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British Industrial History

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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Preface

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The history of our metallurgical industry, though smelting has been carried on through ages, dates no farther back than three and a half centuries ago. Men with no scientific knowledge to guide them, less informed, indeed, in many respects, than the labourer of to-day, then groped in darkness for the beginnings of what have since become our great basic industries. They depended almost wholly on the charcoal of our forests, and on manual labour. Machinery, except of the rudest description, was unknown. In course of time their processes improved, gradually extending over areas of easily-worked coal, until early in the nineteenth century our great industries, as we now know them, were founded. Collieries, Iron and Steel Furnaces, Foundries, Forges, Engineering Plants, Shipyards sprang up in our midst, and better and more economical methods in their working were diligently sought for and obtained, and these continue to be the subject of incessant research at the present day.

It is to the great-grandfathers of the present generation, men of enterprise and courage, that Great Britain owes the position she has achieved in manufacture and finance. These men created British national supremacy on land, as the merchant adventurers of former times had previously done on the seas, and showed the path of progress to men all over the world, some of whom have since become, in their turn, instructors and rivals to our trade. There are names in our industries as worthy of preservation as any in the more romantic days of Frobisher and Drake and the Merchant Adventurers who created our Oversea Dominions and our Eastern trade. But for a work of this kind these names would in a few generations be forgotten. It is well that the origin and development of our great industries should he examined and their traditions preserved. Every great city ought to have its industrial history written around the names of those who have been instrumental in creating it.

During the development of the industries of the early nineteenth century, capital freely poured in; but the operation of the Joint Stock Companies Acts enormously extended the ownership of our manufacturing establishments, and has been the means of encouraging the financial aggregation of separate, though similar, undertakings into powerful and comprehensive unities. Many of our greatest manufacturing organisations remain, however, under the management of their founders' descendants who, having vast interests at stake, are keenly interested in the success of their undertakings.

The Great War made a chasm in the continuity of the industries under review, and produced changes in the industrial world which threaten the supremacy, if not the existence, of some of our chief trades. The impoverishment of populations among whom we formerly found profitable markets; the depreciation of foreign currencies; the return at home to the gold standard, which has brought to the rich a heavy burden of taxation, and to the working classes widespread unemployment; the high costs in Great Britain of production, as against the relatively low wages and very efficient plant of our foreign rivals—all these have crippled our exports, and, in the case of our metallurgical and allied industries, have struck us a blow from which it will require all the energy of our great British race to recover. In the end, our policy of strict financial integrity must, no doubt, lead us towards the top. In the meantime, it may be useful to review the history of these industries and, from an economic and social point of view, make some inquiry into the conditions affecting them at the present day, and consider how far the capital invested in them may be regarded as a good national asset.

The actual period during which the Great War lasted, as well as the year 1926, in which the most formidable labour dispute in our history paralysed our trade, present conditions so exceptional as to preclude comparison with any normal year.

The object of these chapters is not to enter into technical details, but to present a historical review of the evolution of our great basic industries and a picture of what is going on to-day in these busy centres. Each chapter is based upon a certain topographical area, beginning with coal, the foundation of the iron and steel manufacture, which provides, in its turn, the basis for mechanical engineering. In dealing with statistics relating to these trades, I have made use of such official data as have been available, but more intimate historical and financial details of these industries can only be obtained by experienced technical assistance in the places where they are carried on. I have to acknowledge much valuable aid generously provided in this direction. To sift and analyse the mass of detail which has been at my disposal in compiling this volume was no easy task, and errors in the presentation of names, facts and figures here and there were difficult to avoid.

In a work of this kind, while reference must necessarily be made to firms and companies belonging to the different areas dealt with, it is not possible to include more than a selection from the distinguished and typical undertakings already familiar in a greater or less degree to the general public. It should, therefore, be understood that while necessities of space may compel the omission of the names of well-known and important firms, the fact of such omission is not to imply that they are not worthy of a place in the history of our national industry.

After an experience of more than forty years in the administration and finance ofa number of the more important groups of the industries described in these pages, I think that whilst presenting some account of their histories and present circumstances, I may be considered qualified at the same time to attempt the assessment of their relative importance in the manufacturing and commercial world.



In the preparation of this work I have had the advantage of valuable help from many friendly sources. Technical and statistical information of great interest and value in connection with local conditions and historic details, for which I desire to express my best thanks, has been contributed by:—

  • Mr. C. Augustus Carlow, of the Fife Coal Co, Leven.
  • Mr. W. A. Clark, M.Inst.C.E., Aldridge, Staffordshire.
  • Mr. Allan J. Grant, Director of John Brown and Co, Sheffield.
  • Mr. T. E. Haslam, F.C.I.S., Secretary of the Sheepbridge Coal and Iron Co, Chesterfield.
  • Mr. George Hatton, C.B.E., M.Inst.C.E., etc., Stourbridge, Managing Director of the Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Works.
  • Mr. A. Henderson, Secretary of John Brown and Co, Clydebank.
  • Mr. A. Kennedy, A.C.I.S., Secretary of Joshua Buckton and Co, Leeds.
  • Mr. D. Willson Lloyd, F.S.S., of Cardiff.
  • Mr. E. Middleton, General Secretary of John Brown and Co, Sheffield.
  • Mr. Henry Mond, Director of Brunner, Mond and Co
  • Dr. Robt. Thos. Moore, Hon Secretary of the Scottish Iron Masters' Federation, Glasgow.
  • Mr. Nigel St. V. Norman, B.A., Metropolitan Railway Company, Pilot Officer, A.A.F.
  • Mr. A. H. Powell, Herald Chambers, Birmingham.
  • Lt.-Colonel Euan C. Rabagliati, R.A.F.
  • Mr S. W. Rawson, M.A., Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Secretary of Bolckow, Vaughan and Co.
  • Mr. Robert Redpath, C.B.E., M.Inst.C.E., Leamington.
  • Mr. Alfred Smith, Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co, Jarrow.
  • Mr. Sydney A. Smith, Ass.Inst.C.E., M.I.M.E., Manchester.

I desire, in addition, to acknowledge assistance from the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Labour, and the Department of Mines; also from the National Federation of Iron and Steel Manufacturers, Engineering, the Iron and Coal Trades Review, Syren and Shipping, and Lloyd's Register of Shipping.

I have also to thank Mr. John Strahan Smith, formerly Editor of 'The Times Engineering Supplement', for his valuable help in analysing the official statistics relating to our Basic Industries; and to acknowledge the permission of The Times newspaper for the reproduction in part of some of the articles I have contributed to that newspaper on industrial questions.

I am also indebted to the Right Hon. Sir Henry Norman, Bt., for his kindness in reading the proof-sheets.


As nearly every Company is now of Limited Liability, the usual statutory suffix has been omitted. In a number of cases, too, the name of a Company, when repeatedly mentioned, has been shortened to the conventional designation by which it is known in its own commercial circle.

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