of hand bells.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

The buffing and polishing room.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Worker humour: Goggles most been wornout.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Where leather handles are attached to hand bells.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

The smallest bells resemble perfect Christmas tree dekkies.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

BONNGGGGGGGggggggg!

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

Happy London Historians.

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Only the most unobservant users of the Piccadilly Line will not know the name Metro Cammell. “England  Metro Cammell 1973” is emblazoned on a steel floorplate under every set of doors on every carriage, thus:

metro cammell floor plate

A familiar sight to all Piccadilly Line users

It has taken me thirty years of casual acquaintance with this industrial brand before finding out more about it.

The story of Metro Cammell is the story of the British railway industry itself, from thrusting Victorian trajectory  to pathetic late-20th Century demise: the story, in fact, of British manufacturing. The company to all intents and purposes finally closed its doors as recently as 2005, having been taken over by French energy and transport giant GEC Alsthom some years previously.

But first, the name. It was the result of the merger, in 1929 of  a division of Cammell Laird and Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company Ltd. hence Metro Cammell.

northfields underground station

Trusty Metro-Cammell coaches on the Piccadilly Line

Metro Cammell had its origins deep in the pioneering times of the early railways, when a kaleidoscope of operators, engine manufacturers and carriage makers grew out of nothing to take advantage of the revolutionary new mass transport technology. Many of these companies were fierce rivals who nonetheless could not operate successfully one without the other and over the next century and a half there were myriad mergers and takeovers (read, for example, Christian Wolmar’s absorbing and amusing account in The Subterranean Railway of the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway in the early days of the London Underground).

And so with Metro Cammell. From the late 1830s, Joseph Wright and Sons of London created carriages for the London and Southampton and the London and Birmingham Railways. They moved their operation to Birmingham in 1845. Various mergers in the early 20th Century saw them emerge in 1926 as the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company Ltd. During this period they also manufatured hundreds of tanks for the war effort in World War I. Then in 1929 the company merged with the carriage division of Cammell Laird, becoming commonly known as Metro Cammell thereafter despite subsequent corporate ownership adjustments.

From this time, in addition to bus coachmaking and more tank building during World War II, the company manufactured carriages for the railways of the world: USA, Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, Jamaica, Egypt among them.

The company was still successful during the 1980s and 1990s both before and after the GEC Alsthom takeover in 1989. The name Metro Cammell disappeared forever in 1998 when the owners floated the company under the name Alstom. The early 2000s saw orders decline to the point that the last carriages were manufactured at the Washwood Heath site in 2004 at which time the organisation continued as a maintenance-only business. Washwood Heath was shut at the end of 2005 and the remaining Alstom operations continue elsewhere, a pale shadow of the once-mighty Metro Cammell.

You can read more about Metro Cammell here and especially here.

Well here we are, the last post of 2010. Thank you for reading and a very Happy New Year from London Historians.

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