5.  The Post-War Years: 1945 - 1953

By 1948 the Company of Meynell & Sons Ltd, Brassfounders and Engineers, had come to the milestone of 150 years, producing products which had followed England’s historical requirements.

1948 is the easiest year to recount because I joined the Company on 6 September, having left the education provided by Benedictine monks at Ampleforth College.  It was a very different world.  The memories are the vivid ones of a youth aged 17 ½, who was told by his father, on the way to work, that this was the happiest day of his father’s life to welcome his son into the business.  A tour of introduction led to meeting a workforce, the majority of whom had served in the Company in the thirties when unemployment was rife and many of whom were profoundly grateful to the Meynell family for providing employment.  It is almost unbelievable today to recount that there was at least one old stager who had tears in his eyes when he shook hands and spoke a few halting words of welcome to “another Meynell who has come to serve the Company”.  

I sometimes find myself wondering, after a period of over 35 years, whether this could have really happened.  But then I remember the story told by my cousin of the year 1932 when he walked out of the factory gates with the Works Manager to select a few persons for additional foundrymen.. Whilst walking the queue, formed outside the gates each morning, one man plucked my cousin’s arm and turned up his shoe to reveal a large hole in the sole. “I’ve walked here from Manchester Guv’nor and if you don’t give me a job I’m going to throw myself into the Cut (the Canal)’.  When recalling that sad tale the emotion of 1948 seems more logical.

In 1948 the machine shops and supporting departments were in a run down condition, Herbert Meynell having decreed that the Meynell family would not make any profit out of the War.  Anyway, the majority of the production was carried out by belt driven hand lathes and so the majority of the workforce were hand turning craftsmen.  This is a species that has become practically extinct today, certainly in production departments, although a few can be found in a Pattern Shop or in Research Development Departments.

The treatment of employees in 1948 was somewhat different today as I found to my discomfort during my period in the Toolroom.  I was taught the art of making tools, like taps and dies, from steel bar by turning by hand and threading the correct tpi (threads per inch) on to the correct diameter to the nearest thou (1/1000th of an inch). The Toolroom Manager was a tough old man named Tom Finch who let you know if he was displeased with you by coming up behind and kicking your bottom as hard as he could with the toe of his boot.  It was very painful but it was the rule of the day for him and it was very effective. His choice of words was unusual with one word very predominant and often used as an adjective and a noun in the same sentence. For example, he would say, “Go and get that can of oil from that over there”.  I assure you that this is recounted accurately.  Tom Finch was with us over 50 years.  When he died his son, Bob, was with us for many years before he died, whilst his grandson, young Bob, was our Van Driver.  You can now start to believe that an old family business is a rather special (or unusual) place.

My lasting impression of 1948 is not of products or machines but of people and the really cheerful happy atmosphere which thrived at a time of relative poverty, compared to today.  The whole scene was different with the workforce and staff arriving by foot, bike or bus.  Only the directors had cars and the Midlands/North Salesman, Peter Walker, had the Jowett 2 Cylinder van.  It was still the age before television when people laughed and joked easily and made their own amusement.  It could also be said to be the last days before ambition or perhaps opportunity, when each person seemed quite happy and contented in the knowledge that he was, for example, a Capstan Operator and would always be a Capstan Operator.  This left him in a more contented frame of mind.

A memory to typify the difference of attitude was the story of Young Bodger Batemen (aged over 50) who was a capstan operator, whilst Old Bodger (his older brother) worked in the Foundry as a sand roller.  Young Bodger liked his beer a good bit and was starting to appear a few minutes later for work each day.  He was leaving home, just 200 yards up the road, a bit later each day.  Many warnings from the Shop Foreman, Tom Ford, culminated with a threat “If you can’t get here on time, Bodger, I shall have to report you to the Directors”. “But that’s not fair, Mr Ford”, said Bodger.   “Most people come here on a bike and if they are late then they catch up by  pedalling harder. I can’t do that because I only live 200 yards away”.  Tom Ford stood there non‑plussed and just had to laugh because he couldn’t see an answer to this remarkable logic. That story went all around the factory during the day giving many people a hearty laugh and everybody knew that the Directors would never dismiss Bodger anyway because he lived at home keeping his widowed mother.  I suppose that the procedure today would be that Bodger would be warned, in the presence of a Union Representative, and that this would be confirmed and recorded in writing and if it happened repeatedly the culmination of disciplinary action, as agreed between Management and Union, would be for dismissal. It is a pity that the Union dominated age has invaded the sanity of family businesses, causing rules and regulations to be drawn up to the detriment of human understanding.

My memories of that time are so vivid that it is difficult to know what to leave unwritten, rather than what to recount. My own remuneration was £5. per week (no perks) and out of this I paid my Mother £l. l0s. 0d (£1.50p) for my ‘keep at home’. I ate lunch in a restaurant in town for 3s. 0d (15p) per day, leaving something over for clothes and beer money. This experience gave me a deep appreciation of the value of money and helped me to appreciate the life style of the ordinary company employee.

The cheerfulness was lovely and the works seemed full of characters, like old Joe Fletcher who was Tea Boy (aged over 65) for his section and who used to run or hop with his little billy can to the cold water tap in the yard and always singing little dittys or generally being merry. 

George Kelly was in charge of the Company Stores and was responsible for issuing the various requirements for all the Machine Shops, mops for the Polishing Shop, etc.. He walked with difficulty, aided by two sticks and had leg iron supports. He had apparently seen some local children playing under the lone wall left standing at a demolished house with some more children on the top of it.  He could see that they wall was going to collapse on some of the young toddlers and ran forward to move them away.  Although he succeeded he was unfortunately trapped himself and had both legs broken.

Mr. Kelly was a very religious man and went to St. Patrick’s Church each morning of his life to spend an hour cleaning it, washing out with a bucket and mop, and then staying to attend early Mass before coming to work.  George Kelly’s high moral standards were always with him and he kept a Rosary in the pocket of his coat and he would clutch it anxiously when the very pretty and seductive junior tea girl in the Stores got close to him and started to act up and tease him.  He would exclaim “That’s enough now Miss, please don’t come any closer to me” and clutch his Rosary Beads.

My memories of my first impressions of industrial life as experienced in our Company are too many and too detailed to continue as I feel I could be writing forever. There are, however, three more historical facts I should record for interest. One is that the late 1940s was still a time of considerable shortages of food, clothes and petrol. It was a period of food rationing, shoe rationing, clothes rationing, sweet rationing, etc.  As the meat ration was only 2 oz per week, pigs were kept at the back of the factory in sties between the outside Gents (tin) lavatories and the wall of St Patrick’s Church. There were about a dozen and they were fed by the caretaker,  George Davies or the packer, Mr Fox.  They were fed twice a day on scraps and left overs collected locally. It would seem very unusual today to say the least.

The second relates to the method of collection of our packing cases from the Despatch Department.  The goods were all sent by rail and were packed in tea chests obtained from Barrington Tea Wholesalers in Stafford Street.  They too were a family business and we were all delighted when the daughter, Jean Barrington (who was very beautiful), was picked to play Principal Boy in the Christmas Pantomime at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.  The other packing cases were especially made to measure wooden crates, for export customers like Econosto of Rotterdam.  Both varieties were collected once a day between 4.00 and 5.00 pm by a horse and cart, which travelled the short distance from Low Level Station. The height of the packing room ramp was conveniently about 1” above the height of the floor of the cart after the horse had backed it to be sideways on against the wall. The opening remarks between our Packers (first old packer Fox later succeeded by young Joe Neale, aged 50) usually related to the quality of the straw used in the boxes, which was always purchased from Dickinsons Farm at Codsall and delivered once a week.  I suppose this would have been the same method of collection, by horse and cart, from the time that the GWR came to Wolverhampton in 1826.   This had put the town on the map, growing larger and larger, in place of Brewood, which has today remained a comparatively small village after its residents refused to entertain the idea of a rail station at Brewood, which was the original choice of the railway company.

The third is of the generator which was purchased to give the Production Departments more work time in the late forties when the country’s electrical supply was insufficient to cope with the demand.  Lionel Meynell and Tom Finch visited Scotland to purchase a generator and after being snowed in for a few days during the very bad winter, a generator (approximately the same size as a four seater saloon car) was purchased and transported to Montrose Street, where it carried out its duties very effectively when required.  I well recall its appallingly loud noise as it was one of my jobs to start it when it was needed.  It was housed in a small room next to the tool room and this had the effect of increasing the already loud noise even more.

After joining the Company in 1948 I was served with National Services papers and was conscripted into the Army. I left home to catch a train to Oswestry on 5 May 1949 to get to Park Hall Camp Whittington Barracks, where I was enlisted in the Royal Artillery.  After three months I passed a War Office Selection Board, known as WOSB, and was posted to Mons OCTU at Aldershot and served for five months under the notorious RSM Brittain.  I became commissioned 2nd Lieutenent on 15 December 1949.  I was posted to 42 Field Regiment RA at Essen Kupfedeh in the Ruhr area of Germany and stayed there until demobilised in 1951.  I was fortunate inasmuch as I just missed our Regiment’s being posted to Korea in July 1951 where, apparently, the conditions were quite beastly and the exceeding cold quite horrible.

Upon my return to the Company I joined the Staff and was moved to the offices, where I soon found that the lack of training procedures was quite unbelievable.  I don’t know about the rest of industrial England but I can’t believe that other companies were so naïve.  My first job was to work in Mr Turpin’s office and he was our senior clerk in charge of costing.  I was asked to copy, out of a huge bound book (about 4 inches thick) into another similar huge bound book, all the costs of each size of each of about 1500 products.  I naturally thought that this was probably quite important - after all I was being groomed for management one day and had already finished my works training.  One day, after about three weeks, I asked what happened next to the valuable work I was undertaking.  I was told: “Nothing - it will be thrown away”.  I was quite devastated to learn this and asked why I was doing it, only to be told that it was thought advisable to practise my writing so as to improve it. 

It was no fault of Mr Turpin, who was another typical loyal servant of which we seemed to have an endless supply in the organization, and he had served the Company for over 50 years when he retired in the 1970s.  There is a story recounted at Christmas time about Mr Turpin’s early days with the Company after joining as a 16 year old lad.  He became so inebriated at one Christmas lunchtime celebration party that he passed out completely pickled and no one quite knew what to do with him.  So when some bright spark remarked that Mr Turpin’s father was the Station Master at Shrewsbury Railway Station an idea was born.  This was to wheel him down to the Low Level Station on a sack truck from the Work’s Despatch Department,  tie a label around his neck addressed to the Station Master at Shrewsbury, and put him on the next train. The body duly arrived and the Stationmaster was summoned, complete with his bowler hat, to the guard’s van where the human package marked for his attention was found.  He was quite mortified to find that it was his own son.

The early 1950s found the British economy wrestling with the experience of a mini-slump and, for the first time since the re-armament programme had started in the mid thirties, production had outstripped requirements.  The end of the post-war boom was sudden and almost dramatic.  The turnaround was most noticeable in the car industry where a market collapse occurred virtually overnight.  During the period of acute shortages of new cars many people had put more and more new cars on order, perhaps any number up to ten, with different garages.   As and when they were fortunate enough to get one they would firstly place another order with the same garage for delivery of a further new one at the standard time of two years. Secondly, if one of the other ten became available they could sell the first one at a premium and go on repeating the same procedure.

The market collapsed when new cars became easy to get and suddenly everyone with ten on order cancelled all ten and the false picture evaporated with cars available at knock down prices, all over the place.

1951 was the year when Lionel Meynell was appointed a Director, which was a very sensible and overdue move as he had been assuming full responsibility for all Works Departments, Production and Design of new products since he re-joined the Company after the War, having left the Royal Engineers as a Major. 

1952 was the year when we inaugurated a Group Pension Scheme for the staff and although, after the ensuing years, this move does not seem to be anything very special I personally believe that it indicated a changing emphasis towards greater care of a company’s staff.  It was a recognition, by management, that potential employees were getting more selective in their choice of companies and we had to keep up to date by offering equal benefits with other local employers. The Brokers we chose were Hobbs Savill and Bradford, simply because we didn’t know who to approach but one of their executives was Martin Crossley, who was an ‘Old Amplefordian’ school friend of mine.  Anyway, they did a first class job for us and the Pension Scheme was welcomed by the Staff. 

In 1952 the Office Staff had increased to a level where they could no longer all be comfortably housed on the second floor of the building and the company of  J McLean & Sons Ltd were asked to convert a large part of the top floor of the building into offices.  This was at a time when the “open plan office” concept was just coming into fashion and, although some of our typing staff were horrified, they accepted the revolutionary design quite cheerfully and were soon happy in their new home.

Our various building alterations were always carried out by John McLean and Sons Ltd of Coven, near Wolverhampton as the founder of the company, John McLean had married Herbert Meynell’s daughter, Madelaine, after his first wife had died in Canada.  I used to meet old Uncle John when we went for lunch at the Victoria Hotel and my memories of him are of a most decent and pleasant man who smoked a pipe and used to love telling me how he had served a tough apprenticeship at the Skeena River in Canada.  He recounted how he used to cut down trees with an axe, then saw off planks by hand to build traditional wood cabins.

He returned to England to start the McLean Building Company where eventually his three sons from his marriage to Aunt Madelaine joined Geoffrey, the able and dynamic son of his first marriage, to form a highly successful business which eventually sold out to Tarmac for £9 million.

It is interesting to note that coke and coal stoves were still prevalent in factory offices and Cuthbert Meynell’s office had a lovely warm coal fire in winter months complete with large, polished brass coal scuttle.  There was also a large coke fire in one of the downstairs rough warehouses where the castings were stored en route between the Foundry and the Machine Shops.  The chimney for this went right up through the whole of the building, hopefully helping to heat it at the same time.  One year, on the day we broke up for Christmas, there was to be an office party in the new top offices and one of the older and senior typists, Miss Audrey Bull, came in her best party dress which was white. Audrey was a bit fussy about dirt and was always careful, if not pernickity.  She was, therefore, quite horrified when someone leant on this metal tube chimney pipe when she was standing next to it and it broke in half, scattering about half a bucket of filthy soot all over her best white dress. However, she was a, good trouper and joined in the laughter which was nearly hysterical because this should have happened to her of all people.

The mid-50s witnessed an era of British industrial history when increasing mechanisation was leading to increased standardisation of production by what was called, at the time, “mass production methods”.   This new concept effected the bronze and brass valve and tap manufacturers very profoundly. The Meynell Company had been left behind in this mechanisation drive because it started so far behind, after our wartime policy, and was still changing the Production Department’s machining methods from hand lathe to capstan operation, later to become auto-capstans.

Our main competitors in the bronze valve market were Peglers, Hattersley and Newman Mender, whilst in the brass fittings market C H Edwards, Manley & Regulus, Conex Terna, Webbs and E P Jenks were all successfully mechanising and standardising their production.  All these latter companies soon followed E P Jenks when they were taken over by Delta in 1958 to become a formidable group.  But it was apparent that these amalgamations left Delta without the historical soul and will to be as successful as Pegler where continuity was always evident. 

The situation was a very serious one for the Meynell Company with similar products being sold by our competitors which, being mass produced, were much cheaper.  At this time, quite unconsciously, we became pushed more into the direction of making non-standard products to customers’ designs where the requirement was usually for hundreds rather than thousands and we examined any possibility which came along.  One such possibility was a bronze trigger operated water gun, encased in a rubber cover, which was brought to us by Edwin Birch, General Manager of the Wolverhampton based Midland Counties Dairy. This was following a visit he had made to the USA with the Milk Industry Productivity Team in 1953.  We undertook manufacture and sales with a royalty payment to the inventors, Strahman Valyes Inc of New Jersey, of 5% for which we were granted the sole UK franchise and a non-exclusive franchise worldwide, excluding the USA, for the length of the patent.  That episode is recorded in some detail as I have been asked many times since then how the Company became involved in making mixing valves, as it was this which culminated in the design and manufacture of Safemix Thermostatic Showers which probably enjoyed technical superiority over all other thermostatic units worldwide when we commenced manufacture in the 1960s.

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