By Appointment to
The History of Barber Wilsons & Company Limited
by Oscar Nicholson (Nick) Wilson
It all started in 1898 or thereabouts. Walter Henry Wilson and his brother, Frederick Wilson, after many years apprenticeship and working for others decided to start a business on their own manufacturing plumbers brasswork, with which they were both well acquainted.
Mr Walter Wilson, born in Greenwich in 1860, had worked firstly in 1875 as an apprentice for Preston Brothers in Lewisham and then as a young man for the firm of Hayward Tyler & Company of Luton (where he was then living), who manufactured fire fighting equipment. Fred Wilson, born 1855, was at that time working for H Pontifex & Company Limited of Faringdon Road, London, an old established firm manufacturing plumbing fittings.
By some means, of which there are no details, Fred Wilson got his brother a job at this firm. Fred was foreman of the workshop and after a time Walter Wilson came to resent this, there are many tales of how they irritated one another.
Despite these unbrotherly attitudes they decided, with a small amount of money left them by their mother on her death, to go into manufacturing on their own.
They managed to purchase a small factory in Eldon Road, Wood Green (North London) where they set up a small brass foundry and machine shop powered by a gas engine, under the name of Wilson Brothers. The enterprise was not a particularly happy one as the two brothers were constantly quarrelling. In fact, on one occasion Fred sent for the police after blows were exchanged.
This unhappy state of affairs obviously could not continue and the brothers decided to part company. Walter Wilson in company with Edward Barber from Wilson Bros office and another brother, William, founded Barber Wilson & Co as a partnership, having a small factory built on a plot of land in what later became Crawley Road. Walter Wilson made all the original patterns himself and trading started in July 1905.
It is apparent from the study of an examination of the accounts carried out by a firm of Chartered Accountants (Alabaster Stray & Co) in August 1907 that Walter Wilson was unhappy with the partnership. The three original partners were Walter Wilson, William Wilson and Edward Barber, William Wilson played no part in the running of the business, Edward Barber kept the books and the accounts and Walter Wilson ran the factory and foundry.
The findings of the accountants showed that irregularities existed that could not be explained and Walter Wilson then sought financial assistance from 'friends' with a view to buying his partner out; William Wilson having passed away by this time. The culmination of these events resulted in a hearing in the Chancery Division of the High Court, sealed bids being put up by both parties for the purchase of the business. Walter Wilson was successful and Barber Wilsons & Co Ltd came into being in 1908. Walter Wilson being Managing Director with his four 'friends' being non-executive Directors.
In those days it was not difficult to find labour and, of course, wages were low, and within a few months a team of highly skilled workmen were found, both for the small foundry and workshop. All these men were treated with respect and in many cases friendship developed between the men and bosses and many of these original employees stayed with the firm for 50 years or more. In the early 1900s, there was no heating, only gas lighting and Walter Wilson would say to any man who complained 'work harder and you'll keep warm'. He was a hard taskmaster and men were locked out if they were even a few minutes late, but he was always fair by the standards in force in those days.
Machinery was mostly for hand turning, capstan lathes not coming in until the 1920's. All these machines were belt driven operated by an overhead lineshaft, which was driven by a gas engine. The foundry had two pit furnaces with various old machines driven by a gas engine. Moulding was by hand as was the core making. Horse manure was used in the moulding process, being mixed with the sand for venting purposes. Boys were sent out with a bucket and shovel to collect it from the local streets, it being a plentiful and free commodity in those days of horse drawn transport.
Charles Oscar (always known as Oscar) Wilson worked in the factory with his father. The youngest son Stanley, still a boy, also worked in the factory. The new business struggled on before the 1914 war years making 1/2" bibs (sink taps) and pillar valves (bath and basin taps) at about 6 old pence each, ball valves, ferret joints and general plumbers' brass foundry. Walter Wilson's oldest son, also Walter, now ran the office and also used to travel to the City endeavouring to pick up orders. He succeeded pretty well, made a lot of friends in the trade and the range of products gradually grew.
Then came the 1914-1918 Great War and the business picked up quite a lot as they were awarded fair sized war contracts, mostly manufacturing shell noses and fuses. They also made a device which allowed the firing of a machine gun through the rotating propeller of a fighter, this revolutionised aerial combat.
More men were taken on and more members of the family joined the business, both in the office and the factory. After the war the firm settled back into the production of a large variety of water fittings.
In the depression years of the late 20s and early 30s, the firm was only saved by a large contract which was obtained for the making of special fittings for the new Dorchester hotel, which was then being built.
In the 1920s Walter Wilson retired at the age of 60 and left the running of the business to his three sons. He lived for another 20 years, visiting the factory every Friday afternoon to sign any cheques and make sure all was running smoothly. Other members of the family worked in the office for varying terms and in 1936 Oscar 'Nick' Wilson, Walter's son, joined, being the first of the third generation of Wilsons in the Company.
The original factory had incorporated the foundry and it was decided in 1936 to build a new up-to-date one on spare land at the rear of the machine shop. This was at the time the last word in progress having two oil fired tilting furnaces, two pit furnaces, a 50 ft chimney with extractor fans, a core oven from Germany and a massive shot blast for cleaning castings. Machine moulding for the mass production of main product lines was introduced, and output went up by leaps and bounds.
There was also a pattern room at the rear which housed thousands of wooden and metal patterns.
Oscar Wilson supervised all this with the help of tool maker Harry Cox and the Bolton brothers, who were the working backbone of the business. Production of castings increased, but the new polishing shop and the old machine shop were hard put to keep up and a number of new capstan lathes were installed in order to keep pace.
Business at this time was fairly brisk and we had a good many excellent customers. They had great faith in our products, which were always good, but deliveries and lead times became the main problem.
When in 1939 the second war with Germany broke out, an air raid shelter building was constructed in frenzied haste in co-operation with our next door neighbours Godfrey Engineering, this was a concrete based shelter on their land. At this time, although we expected war work, it just did not happen and we continued manufacturing water fittings as before.
In May 1940, however, everything changed. The Germans swept through France, which quickly capitulated, and the Luftwaffe caused us to begin to use our costly shelter. The events of the period 1940-1945 are now history and these war years were probably the busiest we had ever had. Being a relatively small firm we were called upon to manufacture a whole variety of items, which were too small in comparative numbers for bigger firms to undertake, but nevertheless we made over a million small and large components for petrol hoses etc. These were sent to other manufacturers for incorporation into aircraft and naval vessels. Aircraft parts were all made in Duralumin, a very tricky-to-machine soft aluminium.
Production of water fittings for installation in military camps comprised mostly shower fittings and self-closing valves and we also produced a considerable quantity of water filters for use in the desert. For the Admiralty we made gun-metal hose connectors and self-closing basin taps, which were standard for every ship in our vast navy, and also made stainless steel hexagon nuts used for torpedo firing gear. Later, when America came into the war, we were swamped with orders for water fittings for their pre-fabricated hospitals. These fittings were all made in white metal (nickel silver), which were very hard to cast and machine, but the Americans wanted quality and who better to supply than Barber Wilsons and Company Limited.
Very long hours were worked during the period of hostilities and everyone in turn had to undertake a night fire watching duty in case incendiary bombs fell on us and fires were started. Actually our small plant was very lucky, although explosive bombs fell as close as 100 yards from us and demolished houses in Boundary and Crawley Road. Our only damage was caused by a piece of kerbstone, which was blasted through one of the windows. I think most people rather enjoyed these 'nights out', although sleep was very fragmented, and work started at 7 o' clock in the morning and continued regularly up to about 7 o' clock in the evening.
With the end of the war, the demand for water fittings etc. became enormous as rebuilding of property and new ones became a priority. We had hundreds of orders for all types of water fittings, but were finding it difficult to keep up with the demand. In this immediate post-war period the government instigated the ill-fated "Ground Nut" scheme in Kenya. This required extensive irrigation and the designers of the system decided that very large stopcocks, as opposed to gate valves, were needed. There was no standard for such a valve, British Standards' largest being 2". Barber Wilsons was approached and asked to design and make a large batch of 4" size. These, the largest stopcocks ever made, were completed in 1948 and the photograph shows all concerned in their production.
With a new government in power, the subject of war-time profits was put under scrutiny and we were informed by the Inland Revenue that we must spend a proportion of excess profits (in their mind) on development and progress. A good idea, but no one could say Barber Wilsons & Company's profits were excessive, prices were too closely governed during the war. We decided to buy almost unused war-time machinery, which was being sold or auctioned at various war ministry plants all over the country, and we bought capstan lathes and milling machines.
Oscar Wilson was an excellent engineer, but his mind was not geared to mass production, so we carried on getting further behind with our orders and aggravating our loyal customers. At about this time it was decided at long last that a new office block should be built. A plan was drawn up by Mr E P Dyer, an old customer and friend of the family, and tenders were drawn up. About four builders were approached, but the lowest tender was given to Mr George Revill. The work was carried out satisfactorily and we now found ourselves with ample accommodation. During the war years, other members of the family worked for the Company including Jim Hillier (bombed out of his job), Joyce and Marion Wilson, (daughters of C O Wilson). Unfortunately, Jim Hillier and Joyce died soon after the war and Marion married and retired.
With the opening of the new offices we employed more staff and Mrs Hilda Callwood nee Wilson was taken on as book-keeper etc. Also, by this time John Wilson and David Callwood joined the firm, both having completed their National Service. Despite the fact that both John and David had had a good education, Walter Wilson insisted that they start at the bottom, John in the factory and David assisting in the Despatch Department
During this period, some efforts had been made to extend the area of our sales and also the range. We appointed 2 free agents for the North of England (Joe and Lionel Saville) and for a little while a representative in Ireland. The demand for our products grew and our number of customers increased. We produced our first quite lavish catalogue, which was circulated widely and certainly increased our potential sales. We also did a little advertising in trade journals, but by and large this had little effect on our increase in trade.
In 1958, Walter Wilson died, almost up to his death he worked in the office and always resisted the idea of retiring. After his passing, a shake up in the Directorship was necessary. Oscar Wilson, along with Stanley Wilson, became joint Managing Directors and Nick Wilson and Hilda Callwood were appointed to the board, with Nick Wilson also becoming Company Secretary. In 1960 John Wilson was appointed Director and shortly after David Callwood was also co-opted.
Efforts were made to increase our sales with some success, but our production methods did not match up to our sales potential. More sales literature was produced and circulated widely and we became better known than ever. Nick Wilson had taken a great interest in the National Brass Foundry Association in Birmingham and had served on the Committee for many years. In 1968 he had the honour of being appointed President of the Association, which had grown to become known as the National Building and Allied Hardware Manufacturers Federation.
After 1958 we went through a period of expansion. Firstly, we purchased a large area of garage space and a small factory next door. This was let out to the garage owner Mr Crawley and the small factory had some unsuccessful lettings and was later sold.
During all those years the original firm of Wilson Brothers & Company Limited under the Directorship of Fred Wilson had been, with a limited turnover, making small profits. It was still in the little factory building in Eldon Road, Wood Green, very 1890-ish and completely run down. Fred Wilson wished to retire and suggested we bought the old company and kept all the employees, who were mostly highly skilled, so in 1960 Wilson Bros became a wholly owned subsidiary of Barber Wilsons. Nearly all its products were made in gun metal and were mostly equipment for fire fighting (ie hydrant valves, couplings, standpipes, etc).
Indeed, some of our contracts were quite large, including hydrants etc. for the then new Dartford Tunnel. Unfortunately, after an accident, our general manager Stafford Faulkener died and it was decided that John Wilson would take over. Business was good for some time, albeit with modest profit. During this period, we were approached by one of Barber Wilson's major customers for stopcocks with a view to a take over, but this fell through owing to difficulties with planning permission from the Local Authority. It was then decided reluctantly to sell the premises, but not the business. All the employees were transferred to Barber Wilsons and production continued using the facilities of Barber Wilsons foundry and machine shop. Eventually the two companies were amalgamated and Wilson Bros ceased to trade, although it still remains dormant.
Oscar Wilson, who was now over 80 years old, retired and took no further interest in the affairs of the Company. He died in 1968, having spent all his working life with the firm.
We had extended our area of production to the manufacture of plug cocks, which were in great demand by water companies in Scotland. This came about by a decision to take over the interests of Woodhouse Co Ltd of Doncaster, who were going into liquidation. Their representative in Scotland was Mr Harry Callagan and we were happy to employ him as an agent on commission. We purchased all Woodhouse patterns and tools for £6,000 and this gave a considerable amount of work for David and John in the pricing and production of these products.
The sale of plug type stopcocks was for some years quite a lucrative business, but it must be admitted that this type of water control was desperately old fashioned, as indeed the Romans had themselves used shut off valves of this type 2000 years ago. A visit to Pompei will prove this! Gradually the Scottish Water Companies adopted more up to date fitments and in consequence the demand dropped and finally ceased.
Soon after we lost much of the work in Scotland we decided to modernise the foundry and we spent a considerable amount of money in this respect.
In 1974 Stanley Wilson died suddenly, he had worked to within a month of his illness and had been with the Company from the start in 1905, 69 years continuous service must constitute a record, which doubtless will never be beaten.
A foundry manager was employed in an effort to improve quality, along with quantity, in the field of stopcocks and hose couplings for the oil industry. Markets became increasingly competitive and by the late 1970s a financial crisis loomed. Receiving little or no help from our bankers this was indeed a time for drastic action, but help was at hand from an unexpected direction. Through our membership with the NBA we had come to know Mr Frank Moore who had, for many years, been Managing Director of the highly successful manufacturers of water fittings, Barking Brassware & Company Limited. This company had become part of ITT and Frank Moore found himself at variance with their main board and resigned. He was available for consultative financial advice and by chance was visiting us on a mainly social call on the day that the bank withdrew its' support. A hurried examination of our affairs resulted in new bankers being appointed, Frank Moore accepting a Directorship and in effect a new start was made.
Nick Wilson retired in 1977 having completed 41 years with the Company and John Wilson and David Callwood became Joint Managing Directors.
What was needed now was a new product range and this also came from an unexpected direction. Out of the blue we were approached by an Interior Designer who was refurbishing some victorian terraced houses. He had the idea of putting in 'period' bathrooms complete with roll top cast iron baths and new traditionally designed brass taps. Barber Wilsons' old catalogues were full of such fittings, which had not been made for 40 or 50 years and so the old patterns were dusted off and the first of our now highly successful traditional taps range were produced. This small start in 1978 has gradually increased to become 90% of our entire output.
Slowly but surely though the 1980s output and profitability improved, new catalogues were produced and the traditional taps ranges, now four in number, became the most comprehensive in the industry. Many of our competitors went out of business or were taken over and the market of traditional style taps and mixers grew. Many Barber Wilsons look-alikes resulted and indeed demand spread worldwide. The birth of our export trade started in 1990 with the refurbishment of the world famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore and many Far Eastern contracts have resulted from this exposure.
Due to the need to improve quality it was decided to close the old sand foundry and to turn over completely to die casting. This process gives a far superior surface finish, so necessary in the quality conscious luxury market into which we now sell, and has also given us a large building, this has now become a stores assembly and dispatch department.
In 1992 David Callwood decided to retire and, there being no other family member with suitable experience, it was decided to employ a Company Secretary. Mr Alan Dollemore, a local J.P. assumed this position, being made a Director two years later.
John Wilson continued as Managing Director, running the factory as well as the sales and marketing side of the business. This, however, was not an ideal situation and his son Simon Wilson, who had worked on leaving school in Barber Wilsons tool room before leaving to pursue a successful career with the American computer business Intergraph, came back into the business in 1994 as Works Director. David's son Mark was by now working in the Sales Department, so now we are into our fourth generation. John died in 2009
Modernisation of the machine shop continues with the introduction of a CNC turning centre, which will work unattended for up to two days if required, and we are constantly looking at new designs and methods of improving quality and volume. Export markets exporting to the USA are increasing and with the sale of Samuel Booth & Company Limited in Birmingham in 2000, we are the sole surviving independent family run business in our industry.
With our fifth generation, Henry Walter Wilson born 1993, waiting in the wings, we look forward to the next millennium with confidence.
Website by Richard