Preface and history to the end of World War One
This is the story of the Company’s growth from its source in the activities of an early Victorian nail maker through an unbroken chain of events including two World Wars and five name changes, links in the chain without any of which the present companies would not exist. It is also the story of a family business, in which successive generations, through their engineering skills and ingenuity, evolved into businesses of worldwide reputation.
In compiling this narrative it is only right that the work put in by Mr. Eric Tyler, former Company Secretary and Sales Director, in writing the story of Reynolds first fifty years, which was published in 1948 as “Reynolds in Retrospect” should be acknowledged. This has been reproduced, with minor additions.
There may be some confusion in that the Company had always counted its history from the registering of The Patent Butted Tube Company on 20th December 1898, hence the anniversary celebrations of 1948 and 1973. The fact was that the manufacture of steel tube was but a new product of the already long established John Reynolds and Sons Limited, in the same way as flash welded rings and hollow extrusions were new products of Reynolds Tube Co. in the 1950s. Therefore, although the 1898 references have been retained, to complete the overall picture our story must begin in 1841.
The principal source of information has been the Company’s official records, but much has been gathered from the recollections of a few old employees who had been with the Company for many years, and to them we are indeed grateful for their invaluable help.
One other opportunity has been seized from this occasion, and that is to mention something of the history of Hay Hall.
K.H. Sprayson, 1996
To The 1948 Edition
by the Managing Director
The evolution of life is that of growth and expansion, likewise in the industrial field the birth of an idea may be the seed which in later years develops into a large manufacturing organisation.
Such is the case of REYNOLDS TUBE COMPANY LIMITED, which was founded in 1898 by the late Mr. A.M. Reynolds, to manufacture a patented idea, now universally known as - Butted Tubes.
“REYNOLDS IN RETROSPECT” traces the first fifty years of the Company’s life since 1898, compiled from such records that are still available, and the memories of those associated with the Company in the early years.
In the course of research into these records a large amount of interesting details surrounding Hay Hall have come to light, and as this building has been the Company’s headquarters for the last twenty years, it is appropriate to record a few of the more unique features of Hay Hall’s history over three hundred years.
“REYNOLDS IN RETROSPECT” will naturally have a greater interest to those who have had an association with the Company, which by their efforts, enjoys a world wide reputation in the Steel Tube trade second to none.
FROM WHENCE WE CAME
John Reynolds was born in the year of Waterloo. In the Birmingham trade directories of the first half of the 19th century is listed one William Henry Reynolds as a Malt and Steel maker, presuming that this was John’s father, John would have had a grounding in business from an early age. It was in the year 1841 when John, by then a young man of 26, took premises in Moorville Street, Ladywood and set himself up in business as a manufacturer of cut nails. Cut Nails, a staple Birmingham industry, were manufactured by stamping from rolled iron sheet and it was the improvement of these powered processes that John Reynolds was to specialize. By 1847 such was his progress that it was found necessary to move to larger premises at Attwoods Mill, Baskerville Place at 19 Broad Street. It was here that he adopted the title of the Crown Nail Works, presumably from being in the vicinity of the Crown Brewery that was nearby.
In 1851 the Crown Nail Works exhibited at the Great Exhibition, at which John Reynolds was awarded a gold medal for quality and excellence of product, an accolade that was to feature in the Crown Nail Works advertising for years to come. By 1854 production was such that yet larger premises were found in Newtown Row, premises which were to survive until the post World War II development of the city.
As it will be recalled, through successive generations the Reynolds family were always looking for opportunities to develop business and in 1862 John Reynolds had taken over the Phoenix Nail Works, established in 1825 and Chunk Nails established in 1811, both names being retained in the Company’s products. John Reynolds retired in 1875, but by then the thriving nail business had, in 1864, been joined by John’s two sons, Alfred John and Edwin. The death of Edwin in 1881 left Alfred John in sole charge, but three years later he was joined by his eldest son, Alfred Milward Reynolds, to be followed by his second son John Henry in 1890.
By 1895 the business had been in existence for over half a century and had become firmly established in its trade, and so the Reynolds family began to turn their thoughts to the possibility of another line of business which could be undertaken in their premises side by side with the existing production. The 1890s saw a boom in cycle manufacture with the introduction of John Kemp Starley’s “Safety Bicycle”. It was then that young Alfred Reynolds began to consider the possibilities of manufacturing seamless steel cycle tubing, and to give particular attention to the problem, which was troubling the cycle builders, of how to overcome the weaknesses caused through joining comparatively thin tubes to relatively heavy lugs. It was not long before he found the solution, for he devised a means of manufacturing cycle tubes in the process of which the wall thickness could be increased at the ends only, without increasing the outside diameter, giving the cycle builder the much needed extra strength at the joints and eliminating the necessity of inserting a liner into each end of a tube, which, until then, had been the only means of achieving this reinforcement.
Frame tubes manufactured by this process were called “Butted” tubes, and in 1897 Mr. Alfred Reynolds, Junior, jointly with Mr. J.T. Hewitt, an employee of the Company at the time, took out a Patent on the process of manufacturing Butted tubes. By then a small amount of plant and equipment had been installed, and the manufacture and sale of cycle tubing, particularly Butted tubes, was commenced, production to run alongside the existing nail manufacture.
These were the times of the peaceful and prosperous years towards the end of the Victorian era. True it was that a small war was in progress between Spain and the United States, and that there had also been some disturbances in South Africa, which were to flare up in the following year. But at home it seems the only thing people could find to grumble about was the maintaining of the income tax rate at eight pence in the pound by Lord Salisbury’s Government.
In days such as these, when a general atmosphere of confidence prevailed within the business world, the Directors of John Reynolds & Sons Limited decided to form their newly established steel tube manufacturing business into a separate undertaking, and so, on the 20th December 1898, The Patent Butted Tube Company Limited was registered. The Chairman of the Company was Mr. Alfred John Reynolds, the only other Director being his son, Mr. Alfred Milward Reynolds, who was to be actively associated with the Company for the next forty-five years.
The total number of employees engaged on steel tube production was twenty-five, the equipment consisted of one single-chain draw bench, two light double-chain draw benches, together with a muffle, two butting machines, a reeling machine and a small amount of other necessary equipment. Production was devoted entirely to the bicycle sizes of tubing ranging from 1/2” diameter up to 1.1/4” diameter, and principally between 18 and 20 gauge, although lighter and heavier gauges were possible. A limited range of tubes in shapes other than round were also produced, but bending and tapering work had to be sent out as there was no capacity for this in 1898.
It was not long before the Company began to justify the confidence placed in it by its Sponsors, for a report issued by the Directors on the 31st March 1899 reads “............. and further extensions (to plant and machinery) are in progress which when finished will complete the equipment of the works up to their full capacity, which is urgently needed”. This reference to an extension was, in fact, some additions to plant which were probably required to balance up existing plant to obtain the fullest output possible, and consisted of an additional draw bench, making four benches altogether, and a further butting machine, making three in all, and some further ancillary equipment.
Although the manufacture of tube and nails were to continue in parallel for the next 20 years, it is with the tube side of the business that the story continues. The Crown Nail Works, under the direction of John Henry, was to continue at Newtown Row until his death in 1945, when it was relocated at Wednesbury, by what we would term today as a management takeover, still retaining its original title of John Reynolds & Sons the Crown Nail Works.
Early in 1899 the Patent No. 24931 which had been taken out by Mr. A.M. Reynolds and Mr. J.T. Hewitt to cover the butting process was assigned to the Company, and the manufacture of butted tubes was the line of business for which the Company became immediately noted, and was soon to become world famous.
In later years the Company was to play its part in two great wars, but there was, of course, the earlier war in South Africa which broke out in 1899. This had virtually a negligible effect on industry and commerce and certainly in Reynolds case there is no reference in any of the
Company’s reports or records during the three years of this war to indicate any effect on the Company’s activities whatsoever.
By 1900 the additions to plant and equipment had been completed and the Works were in full production, but although the Company had enjoyed a successful year there were increased signs of severe competition, the Directors recording in their report for the year a reference to “the general state of the trade and reckless competition still persisted in by other Companies”.
Although the volume of business was good, the trade remained in this highly competitive state right through the following year. It was felt also that the facilities possessed by the Company were sufficient to give a large output, bringing down manufacturing costs to a minimum, which would enable the Company to meet the excessive competition. In spite of these difficulties the Company appeared to have already established for itself a good reputation as the following statement, taken from the Directors‟ Report for the year 1901, will show:- “The reputation of the Company’s productions stands highest in the trade”. It can well be said that today we can take pride in having maintained, and possibly enhanced, a reputation earned for us nearly half a century ago.
In 1901 Mr. A.M. Reynolds was appointed Managing Director, his father retaining the position of Chairman.
1902 to 1904
We now entered another phase of apparent peace and prosperity, and if the life of the community had in any slight manner been disrupted by the event of the Boer War there was undoubtedly an urge in 1902 to get back to normal. It was certainly a year of colour, gaiety and spectacle with the ending of the war in May, and the peace rejoicing in June, to be followed by the coronation of King Edward VII in August. Yet under all this there was approaching the shadow of a depression, for the Company had less business than during the previous year, and everyone was perturbed by the depressed state of prices, having to again make reductions which it was hoped would bring in a greater volume of business.
It was in this year that the Company published one of its earliest catalogues, confined almost exclusively to cycle tubing, particularly butted and taper gauge tubes. These were, of course, the Company’s speciality.
It is of interest to note that in demonstrating the lightness of the Company's tubes that the catalogue quotes a set of Reynolds butted frame tubes as weighing approximately 4 1/2 lbs.
This is worth comparing with the 1947 catalogue wherein it advertised a set of butted frame tubes in “531” as weighing 3 lbs.
Another interesting feature of this early catalogue is the two pages of “unsolicited testimonials”, a form of advertising which was more prevalent forty or fifty years ago than today. Some of these, by today‟s standards, appear to be very amusing, especially one from an apparently enthusiastic and very energetic gentleman who wrote - “I have taken a great liking to your new tubes and intend to push them”.
There is also a number of reproductions from the cycling press of the period which were loud in their praises of “these new butted tubes” as they referred to them.
By 1903 a slump had descended upon the cycle trade, caused no doubt to a large extent by the fierce competition, and whilst in that year the Company’s records speak of falling values and prices and a less volume of business, in 1904 they refer to the hope that the continual fall in prices had by then reached the limit.
Undoubtedly these were difficult times, but there did appear to be a gleam of hope for there were indications of improvement in the following year which, to the relief of many, came up to expectations.
Quite apart from the satisfaction over a general improvement in trade those connected with the Company in 1905 had good reason for pleasure and satisfaction of another kind, for it was in this year that a great honour was conferred upon the Company Chairman. In spite of the considerable amount of time and energy that he put into his business he had for the past thirteen years found it possible to also take a live and active interest in the public life of the City of Birmingham. It was in 1892 that Mr. Alfred John Reynolds was prevailed upon by the Conservative Party in St. Stephen’s Ward (*) to become their candidate for the representation of the Ward in the City Council, a vacancy having been created by the election of the previous representative as an Alderman. Mr. Reynolds did not have to contest his seat because there was at the time an arrangement whereby all municipal contests were avoided following as they did so closely the turmoil of a General Election. So conscientiously, and to the satisfaction of the electors, did Mr. Reynolds fulfill his civic duties that at the ensuing municipal elections during the years which followed he was always returned unopposed, his nomination being supported on every occasion, not only by his own party, but the parties representing all other shades of political opinion in the Ward. This was indeed a notable tribute to his personal worth as a citizen, and the Birmingham Daily Post of November 10th 1905 records of Mr. Reynolds “the electors of St. Stephen’s, members of all parties had been so satisfied with his representation of them that they had never given him the joy of a contest”. And so in November 1905 he was rewarded for his valuable contribution to the affairs of the City by being elected its Lord Mayor.
(* now part of St. Mary’s Ward)
1906 to 1907
The revival in trade which began to make itself apparent during the previous year had in 1906 become a full flood, and for the first time in the history of the Company a complete night shift was organised, but even by working night and day at full pressure the Company could not keep pace with the volume of business which was coming in, and it was obvious that if this business was to be held considerable extensions would have to be made to the Works, and they would have to be made quickly. There was, however, no further room for extension at Newtown Row, and so towards the end of 1906 the Directors began to look elsewhere for suitable premises in which to expand. It was not long before they found what they wanted, for on the 17th January 1907 the freehold factory buildings, together with certain plant and machinery which were located in Grove Street, Smethwick, were purchased from Champion Weldless Tubes Limited. No time was lost in getting these premises properly equipped, and a certain amount of plant re-organisation as between Newtown Row and the Works in Grove Street was necessary, for it was decided that Grove Street should concentrate more on the production of ordinary plain cycle tubing, leaving Newtown Row to cope largely with the production of butted tubes. By September 1907 Grove Street Works was in full production, the plant capacity consisting of six double-chain draw benches with the necessary ancillary equipment, employing a total of forty work people, whilst at Newtown Row the number of work people had also increased to forty.
The range of tube sizes the Company were then offering extended between 1/4” up to 2” diameter, and the range of gauges from 14 to 22, together with an extension in the range of section tubes, and although other sizes and gauges were possible this was the particular range for which the Company were seeking business.
On the whole 1907 was a fairly successful year, but there had been a revival of the competition experienced in earlier years, especially from abroad, and there came into being an organisation called the Weldless Steel Tube Association, through which it was hoped to improve the state of the trade as regards competition. There was one other event of interest which took place in 1907, and that was the election of Alfred John Reynolds as an Alderman of the City of Birmingham.
The effects of the severe competition which had restarted during the previous year were very marked during the year 1908, and had caused another slump in trade to the extent that the new Works at Smethwick were not being used to their full capacity, and apparently the efforts by British manufacturers to obtain fair prices in combination were abandoned, so presumably this marked the end of the Weldless Steel Tube Association formed only in the previous year.
But to those closely connected with the Company all this was overshadowed by the loss of their Chairman, who died on the 9th November 1908 at his home in Edgbaston, at the age of 67. He is best described in a quotation taken from an article which appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post, November 10th 1908 which read - “Modest and unassuming, the friend of every one, and without an enemy, even amongst his competitors in business and his opponents in politics, he built up for himself a substantial position as one of the most successful commercial men in the City, and then ungrudgingly entered upon a career of usefulness as a public man in order that he might help to promote the best interests of his fellow citizens.”
1909 to 1913
Mr. Alfred John Reynolds was succeeded as Chairman of the Company by his son, Mr. Alfred Milward Reynolds, a position which he was to enjoy for the next thirty-four years.
The volume of business again began to steadily increase until at the end of the year 1909 the Directors were able to report that the total volume of business received during the year was the largest so far in the history of the Company, but in spite of that there appeared to be little to show for it, and the position was far from encouraging, which was truly evidence of the competition and excessively low prices which still continue, but in spite of all this, with an eye to the future, and realising Smethwick Works had certain limitations, the Company decided to improve matters by making some further additions to the Works by providing a new warehouse and packing department.
In January 1910 another catalogue was published, and among interesting illustrations its collection of handlebars, of which the Company offered quite a large range, and other cycle fittings appear curious beside the shapes which are fashionable today. This catalogue is also not without its selection of “unsolicited testimonials”, one gentleman having written to tell us that he had solved the problem of how to build a bicycle without wheels. He writes - “I wish to say I am very pleased with the butted tubes and use nothing else in all my machines”.
The year saw a great improvement in trade, and the Company reported very satisfactory results, which were continued in the following year, and this steady improvement was now to be maintained right up to the outbreak of the 1914 war, in spite of a wave of industrial unrest which began to sweep through the country. Beginning chiefly with the railway strike in August 1911, and followed by the long coal strike which lasted from February until April 1912. In spite of these difficulties the year 1912 was exceptional in the Company’s history, and for the whole of that year both Works had been employed night and day at full pressure, and had been engaged on the higher class of work which the Company had always tried to cultivate. This comment probably requires a little explanation. From the very commencement in 1898 the policy of the Company had been to manufacture only high grade tubing, known as “A” Quality, but during the years of depression and severe competition the Company had also found it necessary to manufacture and supply a certain amount of the lower grade, better known as “B” Quality, and it would appear therefore that during the latter few years there has been a rising demand for the better class of material.
1914 - 1918 AND THE IMMEDIATE POST WAR PERIOD
We have now reached a period in history when events were shortly to take place which would change the whole outlook, not only of business, but of every man, woman and child. The opening of the year 1914 found Reynolds peaceably engaged in their normal business, which by then had reached substantial proportions. Indeed, the major political problem of the time, occupying the attention and interest of the man in the street, seemed to be the Irish question rather than what was taking place on the Continent. And so, in common with others, the Company carried on almost completely unaware of the imminent clash of arms which was to come at the height of that glorious summer of 1914.
The year from the business point of view was a good one for the Company, but in October 1914 the Directors recorded that they were a little apprehensive as to the future, although they had already obtained a few Government Contracts for war purposes. These Contracts consisted of supplies of tubing for military bicycles and motor cycles, a considerable number of which were required early in World War I, and these Contracts were keeping the Works fully employed. Thus there was no immediate change in the Company’s productive programme, for this was only to become more evident during the following year.
Upon the outbreak of war a number of employees either joined up or were called up from the Reserve, and the Directors decided that the Company would make a weekly allowance to employees who joined the services, a procedure also to be repeated during the 1939-1945 war. But in the case of the 1914-1918 war it is perhaps of interest to note that the Company paid the first “enlistment allowance” on August 6th 1914, only two days after the declaration of war.
During 1915 changes began to be seen in the Company’s production, because a heavy demand for tube for war purposes had developed for a wide variety of applications. World War I was also obviously not without its manufacturing difficulties and problems over material supply and manpower. Both the Newtown Row and Grove Street Works had been working at great pressure, but difficulties were being encountered due to the large number of the Company’s skilled and experienced employees having volunteered for service in the Forces. This is a great tribute to the patriotic spirit of these men, and in spite of the difficulties created, the Company was proud that there was no lack of volunteers amongst its personnel who were willing to risk so much to defend their country. In this connection it should be remembered that it was not until the beginning of 1916 that Mr. Asquith piloted through Parliament the Military Service Bill enforcing conscription.
There was, during the year 1915, considerable increase in the cost of all manufacturing materials and there had to be several revisions in selling prices, which of course did not make business any easier. During the same year the steel tube trade came under the instructions of the Ministry of Munitions, who assumed responsibility for allocating orders in their respective priorities.
On January 1st 1916 the Government declared The Patent Butted Tube Company Limited a controlled establishment, a procedure which was to be repeated a second time some twenty-four years later. By now the Company’s production was almost entirely devoted to the manufacture of steel tubes for war purposes.
It was during 1916 that Reynolds commenced to manufacture steel tubing of a rather different character, and for an entirely new application. This was the special high quality precision tubing for aircraft applications, and it proved to be a line of business with which the Company would be be henceforth continually associated, and to extensively develop. Perhaps at the time we did not quite foresee its growth to present day proportions, but for many years now the aircraft industry has been commanding a large proportion of the Company’s output. As the year in which the Company entered the Aircraft trade, 1916 can truly be said to have been amongst the most important years of its history.
One contract which was on the Company’s books in 1916 is perhaps worthy of mention. It was for what were known as “Russian lance” tubes. These were made from 1.1/16” diameter by 20 gauge tubing and supplied in 10 ft. 2 in. lengths. Apparently they were sent elsewhere to have a point affixed. The inspection of these tubes was rigidly carried out at Grove Street Works by two Russian Cavalry Officers, who usually arrived at the Works in mufti. There were one or two occasions when they appeared at the Works in most magnificent uniforms, complete with jackboots and spurs, and, in accordance with the usual Russian custom, wearing many rows of medals suspended on most colourful ribbons. Before entering the Works the jackboots were removed and placed in the offices and an old pair of boots put on in which to walk round on the greasy floor of the shops. But irrespective of whether the uniform was being worn or not, the tubes were never handled by our Russian friends until each had put on his hands a very clean pair of bright yellow gloves.
1917 to 1918
By the spring of 1917 the demand for tubing for aircraft and other military purposes had reached such proportions that it was quite apparent that the Works at Newtown Row and Grove Street would be unable to cope, and so urgent was the need for greater capacity that the Air Board and Ministry of Munitions informed the Company that they would grant them every facility to extend the plant with all speed. The first effort was the preparation of a scheme to enlarge the Grove Street Works, but there were unforeseen difficulties, as well as inadequate space for sufficient extensions, and the proposals for the scheme were dropped. As in 1906, the Company was then compelled to look further afield for a suitable site upon which it could build a factory adequate to cope with the requirements of the Government. By the autumn of 1917 an ideal situation had been located, and the site at Tyseley upon which the present Works and Offices now stand was purchased from the Deykin Trustees for the sum of £5,000. It had an area of just over eleven acres, and included the Tudor period house known as Hay Hall, (of which more later). The year 1917 was therefore another landmark in the Company’s history, being the year in which the important decision was taken to move the Company’s activities away from the more central positions in the town to the more suburban district of Tyseley.
Whilst work was continuing night and day at Newtown Row and Grove Street, and the end of the war still seemed very far off, the laying down of the new Works at Tyseley was in full swing, and by the summer of 1918 had been completed and went into production, only the office block remaining unfinished. By today’s standards we should consider the planning, erection, equipping and getting into production of a factory, even if quite small, inside nine months something of an achievement, especially in wartime. This was not the view held by the Directors in 1918 when they refer to “delays in the work caused by the many difficulties with conflicting Government Departments as to priorities and materials”. Apparently the “every assistance” promised by the Government in the previous year did not come up to expectations.
The end of hostilities found the Company with three sites working night and day to capacity, and the latest extensions at Tyseley had increased the equipment by six double-chain draw benches, together with furnace, tagging and pickling capacity, and to this was shortly added one heavy single-chain draw bench, and work had been found for another seventy-five people.
It was not long after the commencement of activities at Tyseley that the Directors realised, with the valuable space available for development, the desirability of concentrating all the Company’s activities in one centre, and with this in view the land and factory buildings at Grove Street were sold to a well known Birmingham firm, who allowed the Company to continue in occupation there as tenants for two years whilst further extensions at Tyseley were planned.
In the aftermath of the Great War, which saw a prolific number of firms involved in tube manufacture, business in that industry was becoming very “cut-throat”. Two of the leading companies were Accles and Pollock and Tubes Limited. The directors of Tubes Limited were Arthur Chamberlain, grandson of Joseph and cousin of Neville, the future Prime Minister, together with John Herbert Aston, met representatives of Accles and Pollock with a view to the possibility of a merger in the Midlands steel tube industry. Agreements from that initial meeting led on the 2nd July, 1919 to the formation of Tube Investments Limited. The group consisted of Accles and Pollock, Tubes Limited and their two associate companies, Simplex Electric and Credender Conduits. This amalgamation of two major tube producers with two tube users should guarantee some sort of stability in the difficult days that were ahead.
From that simple beginning Tube Investments were to take in many more companies engaged in the manufacture and use of steel tube until by the end of the Second World War the group comprised of some 50 + companies, including Reynolds who joined the Group in 1928.
In the early years of Tube Investments the constituent companies were still under control of their family founders and healthy competition between the firms was allowed within reasonable limitations. It wasn’t until after World War II that TI’s influence became manifest, as will later be recalled.