English Electric – A Centenary Appreciation

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In 1918 one of the UK and world’s most famous engineering companies was born – The English Electric Company Limited. In the year of its formation, it acquired the Coventry Ordnance Works Ltd., and the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Company Ltd.; most importantly though – the shares of Dick, Kerr & Co. were exchanged for shares in the new business. At the time of its formation, it was fast becoming Britain’s major manufacturer in electrical technology, especially in tramways, light railways and general electrical engineering.

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Prototype ‘Deltic’ – perhaps the most famous of English Electric’s diesels in the erecting shop, alongside locos for South Africa and BR shunters, amongst others.                      Photo (c) RPB/GEC Traction Collection

English Electric went on to become one of the most famous engineering companies that the UK had ever seen, and covering every conceivable product from railway locomotives, to household products, jet aircraft to computers. Its zenith was perhaps achieved in the 1950s, and the only possible comparison in the 21st Century would be if you added BAe Systems, IBM, and Siemens together.

English Electric went on to research, design, and develop products in all of the markets that those three companies are working in today.

In 1918 the new company had a capital of £3 million, and the board represented other major industries, from the Great Easter, London & North Western and Great Northern railways, to shipbuilders such as Harland & Wolff, John Brown and Cammell Laird. Announcing this new business in the January 3rd issue of The Railway Gazette, commenting:

“… the company will be one of the three principal electrical manufacturing concerns in this country.”

Something of an understatement perhaps, but with Dudley Docker’s achievements with the soon to arrive “Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co.” a year or so later, competition was strong in the aftermath of the First World War.

Head office was in Preston, and English Electric and the town would become almost synonymous, but the works along both sides of Strand Road existed because of the arrival of Dick, Kerr & Co. from Kilmarnock. Dick, Kerr’s was the first British company to specialise in tramways and tramcar building, and in 1897 bought the old works and land on the west side of Strand Road, to establish the “Electric Railway and Tramway Carriage Works Ltd.”, which was registered on 25th April 1898.

Dick Kerr & English Electric Works, Strand Road, Preston. Aerial Image, May 1951 copy

Aerial view of English Electric Preston works in 1951     Photo (c) BAE Systems

 

Such was the company’s success; they needed extra space, which was provided by building on land on the opposite side of Strand Road, to form the English Electric Manufacturing Co., in November 1899. The first time the words “English Electric” had appeared, and although Dick, Ker’s had spawned the new factory, the two works were managed as separate companies.

The tram building works manufactured their own trucks or bogies to fit under the tramcar bodies they built, but would also fit trucks from Brill or Peckham if the customer requested.   The works on the East side of Strand Road concentrated on making the electrical machinery alone, from traction motors, to switchgear and control equipment.

Just after the turn of the century, in 1903, the English Electric Manufacturing Co. amalgamated with Dick, Kerr & Co., whilst three years later, the works on the West side of Strand Road had its name changed to the “United Electric Car Co.”.

So at the outbreak of the First World War, Dick, Kerr’s works occupied one side of Strand Road, and the United Electric Car Co. the other. During the war, Dick Kerr’s built mainly shells, and employed over 8,000 people, whilst United Electric built wagons, shells, and even flying boats, with the workforce rising from around 600 to 800, to over 1,200.

The next major event occurred in 1917, and propelled the company towards its final form. In that year, Dick, Kerr & Co. obtained financial control of United Electric, and laid the foundation for English Electric Co., which finally appeared 100 years ago. Some 10 years later, this is what the Preston Works looked like:

EE Works Preston - 1926 copy

A plan of the Dick, Kerr Works in 1926

There is more to English Electric’s story than Preston Works, but this where it all began.

English Electric achieved many ‘firsts’, but even before the company began business in 1919, the Preston Works had equipped Britain’s first main line electrification between Liverpool Exchange Station and Crossens/Southport.   Dick, Kerr’s electrified this with a third rail system at 600V d.c., and the rolling stock constructed by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway themselves, at Horwich and Newton Heath.

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English Electric/Dick Kerr’s first major electrification – the Liverpool to Southport line.  The first of many.                                                                                                                                           Photo: RPB/GEC Traction Collection

From a business point of view, the English Electric Co. Ltd., was established in 1918, and a spate of mergers followed quickly, as the demand for the new technology rapidly grew, both at home and abroad.

English Electric were pioneers and innovators in rail traction, electrical technology, computing, wireless and telecoms, until their protracted demise following the great GEC-AEI takeover some 50 years ago. Ironically 1968 too was a watershed year in the electrical industry in Britain.

The last owners and inhabitants of the Strand Road Works in Preston were of course Alstom, and the cliché of ‘end of an era’ was never so true as the factory is to close in July 2018, just over 120 years since Dick, Kerr & Co. set up the Electric Railway and Tramway Carriage Works Ltd.

Rail Technology Magazine – Alstom To Close Preston Site

BBC News: Alstom To Close Preston Site

-oOo-

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