The Glacier Metal Company Ltd and Alperton

 

 

Len Snow makes reference [About Willesden and Wembley - Tempus, 2007 p.23] to people going shopping at Sainsbury's at Alperton. They may not appreciate the significance of “Glacier Way”, but for some seventy years the Glacier Metal Company was a significant presence just off the Ealing Road, originally on the west side, to the south of the Grand Union Canal.  In 1970 I arrived at Glacier House, the company’s 1960s headquarters on the opposite side of the road, to be interviewed for a temporary job. The Crosby Valve & Engineering Company had once been there, but I remembered being more conscious of its original 1920s 'half timbered' building, which I later came to know as “The Cottage”, with its quotation from John Ruskin, 'Life Without Industry is Guilt, Industry Without Art is Brutality' [Lectures on Art (1870) No.3 'The Relation of Art to Morals'] lettered on the timbers.



Glacier Way, off Ealing Road, today           [Photograph by Richard Graham]



As it turned out I was an employee of Glacier Metals for nearly fifteen years, learning a little about plain bearings and rather more about the company's history. Because of my temporary status I did not go through the company's normal induction which I believe included an element of the company's history, though I later heard that it had begun in St John's Wood in 1899. At the time I thought this rather odd, as I associated that area only with Lord's cricket ground and blocks of mansion flats, but I have recently realized that there was some industry about. Where the Metropolitan and Chiltern Lines come into the open and cross the Regent's Canal there used to be a power station and part of the boundary wall of the Thames Bank Iron Works may still be seen. Perhaps other industries could also be found, though I never found Glacier anywhere in the directories until about 1908 when it had premises at Waldo Road NW, near Willesden Junction. Years ago I was on a train up to Euston and noticed the company's name still painted on the brickwork facing the railway, perhaps seventy years after it had left the premises.

The origins of The Glacier Metal Company Limited were in a partnership of two Americans, Cuyler W Findlay and A J Battle.  The partnership became a limited company called Findlay Motor Metals Ltd but later renamed Glacier, apparently because Mr Findlay had been to Switzerland in 1901 and remarked on the similarity of molten whitemetal to the appearance of a glacier: whitemetal is a term for various alloys, either tin-based or lead-based, used in the lining of plain bearings [Snow p.23]. That the glacier moved so slowly as to appear to be unhindered by friction must also have been in his mind. [A 1937 advert for Findlay's Motor Metal L.1 in Flight may be found online at: www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/index.html ] Mr Battle soon returned to the USA, but his erstwhile partner remained. I remember in the firm's canteen the honours boards recording those who had served 21 years with the company and C W Findlay was first on the list, in 1920.

 

The company began by producing whitemetal alloys for lining plain bearings for engines of various kinds, but during the First World War it diversified into making diecast parts for hand grenades and bearings for the requirements of the military: one notable contract was for bearings for the airship R34, which made the first east to west air crossing of the Atlantic in July 1919 [ed. G. Hewlett: A History of Wembley, 1979 p.194]. A study of the company [E. Jaques: The Changing Culture of a Factory - Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1951] has pointed out [p.24] that it was the demands of industry, rather than the particular interests of the owner, which were in metal, that determined the move to manufacturing.  In 1929, having previously introduced bronze-backed bearings, Glacier introduced steel-backed bearings and two years later, to meet customer needs for bearing repairs, a Service Department was established [Jaques p.73].

 

Not long after the First World War, Glacier won a contract to provide bearings for Morris Motors and I have in the past speculated that this might have prompted the move from Willesden Junction to Alperton, which took place in 1923. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield,  concentrated his manufacturing at Cowley, near Oxford after the war and I used to wonder if the proximity of the new  Western Avenue would thus have been useful for Glacier, but later discovered that this route to Oxford was built in fits and starts over a number of years. Alperton was, though, convenient for the Great Western Railway, another way to Oxford, with nearby goods stations at Park Royal and Greenford I think. Glacier acquired the premises of Wooler Engineering which made motorcycles, and apparently “The Cottage” had been theirs, though I suspect the quotation on the timber came later, in the era of Wilfred Brown (1908-85), who joined the company in 1931. In 1935, Glacier became a public company, and he married Findlay's daughter, Barbara, but she died two years later [Debrett's Illustrated Peerage, 1980 p.184]. Mr Findlay died in 1938 and the following year saw Brown become both Chairman and Managing Director, posts he held until 1965, and also entering on his second marriage.

 

In the Glacier Metals factory, 1931

[Courtesy of Brent Archives]

If I were writing a more formal history, the first part would be 'The Findlay Years', and the second, not quite as long, 'The Brown Years'. As in the previous war Glacier expanded, with No.2 Factory, somewhere on the North Circular Road, No.3 at Ayr, No.4, a foundry at Kilmarnock and Nos 5 and 6, described as small shops, in North London. With the end of the war some of these were closed, but Ayr (later Kilmarnock) was retained and by 1950 the company had 1,800 employees: 1,300 in London, 400 in Scotland and the rest at the two new Service Stations at Glasgow and Manchester. By comparison back in 1933 about 250 were employed.

 

Brown was described in his obituary [The Times, 27 March 1985] as a 'committed socialist', and in 1945 stood for Parliament as a candidate of the short-lived Common Wealth Party. He became interested in 'the bases of my conduct as an executive' and sought the advice of social scientists. Thus began the involvement with the company of Dr (later Professor) Elliott Jaques, a Canadian-born psychologist and psychiatrist [obituary -The Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2003], whose book cited above has been useful in this article. Their collaboration in “The Glacier Project” led to what was seen to be a relatively advanced form of industrial relations, with a Works Council, consisting of the trade-union led Works Committee and representatives of management. Jaques has recently been described as '...the most undeservedly ignored management researcher of the modern era'. It has been suggested '... that neither he nor Brown felt the work of management academics had scientific validity. So they never quoted them, and the management academics returned the compliment' [The Economist, 1 May 2009]. Nonetheless the Glacier Institute of Management was established in Ruislip, and I attended a course there on being promoted.

In 1964 two significant things happened: Harold Wilson won the general election, and made Brown a peer, and the company was taken over by Associated Engineering, thereby becoming part of a significantly larger group. In 1965 Lord Brown became Minister of State at the Board of Trade, a post he held until 1970. During the 1960s expansion took place at Alperton: in 1960 the Key Glassworks site by the canal was bought, and Crosby's site on the east side of Ealing Road in 1968.  With the advent of road flyovers, such as Western Avenue, the company developed sliding, later known as structural, bearings which allowed for the expansion and contraction of metal according to the temperature. We were told Glacier bearings were later used for the Sydney Opera House. Another Service Station was opened at Jarrow, and a new No.2 Factory, originally in the Boden works at Chard in Somerset, and later at newly-built premises in nearby Ilminster. In due course the structural bearings, and also engine filters, were transferred there.

Polishing the surface of a structural bearing at a Glacier Metals factory (a 1960s company publicity photograph).
[Courtesy of Brent Archives]

In 1965 Glacier was the largest of 31 firms in Alperton [Hewlett p.194], and its significance in the local economy  is indicated by its providing with two other large local firms, Heinz and Guinness, mayoral regalia for the newly-created London Borough of Brent [12: Snow p.25]. 

 

 

 

‘Members of the Diesel Engineers and Users Association watch rotary lining operations at the Alperton factory’, from Thrust magazine, June 1970.
[Source: Brent Archives – W.H.S. Collection Acc. 1276/2]

By the time I joined, Glacier had established a large site at Alperton. At one time there had been at the western end some sort of sports and social facilities, but the space had been needed and the sports and social club moved to Ruislip. This was no doubt convenient for employees who lived there, but I visited only once for what was to be my last cricket match (caught after scoring one, and dropping a sky-er).

 

 

Polishing the surface of a structural bearing at a Glacier Metals factory. (A 1960s company publicity photograph.)
[Courtesy of Brent Archives]

About 1979 I received my second and last promotion, becoming involved with the former Service Station, by then designated the London Unit of the company's Heavy Bearing Group. In due course I was moved over the road from No.1 Factory. Whereas that factory engaged in batch production, and the No.3 Factory at Kilmarnock in mass production, London Unit was a jobbing factory, making and repairing large bearings for ships, power stations and the like. As I have said, the site was large. In the early days of faxes, I was once asked to do my opposite number at the Glasgow Works a favour by collecting his monthly accounts and taking them to the Financial Director's office in Glacier House. This involved walking the whole length of the site, via the pedestrian tunnel under Ealing Road, to the fax machine located in the Research & Development Organization. This was a walk of easily ten minutes and I then had a similar time to wait before the last of perhaps eight pages finally came through. What a contrast with the near-instant transmission of e-mail today!

The last factory manager of London Unit felt he was losing too much time as his workforce had to go to the No.1 Factory canteen, so arranged for a canteen in his building. From those days I also remember arriving to see a Queen's Award flag being flown. In my time two were won for exports, and one for technology, the Glacier-Herbert Sterngear System for ships. It is strange to think that in those days there was a shortage of labour in the area and one response mooted by the company was to establish satellite factories in London's outskirts. No doubt the lack of housing locally was involved with this, for I remember two or three girls having to go and live in Milton Keynes when they married, as they could not afford to live in Wembley.

 

Glacier House, Ealing Road             [Courtesy of Brent Archives]

 

                                                                                                          



Perhaps the labour shortage, together with the prospect of realizing cash by disposing of the land, if not the buildings, led to the decision to close London Unit at the end of 1984, although I think one or two urgent jobs lingered on for a couple of weeks into the New Year. I left a few months later, at which time Glacier House was still in use. I sometimes wonder what happened to the company's Second World War memorial, which I remember in reception. I believe the remaining offices went to Northwood eventually.

Some years later, in the early 1990s, Glacier closed the No.1 Factory and finally left Alperton. Curiously, although I read the local press in those days, I don't remember seeing much if anything about this. Although the council made an attempt to keep the site for manufacturing industry, it was not to be, and Sainsbury's took over the site for their superstore. When I shop there, is it where the foundry used to be? The eastern side of the road became B & Q, but that did not last, and when I last looked the site was empty. In due course Associated Engineering was taken over by Turner & Newall, and they in later years by the American company, Federal Mogul.

Glacier Metals was not the only factory to close. Nearby Griffin and George, makers of scientific instruments, is now a housing development, like the GEC research site at North Wembley. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Guinness Brewery at Park Royal has also been demolished, while the Hoover site on the Western Avenue at Perivale became a Tesco's store about 1992. Wrigley's factory at North Wembley, by the same architects also closed, as did nearby British Oxygen. No doubt the same story could be told of other London suburbs.

©Richard Graham

 

This article was first published at pages 64 to 68 of the Wembley History Society Journal, Volume VIII, No. 3, in February 2012.