Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Vanished tool makers: BroomWade, England

I recently raided my pail of less interesting old wrenches I keep as a source of raw material to weld into garden sculptures.  I rescued this wrench from the pail, since I'd never heard of the company. Turns out, there's a lot of history behind the name.

The company's founder, Harry Skeet Broom, always considered himself lucky since he was born on the seventh day of the seventh month in 1875.  He met his future partner, Jethro Thomas Wade, when both were apprenticing at Davey, Paxman & Co. in Colchester.  The two decided to strike out and found their own company in 1898. Subsisting on any and all odd jobs that came their way, they put the flourishing chair-making industries of High Wycombe in their sights.  These were all manual industries and the pair thought they were ripe for power machinery. At the same time, they bought a run-down foundry and started casting their own parts.  

This led to a contract with the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company to make bearing pedestals.  They finagled a meeting with Alfred P. Sloan (later of GM fame) who was in London to wind up the London Hyatt office, and as a result became agents for the company.  When Hyatt's was taken over by General Motors, Broom went to see Sloan in the U.S. and eventually found himself a director of Vauxhall, Frigidaire and Delco-Remy. At the same time, with a slump in the chair-making industry and subsequent decline in orders for their woodworking machines, Broom & Wade decided to manufacture a motor wagon which had some success, being exported to places like Turkey and Chile. They also tried for a military contract for a tractor, which they almost won.

Source:  Grace's Guide

In 1910, a customer started to beat down B&W's price for a woodworking machine.  Broom told him that if he insisted on such discounts, he would no longer make machines for the chair making trade.  The customer refused to back down, so Wade, clearly a man of strong convictions,  burnt all of the drawings and patterns and moved the company fully into the air compressor market, beginning with machines for paint spraying in the furniture industry.  Around 1913, Jethro Wade left the firm to concentrate on his own business of manufacturing deep well pumps.  During World War I, the company made steam-driven compressors for ship repairs and salvage work, and 4.5" shells for the navy.  In 1928, the company bought a huge building in High Wycomb, northwest of London, that had previously been used to manufacture aircraft.  This was adjacent to Hughenden Manor, the country seat of the Disraeli family. Soon afterward, they acquired the Chadwick Patent Bearing Company which made various pneumatic tools, which were added to the B&W line. They also designed a portable compressor for export to Germany to help with the major road building program going on there.  (Can you say "Autobahn"?)  The depression hurt business, but the company realized that their new "BroomWade" trademark conveniently rhymed with "British Made", so they ran the two phrases together on their machines to appeal to patriotism from their customers. 

This still didn't give them enough business, so they turned to the Russians who were in need of many kinds of equipment for their Five Year Plan.  By 1938, the foundry was producing 50 to 60 tons of cast iron a week.   

There are two British Pathé films showing activities in the factory in its heyday:

The Second World War brought immense orders, as compressed air equipment was needed in virtually every arm of the services and in the civilian market.  Workshop area increased more than 50 percent between 1937 and 1941, and most departments were working 6-day weeks, with two shifts in some machine shops.  To keep production going during aircraft alerts, a spotter was located in a crows-nest above the highest point of the roof to look for bombers, and to sound a klaxon if any were seen approaching.  The firm also made Churchill tanks, although their offer to do this work for no profit was turned down by the government.  

Following the war, the company turned back to civilian production, making items like a compressed air motor redesigned to run on steam for use in steaming out explosives in unexploded bombs.  

1946 aerial view.  Source:  Britain from Above

Exports expanded around the globe and business prospered.  Harry Skeet Broom, who was affectionately known as "Pirate" for his deal-making, died in 1958 at age 83, still at the helm of the company.  There were remarkable employee benefits, including soccer teams, an angling club, a charity fund, and the BroomWade Sports Club, built on land acquired from the Disraeli estate in Hughenden Park.  (More about this later.)  Products included their base product, compressors:

as well as various "Aro-Broomwade" air tools (images courtesy of Grace's Guide ):

In 1968, the company merged with Holman Bros. of Cornwall to form the International Compressed Air Corporation.  Four years later, it was shortened to CompAir, a name bought for £50 from the BroomWade apprentices who had come up with it for the title of their magazine.  Following this, the company became CompAir Broomwade.

By 1975, CompAir had become the largest manufacturer of air compressors and pneumatic equipment in the U.K., employing more than 8000 people in seven manufacturing locations in Britain and subsidiary companies in sixteen overseas markets. 

1960's aerial view of BroomWade as CompAir

Things looked promising for the company.  Air compressors were in big demand.  (It was said that whenever industry needed to blow, lift, push, rotate, hammer and squeeze, compressed air was the tool for the job.  In fact, it was estimated that 10 percent of the electrical energy generated in the U.K was used to power compressed-air equipment.)  In spite of this, things began to slide in the following decade, and BroomWade as CompAir became a football. In the early 1980's, CompAir was bought by the Imperial Continental Gas Association, following which CompAir operated as a separately managed enterprise.  However, in 1985, CompAir was sold off to Siebe, plc, based in Britain.  (Siebe had been formed in the 1820's by Augustus Siebe, whose best known invention was the first diving suit.)  In the ensuing decade, CompAir somehow became unprofitable.  In 1999, Siebe and BTR plc merged to become Invensys, and began selling BroomWade off in pieces. First to go was the BroomWade Instantair coupling business, acquired by Sheffield-based PCL in 2001.  Then CompAir itself went on the block in 2002, sold to a British private equity firm, Alchemy Partners (Guernsey) Ltd., controlled by venture capitalist John Moulton, reportedly for £1.  After investing £41.4 million, they sold the firm to the Gardner Denver Industrial Group in 2008 for £200.6 million. (If that's true, that's got to be some of the quickest £150 million anyone's ever made!) Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gardner Denver has approximately 7000 employees, 1000 less than BroomWade had at its height.

As for the old BroomWade factory, it looks like it closed down in the late 1990's and remained derelict for years. (It found one use as one of the locations for Tim Burton's 2005 film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) Eventually it was purchased by the Buckinghamshire Chiltern University College, which had planned to knock the buildings down and create a modern university campus. The college changed its mind, and sold the property to the Wycombe District Council.  The Council has plans to develop the site into a 260-home retirement village, Hughendens Garden Village:

Unfortunately, this left the BroomWade Sports and Social Club up in the air, since the food chain Tesco claims to have purchased the land it stands on and was planning to build a new store there. The sports club claims that the land in Hughenden Park for the club was actually gifted to the Sports Club by the Disraeli heirs, before they gave the Disraeli mansion and grounds to the National Trust.  As far as I can see, this was somehow sorted out and is now the Magnolia Park Sports and Social Club.

Unless otherwise specified, most of the interior factory images above were taken from A Recorded History of CompAir BroomWade 1898-1998, published on the company's centenary. The publication concludes:

"Throughout the decades and the revolutionary changes in compressor design, BroomWade has adapted, has invested in the latest manufacturing technologies and still remains Britain's biggest compressor manufacturer. It looks forward to its next 100 years with pride..."

In fact, the company didn't last another 10 years.  What would the Pirate, Harry Skeet Broom, have thought?

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