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History & CommunityHow the Mighty are Fallen

How the Mighty are Fallen

Between leaving school and receiving pension I worked for four different companies, unconnected and of differing sizes, but all associated with engineering. I have recently realised that all have now virtually closed, but with one exception, sometime after I had left. The exception was the third, which was taken over by a very large group, with promises of bringing it up to date, money no object, only to eventually sell off all machinery and then the designs piecemeal, the result being that no employees had job continuity. Finally, our company had the freehold of the land and so the building was sold off profitably. I was asked to stay onto the last, as Chief Engineer, to see that design details were complete and sent off to their purchasers. (Almost alone in a deserted factory !).

On leaving school I became an Engineering Apprentice for five years with the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company at Chippenham, Wiltshire, hoping to become an electrical engineer. In retrospect Westinghouse was an excellent choice, as we spent some time in most departments of the firm, including the foundry, machine shop, transformer  manufacturing, various assembly shops and electrical testing. Good all round engineering. My stint in the foundry was straight from school and so was rather heavy going. I had a period in the Drawing Office, for the Signal Office, but initially that was full so I had to intrude on the Brake Drawing Office, under its Chief Draughtsman, “Ossie” Nock. He expected his office to be like an old library, and there was another apprentice who came to my drawing board to talk and laugh loudly, causing “Ossie” to come along and whisper “Boys, please be quiet in the office”. Nock was a prolific writer of books about railways, illustrated, which were well received.

The name Westinghouse came from an American, George Westinghouse, who invented an air brake for railways. He tried to introduce it to Britain, forming the Westinghouse Brake Co., eventually at Kings Cross, London, but Britain already had a different system, the vacuum brake. In due course, George Westinghouse returned to America and eventually the UK company became British owned. In 1894 a new company, Evans O’Donnell & Co. was formed, to produce railway signals and purchased The Foundry in Chippenham and built some workshops there. A number of competitors, joined them in 1901. In 1918 W R Sykes Interlocking Signal Co. joined with the Westinghouse Brake Co. and in 1920 they formed the Westinghouse Brake & Saxby Signal Co. and transferred manufacture to Chippenham, later dropping Saxby from the title. It was an era of small companies needing to amalgamate in a rapidly changing market.

From the company title, obviously brakes and signals were produced, and also almost anything for a railway, for examples, point machines, brake compressors (steam operated), ticket machines (e.g. for the Underground), etc. I can remember a token machine (the token allowed the train to proceed) for Indian railways, originally designed by a Westinghouse subsidiary. A departure from railways was the introduction of copper oxide rectifiers in 1925, to convert AC to DC. These were sometimes difficult to produce and thought to depend on the wind direction and so a weather vane was installed ! Soon there was demand for battery chargers and battery eliminators, which helped the business over another lean time. In 1937 the company was developing selenium “metal” rectifiers and by the onset of war was able to produce these in mass to assist the war effort.  

Westinghouse at Chippenham grew to employ about 3,300 men and women by 1952. One of my early surprises was to see the gates open at lunch time to be filled with men on bicycles going home to their nearby homes for a meal, cycling and covering the road in a hoard. From time to time the company had hard times and even after the war workers still referred to a lean period before the war when a large contract from Poland for braking equipment for its freight vehicles was signed in1934. Apparently staff salaries had been cut by 10% previously and were then restored. The contract was almost finished by September 1939, but the German invasion meant that final payments could not be completed. When I joined the company, from a small village, I was amazed at some of the workshops which seemed huge, with heavy work on the ground floor and a second  floor  for  lighter assembly work with interconnecting passages, capable of carrying  motorised trucks. I learned later that these modern workshops were built to facilitate the Polish contract.

After the war Westinghouse commenced paying a Christmas bonus of two weeks additional pay, which came to be expected until one year before 1950, when it was announced that owing to a poor order book it could not be paid that Christmas. Naturally workers were relying on it and the local press was full of comments from shopkeepers, who were then expecting a lean time.                                                               

 Some years later a colleague and I attended a talk about buying shares. A few days later it was announced that Westinghouse shares had fallen to about 3/4 below par, and we both bought a small number of shares. I held them for many years. There were a number of periods of poor results, another being in 1961 when British Railways terminated a large contract for brake cylinders, resulting in a loss of over £1,200,000 for the year 1963. This brought a takeover bid from Thorn Electrical, but a court action against BR by Westinghouse was eventually won in 1964 and Dr Beeching, then Chairman of British Railways, presented a cheque for £1,650,000 to Westinghouse. The Thorn takeover then failed. However, British Rail orders were often variable in the post war period, as also were overseas orders for railway equipment.

After the war the rectifier business increased substantially. A large battery charging installation was built at the Faraday Building in the City of London, for the GPO, completed in 1951. When my apprenticeship ended I joined the Rectifier Engineering Department (my choice) in 1950 and just missed the Faraday contract. Stimulated by American developments in semiconductors, Westinghouse produced germanium diodes successfully, marketed by 1957. Westinghouse Electric, USA, had started developing silicon diodes and a technical exchange was commenced between the two companies. This was followed by a joint venture with English Electric and Westinghouse Brake in 1966. However, English Electric merged with GEC in1972 and Westinghouse Brake were alone again.

In 1955 Westinghouse acquired Douglas (Kingswood) which was then producing the Vespa Scooter, under licence from Italy. Douglas, under Westinghouse, commenced making air brakes for road vehicles, and another ex apprentice and school friend, Brian Neal, became its Chief Draughtsman.    

I left Westinghouse in 1965 for company no.2, so that later developments are not within my personal knowledge. However, I have referred to a book, “A Hundred Years of Speed with Safety”, the progress of Westinghouse Brake & Signal Co. Ltd, 1881 – 1981, by O S Nock, earlier mentioned as “Ossie”. He eventually became Chief Mechanical Engineer of the company.

In 1979 Westinghouse Brake & Signal Co. was acquired by the Hawker Siddeley Group. I had earlier omitted to mention the numerous subsidiary companies of Westinghouse, but at this acquisition there were four subsidiaries and two associated UK companies, together with subsidiary co. in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and USA and an associated co. in South Africa. Many of these had existed since early days.

The Chippenham site gradually ceased working and largely became empty. As an ex apprentice and employee it is a sad memory. One or two off shoots of the old business in brakes and signals carried on, probably as small design houses, with manufacture subcontracted.  So ended the first company I worked for, and the other three also ended in somewhat similar fashion. “How the mighty are fallen” indeed.

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