Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,138 pages of information and 245,599 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter V

From Graces Guide



The origin and development of the engineering works of the Eastern Counties of England constitute one of the most remarkable chapters in British manufacturing enterprise. The firms who created the great Eastern Counties engineering industry, though now in part amalgamated under central managements, were all originally privately owned and concerned mainly with the manufacture of agricultural machinery and light locomotives. Their works were, not inappropriately, established in that part of England in which arable farming still holds its own and which covers an area stretching from the Thames up as far as the Humber River.

It may cause some surprise to those who associate East Anglia and Lincolnshire chiefly with partridge driving, sheep grazing, turnips, drainage levels and other agricultural activities, to learn that the capital invested in engineering east of the main line of the London and North-Eastern (formerly Great Northern) Railway from London to York amounts to almost as much as that engaged in marine-engine construction on the Clyde or in shipbuilding and engineering on the north-east coast. The capital invested in Eastern Counties engineering is in magnitude scarcely exceeded by the whole registered share capital of the railway locomotive establishments of Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle put together. No fewer than 20,000 skilled hands find employment in the various centres of the industry. Its founders were all Eastern Counties men, and the industry, on which quite 100,000 people are dependent, is continued by their descendants. Large fortunes have been made by Eastern Counties engineers in the past, though the level of profits, owing to keen competition abroad and at home, together with other circumstances inherited from the war, has considerably declined from that of the earlier days of the industry.

In past days, sickles, scythes, rakes, ploughshares and other agricultural implements used to be made by the smiths and cutlers settled round Sheffield; but as the products of machinery gradually drove out these primitive tools, the sons of the local cutlers found occupation in the new machine shops of Lincolnshire and Suffolk, along with men and boys drawn directly from agricultural employment. The engineering output of these districts comprises ploughs, horse-rakes, cultivators, reaping machines, threshing machines, rice-cutting machines, maize-shellers, sugar plant, boilers of all kinds, winding, traction and horizontal engines, oil engines, corn mills, saw mills, air compressors, steam navvies, pumps, cranes, conveyors, light railway switches and crossings, water tanks, chain truck tractors, road rollers, crude oil engines, light locomotives and gold-dredging plants. This somewhat incomplete recital of the chief productions of this remarkable industry affords an idea, not merely of the complexities of the Eastern Counties manufactures, but of the numerous markets at home, in the Colonies and in foreign countries which absorb these widely varying appliances. The diversity that characterises the manufactured output of this region has probably had much to do with the continuous prosperity which the Eastern district has in the past enjoyed.

Few towns of any consideration in the Eastern Counties are without an engineering shop, which, like the monastery of the Middle Ages, attracts an industrial population around its site. Among these, Colchester, Ipswich, Leiston, Thetford, Grantham, Lincoln and Gainsborough are the chief. Of the five leading firms in this district the senior position is claimed by Charles Burrell and Sons (now amalgamated with Agricultural and General Engineers) of Thetford, in Norfolk, who date their foundation from 1770. Richard Garrett and Sons (now amalgamated with Agricultural and General Engineers) of Leiston, in Suffolk, and Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies of Ipswich were founded in 1778, eight years later. Closely following come Ransomes and Rapier of Ipswich, and Davey, Paxman and Co (now amalgamated with Agricultural and General Engineers) of Colchester. The aggregate capital of these five firms is very large, and they employ collectively many thousands of workers.

During a period stretching so far back as 1770 it may be supposed that the operations of these concerns have undergone great modifications. The first three, however, still remain pre-eminently agricultural engineers, making everything from the simple garden rake to the most costly traction machine. Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies are credited with the construction of the first steam threshing-machine ever exhibited. Charles Burrell and Sons possess a similar distinction in the combined threshing and dressing machine, and have attained a high reputation through the use of their patents relating to traction engines and road locomotives, compound and spring mounted. Richard Garrett and Sons, whose works cover nearly thirty acres and are capable of employing 2,000 hands, were the inventors of the first straw and refuse-burning portable engines, and, in co-operation with J. D. Ellis of Sheffield, of the Garrett-Ellis reversible steel-beater bar.

Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies

Of the three firms, Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies, with a capital of well over £1,000,000, have, perhaps, the widest range of manufacture. Their Orwell Works, in the Eastern Counties, with their subsidiary works occupy forty acres and employ 3,000 men and boys. Reavell and Co who specialise in air compressors and vacuum plant, were established in Ipswich in 1898. Their works cover 31 acres, and employ 400 men. The firm have an authorised capital of £200,000, of which £100,000 has been issued. Their principal, Mr. W. Reavell, was President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The works of all these firms are well up to date in point of equipment, and the excellence of their management has been shown by the continuous advance in their trade and the strength of their position as manufacturers. Davey, Paxman and Co are less known as agricultural engineers, for though they make portable engines suitable for agricultural purposes, their business has developed into that of general engineers and makers of boilers, air compressors, gas engines and a heavy class of machinery. Ransomes and Rapier, whose works cover fourteen acres and employ nearly 600 hands, are not included in the combination. They have a worldwide reputation as makers of lifting machinery and railway equipment material, cranes, permanent-way accessories, bridges, turn-tables and all kinds of contractors' plant. The first locomotive ever introduced into China was made at the Waterside Ironworks in Ipswich by Mr. Rapier.

To the north of this district Lawrence Scott and Co have established electrical engineering shops at Norwich, and these, with other works, such as those of Savage and Co, at King's Lynn, find employment for 800 hands. At Grantham agricultural engineering proper again comes to the front. In sequence of establishment and in magnitude of capital employed Richard Hornsby and Sons stand halfway, as they do geographically, between the engineering firms of the south and the larger ones of the north.

Richard Hornsby and Sons

The business of Richard Hornsby and Sons was founded in 1815 by Richard Hornsby at a small smithy on the Great North Road at Grantham. Small agricultural machines, to be worked either by horse or hand, were first made, and in time agricultural steam engines, threshing-machines and elevators were added. In 1879 the firm was incorporated, and in 1906 absorbed the firm of J. G. H. Andrew and Co (sic), whose Stockport works were added to those of Grantham. The town of Grantham has practically existed through the business of this firm, where the works cover forty acres and occupy some 1,750 hands. The Company possesses a controlling interest in the firm of Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies of Ipswich. Though most of its products are likewise turned out by rival firms, still, by the introduction of a new patented principle or some ingenious detail, the Hornsby firm has always been able to keep well to the front in such agricultural implements as its reaper, its binder and its plough. Some years ago this firm entered into competition as makers of oil engines, beating all rivals for the War Office award of £1,000. More recently it has come to the front as maker of the Hornsby Upright Water-tube Boiler. The firm of Ruston and Hornsby has grown by successive amalgamation into one of the largest of Eastern County undertakings. In addition to the 1,750 men at the Grantham works, some 5,000 are employed at those of Lincoln. Its issued share and debenture capital is £3,000,000.

Lincoln Industry

The metropolis of Eastern County engineering, however, is Lincoln, 20 miles north of Grantham, where six large firms carry on the trade. These are –

The total area occupied by these various works is over 100 acres, and the number of persons employed amounts to 8,000. Nearly every kind of agricultural machinery, implement and accessory is made at Lincoln, but portable engines and traction engines form the chief feature of its trade. The demand for this class of machine has been very great, and competition is keen all round. From the engine which drags the merry-go-round or the wild-beast show to country fairs, to that which hauls heavy warlike and other stores in the Sudan or South Africa, every type of road locomotive is made in Lincoln. No machines, probably, have been so often patented in detail as these, from the burr or rest which blocks the carriage-wheel, to the spark-catcher at the top of the chimney. Multiplicity of patents, however, is a well-known feature of the whole of the agricultural machinery trade, though probably in three cases out of four the Patent Office has had the best of the invention.

The portable engine, however, did not originate in Lincoln. The invention was made by a skilled mechanic named Dean, of Birmingham, in the forties of last century. But his crude design was speedily modified by the Eastern County engineer until it reached its present highly-developed form. Probably not a single portable engine is now made in the neighbourhood of Birmingham; but, in view of the modern development of the cycle and motor-car industry there, it is interesting to note how the original idea of some form of mechanical movement on ordinary roads originated in that city.

Lincoln as an engineering centre has carried the system of standardising to its highest point, as well as a system of specialisation which applies not only to every article produced, but also to the methods of production. Manufacture, sub-divided into countless processes, has there been brought to such perfection as is probably to be found in no other heavy industry. Mechanical appliances are used wherever possible, men being employed mainly to superintend machines. The engines and machinery produced by the Lincoln firms are made to certain types, the parts being numbered or lettered, so that the customer in any quarter of the world needs only to send the name and number or letter of reference to Lincoln, to receive at once a duplicate which can be fitted by the driver or user of the machine.

Apart from the primary advantages of such specialisation, this system has been of great value in the expansion of our trade in the Colonies and other remote regions, where repairs by skilled workmen on the spot are practically impossible; and the fact that a saleable type of engine or machine can be established on the market with an infinite power of reproduction by simple repetition work lies at the foundation of the enormous annual output of the district. While an order for fifty heavy railway locomotives placed in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Glasgow is considered worthy to be noted in every engineering journal, it is no exaggeration to say that at least one hundred traction engines, portable engines and threshing machines, some of them nearly as costly as a railway locomotive, can be, and in good times are, produced in Lincoln every week.

In point of time the Lincoln firms have all started business since 1840. Clayton and Shuttleworth, and Ruston, Proctor and Co. (now Ruston and Hornsby) are the oldest, though Robey and Co. and William Foster and Co. are but a short period behind. The two former firms have taken up agricultural machinery to a larger extent perhaps than any others.

Clayton Shuttleworth

Clayton and Shuttleworth, established in 1842 on 1.5 acres of land as iron founders, and now allied with Clayton Wagons, with a joint issued capital of £1,360,000, own works covering 88 acres and employ nearly 5,000 hands. Clayton Shuttleworth established extensive factories at Vienna, with branches at Budapest, Prague, Cracow, Bukarest and elsewhere abroad. Their first portable traction engine proved itself, as early as 18.4,5, a commercial success. Their operations in this class of business are still very large, though they now make, in addition, stationary steam and oil engines, road rollers, stone-breakers, winding engines and boilers.

Ruston and Proctor

Ruston and Proctor commenced their trade in 1857, when the late Joseph Ruston became a partner in a small mill-wrights' business in Lincoln owned by Burton and Proctor. In 1889 this was converted into a limited company, of which Joseph Ruston remained Chairman until his death in 1897. The business extended steadily, and the works in 1918 covered 180 acres and employed over 8,600 hands. Besides turning out agricultural machinery, the firm makes plantation machinery, traction engines, Corliss and drop-valve steam engines and various classes of boilers. Its excavating machinery is well known in all railway, dock, and waterworks constructions. The Ruston Patent Steam Navvy is one of the most powerful mechanical implements now employed. Seventy of these excavators were used in the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, and one of them, working continually all day with two gangs of men, has filled no fewer than 640 railway trucks with material within the working day. A Ruston excavator employed at the works of the modern harbour at Dover, is stated to have reduced working costs by five-sixths, removing material with ease at the rate of 1,000 tons a day. The firm's boiler works are reputed to be the largest, or among the largest, in the world.

Robey and Co

The firm of Robey and Co, also of Lincoln, is more associated with a special type of portable engine. The business was founded in 1854 by Robert Robey, who started in a small way, at Lincoln, the manufacture of steam engines, threshing-machines, steam ploughing and traction engines. A few years later, the works were taken over by John Richardson, Thomas Bell and Frederick Clench, and became a limited company in 1893, under the Chairmanship of W. T. Bell, a son of one of the preceding partners. The principal manufactures of the Company are now the "Uniflow" engine, steam and electric winding machines, air compressors and high-speed engines. It has given its name to a particular class of road locomotive. The Globe Works at Lincoln date back to 1852. They cover 12 acres and afford employment to 2,000 people. The firm of Robey and Co now manufactures portable steam engines, traction engines, threshing-machines, maize-shellers, straw elevators, chaff-cutters, traction wagons and compound-steel wagons. During the war, owing to the demand for Tanks, the firm employed some 2,000 workpeople.

William Foster and Co

The firm of William Foster and Co, engaged in 1856 in a small flour-milling business, joined in the wave of engineering development which began at that period, and converted its flour-mill works into a modest engineering establishment. Shortly after the death of William Foster in 1876, the firm was registered as a limited company, and a new factory was erected at New Boultham, to which in 1899 the business was transferred. During the War these works were fully occupied on munitions. The designing and construction of the "Mother" type of Tank were carried out at these works. Here, too, were designed and produced the refinements on the original known as the "Whippet" and "Hornet" class of Tank. The Managing Director of the firm, Sir William A. Tritton, received a knighthood for the part taken by him in this work in association with Major W. G. Wilson.

Penny and Porter

The business of Penny and Porter is an amalgamation of Penny and Co and Porter and Co established in 1868 and 1855 respectively, and comprises general engineering, gas holders and tanks, seed-dressing machinery, acetylene welding and lighting plants, disintegrators, boilers, oil engines, etc.

Bamforth and Sons

Bamforth and Sons are patentees of lifting trucks and harrows, corn screens and similar appliances.

Clarke's Crank and Forge Co

Clark's Crank and Forge Co, founded in 1859, has specialised in the manufacture of crank shafts and general engine forgings.

Marshall, Sons and Co

At Gainsborough, the northern limit of the East Coast engineering industry, Marshall, Sons and Co takes the lead as the largest individual engineering firm in the Eastern Counties. Its origin goes back to 1848, when the works covered less than 5 acres of ground. Before the war they covered 43 acres, employing over £1,000,000 in capital, and between 4,000 and 5,000 hands. There is scarcely an implement or a machine manufactured in the Eastern Counties that cannot be obtained from this firm, whose name is connected with the most recent improvements in all such appliances. It has also taken a leading place in the construction of gold-dredging machinery, and there is probably no mine in the world employing that class of appliance which is without the "Marshall" machine. The firm's agencies are found in all centres of business in India, Africa, the Colonies and foreign lands. During the War it turned out Tanks, naval gun mountings, aeroplanes and field-gun ammunition. In common with most of the other firms the number of its workers has seriously fallen off since the War.

Babcock and Wilcox

The firm of Babcock and Wilcox was founded forty years ago. The original works were at Kilbowie, Scotland, and employed 130 men. In 1902 the Renfrew Works were opened, where some 1,300 men were employed. Since then there have been many extensions, and now between 5,000 and 6,000 men are in regular employment. The firm's activities in Lincoln commenced in 1924, when the boiler works, engine shops and foundry of Clayton and Shuttleworth were purchased. The Lincoln branch produces pulverised fuel plants, steam winches, high-speed steam engines, structural work and power-station plant. The Company owns works in other parts of England and Scotland, as well as in Australia, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, with branch offices throughout the world. Its boilers are of a type better known probably than any others. The whole organisation was controlled by the late Sir James Kemnal, the Managing Director, who was largely responsible for the growth of this vast enterprise.


Much was heard in olden times of the injury caused to British trade monopoly by the Great Exhibition of 1851. No such complaint, however, can be made by the Eastern Counties manufacturers, to whom that Exhibition opened the door to an enormous foreign trade. It brought manufacturers of all nations abroad into contact with the British machine-maker, and showed them the superiority of British work, the qualities of which have, through the energy and genius of the founders of these firms and their descendants, been maintained to the present day.

It may be noted as an interesting fact that the foundation of most of these larger firms dates from about the period of the abolition of the Corn Laws in Great Britain and it may be assumed that the development of corn-growing in other countries for the supply of the British market did much to create an overseas demand for this class of machinery, and that the reduced price of corn in Great Britain stimulated the home agriculturist to a similar adoption of machines to effect economies in the cost of labour. The foreign trade of the Eastern Counties has been, in spite of adverse foreign tariffs and Central European competition, which have continually threatened the prosperity of the trade, one of extraordinary activity and extent. In good times, the shipping day at Lincoln needs all the energy of the railway companies to get the wagons away. A single consignment of one of these firms has frequently demanded an entire train, and sometimes constituted the greater portion of the freight of a large steamer. Their trade covers practically the whole world. Eastern County engineers are constantly occupied in the elaboration and perfecting of their output. No foreign invention ever escapes the eyes of their agents, and they are able, as a rule, to turn out plant and machinery according to the latest foreign pattern or ideas.

Everyone is familiar with the enterprise of these firms at agricultural and other shows, where their gaily-painted exhibits form a very considerable part of the attractions. The number of medals, orders and diplomas granted by exhibition authorities to the manufacturers of the Eastern Counties is very large, and, whatever value may be attached to these honours, they undoubtedly represent a vast amount of business enterprise and clever advertisement. The ability shown by the management of these businesses in organising the trade and in capturing new markets in place of those from which competition and tariffs may have excluded them is well seconded by the industry and intelligence of the workmen. The towns in which they live fall behind none in this country in everything that goes to make a workman's life healthy and rational. The workman himself is uniformly steady and attentive 'to his work; his wages range in amount between those of founders and engineers in the great trade unions and those paid for agricultural labour, and he has the advantage of steady employment, which, under normal conditions, has hardly, if ever, been known to fail him for lack of trade.

See Also


Sources of Information