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?

Update; August 2020
I got a nice email from a reader with personal connections. He says, "In the comments  there is a person who said his job there at Broom & Wades was as a photographer and one part was to photograph the retirees on a Friday lunchtimes.. well here's one from a Friday 13th in 1962.
So maybe he took this one? 

This is Charlie Pitfield retiring, in the photo with him his son Neville Pitfield and Charlie's brother, Albert.. Both of whom also worked at B&W
The second photo shows Neville Pitfield, my father. He is on the left in the 1974 Rotary Repair Shop photo."



John said...

I was very interested to read your account of Broom Wade.

I worked there as a young engineer in the R&D department from 1979-83, when I was made redundant in the shake out following the Siebe takeover. I think we employed about 2000 on the site then.

At that time the company was resting on it's previous record, and failing to innovate successfully.

The V-Major and V-Compact machines were still revered and selling reasonably well but were expensive.

Their first generation rotary screw machines had a good reputation, but in a cost cutting exercise were replaced by the 6000 series. There was a greater emphasis on appearance, colour, and logo design than functionality. The project was more run by the marketing department than the engineering department, and there were constant arguments between the two. Little attention was paid to practical aspects such as ease of service and long term durability. Endurance testing was curtailed to get the product to market, sometimes with disastrous consequences. a good example being the substitution of a thermostatic valve in the oil cooler system with a cheap thermal switch. This switched the cooling fan on and off, rather than running continuously. The shock of all this starting fatigued the cooling fan blade hub, sending the blades into the oil cooler radiator, and dumping gallons of oil over the floor and seizing the compressor. With minimal endurance testing before product release, this problem manifested in customer's compressor houses.

Some specialist machines were built for the North Sea oil industry, and these were probably profitable.

The smaller range of reciprocating compressors were still a great product offering decades of service. However, in cost conscious times, the competition was moving towards cheaper die-cast aluminium machines that undercut BW. Foreign air tanks were produced to lower standards than the BW ones, so were a lot cheaper. BW tried rebadging some cheap small Italian compressors, but the early models were just awful and did little for the BW reputation. They eventually settled on a reasonable range, but others did better more cheaply.

There were some abortive attempts to develop new ideas. A two speed screw machine, an oilfree screw compressor, and a range of small oil free reciprocating machines were all abandoned. More modern and cheaper assembly methods used by others were not taken up quickly. In my years there, the capstan lathe was sill the stalwart production machine. There was some trialing of CNC machines, but they were a late comer. Building of compressors was small batch by individual teams rather than modern production line.

The large centrifugal compressor project was well behind schedule when I left, although a couple of big machines (500hp I think) were running on test in Bristol with varying degrees of reliability.

Running a full scale iron casting foundry in a residential area was somewhat archaic, even by late 20C standard. That would have probably had to cease sooner rather than later.

Whilst being a good employer, the company had an archaic approach to personnel. An example being the four different canteens: directors, managers, white-collar, and shop-floor workers. Intermingling was frowned on. The one manager in R&D who rolled his sleeves up, put overalls on, and got stuck in with his technicians was discouraged. Much respected by his team, he left to work in Canada. Some of the design team were made redundant, and then hired back. These guys were on a higher salary than those that stayed, and morale fell.

A sad end to a great company. Perhaps I should consider moving back and getting an apartment in the retirement village.

Mister G said...

Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and experience! First hand is so much better!

John said...

You're welcome.

Interesting Pathe footage here:


The foundry was almost unchanged from this footage whilst I was there. Ditto the assembley areas, and the machine shop, except we used personal protective equipment. There was a large immigrant workforce in the foundry, as they were more tolerant of the awful conditions.

I believe the portable division moved up to Ystalyfera, at the head of a Welsh valley. It was attractive for some employees, as they could sell small terraced houses in High Wycombe and buy big houses in Wales. When the redundancies came, they were stumped though. No work in the Welsh valleys, and not feasible for many to move back to Bucks.

John said...

The factory development can be seen on the various OS map surveys starting here:

The first parts are the rectangular units north and south of Hughenden Avenue, north of the railway just above Temple Works. The smaller unit north of Hughenden Ave was sold off at some point and became part of a printers that printed banknotes and stamps
The site developed over the years, extending southwards across the allotment gardens towards Temple Works and Bellfield Road. There was a mainline railway branch into the factory, and a network of tracks around the site with small turntables between the various sheds.

The smaller unit behind 10-20 Hughenden Ave was the 1960s canteen block and north carpark.

The travelling crane was for loading scrap iron into the blast furnace at the foundry.

john kilby said...

What happened to Canadian Broom Wade-I knew a fellow there named Jack,I believe he left and went to Perth Western Australia-anyone know him?

Anonymous said...

I worked at "Brooms" from 1967-1971 what a fantastic place, with some really great Characters working there, as a photographer, it was my job to photograph the Retirements on a Friday Lunch time, These Guys were fantastic engineers and could build anything, some having been with Brooms for 40 years. I well remember The Foundry a scary place for a sixteen year old. One of my first jobs was to photograph a fleet of Jags.,some brand new. just delivered from Browns Lane, Coventry, for The Directors, what a sight, we had them all lined up outside the main office. The place filled me with confidence, it could make anything, The apprentices even restored a 20s Sunbeam car, I think it's in The National Motor Museum now. I will never forget the place. It's Quality of products was known around the world.

Mister G said...

Thanks once again for everyone's input. Personal recollections make these posts come alive!

Ivan de Clerk said...

What wonderful background of people who personally experienced the BroomWade brand. Thanks a million for the comments, background and advice. We are here in 2020 in lockdown in South Africa and I am in the process of acquiring a BroomWade what looks like a very old BW2L (will know more when I can properly see the plate). Although I might not put the compressor back into use (tank looks suspicious), I look forward and will definitely add it to my Lister, Russell Newbery and Ruston Hornsby engine collection.

Mister G said...

A reader has sent in a couple of family pictures, here's hoping someone recognizes these employees!

Unknown said...

I worked in the foundry from 1983 untill 2007 it was a great place to work and was involved in the modernisation of some of the processes,to some people it was a scarey place but I loved it.Foundrymen are a different breed and it's in my blood. My grandad is one of the men sat on the Churchill tank and my dad worked for Broomwade for 29 years starting as an apprentice

Anonymous said...

I work at the GD redditch site right now. We're still dealing with aftermarket repairs and refurbs of Broom Wade compressors even now. This usually involves digging around trying to find drawings from the 1970's in a lot of cases.. They may be gone, but they're certainly not forgotten.

Marty said...

Ive got an old broomwade screw compressor.
With a 4 cylinder fordson diesel motor.
Still starts n runs like s gem.
Id love to know what year model she is?

Marty said...

Was told 1961.
Wondering if anyone could verify it?
WR120 like the green one in this writeup.