How Britain shaped the manufacturing world

Posted on 27 May 2022 by Joe Bush

Here at The Manufacturer, we’re constantly looking to the future and the digital technologies that will shape the future prosperity of the sector in the years to come. However, a universal truth is that to know where you’re going, it’s importantly to also know where you’ve come from. Of course, Britain has an illustrious manufacturing history, but what has been its impact on the world stage?

To suggest that Britain shaped the manufacturing world is pretty audacious, not least when, time and again, people say that we as a nation, don’t make things anymore, and that manufacturing is dead. Of course, we know that the latter statement is far from the truth. So what then is the reality; what is the story of British manufacturing? Phil Hamlyn Williams author of a new book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, speaks to The Manufacturer.

Phil wrote his book by looking through the prism of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at which his great grandfather exhibited and which told the world that Britain was top dog. He then looked ahead to the Festival of Britain of 1951 and explored an astonishing progression. In this article he discusses the trends and themes which he unearthed.

The story began with falling prices. The weavers of Lancashire had brought their ancient skills, honed on wool and flax, to the weaving of cotton brought in by ship from countries of the empire and beyond. Shipping was key as it would be for many decades. The Napoleonic wars brought about a collapse in textile prices, and merchants sought ways to cut costs – all too familiar. The answer came in fits and starts, from men who knew the processes from raw cotton to woven fabric; men like John Kay, James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright who had learnt the hard way, on the job.

The mechanisation that resulted demanded more power; more than animals and waterwheels could provide. The answer, not surprisingly, lay in the mines which landowners were sinking to extract black gold – coal. Mines flooded and needed to be pumped, and steam contraptions seemed to provide answer. Once again it was men learning on the job; men like Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen, Richard Trevithick, John Blenkinsop and George Stephenson.

The age of steam

The crude atmospheric pump developed into the steam engine driving a rotation. That rotation found employment in the mills of Lancashire, powering banks of machinery, as well as raising tonnes of coal from the depths of the earth. Fruition came in the form of the rotary engine that could propel a vehicle along parallel rails – the steam locomotive.

The Mallard at Grantham Station
The Mallard at Grantham Station

In a nutshell, that was the start of Britain’s industrial revolution. It could have ended there, but it was a world brimming with opportunity. Railways greased the wheels of trade, and entrepreneurs were all too ready to risk their money, and that of their investors, in building railways that linked mines and mills to ports and markets. Why stop at the coast? Thomas Brassey, the supreme railway contractor, is said to have built one sixth of Britain’s railways and half of those in France.

Steam power had many applications. Birmingham was a town of workshops and James Watt and Matthew Boulton brought steam power to speed the many processes there. Steam powered ships in the skilled hands of men like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also the process of producing weapons of war. Interestingly William Armstrong, who invented rifled artillery, was the champion of hydraulic power. Steam powered the steel makers of Sheffield: John Brown and Edward Vickers. In the agricultural county of Lincolnshire, Joseph Ruston and Richard Hornsby championed mechanisation in the fields, but ventured further to drain the fertile plains of Russia where other applications were found, not least in pumping oil for Marcus Samuel the founder of Shell.

Oil did of course take up the baton from coal, but with the French and Germans in the driving seat. This was perhaps the first sign of the way being lost by Britain. There were British engineers keen to exploit the power of oil, not least Hornsby who championed the oil engine before diesel. The problem lay in the caution of government and the forces of the status quo.

The power of oil

Men had driven steam powered vehicles on the roads with dire consequences, and so speeds were restricted by the legendary red flag. Once this was removed, the engineers of Coventry bounded into life with first the Daimler factory at Coventry Mills. Contrary to popular opinion, Britain was, and is, good at exploiting other people’s ideas. The names we all love followed: Lanchester, Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam, Morris, Austin, Rolls-Royce – the list just goes on.

Within these developments lay the second problem: we are fiercely protective of heritage, so when Austin and Morris came together in BMC they continued to compete rather than enjoy the much needed economies of scale. Behind the headline names, another was working hard in the background: Joseph Lucas. This company quietly and effectively built for itself a near monopoly of the supply of particular motor parts, so much so that they coerced the motor companies into a degree of standardisation. The motor industry played a massive role in supplying the army, and indeed the RAF, in WW2. After the war it spearheaded the export drive that was vital to restore the nation’s finances.

Oil powered not only road vehicles but ships, aircraft and finally, trains. With aircraft it is easy to see how two world wars built an astonishing body of expertise. Frank Whittle’s jet engine would begat gas turbines as well as aero engines. With ships and trains another stumbling block emerged not totally removed from heritage. We were very good at making ocean going liners powered by steam turbines, so why change? On the railways, we held world records thanks to the Flying Scotsman and Mallard. Here, the reluctance to embrace diesel electric stemmed also from the cost of change to a Britain exhausted by war. Yet even with diesel electric, who can fail to thrill to the sound of a Napier English Electric Deltic or the many locomotives produce by the Brush Falcon works in Loughborough.

The electrical age

Electricity was a further source of power, or more accurately power transmission, where Britain led the pack with two Italians (Guglielmo Marconi and Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti) and Germans (Werner von Siemens and Ivan Hirst) who found the business environment in Britain more conducive to innovative ideas. Yet, it did require US capital, in the form of Westinghouse with Metropolitan Vickers in Trafford Park Manchester and General Electric with British Thomson-Houston in Rugby, to create a heavy industry.

Three British-managed giants grew from this transatlantic base: AEI, English Electric and the British financed GEC. Together they powered the ‘march of the pylons’, bringing power to dispersed industry and into the home. AEI had within its fold both Metrovick and BTH; once again loyalty to heritage proved an insuperable barrier to economies of scale. Radio followed the essentially British telegraph and began confidently with Marconi; the embyonic industry served its nation well in WW1.

Brush Falcon works
Many locomotives were produce by the Brush Falcon works in Loughborough

It then hit the doldrums before the flair of Pye, Echo, Murphy and Decca brought musical entertainment into the nation’s front rooms, and in time begat the radar and communication systems that would be vital in WW2. Post-war, radio became bedevilled by British caution and reluctance to embrace new technology, allowing first the Dutch then Hong Kong to lead the market. A similar story with television saw EMI, Thorn and Bush triumph before yet more caution over colour lost the lead to Japan. Plessey, a world leader in telecommunication was held back by their main customer, The General Post Office, who were reluctant to embrace electronics.

All about the chemistry

Chemicals sit outside this power progression, but could so easily have struggled had it not been for the vision and drive of a small number of men. The First World War was in many ways a chemist’s war, with both sides hurling at each other vast quantities of chemical explosive, to say nothing of the need for dyestuffs for millions of uniforms. At the beginning of the century Germany and the US led the way and in the 1920s explored the possibilities of organic chemistry, with coal in Germany and oil in the US.

In Britain in the 1920s, Alfred Nobel and Ludwig Mond came together to form the giant ICI from which came polythene, Perspex and terylene. Their organic source was industrial alcohol from Distillers, the whisky producer; oil succeeded alcohol but not in Britain until after WW2. ICI’s secret, if you can call it that, was a commitment to research and development, seldom a darling of British boardrooms. ICI had started out convinced they could make money from fertiliser, not realising that other countries would do the same.

Their response was not to cut costs but to spend money on scientists, and giving them the freedom to explore new horizons. Elsewhere, Glaxo became a pharmaceutical giant from its beginnings in dried milk and baby food. Wellcome, brought into being by two American drug salesmen, became the intellectual heart of British pharmaceuticals, while Boots the Chemist and Beechams dealt with aches and pains. In parallel Courtaulds transformed the textile industry with rayon as an alternative to cotton and British Celanese produced a substitute for silk, all in vast quantities.

The market was centre stage from the start; it fired the railways and shipbuilding. Men like Joseph Ruston and William Rootes embraced it. Engineering skill was key, but only when applied; Arkwright’s factory brought together a multitude of inventions. Lucas not only designed brilliant car parts, they knew how to make them economically. Mond, Nobel and Wellcome believed in science and scientists and gave them space to explore. Capital was and is key. The flood of it that chased fortunes in railways gave the country communications that were the envy of the world. In contrast Britain may never have had a heavy electrical industry had it not been for US capital.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marked an end to this remarkable era. It was not a trumpet blowing occasion as the Great Exhibition had been. It was more a celebration of what it meant to be British, and there was much to be proud of.

Phil Hamlyn Williams was a partner in Price Waterhouse. He has written three books on how the army was supplied in the two world wars. His latest book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, is available to pre-order from Pen & Sword: