British Manufacturing

British Manufacturing

Thursday, October 21, 2021

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World - blurb

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an assertion, but history shows that, in the late eighteenth century, a remarkable combination of factors and circumstances combined to give birth to Britain as the first manufacturing nation. Further factors allowed it to remain top manufacturing dog well into the twentieth century, although other countries were busy playing catch up. Through two world wars and the surrounding years, British manufacturing remained strong, albeit whilst ceding the lead to the United States.

This book seeks to tell the remarkable story of British manufacturing, using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a prism. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole had conceived an idea of bringing together exhibits from manufacturers across the world to show to its many millions of visitors the pre-eminence of the British. 1851 was not the start, but rather a pause for a bask in glory. 

I trace back from the exhibits in Hyde Park’s crystal palace to identify the factors that gave rise to this pre-eminence. I then follow developments up until the Festival of Britain exactly one century later. Steam power and communication by electric telegraph, both British inventions, predated the Exhibition. After it, came the sewing machine and bicycle, motor car and aeroplane, but also electrical power, radio and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries where Britain played a leading part.   

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

British Manufacturing and net zero

The power for the kick start for the Industrial Revolution was water. Arkwright’s mill in deepest Derbyshire was powered by water rushing down from the peaks. 

A little later, in Northumberland, a young William Armstrong walked through moors outside Newcastle and marvelled at the latent power in the streams. He would harness this hydraulic power in many of the machines he made, not least in the docks of New Grimsby. 

Later, William Siemens would harness water power to drive the generator he installed to light the Surrey town of Godalming.

Later still, the smelting of aluminium was made economically possible by the use of Scottish hydro-electric power. 

The Festival of Britain celebrated the potential of water power in the exhibition at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. 

These are perhaps small examples from the history of British manufacturing which underline the age old fact that nothing is new. We had power before fossil fuels and will do so again once they have ceased to be used. 

It is though a question of scale. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain both exported more coal than any other country and imported more oil. What we now have a plenty are talented engineers ready to take on the challenge of net zero. 

The Duke of Devonshire’s artificial water fall at Chatsworth. It was the Devonshires who sold Barrow shipyard to Vickers. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Our manufacturing past and canals

Our canals provided an essential means of transport now they offer a fascinating view of some of our manufacturing past. 

The future of British manufacturing looks to other means of transport. British Volt is just one example. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World

The title of my forthcoming book on the history of British manufacturing has changed to How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. 

The word ‘shaped‘ describes the story so much better than the original ‘created’. It also endures much longer. For whilst Arkwright might have created the first factory, British manufacturers have been shaping worldwide manufacturing ever since. 

Today it seems a brave, or even reckless, assertion to suggest that Britain might have shaped the manufacturing world. Yet, looking back through history, there is a grubby British thumb-print on many of the world’s manufacturing industries. In this book I try to explore the assertion by unfolding what is quite a remarkable story. In order to do this I have drawn on the detailed research of a great many people without whose work this volume would not have been possible. At the outset, I acknowledge my debt to them.

I am not saying that Britain alone shaped the manufacturing world, but, as I will explain, it almost certainly started a process that would continue over many decades. The role played by Britain diminished as that played by other nations increased, but it didn’t disappear; indeed, it remained strongly influential. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Derby and British Manufacturing

In Derwent Mill in Derby in the 1720s a mill was established to produce silk, adopting a method that had been used in Italy. It is suggested that Arkwright may well have taken his inspiration from this. It is perhaps yet another instance where methods were developed in an unseen collaboration between people of many nations and regions. Derwent Valley Mills are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and house an exhibition of making.

That may have been Derby's first mention in the history of British manufacturing, but much more was yet to come. Here is but one illustration.

Henry Royce had run an electrical and mechanical business since 1884, and in 1904 met Charles Rolls, an old Etonian car dealer. Royce had made a car powered by his two-cylinder engine, which greatly impressed Rolls. The two agreed that four models would be made under the Rolls-Royce brand and that Rolls would have the exclusive right to sell them. The car was revealed at the Paris Motor Show of 1904. The two men needed to find a factory in which to make them. Derby offered them cheap electricity, and so they selected the site at Sinfin Lane where a factory was built to Royce’s design. 

Field Marshall Montgomery's Rolls-Royce

The Great Exhibition 1851 and my family

One of my treasured possessions is the signed cover of a copy of the catalogue of the Great Exhibition presented to my great-grandfather, Richard Williams, by the members of the Surgical and Anatomical Committee Class X, ‘as a slight token of the services rendered by him as Secretary’. 

Richard managed the business of John Weiss & Son, manufacturers of surgical instruments at 62 The Strand, and, I like to think, offered his services for the exhibition. John Weiss & Son had produced a most marvellous instrument comprising 1,851 knives. This was clearly a bit of showing off. Yet, behind the scenes, advances were being made in surgery with the work of Lister and others, and the makers of instruments were taking up the challenge to keep pace. Weiss & Son are still in business. I imagine Richard’s son, Alfred my grandfather at age nineteen, visiting the exhibition and being inspired by all he saw. He would go on to register a number of patents during his varied career, including that for a life raft for which he won a number of awards. It was an age of invention. 

The catalogue does make fascinating reading and leaves the reader wanting a first-hand account of a visit and there is one first-hand account by a visitor with whom I am very familiar, Charlotte Brontë, my great-great uncle, William Smith Williams, having worked with her at her publishers. Charlotte’s relationship with the Exhibition was perhaps characteristic of the attitudes of many people removed from industry. On 17 April 1851, she wrote to her publisher George Smith’s mother to say, ‘I was nursing a comfortable and complacent conviction that I had quite made up my mind not to go to London this year: the Great Exhibition was nothing – only a series of bazaars under a magnified hothouse.’  She did though go, as she wrote to her father on 31 May 1851:

‘Yesterday we went to the Crystal Palace – the exterior has a strange and elegant but somewhat unsubstantial effect – The interior is like a mighty Vanity Fair  - the brightest colours blaze on all sides – and wares of all kinds – from diamonds to spinning jennies and Printing Presses are there to be seen – It was very fine – gorgeous – animated – bewildering…’

The Great Exhibition drew both great praise and harsh criticism. A wonderful series of lithographs were produced by Lowes Dickinson and this is available for us to see on the British Library website. Lowes Dickinson was William Smith Williams son in law.

William Smith Williams makes no comment on this major national event, or rather any comment he may have made has been lost. The involvement of Lowes Dickinson may suggest a visit by William’s daughter, Margaret, even though she and Lowes wouldn’t marry for a further six years. This involvement and William’s earlier connection with Henry Cole with a paper he wrote On Lithography, would certainly suggest to me that William himself would have visited. The lithographer for whom William had worked, Charles Hullmandel, was an exhibiter with a demonstration of the technique. 

Richard Williams

Sunday, September 12, 2021

What do we mean by manufacturing?

I tend to see manufacturing, as distinct from making, where there is an element of mass production and/or mechanisation. 

In historic terms, we see manufacturing appearing when textiles were produced in a manufactory such as a mill driven by water power, instead of the cottage.  Birmingham gunsmiths offer a different example with the manufacturing process split down into constituent parts with each carried out by a different person, often in a different workshop. We can see how the production line developed from this.

A related question is which pairs of hands are manufacturing and which are providing a related service. The Office of National Statistics, I think, stumbled across this issue when comparing manufacturing employment over the post war period where they saw services being outsourced and so the related employees no longer being included in the returns made by manufacturing companies. This links to an example I found on a manufacturing blog in which manufacturing companies are placed in the spotlight. I was surprised to find a component distributor included and was told that it was part of the supply chain.

There are then questions of ownership and geography. Rolls-Royce and JCB are British manufacturing companies which manufacture both in the UK and elsewhere. Nissan is a Japanese company which manufactures in many countries including Britain; the same is true of the growing number of electric vehicle related companies building manufacturing plant in Britain. Some toy manufacturers, for example, who used to manufacture in the UK now have their products made in China Are they all British manufacturers? 

What about Manufacturers and makers? This image from the Bovey Tracy Craft Fair shows a few of the two hundred stands where makers sell the pieces they have made. This is a vibrant part of the economy and can lead to manufacturing.

I have friends who design and make table wear. If a particular design attracts great interest they may ask 'manufacturing' businesses to make them. They are no longer hand made, but who is the manufacturer? An article in Monocle magazine tells of the revival in Stoke’s pottery manufacturers. Another friend told me of Somerset textile factories which are more and more undertaking contract work for makers. 

Are they all part of the bigger manufacturing picture ?


How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World - blurb

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an asser...