by David W E Kyle
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)
In November 1982, Brian Wilson, the editor of Focus (the Newsletter of the Brentford Chamber of Commerce) published this account of Wilson and Kyle Ltd, which then employed 160 people mainly on the manufacture and repair of diesel fuel injection equipment in Brentford. Both he and David Kyle very kindly gave permission for it to be reproduced in this journal. Brian Wilson introduced it in the following way:
“When octogenarian David Kyle was asked if he would write an account of the history of Wilson and Kyle Ltd for Focus, his reply was “This can only be done if I write the story of my working life. I will do this in the knowledge that it need not be printed, and if printed, it need not be read”. Well, it has been printed and as a fascinating example of an industrial Pilgrim’s Progress, it should be read.”
I was born in the year 1900 and came to live in Chiswick in 1909. I attended Hogarth Boys’ School which still stands and, if my memory serves me correctly, it is 100 years old this year. There were between 900 and 1,000 pupils at the school and, as the class numbers averaged about 60, I have been seated three in a desk built for two. There was an assembly hall and if it was necessary for the Headmaster to address the whole school it had to be done in the open air in the playground.
Close to Chiswick Town Hall there was an old National School building which was used as a handicraft centre for boys and a domestic science centre for girls. At an early age, I worried to be allowed to attend and in the end I succeeded. The principal instructor was a Mr Sudds, under whose instruction I was introduced to Technical Drawing, Carpentry and the Maintenance of Edged Tools. In 1912 I won a scholarship to the local Technical School, then situated in Bath Road, Chiswick. The scholarship carried a grant of £3 per quarter. I attended this school in the Autumn Term of 1913 and the school broke for the summer recess in July 1914.
When we returned for the Autumn Term 1914 the First World War was in progress and the technical staff had all gone into the Forces. An attempt was made to carry on the school with retired staff but of course they were not technical and I lost patience with the school. A scheme was introduced whereby we would go to work in a local engineering shop one day and attend school the next. This did not prove to be a satisfactory arrangement and we were offered a choice of continuing at school of leaving for full-time work. I chose the latter. I was engaged by the late Westminster Engineering Company of Victoria Road, Willesden, at two and half old pence per hour. I presented myself on the appointed day at 8 o’clock in the morning with bare knees and an Eton collar.
When the War ended I considered myself to be a turner and had various jobs in the next two years but by 1920 a slump had set in and I was out of work. In those days within a five-mile radius of Brentford there many small engineering workshops and every morning I toured the district on a bicycle, looking for a job, but with no success. In the garden of my parents’ house I had a small workshop containing a treadle lathe, a back geared machine with a slide rest which did not slide along the lathe bed but had to be moved from place to place. With this equipment I started to do small jobs for neighbours, taxis drivers and local motorists.
In this way I met the late Mr George Wilson, who was not an engineer but a retired commercial artist. He owned an early 1914 Peugeot motor car which he sent to the then leading garage business in Chiswick to be overhauled. They returned it to Mr Wilson with a total lack of power and after several attempts had failed to improve it, they gave up in despair. Somebody suggested to Mr Wilson that he should contact me and this he did. By the very simple and secret process of contacting the manufacturers to obtain the correct valve timing of the engine, I was able to solve the problem, which so impressed Mr Wilson that he offered to lend me some money in order to start business on a larger scale. This he did to the extent of £250. With the money I purchased a screw-cutting lathe and electric motor, a drilling machine and a quantity of small tools, which were installed in a lock-up garage attached to a greengrocer’s shop in Thames Road, Chiswick.
The search for work continued. Radio broadcasting has just commenced and station 2LO was on the air. Many people set up to build the receiving sets and I managed to get work making various brass parts for the crystal detectors, sliding inductance tuners, etc. It was a matter of starting to look for work in the morning, and if you found some, spending the rest of the day getting the material, probably from Clerkenwell, and half the night to do the job. In these small premises I did many jobs, one of them being a thousand rear windscreens for motor cars which in those days were 90% open vehicles. A firm had started in Chiswick High Road under the name Lloyd Lord Cars. They set out to build a high-class car using proprietary units such as Meadows engines and Moss gear boxes and axles, with a coach-built Rolls style body. I did many small jobs for them but the venture was not a success and it closed. The engineer was a Mr John Carden, later to become Sir John Carden. He went on to experiment with tracked military vehicles and I made many parts for him. The lock-up garage was now far too small and I moved to part of a yard at the rear of the Waggon and Horses public house by Kew Bridge.
At this stage a brother of mine joined me and we did many jobs there, some of them very strange. At one time we were working for a man who was trying to make a machine to turn mercury into gold. When this met with no success he tried to turn coal into oil which, of course, can be done, but not by the method he had in mind at that time. We changed premises again because our landlord was a leaseholder and when he went into liquidation it turned out that he had no right to sub-let. By a stroke of luck we discovered that some premises were for sale at the bottom of Catherine Wheel Yard as it then was. These had been the stables for Gomm’s Brewery. The price required was £1,500 and they consisted of the stable part on the ground floor and the forage loft above. We were then banking with a certain bank which is prominent today for their very good Hearing Properties. We had about £300 on current account and when I asked the Manager if he could assist me in the purchase of this property he looked me straight in the face and said he couldn’t see any reason in the whole wide world why he should ever lend me anything – end of interview! I approached Mr Wilson again and he lent me another £500. We transferred out account to our present bank, they advanced me £1,000 to make the purchase and we moved our machinery. When this was finished, solicitors’ and other fees paid, we had £7 in the bank, one boy employed and no work.
Things, however, quickly began to move. Mr John Carden, with his experimental tracked vehicle (later known as a Bren Gun Carrier) had won the Military Trials held on Salisbury Plain. The contact was for 200 vehicles, mostly built of Ford Motor Company parts. Mr Carden hadn’t the money to finance the job, so approached Vickers who took it on and established a depot for the work at Chertsey. We received an order to the value of £2,000 for certain parts. We needed more machinery, so I approached a second-hand machine dealer by the name of Mickleburgh (now deceased) whose premises were in Willesden. I visited him on a Sunday morning and selected a number of lathes and milling machines second hand, ex-1914 War, average price per machine £40, total £500. I explained my position, I hadn’t got the money to pay him and he said it didn’t matter, I could take the machinery and pay him when I could, which I did. The Great West Road was developing – Firestone Factory, Hudson Essex Factory, Isleworth Winery, and Pyrene were all in operation. We never had more than a week’s work in hand at one time but always had to rush to get it finished and hope that more would follow, which I am thankful to say was the case. My brother and I were not married, we were living at home and we paid in what money we could when we could. We had by now twenty-five machines in this stable. They were placed back to back and end to end and we hardly had room for the machines, the material and our feet.
By now we were employing about 12 men and were working double shifts, but still not keeping pace with the jobs we were getting. I came to the conclusion that we were not removing metal quickly enough, the machines were not sufficiently powerful. I approached Messrs Alfred Herbert, with showrooms in Vauxhall Bridge Road, told them that I had some of their machines which I considered far too out of date for economical use and asked if they would help me. They did and I replaced turret and capstan lathes with their latest machines which they sold me on hire purchase at 4% charged on the amount on the invoice at the time outstanding.
Many times I arrived at the workshop at 6 o’clock in the morning in order to get work ready for men arriving at 8 o’clock, many times I did not leave until 10 o’clock at night, and I have delivered repair work to the Firestone Factory at 1 o’clock in the morning. At one time I worked twelve hours a day for forty-two days on end, every Saturday and Sunday included. On more than one occasion I have worked 48 hours straight off in order to get something finished on time.
Adjoining the stable premises were six cottages, one of which was included in the purchase of the stable. At the far end of the cottages was another building which had been the Brewery coach-house. At about this time a Slum Clearance Act was passed, and the cottages were condemned and had to be demolished by the owners. I purchased them and erected on the site an extension to our workshop. Shortly afterwards I bought the freehold of the coach-house and we now had a self-contained freehold unit.
Our customers were increasing. We were working for three departments of Vickers, on prototype tank work at Chertsey, jig and tool work at Weybridge and on Predictor Anti-aircraft gun equipment at Crayford. We also worked on Asdic gear for the R B Pullin Company on the Great West Road. This required more and better machinery, obtained once again on hire purchase. We were always under-capitalised, for the sole reason that we had practically nothing to start with. I went through one whole year with nothing in the bank on Monday morning with which to pay wages on Saturday, and I had to get enough work done and delivered in the week to enable me to ask for something on account on Friday. I became the terror of company secretaries as it appeared I was always upsetting their budget and cash forecasts. But somehow or other we survived and things got better.
We received an order from Vickers of Weybridge to construct an assembly jig for Wellington Bomber engine nacelles. Each aeroplane had two, one port and one starboard. The finished jig was approximately forty feet long, twelve feet wide and ten feet high, constructed of structural iron, “H” iron, channel iron and angle iron. It had to be planed all over, bolted together and accurately dowelled, and then festooned with precision-made fittings to which were attached the nacelle fittings, the whole connected up with Duralumin skin by the panel beaters and riveters. Each nacelle had to be interchangeable so that they could be taken out for repair and service, and replaced with a service unit. I cannot remember how may of these we made, probably in the region of one hundred, and we erected them in many places in the country. Six sets were erected at Transport Avenue in Brentford for Messrs Alltools, another six were in Slough, a number at Hamble and some in Peterborough, some as far north as Altrincham. Each one, of course, had to be checked and passed by the Air Ministry Inspection Directorate. In the end we had to make jigs in order to produce the nacelle jigs!
There was a machinery merchant, the Mortimer Engineering Company in Harlesden, who was selling imported machines from the Continent, German and Danish. As an indication of the prices ruling, I once bought a six foot stroke planing machine from them brand new for £90. They were also selling six-inch screw-cutting lathes, with about a six-foot bed, for round about the same price. They sold one of these machines to a firm operating somewhere behind the Firestone Factory and these people bitterly complained about the state and condition of the machine. Mortimer Engineering asked me if I would go and look at it to see if it was properly installed. I agreed to do this and found that there was nothing wrong with the installation of the machine but that the people were being absolutely unreasonable in their demands upon it. They were complaining that six inches from the chuck it was turning about 0.0002” out of round. I reported this to Mortimer Engineering and considered that my job for them was then finished. One of the men who had purchased the lathe was a famous engineer, who was until his retirement Chief Engineer to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and was now experimenting with airless fuel injection for diesel engines. His partner came to see me with a request that I do some work for them. I said no, I was too busy, which was not really true, but I considered them so unreasonable that I wanted no further contact.
When the War had started British merchant diesel ships were soon in trouble. They had mostly Continental engines and when slow in convoy they made so much smoke that they were easily detected by enemy submarines. No spares were available but the previously mentioned firm, who had contacts with the Ministry of Supply and the Admiralty, asked me whether I would make some parts for Deutz engines. I was told that they had an order from the Admiralty to do so. In these circumstances I agreed, and the necessary parts were made, all materials and wages being paid for by our firm. When the job was finished I asked for delivery instructions, only to learn that the Admiralty order never existed, and that all they had was a permit from the Ministry of Supply for the purchase of the materials. I wasted no time I went straight to the British agents for Deutz Engines, told them what I had and sold them the lot. All through the War we worked a continuous three-shift system, and made contact with many other engine-builders including the British representatives of Sulzer Brothers, the famous diesel engine builders of Switzerland.
When the War was over, merchant ships were in short supply and many that had survived were very much out of date. We were employed in manufacturing modern fuel-injection systems for these old ships and for new ships that were being built. This is still our main business. During the sixty years of the firm’s existence we have changed our machinery due to obsolescence four times, and now employ the most modern tape-controlled machinery. This still requires a very considerable amount of highly-skilled hand work when the parts are finally assembled and tested.
My son, Paul, is now in active charge of the business as Managing Director and I, as Chairman, carry out a watching brief, helping when I can and when required. This is the third major business slump that I have seen and at the moment as a company we are holding our own.
I would like to conclude by stating one of the many things that I have learned. All employers of labour are merchants, buying and selling time. In this country men and women of their own free will offer their time for sale. If this time is not honestly delivered, the employer must cheat the customer in order to recover his costs. Customers will only stand for a very limited amount of this treatment and will soon spend their money elsewhere.