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British Industrial History

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Dobson and Barlow

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Dobson and Barlow of Bolton

  • 1790 Dobson & Barlow Ltd., one of the oldest engineering companies in the world, was founded in 1790 by Isaac Dobson (1767-1833) for the production of textile machinery.
  • 1850 The partnership of Isaac Dobson and Peter Rothwell built mules in Blackhorse Street and by 1850 the firm had opened a larger factory in Kay Street which produced a much wider range of equipment.
  • By 1860 the firm employed 1,600 workers and by the late 1880s they were producing between 600 and 650 looms a year.
  • In 1892 the firm became a limited liability company and, after building a second production facility at Bradley Fold in 1906, it was re-floated as a public limited concern with members of the Dobson family holding key directorships.
  • 1894 Description of their works in The Engineer. 12 acre site.
  • 1913 The company employed 4,000 workers in 1913 but by then Bolton's oldest engineering company was apparently locked into a market which was becoming more competitive both at home and abroad. It's strength as a highly specialised producer of textile machinery was also it's weakness in as much as it's manufacturing facilities were suitable only for the production of this type of equipment and the skills of it's labour force had been either diluted or downgraded through overspecialisation.
  • Dobson & Barlow's main competitors between 1890 and 1913 were mainly Lancashire based companies such as Platt Brothers, Asa Lees and Howard and Bullough which were all vying for Britain's traditional markets.
  • Between them these three companies alone employed around 20,000 workers and they were by no means the only textile machine makers in Lancashire with employment levels of over 2,000.
  • By 1900 the world's largest textile machinery manufacturer was an American company, an unremarkable development considering the size and phenomenal growth of the US population at that time.
  • In 1913 Britain exported, in value, over 27 times as much textile machinery as the USA and nearly three times as much as Germany.
  • 1917 Referance to having the tallest chimney in England by J. Smith
  • WWI During the First World War Dobson & Barlow Ltd. became one of the most important producers of munitions in the region. They produced a wide range of war equipment including Mills No. 5 hand grenades, artillery shells, field kitchens, mobile workshops, naval mines and search lights. Apart from the significant disruption to their normal activities caused by munitions production, some 1,600 male employees volunteered for the armed forces.
  • Between 1915 and 1918 Dobson & Barlow actually withdrew from the textile machinery market in order to produce munitions, having to adopt an entirely different type of production strategy to achieve this. The fact that they could do so is not so much a demonstration of their flexibility as of the simplicity of munitions manufacture in terms of production engineering. Dobson & Barlow however seems to have re-entered it's pre-war markets with far more success than other, similar firms who were in financial trouble almost immediately after the war work ran out.
  • Company records indicate that a large proportion of the orders received between 1918 and 1921 were from Belgian and French textile producers who were re-equipping and refurbishing after the devastation of the war.
  • 1924 The company's expensively produced brochure, published for an exhibition in France during 1924, shows the wide range of textile machinery then being produced. Activities at this time included the design, erection and equipping of complete textile production plants on a 'turnkey' basis, a service in which several of their competitors were also engaged. The firm's order books reveal that several such projects were completed in the Indian subcontinent during the 1920s and 1930s.
  • As a group these companies attempted to control prices through agreements with foreign competitors and they also undertook a certain amount of 'rationalisation' within their own operations. The amalgamation of these competing firms was not a fusion of technology and design. As Farnie observes; 'Proposals made to the board of Platts in 1937 reveal the limited achievement of the merger during six years of association...'. There appears to have been no rationalisation of product lines and no attempt to achieve scale economies through specialisation of individual plants. The formation of TMM was an attempt to control the market through restrictive practices and price fixing. For most of the 1930s TMM negotiated with several international organisations in order to form agreements on trade and price constraints.
  • After 1930 there were several attempts to diversify T. M. M.s product range, most of which failed. Some of the more successful ventures include low technology equipment such as sanding machines, colliery tubs, gas and water pipes, manhole covers, pit props and excavator buckets. Salvation arrived for TMM in the form of munitions contracts awarded by the British Government after 1936.
  • By 1939 Platts were again employing around 12,000 workers and making enough profit to resume dividend payments. This prosperity was, however, not achieved through success in the textile machinery market.
  • Between 1939 and 1945 Dobson and Barlow produced bomber wings at the Bradley Fold plant. These units were totally unlike their normal production and were mostly hand built using mainly skilled male workers. By the end of the war the company had built 6,065 pairs of wings. After 1945 the firm was returned to the TMM group which was, by 1948, desperately trying to recruit apprentices as well as skilled engineering workers.
  • It seems likely, in retrospect, that TMM would have either failed or contracted substantially had it not been for the lucrative war-work contracts they were awarded during rearmament and the second world war. After the war, when their German and Japanese competitors were recovering from the devastation of defeat, TMM had an opportunity to develop and consolidate it's market position. Instead the company resumed it's pre-war dominance and exploited it's brief period of grace to maximise profits and control prices. Textile Machinery Makers Ltd. was an aberration from it's inception which would probably have disintegrated had it not been for the advent of the second world war. Even after the war it's monopolistic position precluded the necessity to respond to it's home market's requirements. As Singleton points out, the distrust of TMM '..may have been a contributory factor to the general feeling of malaise in the spinning section' (of the textile industry). It is a reasonable speculation that the artificially created TMM served to prolong the existence of Platts to the severe detriment of Dobson & Barlow and others.
  • When the British economy plunged into recession in 1980, Stone-Platt Industries discovered that it's diversified foundations were insufficiently substantial to ward off financial crisis. The group's bankers appointed new managers who immediately began an attempt at rationalisation. Redundancies were announced and endeavours were made, unsuccessfully, to sell off individual parts of the group as going concerns. By 1981 receivers had been appointed and, although some aspects of the group were bought from the receivers, the core business eventually failed completely. Platts Oldham plant closed and the last 950 employees were discharged at the end of January 1981, around 200 workers being retained by Platt Power Transmissions Ltd. at the same site.
  • Platts was virtually bankrupt in 1979, partly as a result of high inflation and high interest rates. The end came when the cost of borrowing increased further as a result of Mrs Thatcher's deflationary economic policy. The company had survived because of it's protected position and because it controlled a large proportion of the British market for spinning machinery. A protected monopoly is not necessarily inefficient but Platts has been accused by more than one historian of indolence and of abusing it's position. In a market economy, no company has a god given right to exist. As previously suggested, it would have been better for the British textile machinery industry if T. M. M.'s component firms would have been allowed to compete with one another, instead of being coerced into an ill founded cartel.
  • As part of Platt Sacco-Lowell the much depleted Dobson & Barlow plant employed less than 200 in 1979.
  • In May 1980, 86 of the remaining workers were made redundant.
  • In early 1981 the receivers were called in and in January 1982 the factory closed down completely.

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