With the end of wartime production in which Luton had played a huge part, firms in the town were turning their attention to reverting to their peacetime roles. In munitions factories it would mean a loss of a huge number of jobs that were no longer required and the welcoming back of ex-servicemen former employees with special skills. But the overall feeling among employers was one of optimism for the future.
The Luton News devoted space to interviewing bosses about their war work and to get an impression of how they saw their firms' futures in a new era of peace.
T. BALMFORTH & CO LTD
Messrs T. Balmforth & Co Ltd have now almost entirely reverted to the character of work engaged in prior to the war.
During the time of being a 'controlled' factory, the works have been very busy on steel foundry work for motor transport and other departments of national utility. Now they are able to give their undivided attention to the private contracts which have been compulsorily neglected.
Mr H. C. Brown and Mr T. Kitchen, interviewed, state that they considerably increased their plant during the war, and even then worked to the very limit of their capacity. There will be no decrease on this standard of activity in the future.
G. F. FARR
Mr G. F. Farr, of Collingdon Street, is another local engineer who views the future without misgiving. In an interesting resume of his wartime activities, he said that three and a half years ago, when left with the assistance of only a lad, he commenced making machine tools and gauges for local munition firms.
He first assisted Messrs Kent in this direction, and later the Vauxhall, Davis Gas Co and other works. He also assisted in regard to machine shop repairs of a general running and maintenance character.
About two years ago he designed a machine – a small capstan lathe – for the manufacture of aeroplane fittings: nuts and other small component parts. On this work he employed girls, and the branch of activity was developed until in October, the last complete month of the war, the output amounted to a quarter of a million.
On the men's side, the chief work was the manufacture of small machine tools and the turning of aeroplane parts generally. At the close of hostilities the staff had grown to about 50.
At the present moment it is slightly reduced, numbering about 20 men and half that number of girls. Nuts of a small size are still being turned out in large quantities, for a market exists for such articles in peace time as well as war.
Further, Mr Farr is hoping to extend largely the manufacture of the capstan lathes referred to, and is confident he will be able to 'place' them in satisfactory numbers.
Another branch which he is opening up is motor-car repairs. He has at his command the necessary facilities in the shape of plant and skilled labour for dealing with such business, and intends to make a definite bid for the increased business which will assuredly be going in this direction.
Summing up, he says the future has no fears for him. The immediate period of a transition from war to the commencement of the era of reconstruction may be in some respects a trying one, but he is confident that it can be negotiated and that bright prospects lay ahead.
Though his war energies necessitated dropping his former business of engineer to the local hat trade, he proposes henceforth to devote one branch of his works to meet these demands.
FRICKER'S METAL CO LTD
Another firm looking to a post-war future with optimism was Fricker's Metal Co Ltd, Langley Street, described by The Luton News (January 23, 1919) as an interesting and important industry to Luton which, according to managing director Mr Fricker, gave promise of wide scope and activity in the future.
Mr Fricker told the newspaper: “We have gone on continually increasing the volume of our business year by year. Our work is that of manufacturing zinc oxide, and refining zinc spelter. It is a process of our own, which we originated in the early days of the war for the manufacture of cartridge brass.
“Chemically pure spelter was most necessary and valuable, but was very scarce. It had been imported from Scandinavia, and the Government was in a difficulty. After some experimenting, we brought out our process, and although we have only done a small part ourselves in the actual manufacturing of the quantities needed, we placed the process in the Government's hands, and it was reproduced in different works in the country.
“We have also been making a small quantity of low-grade copper from foundry brass waste, and we are proposing now to extend that branch of our business, having done this at our present works in a pioneer way because the process, being right in the town, was more or less objectionable.
“We have stopped it for the time being, but it will be resumed at our new Portland Road works. During the last year we have bought some 7½ acres of ground, and we have erected the first portion of our new works, office buildings etc, and have got in a railway siding. We are ready to start work there almost immediately.
“I can see no possible diminution in our trade, for the peace demands for our product will certainly be greater than the war demands. A large part of the demand ceased with the war, but zinc oxide is used in such a large number of industries that we have always been as busy as we could possibly be.
“Our expansion is by no means due to the war. Of course, the effect of the war was to stop imports of the material we make, and that placed us more quickly in the position of getting our home markets established. But we were, apart from the war, steadily progressing at the same rate.
“We are now employing close on 100 men, as against about 20 four years ago. The amount of labour in our industry does not compare with the volume of business done, but it is bound largely to increase in the future, especially when our new works are in operation.
“We are engaging more hands from time to time as as we are adding to the plant at the new works, and we are limited only by the possibilities of new construction. The industry should be an important on in Luton in Future years.”
Mr Walter Frost, of Collingdon Street, said that the demands made upon him in relation to engineering work for the local straw trade, coupled with difficulties in regard to the labour supply, rendered it impossible to cope with any special form of war work.
He tackled the problem at the outset but was forced to discontinue, considering that it was necessary for some firms to study local industries in order that the financial stability of the country generally should not be impaired.
E. W. HUDSON & CO
Mr Hudson (Messrs E. W. Hudson & Co, Langley Road) said: “We have been on various kinds of munition work during the war, and we will probably turn now to agricultural engineering, starting a new firm to be called the County Engineering Co.
“We shall do agricultural and lorry repairs, and shall make room for all our old employees to come back. The dilution labour will be given other work and our own men with the skill will have work to do. We only employ males.”
LUTON IRON FOUNDRY
While never having lost sight of pre-war business, Luton Iron Foundry (High Town) has been actively engaged in munitions work, including the manufacture of the casting of trench and aerial bombs and hand grenades. To a certain degree these two manufactures have been combined, of course, the munitions work claiming priority.
Now that the firm has returned to the pre-war trade, only complete new and up-to-date plant had to be installed. The programme of the future would be in the main directed to the manufacture of iron trade castings.
The chief difficulty which was being experienced was the great delay in securing the return of the old employees who were perfectly skilled in the pre-war work, such as the war workers were not.
MARINER & CO
Mr W. J. Mariner, of Messrs Mariner & Co, Crawley Road, said that his firm were very early in the war placed upon the list of contractors to the Admiralty. Their speciality was steam and fire valves and all classed of high pressure work.
The demands made upon them, he stated, necessitated a considerable expansion both of premises and staff. The next door house was incorporated in the works, and the importance and essentiality of their productions were such as to enable the Company to secure and largely to retain the services of a requisite staff.
As to the future, he regarded the prospect with optimism. Commercial ships, he pointed out, required valves and fittings as well as warships. Construction for the Admiralty direct was likely to continue for some time to come, and there was every hope for an increased demand, both local and national, in the future under a peacetime regime.
He thought it safe to assume that the future staff would not be less than that of the recent war period, a fact which must have a bearing upon the welfare of the borough in general.
A. P. RODELL
Amid the road of revolving belting and machinery, Mr A. P. Rodell, at his Midland Road works, drew aside the metaphorical curtain and allowed us to peer into a somewhat dim and misty future. The work on which he has been engaged during the war, he informed us, has been of a varied character, and he has had no long runs of repetition work.
In the early stages of the war, when the military authorities were practically in control of the town, Mr Rodell's firm, in conjunction with the soldiers, did repairs to their guns etc. In addition to this he has also had Government contracts for various kinds of work. He also holds a continuous contract for the supply of engineering goods to local firms.
Foreign orders and reconstructional work are expected to be features of the future, and, with regard to the former, Mr Rodell has received inquiries from Tunis, Cuba, Peru, Egypt, Calcutta and other places. At the present time he is holding goods which were completed two years ago and which have since been awaiting transport to Spain. Mr Rodell is expecting to deliver shortly.
Part of the machinery at these works has been used during the war for the manufacture of aeroplane engine parts, but this work is now completed.
“Definite statements as to the future are very difficult to make,” said Mr Rodell, “for prices are extremely fluctuating at present, and no one knows how things will turn out.”
He anticipates, however, no reduction in trade, and considers augmentation of staff more probable than curtailment.
SHOOLBRED & CONNELL
Mr Shoolbred, of Messrs Shoolbred & Connell, Langley Street, stated that the firm during the war have been making rifle parts, including locking bolts and luminous sights. There have been small aeroplane parts and similar commodities, the whole finding work for between 80 and 90 hands.
During the war the firm's usual business of electrical and general engineering was allowed to slide, and they simply kept the other works of the town patched up.
The firm was now trying to regain the pre-war normal condition, and the partners, Mr Shoolbred and Mr Watson, had parted, with the idea of each carrying on his own special branch, Mr Watson having always been on the engineering side.
In the future the two firms were to open up of general engineering , especially where the mechanical and electrical were inter-connected. The girls were gradually being taken off munitions work and being employed as far as possible on post-war work, which was coming in very satisfactorily.
“My own firm,” added Mr Shoolbred, “is trying to make up arrears of pre-war work, and new work for the Ministry of Munitions has to be done. We are electrically wiring various premises, and I hope soon that we shall be freer to deal with the work necessary in Luton.
“The work is coming in quickly. What may be the position a year hence I cannot prophesy, but this year the difficulty is to deal with the work in hand rather than to cry out for more.”
LUTON TOOL AND DOOR CHECK COMPANY
The manager of the Luton Tool and Door Check Company, Crawley Road, said that the firm's activities during the war lay principally in the manufacture of tools for fuses, and the call upon their energies was such as to necessitate a considerable extension both of staff and premises.
There was every reason to hope that, when the plans and preparations they were now making had totally matured, there would be plenty of work to employ the extra hands who had been taken on, and to keep the extended plant in full running order.
VAUXHALL & WEST HYDRAULIC ENGINEERING COMPANY
Mr Gray, of the Vauxhall & West Hydraulic Engineering Company, states that during the war his firm employed a considerable amount of labour on the making of machinery for the manufacture of explosives, and they were busy also with general engineering.
Mr Gray is quite confident as to the prospect of a busy future. The works will go back to the manufacture of hydraulic machinery and presses.
Although there are no very old outstanding orders to deal with, trade is coming in satisfactorily, and there is no fear of a slack period.
WEATHERHEAD & SON
Mr Weatherhead, Dumfries Street, showed some interesting examples of hand grenades, of which his firm has turned out thousands a day. Fuses for aeroplane bombs and trench mortars have also been produced in great quantities.
Mr Weatherhead's was the first small firm in this area to employ female labour. He solely employed female labour, and divided the various processes in such a way that the output was increased. The firm was specially complimented for the small percentage of 'rejects'.
“As to the future, we are simply waiting to see how trade will go,” he said. “We need skilled men, and there is the question of German hat machine parts competing with ours. Many of the machines in use are German, and the German factories, having already made the capital outlay in machinery, can turn parts out cheaper.
“Our position depends on the Government action. We anticipate doing high-class engineering in the machining line, and no doubt we shall employ a considerable amount of female labour. Many of those I employed during the war I had to discharge, but I helped them to jobs. Some were in the hat trade.”
L. WEEKS LTD
Mr Coom, managing director of Messrs L. Weeks Ltd, Langley Street, said: “Our works have been on special electric fuses for the Navy, being the sole suppliers. We have also made controlling switches and flashing apparatus for searchlights, as well as switch-gear for the 'paravane,' a device brought out by a Navy commander for picking up and exploding mines. Then we have produced all kinds of terminal boxes and connections, but throughout have supplied only the Navy.
“We have employed a considerable number of males and females, and none have yet been discharged. We have had great trouble in getting deliveries of material, but as far as we are concerned I do not think there will be any slackening of work. We are taking on our pre-war men as they come back.
“As from the transition from war to peace, we do not expect any difficulty. We shall return to our former fuse and switch-gear trade for the fitting of warehouses, factories, power stations, railways etc. There are enormous arrears to be made good, and we have orders in hand yet that we received in 1914, which people are naturally clamouring for.
“From the employment point of view, I think it will be a question of employing more than ever. We hope to get out of our present dilapidated works soon and build our own. We want first, however, to see how the local housing scheme is going, and I believe a very extensive one is needed in Luton.”