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British Industrial History

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Alley and MacLellan by William S. Murphy

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From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


THERE is a shipbuilding yard in Glasgow from which never a ship is launched, but where many a ship is built. This reads like a conundrum, but it is a plain statement of actual fact. Messrs. Alley & MacLellan's shipbuilding yard lies far from the Clyde or any waterway; indeed, the firm seems never to have coveted the launching slip, though assiduously cultivating the shipbuilding branch of its business. The reason for this lies in the peculiar nature of the craft they chiefly undertake to build. No kind of ship would come amiss to this firm but it might be somewhat difficult for a battleship or ocean liner to emerge from the landlocked yard at Polmadie. Messrs. Alley & MacLellan build the vessels ordered from them in such a fashion that they can be taken apart in sections, conveyed to the launching port, and there rejoined. Many wonderful feats have thus been accomplished. Great inland lakes, rivers whose passage to the ocean has been marred by rocky rapids and ice-bound bays, are navigated by vessels which could only have been conveyed overland in sections and reconstructed at the inland ports. Lake Nyassa, Lake Baikal, the rivers of Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia all bear vessels built in the Polmadie yard. The firm's speciality seems to be steamers of very shallow draught, stern-wheelers, pontoons, barges, side-paddle steamers, some of them capable of carrying heavy cargo in a depth of 14 inches of fresh water. Shipbuilding, however, though the most curious and striking branch of the Sentinel Engineering establishment, is by no means the chief; in fact, the building of light-draught steamers came in as an after-thought.

Messrs. Alley & MacLellan's chief business is the making of high-speed ermines, steering-gear, stop-valves, safety-valves, feed-water filters, crane hoists, and excavators, each different article being a special device invented or adapted by the firm. The Sentinel Works. as they are called, extend over a wide area, and employ nearly 930 men, as well as labour-saving machinery of every kind. A vast business is represented by these facts, and it has been built up chiefly through the indomitable energy and inventive resource of two men — Mr. Stephen Alley and Mr. John A. MacLellan.

Mr. Stephen Alley was the son of an Irish medical man Born on 22nd February, 1840, at Blessington, County Kildare, he remained in his native land till the age of fourteen, when, having become strongly enamoured of the engineering trade, he was sent to Glasgow and apprenticed with Messrs. Forrest & Barr, of that city. For reasons we are not given, the youth transferred his services to Messrs. A. & J. Inglis, of Pointhouse, then engineers at Cranston- hill, and served the greater part of his apprenticeship with that notable firm. His apprenticeship finished, Mr. Alley engaged with Mr. Edmund Hunt, a patent agent in the city, and doubtless acquired in that office many ideas for future use. While yet under thirty he was appointed manager over the tool department in Messrs. Neilson Brothers, Hydepark Works. This position, however, was not independent enough, and in 1870 Mr. Alley entered into a five years' partnership with Mr. John H. Carruthers to form a firm of consulting engineers. The new firm obtained good work, and was entrusted, among other important undertakings, with the planning and erecting the Clutha Engineering Works for P. & W. MacLellan. When the term of his partnership expired, Mr. Alley contracted another partnership for a different kind of work; he joined Mr. John A. MacLellan, and they together founded the Sentinel Engineering Works. The original site of these works was at London Road, Bridgeton, but about 1880 it was found that the business was fast outgrowing the premises, and new ground had to be sought for.

The district of Polmadie, though intersected by the Caledonian Railway, was sparsely populated and still open to enterprise. Upon this spot, therefore, Messrs. Alley & MacLellan built their new premises, taking care to secure ground for future expansion. Nor was their foresight unnecessary, for in a few years the premises were almost doubled in size, and afterwards the shipbuilding yard was added. These extensions have not altered the original symmetry of the works, through which light railways run from department to department, conveying the products from one stage to another. Facing Polmadie Road stand the drawing offices and counting-house. On the ground floor are situated the various office departments, and the first floor is almost wholly occupied by the draughtsmen and photographers. The principal drawing office is a wide hall, lighted from the roof and side, and comfortably equipped for a large staff. Behind the counting-house the pattern shop is conveniently placed, a fine workroom, employing thirty pattern makers, and equipped with the usual complement of band saws, circular saws, lathes, and planes.

On the other side of the yard, within easy reach of the pattern shop, the iron foundry extends in two divisions over a wide area. The melting cupolas are beside the foundry, requiring little or no carrying of the molten metal to the moulds. One division is for light castings, the other for heavy work. The light casting shop measures 100 ft. by 140 ft., and all along the wide floor stand hydraulic moulding machines or ranges of small moulds awaiting the red iron or being filled with the liquid metal. In the floor of the heavy casting shop deep pits are dug, and within these holes the various operations of moulding are being conducted. Here the wooden patterns are being smothered in loam; there the moulds rise in symmetrical shapes from the rough-hewn pits; at another place the cores have been set, and the upper half of the mould is being laid on, while the dark sarcophagus-looking moulds at one pit and another receive within their deep hollows the flaming stream of molten iron. Overhead two mighty cranes are ready to lift the completed castings, while along the walls, like gigantic brackets, long-armed cranes are standing, to assist the workmen with their heavy loads. Adjacent to the casting shop, the brass foundry produces all the brass and gun-metal castings used by the firm, and in the flat above work the brass-finishers, assisted by machinery of the latest type.

The machine shop adjoining is a splendid apartment—splendid in size and mechanical equipment, machine tools of various sizes and many kinds changing the stubborn iron into useful shapes. When the machines have dose their best nothing is left but to put the pieces of moulded, drilled, squared, planed or turned metal together; this is done in the erecting shop, a lofty building, 80 ft. high and 150 ft. long. Pieces of machinery in different stages of construction are here to be seen at all times. The Westinghouse engine, so long a mystery to many an engineer, is there seen half built and naked; the Sentinel high-speed engines have some of them just to get their. Jackets on, and others are merely frames; the great cranes- for docks and harbours have to be fitted together piece by piece; but in whatever stage the various products may- happen to be at any moment of observation they are not long in advancing toward perfection and vanishing on rail way truck or traction bogie for use at home or abroad-

Messrs. Alley & MacLellan make speciality of valves for use in water works, on steam engines, or gas works. The valve shop is practically a department by itself, having several sub-divisions. In one room there are as many wonderful milling and drilling machines for turning out valves alone as would equip a large foundry. Messrs. Alley & MacLellan leave nothing to chance here, everything is made to gauge, and in the least possible time. Next door is the test shop, an absolute necessity to a firm which sends so much of its work in sections abroad.

Over the way, on the east side of Polmadie Road, is the land-locked shipbuilding yard that gives Messrs. Alley & MacLellan a piquant fame. It is an extensive place, fitted up like any shipyard on the Clyde. The offices and stores flank the main entrance to the yard, and a short distance inward are the plate and angle furnaces, the punching and sheering machines, plate-bending rolls, and angle-straightening machines, erected partly in the open, the space under the template gallery, which measures i 5o ft. long by 40 ft. broad, having an outlet at every part in order to allow free access and egress all through. Near at hand is the smithy, with 19 fires, 6 steam hammers, hydraulic presses, and other forging implements. The other departments of the yard are proportionate, and turn out a large number of vessels every year.

These works exhibit originality and energy. Of the two partners, Mr. Alley might be safely allowed to possess the greater originality. He was a man of strong practical sense, and devoted his gift in mechanics to directly practical ends. The Sentinel Works furnish many evidences of his inventive ability, a large number of the machines used being inventions of his own. Mr. Alley took a deep interest in mechanical science. He became a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1877, and contributed a paper to the Glasgow meeting in 1879. He also took a prominent part in the Glasgow Exhibition of 1888, and for the Exhibition of 1901 was chosen chairman of the machinery section. He was removed by death, however, in 1898. Yet the works which he and his partner organised have lost no trade, thus showing the value of organisation in industry. "A task well begun is half done," says the old proverb, and industrial experience suggests the parallel: A business well organised is well established.

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