The West Midlands stood at the heart of a British manufacturing powerhouse. David Smith chronicles industry’s astonishing decline in his latest book
I WAS born at 24 Coronation Avenue, County Bridge, Staffordshire. The address sounds almost rural. It was, however, part of a small estate just off the busy Walsall Road, which carried most of the traffic between Walsall and Wolverhampton.
It was in the heart of the industrial West Midlands, the Black Country, the towns neighbouring Birming–ham, whose prosperity was built on coal, iron and every type of metalworking and manufacturing. Our back garden sloped up to a small rockery and fence, beyond which the land sloped down again to the Bentley Canal, built to carry coal barges to feed furnaces.
The Black Country, described by Samuel Sidney in the 19th century as a place where no birds are seen, and “furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank”, had changed by my childhood but not by that much.
The throb, hum and thud of industry were all around. The Clean Air Act’s effects were yet to show through. The autumn and winter smogs were choking. You could get stranded a few miles from home.
My school, Walsall Road, had two sources of distraction. One was that it was a spot where passing trolley buses regularly lost contact with the power supply, their poles becoming detached from the overhead wires. The other was the noise from the factory across the road. Its sound will stay with me for ever. Think of a giant drum kit, a slow bass beat interspersed with a high-hat, at maximum volume, and you have something like it. Black dust and iron filings blew into the play-ground from nearby factories.
David Smith, aged 8, in 1962None of this is meant to suggest it was a grim existence, far from it. An industrial landscape was, and is, fascinating, from the smoke billowing out of giant chimneys to the fire and steam glimpsed through foundry gates. Industry was all around us, and we expected it to be. It was the source of prosperity. Manufacturing kept food on the table, and more. In the 1950s Britain was a world leader: 40% of workers, 9m, were employed in manufacturing. A further 900,000 were coalminers. Manufacturing contributed at least a third directly to gross domestic product and much more if its indirect contribution was taken into account. In 1950 Britain had a 25% share of world manufactured exports, more than war- ravaged Germany, France and Italy put together.
Britain’s manufacturers sold to the world, and mainly the world beyond Europe. Since the industrial revolution the country had run a manufacturing trade surplus. In the 1950s the manufacturing trade surplus was often as much as 10% of GDP. Britain was still a manufacturing powerhouse. “Made in Britain”, or “Made in England”, were badges of quality. Manufacturers did not just dominate the economy, in many ways they were the economy. The big companies Guest Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN), ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) and GEC (General Electric Company) were household names.
Industrialists made the news. The 1950s and 1960s were the era of the industrial magnate, of Lord Nuffield and Leonard Lord of the British Motor Corporation and Lord Rootes of the Rootes Group, another car industry giant. Sir Michael Sobell made a fortune with his Radio and Allied Industries, but was probably eclipsed by his son-in-law Arnold Weinstock, Lord Weinstock, for 33 years managing director of GEC. Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) and Daimler, and his wife, former dance hostess Norah, made headlines in the austere 1950s for their extravagant and flamboyant behaviour.
Everybody I knew had a father who worked in manufacturing. Many worked for Rubery Owen, which made components for cars and commercial vehicles. It em–ployed 17,000 people, many at its nearby factory in Darlaston. It was paternalistic, providing sports facilities, subsidised canteens, day nurseries and retirement advice. The day nursery provided for the children of working mothers. Rubery Owen rented housing to its workers, including many on our estate.
The factory was close enough for us to hear “The Bull”, a bull-horn signalling the end of a shift. Minutes later a sea of men on bikes would appear.
Rubery Owen, run by the formidable Sir Alfred Owen, exuded power and permanence. Privately owned, one of the largest such companies in Britain, it did not have to dance to the tune of stock market investors. It had an adventurous spirit, illustrated by its ownership of the BRM (British Racing Motors) grand prix team. At open days, racing-green BRM cars, driven by Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, were a magnet for small boys.
Rubery Owen, with engineering interests extending beyond the motor industry, made just about everything. It manufactured stands for Twickenham and Old Trafford. Its 20 constituent companies included Conveyancer forklift trucks, Leabank office furniture and Easiclene, which made fridges, melamine kitchen units and other domestic equipment. Rubery Owen made equipment for the aerospace industry, as well as nuts, bolts, chains, agricultural tools and equipment. It made chassis for double-decker buses and Ferguson ploughs.
Commonwealth markets were hugely important. As late as 1960, a third of Britain’s overseas trade was with the Commonwealth. The threat from Asia was no threat at all. “Made in Hong Kong” was the pejorative term. We believed in British, and we bought British.
There were just under 2m cars on Britain’s roads in 1950. The rise of car ownership, interrupted by the Second World War and its austere aftermath, was however in full swing. By 1960 there were 4.9m cars registered, and by 1970, 10m. From 16bn vehicle miles in 1950, the number rose to 96bn by 1970.
Overwhelmingly, these miles were driven in British cars. Whether it was force of habit, restrictions on imports, or a genuine belief that British was best, in the mid-1950s the proportion of cars imported was a fraction over 2%, compared with 85% now. Somebody in the area bought a Renault Dauphine, a 1950s vehicle later named by Time magazine as one of the 50 worst cars of all time. It was regarded as odd.
British cars appeared to be at the forefront of new and exciting design. There were Fords, including the daring Anglia and the American-influenced Classic, Zephyr and Zodiac. There was the Austin A40 Farina, the first hatchback, as well as Austin Cambridges and Morris Oxfords. There was the iconic Mini. There were Vauxhalls, Rileys, Wolseleys, Standards, Triumphs and Sunbeams. For bank managers there were Rovers. For business people who made it the Jaguar; for those who had really made it the Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
Growing up in the Black Country, we knew by the 1960s that things were changing. The industrial relations climate was deteriorating. Everybody was aware of Britain’s failed attempts to enter the European Economic Community, and the humiliating 1967 “pound in your pocket” devaluation of sterling. Few, however, thought a large manufacturing sector was anything but the norm. The factories were solid and unyielding. They were, it seemed, permanent. What would workers do if they did not clock in at the factory? Where else would the mass employment of the future come from? Industry had been through ups and downs before but had come through. Why should it be any different this time? Something, surely, would turn up.
We were wrong. The 10 years from 1973 to 1983 marked the end of the postwar golden age for the world economy and the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing base. In the 10 years after 1973 manufacturing output fell by 16%. As recently as January 2010, manufacturing was producing only the same volume of output as in 1973. The dreadful decade of 1973-83 took its toll on manufacturing jobs, more than 4m of which disappeared. By 1983 manufacturing employment was barely a quarter of the numbers employed in services. The lights had gone out.
How did it happen? In those days — the mid-1970s — it was surprisingly easy to get holiday jobs in factories, despite the economy’s woes. Firms always needed labourers, sweepers, packers, or somebody who knew their way around a calculating machine to work out what should go into pay packets. Though these holiday jobs added up cumulatively to many months working in manufacturing, I would not pretend that they gave anything more than an impression. That impression, however, was that it was no surprise British industry was in trouble.
Film star Tony Curtis with a Jensen Interceptor (ITV/REX Shutterstock)Jensen Motors in West Bromwich was a luxury car maker, established in the 1930s. It was known for big-engined sports saloons, most notably the Interceptor. It also made car bodies for other manufacturers, including the Austin Healey. The big Jensen cars, with beautiful bodywork and craftsman assembly, were collectors’ items. But by the time I came to work at Jensen Motors, things were already difficult. When BMC decided to discontinue production of the Austin Healey, Jensen lost the contract. It decided to build its own version of the car.
Unfortunately, Jensen quickly ran into problems. The car industry veterans Jensen imported to man the production line, many from the Austin factory at Longbridge, brought with them industrial relations problems. Add to that the limited appeal in the wake of the oil crisis of the Interceptor, with its 7-litre engine, and Jensen was in trouble. My abiding memory was of how little work was done. There was always a tea break, a union meeting or a shutdown. The business ceased trading in September 1976.
At Spear & Jackson, the toolmaker, I was employed to pack tools for export. Many consignments were 18 months beyond their due delivery date even before they had left the factory. In the dreadful decade from 1973 to 1983, export markets were lost to foreign competitors and buying British went out of fashion at home, because it increasingly meant late, unreliable and sub-standard products. British industry lost the loyalty of its customers.
Rubery Owen — “you name it, we made it” — was one of the casualties of this grim period. The 1970s was, in every respect, a difficult time for Rubery Owen. Sir Alfred Owen died in 1975 while still chairman. By then it was clear Rubery Owen faced a battle for survival. The recession of 1974-75, triggered by the quadrupling of the oil price by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, exposed the vulnerabilities of British manufacturing. Even Rubery Owen, with a reputation as a very good employer, was not immune to the poisonous industrial relations climate. In 1976 its workers at Darlaston went on a six-week strike. The writing was on the wall. Jobs were cut in an attempt to reduce costs, but to no avail. The “winter of discontent” of 1978-79, which included a long national strike by engineering workers, left the firm badly weakened.
Margaret Thatcher blamed the strike for the loss of sales and jobs. “We may never make up those sales and we shall lose some of the jobs which depended on them,” she said. “And who will send up a cheer? The Germans, the Japanese, the Swiss, the Americans.”
The final blow was struck by the “industrial” recession of 1980-81, under Thatcher, which saw a huge shake-out in manufacturing, a combination of an over-strong pound, high inflation and large pay settlements and a slump in demand.
In 1981, the Darlaston factory, by the end down to just over 1,000 workers, closed. Rubery Owen, big for a family firm, was not big enough to survive. David Owen, the eldest son of Sir Alfred, was chairman of Rubery Owen Holdings until 2010. When I spoke to him, it was clear that there was still sadness and regret, particularly over the closure of Darlaston.
How had it happened? The fortunes of Rubery Owen were tied to those of its biggest customer, British Leyland, formed from the merger of BMC and Leyland Trucks. Suddenly, most of the marques Rubery Owen had supplied were under the same ownership and most were struggling. In the 1970s the import share of Britain’s car market rose from 14% to 57%.
Rubery Owen still exists but the firm that made everything no longer manufactures anything. “For a whole variety of reasons, what the company used to do is no longer done in this country any more. Our fortunes, as a supplier of components and other assemblies under long-term contracts, were largely in the hands of others and in many ways our hands were tied,” it says in its own history. It sees itself, quite rightly, as a “microcosm” of the British economy, its manufacturing activities (the last of which were disposed of in 1993) replaced in a smaller company by property, investment and a series of independent operating companies outside manufacturing. It did what was best for the business. It is hard not to feel more than a tinge of sadness.
Manufacturing in Britain did not come to an end in the 10 years from 1973 but would never again play as important a role. No longer would captains of industry bestride the national stage and lead the econom–ic debate. It was the end of an era.
Something Will Turn Up: Britain’s Economy, Past, Present and Future is published this week by Profile Books. It is available for £12.99, including postage, from The Sunday Times Bookshop on 0845 271 2135 or thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop