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Industry in Beeston - Telecommunications

For virtually the whole of the 20th Century, Ericssons - and its successors in the telecommunications industry, Plessey and Siemens - were a major employer in Beeston. When local men or women were asked where they worked, the reply would often be "down at Ericssons". The factory itself prospered, it was considered a good place to work and generations of Beeston folk made their living there. And, it did more - it gave many of those who worked there a skill set, learned in a well-organised environment which widened their knowledge and offered them a welfare and social activities framework that they could appreciate and benefit from.

The National Telephone Era - In 1901, the National Telephone Company, which then operated telephone services throughout much of the United Kingdom, opened a factory just below the railway station at Beeston to repair and develop telephone equipment. This original factory, built in 1896, and known as 'Nelson Cycle Works', had been operated by the cycle manufacturer Humber and Goddard 1. It covered just a small part of a 20 acre site on the south side, and immediately adjacent to, the Nottingham to Derby Midland Railway line and was the latest example of a manufacturing firm taking advantage of readily available, relatively inexpensive land within reach of Beeston’s ready workforce. It also offered the opportunities for development which were to be taken full advantage of over the coming decades. National Telephone, which had been formed in 1881 had had some success but had also faced difficulties in its attempts to set up a nation-wide telephone service with competition from rival firms, a requirement to licence with the Post Office under the Telegraph Act of 1869 and difficulty in establishing the rights to lines, particularly in urban areas. Its Beeston factory was opened to handle the increased workload faced by the company's Nottingham factory - which it had opened in 1893. This new location at Beeston employed about 130 people.

The success of the Nottingham factory and later the Beeston factory owed much to the ability and dedication of John William Ullett who was one of the early pioneers of the telecommunications industry in Britain. The son of a farmer, he was born in Huntingdonshire in 1859. After an education at Merchant Taylors' School in London he went on to study at the School of Telegraphy, also in London. In 1879 he joined Telephone Company Ltd, which was to open the first public telephone exchange (with eight subscribers) in London in that year. Further exchanges in London and in various provincial cities followed very shortly afterwards. In the years that followed he carried out pioneering research into aspects of switchboards and telephone circuitry and equipment and was involved in the development of cabling between London and the north of England. In 1889, after several amalgamations, what had been The Telephone Company was amalgamated with National Telephone Company. Ullett opened its Nottingham factory in Colwick in 1893, taking full charge of its planning and on-going management. Its further factory at Beeston which, as we have seen, was opened in 1896, was also planned and controlled by him. It was to be a very fortunate combination for both the company and for Beeston 2.

Ericsson Arrives - A large proportion of the telephone equipment that was used and installed by the National was acquired from L M Ericsson & Company in Sweden. Britain and its colonies were clearly a valuable market for Ericsson but it was very aware that it needed to increase its manufacturing capacity to address this likely opportunity and that a presence in Britain would be a distinct advantage in securing and servicing these markets 3. In November 1903, National joined with L. M Ericsson & Company, in equal parts, to form British L M Ericsson Manufacturing Co. Ltd with an office in London 4. National's Beeston factory was transferred to the new company as part of the deal and the manufacture of telephone apparatus and appliances began on the site.

However, production had only just got under way, with a workforce that was already about 300, when fire struck. In the early morning, just after midnight on 3 December 1903, a fire was discovered by the night watchman in the wood polishing department The Beeston brigade arrived with its manual engine and hose wagon and immediately called for help from the Nottingham brigade. They fought the fast spreading fire for several hours but their efforts were limited by inadequate water pressure from the nearby hydrants 5. When, at 9.30am, the fire was finally out, the damage was seen to be substantial. Work was suspended at the factory while alternative plans could be put together for an immediate rebuild on the site.

ericssons 1904 The rebuilt factory building - shown here and always known as 'B Block' - was planned and developed by John William Ullett who had continued in the employment of British L M Ericsson after it had taken over National's Beeston site. He did a first rate job and, managed by him, it was soon up and running, fully equipped for the production levels that the market was demanding, in an impressive departmentalised environment that was soon setting the standard for efficiency and for excellence in the provision of employee welfare. In 1905, National was informed that it was the Government's intention to terminate its licence to operate telephones and that the Post Office would be buying out and taking over its assets in 1912 but, despite this, Ericsson continued to invest in the Beeston site. A boiler room - with a distinctive chimney which remained as a landmark for over 80 years - and a power plant was ericssons entrance added and, in 1906 an extensive cabinet shop. Everything it needed was now in place on the site to turn raw materials into finished products, in a self-contained operation and it was soon recognised as a pioneer, setting examples in efficiency and employee facilities which others would follow.

An article in the 'Electrical Review' dated 3 July 1908 6 was particularly full in its praise of the recently opened factory. The 'old factory building' - i.e. B Block where much of the manufacture and assembly took place - covered an area of 63,000 square feet, the cabinet factory (C Block), 70,000 square feet and the power station (A Block) a further 7,000 square feet, making a total of almost 140,000 square feet. The site itself covered 20 acres, leaving plenty of scope for expansion. The extensive and efficient machinery and equipment throughout the factory, all of a very high standard, both in quantity and quality, with everything on one floor and with electric drive, power and lighting provided throughout. A particular feature of the main factory building was a central covered corridor which opened onto the Nelson Road frontage (Shown Right) through which all employees could enter and leave and through which components and material could be easily be moved from department to department throughout the day. Already, in these early days, sports activities had begun to be developed, Teams - beginning with a football team - were active in the company's name and facilities began to be developed on the spare land around the factory.

ericssons 1908_1  ericssons 1908_2  ericssons 1908_3 

Clearly the facilities at the factory were now of an order which ensured that it could provide everything that was required by the manufacturing process, but it is some of the detail within the article that catches the eye. It seems that the problems encountered during the fire a few years earlier had not been forgotten as the site was now protected by sprinklers and fire hydrants throughout. And, the site had its own dedicated water supply from an 18 inch bore-hole into the gravel strata and a large underground tank which collected rainwater from the roofs. In the cabinet factory - where the final assembly of switchboards also took place - fireproofed internal walls and fire doors were in place and a water tower provided extra protection. The whole factory was fed with hot air in the winter and by cool air in the summer. All machines were fitted with dust extractors with the shavings carried through trunking to the power station. Cost control, design and testing facilities were of a very high order.

Of particular note were the provisions for employees welfare with features that were then by no means universal in British factories. There was a canteen which served hot meals and sold some food at cost price. The lavatories were well appointed and kept clean and orderly and there was an adjoining first-aid room where minor accidents could be treated. All features which would be taken for granted today but gratefully appreciated by the workforce at that time.

Almost overnight the extended factory became a major employer in Beeston – about 600 in these early years – and, as we will see, the numbers would continue to expand dramatically. The increase in numbers employed naturally led to a demand for houses in the area. Trafalgar Road and Victory Road - which names continued the 'Nelson Road' theme - were laid out and houses built where previously there had been little more than open fields. Later Birch Avenue and Grenville Road would be added to provide more homes as employee numbers continued to grow. The Rylands area itself was being transformed.

In 1911, the Swedish parent company, L M Ericsson, and its Directors and their friends, bought out National Telephone's share of British L M Ericsson Manufacturing Co. Ltd and, in the following year, as had been indicated in 1905, National's licence to operate as a telephone services provider was canceled and its exchanges, networks and subscribers were taken over by the Post Office. This meant that only services in Hull, Portsmouth and Guernsey remained outside the essentially nationalised telephone system operated by the Post Office. And, Ericsson's British manufacturing arm - now well established in Beeston - was well positioned to supply to it. To finance these changes and the continued expansion that would be necessary, the company's capital was increased from £100,000 to £200,000 by a public issue of shares and, a little later, by a debenture issue of £100,000. The company, which was now employing about 900, seemed in an excellent position to benefit from the expansion of the telephone system in the UK that was, it seemed, sure to follow.

War ! - But when war was declared in August 1914, all that was put on hold - in fact it was by no means certain that things would ever return to normal - when war came and changed everything. During the war years, all of industry was tightly controlled by Government agencies and they were directed as to the product they were to produce and limited accordingly as to the raw materials they had available. The image below left shows a machine shop at the Beeston works, fully engaged in war production in this period.

ericssons machineshop ww1  ericssons workers ww1 

Many young men had enlisted immediately or soon after war was declared and most of those who didn't - some were exempt - were conscripted. This came at a time when the factories and workshops they worked in needed to keep production at full stretch to produce the armaments and equipment to supply the battle fronts. While younger and older men - the image above right shows an Ericsson group, mostly very young men, from this time - played their part in filling the enormous gap, the largest contribution - and biggest change to the social norms - came with the large-scale employment of women who provided a much larger proportion of those required to work the machinery.

For most factories, the war requirements meant a complete change from the normal product output. At the Ericsson Beeston factory, this was rather less the case - as its telecommunication skills were much in demand for the production of field communications equipment. However, its workshop machinery was also used to manufacture armaments and specialist tooling and its technical expertise was used to develop new related lines in wireless technologies. For instance, earphones that it developed were adopted as standard by both the Admiralty and the Air Force.

ericssons ww1_2  ericssons ww1_1  ericssons ww1_3 

A large part of the male workforce served during the Great War. At Christmas 1918, just after the Armistice had brought fighting to an end, a house magazine within the company showed images of "Some of the B.L.M.E Boys Who Have Joined H.M, Forces". The three panels which show 84 unnamed portraits of Beeston Ericsson men, are shown above. Sadly, some were killed or injured 7.

Peacetime Again - After the war finished in 1918, men began to return and take up their jobs gain - with the 51-hour working weeks now thankfully reduced to 47. Though this meant that many of the women employees returned to their previous traditional role in the home, a large number of women continued to be employed in manufacturing and administration roles. The company's well developed manufacturing facilities were again producing telephone sets and small exchanges and supplying much of the Post Office's needs. Already though, the need to move into larger, automated exchanges had been identified and development had commenced accordingly. But the decisions - and resulting demand - in that area were a few years away so, in the meantime, the company kept its facilities busy by developing a range of crystal sets and valve radios as well as specialist telephone equipment for mines and railway use.

In 1918, John William Ullett retired from his position as Works Manager. He had been key to the successful development of the Beeston factory and, indeed, had become recognised as an expert in the development of production facilities and the systems used to control them. Indeed, during the war years he had been a member of the Advisory Committee that equipped and controlled the Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell which had been so vital to supplying the Western Front 8. His successor as Works Manager was Allan Fergusson Wood who moved to Beeston originally in 1910 to take up a position at Ericssons.

The Factory in 1921

ericssons 1921

It was in this year, the 20th anniversary of the Beeston telephone works, that the whole factory, now employing 1300 employees, was photographed for posterity The photographs have survived in a presentation album 9 and are now made available here. The aerial view of the factory site is shown above. We have divided the remainder into five sections for convenient access:

Production Departments,  Assembly DepartmentsSupport Departments,  Service Departments & Administration & Management Departments

The story of Ericssons and its successors - Plessey and Siemens - will continue

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© David Hallam - 2018