SOMERTON WORKS 1936-1966

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:10

In 1936, as a participant in the Government’s belated re-armament programme, J. S. White & Co. re-opened Somerton Works to produce aircraft parts under sub-contract to Supermarine, Vickers-Armstrong (Birmingham), and De Havilland. Machinery in the form of lathes, a milling machine, and presses, including an 800 ton rubber die press, most of which were supplied under America’s ‘lease lend’ scheme, were installed, the latter filling the empty space shown in Mr Beken’s photograph.

At that time power was generated by a horizontal gas engine – a relic of the 1914-18 War which, being inadequate to cope with the new demand, was replaced by a Crossley diesel engine for which an extension to the existing power house was built – the layout for which was designed by the only draughtsman, Mr T. C. Hudson, who eventually ran the combined planning, drawing, and estimating departments.

Affording a little light relief in those early days was an attempt to resurrect an inter-office communication system which comprised a tangle of differently coloured wires inside a wooden box about 6″ x 6″ x 2″ with eight small levers. One of which had to be depressed when making a call. Time after time the electrician made futile efforts to make it function correctly, and with equal frequency the firm’s second-in-command could be heard telling someone to whom he did not want to speak to get off the line. At other times failure to contact anyone would exasperate him. After the thing was discarded and ordinary telephones were brought in, two of the progress chasers admitted they would enter an office, buzz the second-in-command, and depart leaving him to fume at getting no reply.

The first order to be received was for Spitfire rudder bars to be followed in rapid succession by others for Spitfire frames, control columns, empty link chutes, and various other smaller items – one of the latter, a special stainless steel stud with a collar in the middle and offset ends being the first to be produced. That it took three days and scrapped metal before a job that given a simple lathe jig, should not have taken more than three hours before one was passed by the A.l.D. inspector, indicates the inefficiency of some of the new employees.

Unfortunately incompetence was not restricted to the shop floor, for both the manager and his deputy, who did the planning and estimating, although no doubt efficient in other spheres, were out of their depth – the latter having been seconded from the main office, had had practically no experience with the methods used to manufacture parts from 20 or 16 gauge light alloys. Whether the manager and his subordinate resigned or were dismissed remains unknown, and the least said about the often tipsy second manager the better. After about a year, when someone at the main office discovered that, instead of making a profit as his books showed, Somerton was seriously in the red he too departed, taking with him his young nephew who had been seen brandishing an automatic pistol.

During the weeks when the factory was without a manager, Mr Felstead, under-manager at the Engine Works, was sent up to see what could be done to rectify matters. By that time a premium bonus system was in operation, which was calculated to enable an operator of average ability to increase his wages by 45% and still allow the firm to make money. Acting from a tip-off, Mr Felstead’s first move was to check the records to see if the rate-fixer had been giving unearned bonus to certain men – an investigation that resulted in the culprit being dismissed.

Realising that someone with workshop experience was needed to improve production, Mr Felstead then appointed as third manager Leonard RoyIe the foreman of the toolmakers who immediately implemented a re-tooling programme that would enable a number of jobs to be made on the presses instead of being laboriously profiled by hand. It was a manoeuvre that paid dividends when the time saved on repeat orders more than covered the cost of the tools. This proved to be the turning point in the fortune of Somerton Works. Production figures soared and the ever-increasing demands for Spitfire frames etc, were met.

By this time orders from De Havilland for Mosquito engine mountings had been received and for Vickers-Armstrong’s Birmingham factory elevators for Lancaster bombers were being made – the latter, being fabric covered, needing the introduction of sewing machines and more female labour. Requiring welded steel were large towing arms.

Generally speaking, the premium bonus system controlled by a new rate-fixer worked satisfactorily with, human nature being greedy, wangling being done to sink one job in order to make more money on another – a practice that if kept within reasonable bounds was tolerated.

With the factory being in a vulnerable locality, it was decided, as air-raid warnings became more frequent to open a shadow one in Warminster, to which end a factory formerly occupied by a glove making company, situated on the wide road to the railway station was taken.

Actually, taking into consideration its importance, Somerton was lucky to escape the attentions of the Luftwaffe, although one afternoon a single enemy aircraft broke cloud cover and before a warning sounded dropped a bomb which destroyed a house on the junction of Fellows Road and Bellevue Road. Given the aircraft’s speed, this could be regarded as a near miss. And one Sunday evening, again before the sirens wailed another single aircraft unloaded a bomb in the vicinity followed by hundreds of incendiary bombs over a wide area, none of which did any damage.

Shortly after hostilities began, the Somerton Home Guard came into being under the leadership of John Srainton, ex-R.A.F., and head of the progress department. His previous rank was unknown, but probably that of an officer. At the same time a fire brigade led by Robert Brown was formed. He had been a car salesman and was working on the shop floor. When other employees went to the shelters, members of the H.G. seized rifles from a rack, donned ‘tin’ hats, and took strategic positions outside. Brown’s contingent manned the fire station, while L. RoyIe and departmental heads moved to a little shelter – made of sandbags erected in the middle of the field adjoining Newport Road. Most of their time being spent outside watching anti-aircraft fire missing the enemy aircraft as they crossed to the mainland. Woodford, the first-aid man and several others played pontoon in the decontamination post.

Initially, every time there was a red alert the factory was evacuated often unnecessarily and much time was wasted. To rectify this, a spotters’ post was built on the roof, and until danger appeared to be imminent work continued.  Finally this method was abandoned when an official spotters’ post was established not far away and adjacent to the closed Three Gates Road. At eight o’clock one morning, just as a bus was disgorging some of Somerton’s workforce, all hell broke loose as shells fired at a low trajectory were aimed at a British plane that had given the wrong signal of identification. Fortunately no hit was scored and ‘plane and pilot landed safely.

When the war ended and no more Spitfires and Mosquitoes were required, Somerton works was left with only one Ministry of Defence contract. Before much work was done, the order was cancelled.

During the war production had taken precedence over costs, and estimates were accepted without question, but after victory the M.O.D. became money-conscious and their representative, accompanied by one from Supermarine came to the factory and insisted on seeing the time allowed for every part no matter how small. Usually these visits lasted two days with the chief estimator backed by the rate-fixer supplying the information.

To keep the factory in business it was decided that kitchen furniture in the form of cabinets and sink units would be made for the Great Universal Stores. For this project a huge spray-painting booth and drying oven was installed with an endless chain that took chemically-cleaned units in at one end and discharged painted and dried ditto at the other. Painters, suitably protected working inside the structure were allowed a regulation amount of milk a day. Hundreds were made despite the fact that getting supplies of mild steel sheets was a problem, until the customer found a source that could manufacture them at a lower cost. Incidentally, for every unit over a hundred produced in a week each employee received a penny.

In the early ‘Fifties when production was at its peak, office accommodation being limited, one being built on the bridge enabled females on the office staff to reach their toilet facility without crossing at shop floor level, and a concrete gallery was constructed on the western side of the building that extended beyond the manager’s office to the detail fitters’ gallery at the south, to support the telephone exchange and six more commodious offices. The man responsible for having the bridge built, incidentally, was the first second-in-command whose out of date ideas inspired him to issue an order that female members of the staff must not, even in their own time, fraternise with men on the  shop floor. In 1936 this was ignored by Somerton’s first typist, and she was sacked! He also decreed that male staff members must wear complete suits. Happily, when men who had been unemployed and, being poorly paid could not afford even one of Burton’s widely advertised fifty shilling (£2.50) three-piece suits, continued to wear odd jackets the order was not enforced.

To fill the gap the next and final profitable project was to manufacture mild steel, stainless steel, and titanium evaporator plates used for refrigeration – a project that grew until refrigerated display counters, industrial tanks, and other items were being despatched, but attempts to break into the market for automatic chicken roasters and ice cream making machines never matured, and only one of each were made experimentally, the latter producing enough of the product to enable some of the office staff to enjoy it.

Beer coolers also were produced in large quantities which led to an annexe being built with access to the main factory – an addition that never justified its cost.

As time passed, once again the difficulty of competing with other manufacturers put the chief estimator in a ‘pull devil pull baker’ position with the shop foremen wanting more time, and the sales representatives complaining about his high prices.

Meanwhile, someone at the head office had bought from a north country firm the right to manufacture to their design a hermetically sealed compressor without first insisting on seeing a test report. At Somerton it was planned to mass produce the compressors in the upper space formerly utilised to cover the Lancaster elevators. Before a sample supplied was tested large orders for castings were placed so that a quick start could be made. Under test, however, it was discovered that after running for a few hours, due to insufficient oil being lifted from the sump, the compressor became overheated and seized. In view of the fact that the Archimedean screw was known to be efficient in other machines, it is incredible that no one in authority at J. S. White & Co. thought of making a modification to the screw in order to allow it to lift the oil thinned by heat. Instead, legal action was taken and the case settled out of court.

In the late ‘Fifties an estimate for Norman-Britten hovercraft less machinery was submitted after being approved by Sir James Milne at a meeting in the impressive boardroom at the main office, at which Royle, the chief estimator, and rate-fixer were present. An order was not placed.

For a number of years orders for evaporator plates made to customers’ requirements enabled a steady profit to be made, but as time passed other firms began making them at prices with which Somerton could not compete, and by the early ‘Sixties the number of orders being received each week had decreased alarmingly. When much less floor space was required the annexe was let to Halpins, a mainland firm who made something that required a number of electrical fittings, many of which were left behind when eventually their occupancy of the annexe was terminated. With incredible carelessness the parts that should have been locked away were left unguarded, the consequence being that when Halpins were ready to take them a large quantity had been stolen. Consternation and recrimination ensued, the final outcome of which is unknown.

In 1963 another blow fell when Leonard Royle, whose health had been failing due to stress for several years was forced to leave the firm, leaving his second-in-command, Ernest Tooke, to occupy his chair until Somerton closed. Tooke, a former boarding house keeper, had joined the firm as metal controller to escape being compelled to join one of the armed services. With no engineering knowledge he was considerably handicapped as a works manager. In the autumn of 1963 Royle, the man whose contribution to the war effort deserved but never received official recognition died suddenly.

After Royle’s departure another market into which Somerton tried to enter was that of air conditioners. Designed by a man named Harris, who was not a member of the firm, a small quantity of neat and efficient units were made and sold. By that time, however, Somerton was beyond recovery, and the value of orders received dwindled until their value did not cover the cost of running the factory. There were, nevertheless, enough to convince the head office that it would be worthwhile to transfer operators and machinery to the Engine Works where the former pattern shop and lifeboat shop were vacant. From the staff only five were retained. With the American takeover having occurred, it was not long before they abolished the premium bonus system, which had worked satisfactorily for over twenty years, in favour of a bench-mark one, which resulted in the time taken being doubled. At the same time they scrapped the simple but efficient job card system, and introduced a more complicated one of the type which took longer to prepare and was likely to confuse the operators who, in any case, were not interested in making such systems work as they should.

As no history of Somerton Works would be complete without an account of its saboteur, that was not made public until it appeared in Adrian Searle’s book Isle of Wight at War, here it is. Suspicion was aroused when after the sirens had sounded, from his back garden a few hundred yards away T. C. Hudson saw the light of an open door coming from the firm’s underground shelter. After about ten minutes the door was closed. The next morning when he spoke to the night foreman his story was denied. The man vowed he himself had closed the door. Giving a warning that if it happened again he would report it immediately to the military stationed across the road from his home, Hudson left the matter until when relating the episode to the nightshift inspector he learnt that although the machine settings were checked at the beginning of his shift, during the night he was getting faulty parts which only stopped when he decided to make spot checks at various times during the night. Having no concrete evidence, they decided to drop the matter until some was obtained. Before that happened the man disappeared and it was rumoured the police were looking for him.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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