The Later Years
Countries with Owen Group Agents, in the 1950s.

Mrs. Eccleston on her drilling machine in the Aviation Department. From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".
The 1950s and 1960s were years of significant and sustained growth for the company. In 1951, A. G. B. Owen set up the Owen Organisation so that a clear distinction could be made between the Owen Family's ownership of Rubery, Owen & Company Limited and their other investments.

At that time the Owen Organisation consisted of twenty eight member companies, employing over 12,000 people in operations as diverse as aerospace, agricultural implements, and automotive components, chains, domestic equipment, fork lift trucks, office furniture, nuts and bolts, and tools. The firm also became involved in motor racing, as a result of A. G. B. Owen's interest in the sport.

B.R.M.

British Racing Motors (BRM) became synonymous with the Owen Organisation which sponsored the racing team for many years. The project, founded by racing enthusiast Raymond Mays, and his associate Peter Berthon began in 1945.

Mays and Berthon, along with Humphrey Cook had previously built a number of successful racing cars using the ERA name. Mays wanted to build an all British grand prix car to fly the flag for British engineering.

He intended to fund the project by seeking financial backing from the British motor industry and established the British Racing Motor Trust. A. G. B. Owen became chairman of the trust, and decided that the Owen Organisation should take over the assets of the trust when it ran short of funds.

The assets were purchased on 24th October, 1952 so that development work on the existing cars could continue, and also with the aim of designing and building a 2.5 litre un-supercharged car in readiness for the 1954 racing season.


The BRM logo.


The first BRM is unveiled at Folkingham. Left to Right: H. Bailey (M. of S.), L. H. Robinson (M. of S.), R. Henderson-Tate (North Midland Regional Controller of M. of S.), A. C. Burdon (Automotive Products), A. G. B. Owen, D. G. Flather (W. T. Flather & Co. Ltd.), Raymond Mays, Earl Howe, Donald McCullough, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, Peter Berthon, Wilfrid Andrews (RAC), and B. F. W. Scott (Joseph Lucas Ltd.) From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".
The cars were built in a building called 'The Maltings', in Spalding Road, Bourne, Lincolnshire, behind Mays' family home, called 'Eastgate House'. When the Owen Organisation took control 'The Maltings' became the Engine Development Division of the Owen Motor Racing Association. Berthon and Mays continued to run the team on behalf of the Owen Organisation, and had many racing successes including winning seventeen grand prix between 1959 and 1972:
 
        Date                 Race   Driver
31st May, 1959 Dutch Grand Prix. Zandvoort Jo Bonnier
20th May, 1962 Dutch Grand Prix. Zandvoort Graham Hill
5th August, 1962 German Grand Prix. Nürburgring Graham Hill
16th September, 1962 Italian Grand Prix. Monza Graham Hill
29th December, 1962 South African Grand Prix. Prince George Graham Hill
26th May, 1963 Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco Graham Hill
6th October, 1963 United States Grand Prix. Watkins Glen Graham Hill
10th May, 1964 Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco Graham Hill
4th October, 1964 United States Grand Prix. Watkins Glen Graham Hill
30th May, 1965 Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco Graham Hill
12th September, 1965 Italian Grand Prix. Monza Jackie Stewart
3rd October, 1965 United States Grand Prix. Watkins Glen Graham Hill
22nd May, 1966 Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco Jackie Stewart
7th June, 1970 Belgian Grand Prix. Spa Pedro Rodríguez
15th August, 1971 Austrian Grand Prix. Österreichring Jo Siffert
5th September, 1971 Italian Grand Prix. Monza Peter Gethin
14th May, 1972 Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco Jean-Pierre Beltoise

Other team drivers included Ron Flockhart, Dan Gurney, Mike Hawthorn, Niki Lauda, Reg Parnell, Clay Regazzoni, Harry Schell, John Surtees, and Maurice Trintignant. In 1962 Graham Hill became world champion.

The finished car standing outside the test house at Bourne.

It had a top speed of around 200 mph.

From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

As well as providing financial support, the Owen Organisation also placed its vast manufacturing resources at the disposal of the project. Large numbers of specialised components were produced at some of the factories within the organisation. Chassis were built at Darlaston, along with the majority of bolts, nuts and studs, which were often made from special steels. Electro-Hydraulics did much precision machining, Invicta Electrodes assisted with electrodes and welding techniques, Camelinat produced spinnings, pressings and bushes, C. & L. Hill supplied light alloy castings, and Motor Panels made the water inlet manifolds, radial arms and engine bearer struts. The organisation also supplied the necessary jigs, tools, fixtures, drills, reamers, and cutters, etc., and also machinery, office furniture, and storage units for the Bourne site.
The Bourne technicians and designers who made it possible, including Peter Berthon, Ken Richardson, and the three principal members of the design team: Frank May (Chief of the Design Office), Harry Mundy, and Eric Richter.

From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

The beginning of the first car's trial run.

From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

In order to try and make the Owen Motor Racing Association pay its way, the BRM V8 engine was sold to other racing car builders.

In 1960 the workshop moved to a new purpose-built building on an adjacent site, previously occupied by Bourne Gasworks. In the 1960s, Louis Stanley, A. G. B. Owen's brother-in-law, became involved with BRM, ending up as Joint Managing Director, and later Chairman.

The Owen Organisation ended its support for the team in about 1970, after which it became Stanley-BRM, and remained as such until 1977.

New Office


The new Structural Division Office Building. From the spring 1951 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

The Structural Division Office in the Central Office block was some distance away from the Structural Works, and so a new office was built next to the factory, and partly over the Template Shop. It had a waiting room, cloakrooms, a Manager's Office, a Drawing Office, an Estimating Office, and a General Office.
The Drawing Office.

From the spring 1951 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

The Estimating Office.

From the spring 1951 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

The Ferguson plough. Made at the Darlaston factory.

From the spring 1951 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

In 1953 the Owen Organisation acquired Charles Clark and Son Limited of Wolverhampton, which sold cars.
In 1956 the Darlaston factory was restructured into seven divisions, each responsible for the design and sales of its products:

Motor Division produced car components, chassis frames, presswork, wheels, axle cases and fuel tanks.

Structural Division designed and produced steelwork for buildings.

Contracts Division manufactured earthmoving equipment and cranes for sub-contract.

Bolt and Nut Division produced bright bolts and nuts for the motor industry.

Metal Assemblies Division carried out deep-drawn presswork, particularly for vehicle brake cylinders, compressor shells for refrigerators, washing machines, gas bottles and cylinders etc.

Metal Equipment Division produced steel shelving, pallets and containers.

Rowen-Arc Division produced welding machinery.


A 1920s view of Charles Clark & Son Limited, Chapel Ash, Wolverhampton. From an old postcard.
Some parts of the business were still centrally controlled under the Central Services Division, which offered assistance to subsidiaries, and charged for the services provided, including finance, purchasing, research, personnel, and engineering plant and maintenance services. Some of the organisation's specialist factories, like Pressings in Coventry, Foundry Equipment in Shropshire, and Industrial Storage and Office Equipment at Wrexham, were also managed from Darlaston. At the time there were 6,000 employees at the Darlaston site.

The organisation had also opened a pioneering scheme to look after the older members of the workforce, as their working lives drew to a close.

Gasel Refrigerators


Finished refrigerators at the factory. From the summer 1950 edition of "Goodwill".


From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

One of the many products made in the Darlaston factory was the 'Gasel ' absorption type refrigerator, which was completely silent in use, and fully equipped with automatic controls. It could be run on gas, kerosene or electricity, and had no electric motor, or belts, and so was extremely reliable, and long-lasting.

It used a small gas or kerosene flame, or an electric element, to evaporate a liquid refrigerant, which extracted heat from the refrigerator.

The cabinet was styled for Gasel Appliances Limited by Grey Wornum, F.I.R.B.A., a well-known British architect, and had a door that could be opened or closed by a feather touch from an elbow or knee, when the hands were full.

It was finished in stove-enamelled white gloss paint with a plastic trim. The cabinet was manufactured by the Metal Equipment Department, and the white porcelain-enamel interior was finished at the vitreous enamelling plant.

Forming the interior casing on a brake press.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Making the streamlined doors and panels.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Seam welding the interior sections.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Spray enamelling the doors, prior to baking.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Fitting the absorption unit into a refrigerator.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

The final inspection.

From the summer 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

On 21st November, 1962 the company was honoured by a Royal visit to the Darlaston factory, by Princess Margaret, who toured the Motor Wheel Department, the service departments, the Nursery, and met the medical personnel.

 
An advert from 1952.   An advert from 1938.
The Next Generation

In the 1950s and 1960s the third generation of the Owen family began their careers with the company, starting with A. G. B. Owen's eldest child,  Helen Grace Owen who joined the firm in 1952. After obtaining her degree at Birmingham University, she worked in Head Office until her marriage. She was responsible for office development, and was involved in the firm's preparation for retirement programme, and also introduced industrial life and Christian teamwork into the workplace.

A. G. B. Owen's two eldest sons joined the company after graduating in economics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Alfred David Owen started in the Motor Division in 1961, after completing his National Service. In 1963 he became its General Manager in 1963. John Ernest Owen spent a year at Jaguar Cars Limited, as a management trainee before becoming Managing Director of the Easiclene company in 1963.

A. G. B. Owen's younger children also joined the firm. Jean Elizabeth Owen began as her father's secretary in 1961 before joining the Estates Department in 1966, where she was involved in the development of the organisation's camping and chalet leisure site at Dyffryn in Wales. She later became a director of Chains Limited, and oversaw her father's interests in New Hall Farms Limited, and the Park House Restaurant in Sutton Coldfield.

 

The next youngest son, Robert James Owen, joined the firm in 1967. After completing his HND in business studies, he worked in the Training department.

Another son, Charles Owen joined the firm in 1976 after becoming a chartered accountant. In 1978 he became a Director of Rubery Owen (Metal Assemblies) Limited, and a year later became Managing Director.

By 1963 there were more than 50 companies in the organisation, producing many new products including Drott mobile tractor cranes, and self-propelled straddle lifting systems.

In 1964 there were 6,500 employees on the Darlaston site, and the firm took over Old Park Works on King's Hill, Wednesbury, which then became Rubery Owen Kings Hill Works.


An advert from 1954.

A Drott mobile tractor fitted with a skid shovel.

From Histories of Famous Firms -  'Midlands Survey' part one, 1960.

Also in 1964, a Rubery Owen-built vehicle became the fastest car on earth, reaching a speed of 403.1 mph. Donald Campbell desperately wanted to hold the world land speed record, to showcase British engineering skill. This was made possible thanks to many British companies in the motor industry who supplied parts and expertise, and the Norris brothers who designed the car, known as Bluebird CN7. The original CN7 led to many disappointments. In 1960, after initial trials, the car was taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, but whilst travelling at over 360 mph Campbell lost control and crashed. He was badly injured, and the car was written-off.


An advert from 1958.

Campbell still wanted to make another attempt at the record, and so Sir Alfred Owen offered to rebuild the car, which had been built by the Owen Organisation, for him.

By the summer of 1962 the rebuilt car was ready, and by the end of that year Campbell had shipped it out to Lake Eyre in Australia in readiness for a new attempt on the record.

Unfortunately nothing could be done for some time because of rain, which flooded the course. On 17th July, 1964 Campbell made another attempt, even though the course had still not properly dried out. This time he achieved his goal, travelling over the course at an average speed of 403.1 mph, which was a great triumph for the many Owen companies involved in the project.

Sadly, overwork and advancing years were beginning to take their toll on Sir Alfred Owen. At the end of 1964 he collapsed whilst on a visit to South Africa, and so delegated some of his workload to his eldest sons, David and John, who became joint chairmen of the newly formed Group Executive.

The Late 1960s

In the late 1960s many changes took place in the management of the business. In 1966 Rubery Owen & Company Limited became a holding company under the name of Rubery Owen Holdings Limited, whose role was to oversee the activities of the group. The assets and activities of the Darlaston factory and its subsidiaries came under the control of a new company, also called Rubery Owen & Company Limited, which must have caused a great deal of confusion. Possibly because of this, the name was soon changed to Rubery Owen (Darlaston) Limited.

David and John Owen became directors of the new company. David was Chairman, and John looked after the Domestic Equipment Division. After the death of his uncle, Ernest William Beech Owen in February 1967, John also looked after the Contracts and Agricultural Divisions, and in March 1967 the brothers became Joint Managing Directors. For a time the organisation suffered from a cash problem because Ernest William Beech Owen had owned one third of the shares.

Two years later, Sir Alfred Owen suffered a serious stroke, and relinquished most of his duties, although he remained Chairman of the company until his death on 29th October, 1975. The day-to-day management of the firm was then left to the two brothers, with David becoming Acting Chairman, and manager of the subsidiary UK and overseas companies, and John becoming Managing Director of the Darlaston factory, and its associated companies in Moxley, Wrexham and Warrington.

As part of the reorganisation, the Structural Fabrications Department at Darlaston closed. The Organisation had great difficulty in raising capital in order to expand the business. Electro-Hydraulics Limited, based at Warrington, became a public company with 40% of its shares offered for sale. The shares sold quickly and allowed the firm to reorganise, and reduce its overdraft.

In the late 1960s the extensive product range included automated warehousing, earthmovers, farm equipment, foundry and welding plant, fuel pumps, integrated handling systems, machine tools, yachts and boats, and much more. The group produced around 12,000 different components, assemblies and machines on a worldwide basis, employing more than 15,000 people in eighty eight companies, operating on five continents.

The Life of Alfred George Beech Owen

A. G. B. Owen was born on 8th April, 1908, and educated at Lickey Hills School, followed by Oundle School in Northamptonshire. In 1927 he went to study engineering at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but abandoned the course on the death of his father, Alfred Ernest Owen, who died on 29th December, 1929, in his sixtieth year.

A. G. B. immediately took control of the family business with his younger brother, Ernest William Beech Owen, and in 1932 married Viva McMullan. They had five children. In 1934 he was elected to Darlaston Urban District Council, and became Chairman in 1942 to 1946 and 1952 to 1954. He also became a member of Sutton Coldfield Council in 1937, which is where he lived with his family. He became Mayor of Sutton Coldfield in 1951, and in 1970 was made the last Freeman of the Borough.

From 1949 until 1966 he was a member of Staffordshire County Council, and held the post of Chairman between 1955 and 1962. He was also Chairman of Dr. Barnardo's for 22 years, Pro Chancellor of Keele University, Vice Chairman of the National Savings Movement, Deputy Chairman of the Development Corporation for Wales, Chairman of Governors for Bishop Vesey's Grammar School, President of St. John's Ambulance for Staffordshire, Director of Walsall Football Club, and Chairman of the National Road Safety Advisory Committee.

In Darlaston he was President of the Old People's Welfare Committee, President of the Sons of Rest, President of the Darlaston and District Social Services, President of the Garden and Allotments Association, and President of the Fellowship for the Disabled.

In March 1954 he was awarded a CBE, and in 1961 received a Knighthood for public service. Because of his involvement in the various organisations he worked an average of 18 hours a day, and drove up to 50,000 miles a year.

In October 1969 he suffered a serious stroke from which he never fully recovered. At the time he was waiting to preach in St. Matthew's Church, Walsall. He died on  29th October, 1975.

Sir Alfred in his private room in the Walsall General Hospital after his stroke. On the right is Sister Irene O'Malley.

From Owen News.


Sir Alfred (centre) at a retirement presentation at Waddington Tools on 20th October, 1971.

The 1970s

In 1970 the main subsidiary companies in the group were reorganised into sub-groups, each under the control of a holding company. The holding companies were as follows:

The C.&L. Hill Group, The Conveyancer Group, The Distributors Group, The Domestic Equipment Group,
The Fasteners Group, and Rubery Owen (Darlaston) Limited which was also administered as a separate
sub-group.

By 1971 there were around 14,200 employees in the group, and the group's profits slightly improved.


A presentation in the central toolroom for the Motor Frame Department in about 1970. Jack Morris (on the left) is being presented with his retirement present, a set of Gilbert and Sullivan records, by Jack Price, the Toolroom Manager. 2nd on the left is Brian Austin, 8th on the left is Jack Siviter, and 10th on the left is Bob Taylor. On the right of Jack Price is Doug Russell, a Foreman, and next right at the front is Harry Wells the Jig Maker Foreman. In the centre on the front row, wearing glasses is Benny Fellows, 5th from the right on the front row is Ernie Horton, 5th from the right on the back row is Charlie Wood, and in front of him to the left is Eric Frankham. Courtesy of Brian Austin.
The next decade was a trying time for the company, and the country as a whole. I have included a brief description of the terrible times which led to the demise of much of the country's industry, and explains the extreme measures that had to be taken by the Owen group in order for some parts to survive.


From a 1954 advert.

The late 1960s and the 1970s were turbulent times for British industry, the economy was in decline and trade unions began numerous strikes which worsened the situation.

At first the future must have looked extremely bright for the Owen group, because in the 1960s and early 1970s, Britain enthusiastically embraced the motor car. There was a rapid rise in the ownership of cars, but this was short-lived because of the 1973 oil crisis which saw the price of petrol more than double.

The miners went on strike and were joined by sympathetic trade unionists. Arthur Scargill led the miners who used flying pickets to successfully block coal and coke supplies.

The country was short of energy, inflation accelerated to over twenty percent, and Britain was put on a three day working week.

Industrial relations at Darlaston became strained in 1973 when over 2,000 employees in the Owen Group went on strike for five weeks. The strike nearly crippled British vehicle manufacturing, because the company supplied wheels and components to most of the leading manufacturers. After the strike, the directors decided to restructure the company by creating subsidiary companies. But deteriorating markets, and the unwillingness of trade unions to accept changing economic conditions forced further radical changes.

The country's problems increased due to rising prices, falling industrial output, and the largest number of unemployed since the recession in the 1930s. In 1974 the industrial unrest seemed to ease as a result of the Social Contract, instigated by the Labour Government under Harold Wilson, along with a strong budget to curb inflation. Unfortunately this was short-lived. In 1976 the country had to apply for an IMF bailout of £2.3bn, due to the high budget deficit and the falling value of the Pound.

By 1977, the economy showed signs of recovery, but unemployment continued to rise, so much so that by 1978 around 1.5 million people were out of work. The winter of 1978 to 1979 became known as 'The Winter of Discontent' because of widespread strikes by public sector trade unions, all demanding larger pay rises. It was also the coldest winter since 1962 to 1963, which reduced retail spending, and worsened the economy. The Labour Government's inability to curb the strikes led to the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government in 1979, who legislated to reduce the power of the trade unions.

The UK economy had fundamental problems that could only be resolved by a radical shake-up, but sadly by this time, many of the country's industries had gone, and many more would soon follow. They were unable to weather the turbulent storm that had overtaken the country, or compete with the ever growing foreign competitors who were taking-over their traditional markets.

Weathering The Economic Storm

The recession, the difficult industrial relations, and the decline of many British industries, as already mentioned, led to a problematic time for the group, which must have severely tested the management's ability to keep the business going.

In 1972 the firm decided to concentrate on its manufacturing and engineering activities, and so the British Leyland distributor, Charles Clark and Son Limited, of Wolverhampton, and Rogers and Jackson Limited of Wrexham were sold. Sales continued in 1973, by which time twenty subsidiaries had gone. The Darlaston factory was divided into two companies; Rubery Owen Motor, and Rubery Owen Contracts, and the group acquired the remaining forty percent of Conveyancer Fork Lift Trucks Limited, to become the sole owner. In 1974 the firm became Rubery Owen Conveyancer.


A corner of the Motor Frame Cold Press Shop at Darlaston.

By this time the national industrial unrest was causing problems, and the Commission on Industrial Relations made proposals for improving industrial relations in the company. In 1975 the firm acquired Shelvoke forklift trucks, and in 1976 the 'Rosafe' wheel for preventing skidding after a burst tyre, was specially commended by the Don Trophy scheme. In the same year, industrial relations at the Darlaston factory plummeted to an all time low, and the factory was threatened with closure unless things improved.

In 1977 Coventry Climax purchased the Conveyancer factories at Warrington and Kirkby, and by 1978, voluntary redundancy and natural wastage had resulted in the Darlaston workforce being reduced to 1,650. In June 1979 the company shed another 400 employees at the Darlaston factory. In 1981 a further 950 jobs were lost, followed by the closure of the Darlaston factory, when the decision was taken to move away from the traditional manufacturing and engineering businesses. This was a severe blow to the town. In the same year the BRM business was auctioned. The firm's last major manufacturing interest was sold in 1993.

Rubery Owen Holdings Limited now concentrates on property, investment, and several independently operating subsidiaries.

A sad sight. Part of the derelict Darlaston factory in the late 1980s shortly before demolition.
Another part of the old works, sadly now gone.
References

An Industrial Commonwealth - 1951. The Owen Organisation
Copies of the company's staff magazines.
Histories of Famous Firms - Midlands Survey 1960.
Industry in the West Midlands. 1954. West Midland Industrial Development Association.
There's Life in the Old Dog Yet - 1954. John P. Rainsbury, Rubery Owen & Co. Ltd.
Access to Archives - www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/
Many adverts from many magazines.


   
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