United Wire Works

Text of booklet published late 1940s

Chapter 3

As soon as Mr John McFarlane was settled in possession as well as in the chair, he proceeded to overhaul the business, both from the point of view of industrial plant and in ‘the art of selling.’ Securely established in the Home Market in the early eighties he began to consider export trade. Within the next few years the energetic proprietor had opined up lucrative businesses with paper-making countries overseas. A good deal of their export and expanding trade came from the forceful ‘selling personality’ of John McFarlane. Such a personality would not have had long influence if the goods he had to sell had not been first class. First class though they were, for the time, the producers had to work under difficulties unknown to-day. The non-technical reader will, I hope, forgive us if we quote what is, to one layman at least, an interesting account of the mechanical differences of production in those days. The members of the industry will appreciate the details which Mr Burnett has been able to compile. Here are his words from his original Outline:

‘A picture of the machines and methods employed in the business at that time as compared with the present modern plant and equipment, reveals in vivid fashion the progress of mechanical science generally and the engineering genius and administrative foresight that have enabled the firm to keep pace with the progressive demands of the papermaking industry.

Those past days were the era of handloom weaving with a right and a left-hand operator and a boy to work the lay. Weaving widths varied from five to about eight feet. Youths entering the industry had to serve seven years apprenticeship.

Hand-sewn seams were the only method employed at this stage to convert the wire screen into an endless band. This type of seam, whilst it met the requirements of the papermaker at that time fairly adequately, was always a potential source of trouble; occasionally it would make too pronounced a mark on the paper, sometimes it caused ‘squirting back’, and on occasion it would break prematurely.

The wire-drawing machines employed were of the ‘Bolton’ type and ran at 150 feet per minute. The wire – in hanks or bunches – was annealed in pots heated with charcoal. This early method of annealing caused many a headache, the wire being often patchy in colour and of uneven temper. If any of the early pioneers could revisit the scene of their former labours, their reactions on viewing the firm’s modern plant and equipment would indeed be a revealing and interesting study.’

To-day they would see the special type of automatic power looms manufactured by the firm’s own engineering staff in their own works, incorporating their own ideas, and also improvements on other existing types, these modern looms exceeding in size and speed anything ever dreamt of in their generation. Two of these mammoth looms, said to be the largest in the world, are capable of weaving paper machine wires up to 28 ft. 6 in. wide.

Another operation in which the business has made giant strides is the method of seaming. In this all-important department the firm has developed a method of uniting the two ends of the wirecloth by a special process of welding. By this method the joint or seam almost becomes an integral part o£ the weave – it is of great strength, barely distinguishable, even under a magnifying glass, and its impression on the finished sheet of paper is practically non-existent – all features of primary importance from the paper-maker’s view-point.

The firm’s modern method of wire drawing savours almost of wizardry. The machines, marvels of engineering skill, are fitted with a series of diamond dies, drilled with the utmost precision and accurate in diameter to within one ten-thousandth part of an inch, through which the wire is run at about 3000 feet per minute, the speed varying according to the gauge of wire and the class of metal being operated.

The very latest model, however, has attained a trial speed of 6000 feet per minute.

From wire drawing we pass to the wire annealing department. Here the firm has installed the latest models of streamlined electric annealing furnaces, thermostatically controlled, not only cutting out when the required temperature is exceeded by even one degree, but also stopping and starting automatically for the day's work.

By this latest method each individual strand of wire is annealed separately through a tube – there are about 100 tubes in each furnace on an average. This ensures a uniform temper throughout, together with a beautiful bright colour-important factors when the wire is being woven into paper machine wires. That is a short description of the technical differences between the struggles of the early times and the comparative perfection of to-day. There were, however, other early difficulties, difficulties which were in the long run to prove pointers to future success – success for the industry in general and for the Edina Works in Leith as being the firm that led the industry into the secure position it holds to-day.

As may readily be imagined the of the Fourdrinier paper-making machine, with all that it implied, caused drastic re-adjustment of ideas in the wire weaving industry, and several concerns equipped themselves to supply the paper mills with paper machine wires. This commendable business enterprise brought with it certain disadvantages. It must be borne in mind that the manufacture of paper machine wires was establishing itself as a key industry; and that no paper could be made on the Fourdrinier machine without a paper machine wire.

Unfortunately, in a comparatively young industry without established traditions or customs, there began to emerge some confusion and divergence of views, among several firms, in regard to the nomenclature of meshes, trade usages and terms. This state of affairs was not in the best interests of the industry as a whole, and if not speedily rectified would eventually have led to trouble with the paper mills. The problem was how best to smooth out the confusing anomalies.

The policy of the management at Leith Walk had always been to enhance the prestige and authority of the industry, and here was an opportunity to give practical effect to that policy. After a thorough examination of the situation, John McFarlane and his son decided that the best solution of the difficulty would be to gather – if possible – all the firms in the industry under one management. Negotiations were set afoot to that end. The majority of the firms approached agreed to the plan, and on 2nd December 1897 the following firms were incorporated in a limited liability company under the title of THE UNITED WIRE WORKS, LTD.:

The last-named business had previously been acquired by Robert McFarlane & Son, and was included by them in the pool. Also included were the paper machine wirecloth departments of:

William Riddell & Co., Springfield Wire Works, Glasgow, and

Dockerty & Co., Mile End Wire Works, Glasgow.

The first Directors of the new Company were:

Mr John Newton McFarlane (a younger brother of Arthur McFarlane), who had been managing the office side of the Leith Walk business, was appointed Secretary to the enterprise.

It will be noted that the prime movers in this revolutionary but necessary step in the history of the industry were the Chairman and his assistants of the Edina Works at Leith Walk, the descendant of the small business in the Trongate. It was due to this fact also that the Chairman of the new united concern was the proprietor of the old ‘Robert McFarlane Works’. It is due also to this initial enterprise on the part of the now no longer young John McFarlane, who was now partially retired, and his son Arthur, that the headquarters of this great national combine is now in Granton by Edinburgh.

At this point a word, or rather more than a word, must be put into this history on behalf of Mr Arthur McFarlane, second son of John McFarlane. He was eventually to become Chairman of the Company later in this century. His death occurred in 1934. The pattern of events in human affairs has a habit of assuming the same shape, of repeating itself. Old Mr William McMurray, having provided the initiative, all unbeknown to himself, of the works we see at Granton to-day, made an exit, understandable in view of his multifarious interests in the world of journalism, in favour of his younger relative, Robert McFarlane, in 1858. The same Robert McFarlane, soon after the foundation of the firm which he partly began and partly took over from Mr McMurray, clearly gave over the interests and the management of it to his son, John, who had been the driving force in the establishment of the new business.

John McFarlane, having poured his energy and foresight into the new enterprise of 1858, began to have, as had his predecessor, other interests not unconnected with his primary business. As his predecessors had done before him, he began to be interested in journalism, and founded a daily Liberal newspaper. Even in their humblest form the preoccupations of journalism can be fairly absorbing. To be the founder and proprietor of a daily newspaper most certainly does not leave much time for other activities. So his absorption in this new pursuit naturally deflected him from the craft which (by its mere connection with paper) had started him off on this new business. It is at this point that the figure of Arthur McFarlane, his second son, enters the story.

There can be little doubt that the foundation of The United Wire Works in 1897 was due to the imagination, the drive, and the personality of young Arthur McFarlane, who had by then for all practical purposes succeeded his father and was, in effect, Chairman of the Company. It was he who conceived the idea of bringing the industry under one united convention. It was he who was subsequently the impulsive force in forming the Paper Machine Wire Manufacturers' Association. It was he who piloted the Leith Walk firm into being the leading element in the general and united concern.

Arthur McFarlane had been brought into the business, second son though he was, as early as 1886. The culmination of his power and influence in his own firm and on The United Wire Works was reached at the turn, of the century, i.e., from 1897 until his death. His influence may in a sense be said to survive to this day. He is remembered not only personally, but for his achievements. It is safe to say that had Mr Arthur McFarlane not found himself at the helm of affairs in the late 1890's the united concern would not be where it is to-day.

Far-seeing, prudent, fair-minded, and cautious, he was at the same time considerate and kindly to those who worked under him. He earned their affection as well as their respect. It is a difficult point to decide which of these two emotions is more valuable to arouse in the human heart and mind.

The scene was now set for general expansion. Small and petty differences of style of production and manner of expression of that production were now in the process of being ironed out and co-ordinated in the combination of general interests. The paper market was, more or less, completely established.

There are, however, other uses than the making of paper to which wirecloth can be put-particularly in engineering. The point about these other uses of wirecloth is that each use requires a different mesh and particular type of weave. In order to make this kind of weave there has to be the manufacture of a particular type of wirecloth known, in the trade, as ‘Commercial Wire Gauze’ or ‘Narrow Loom Gauze’.

It was paper however in all its many forms and uses that had now become the core of the great industry of wire weaving. It was due to the daily increasing demands for paper all over the Western world that the wire industry became a key industry of Great Britain. Occupying the foremost position in this industry in 1897 was The United Wire Works. There were, however, some half-dozen other firms outside the combination of interests-a more graceful term than combine – which had taken place in 1897. The industry, whether within or without the central form of The United Wire Works, had now become too important and too far-reaching in its effects to permit of any confusion as a result of this diversity of interest.

A parallel case is that of the great national industry of transport. However many railway companies may have existed in Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, it had long been obvious that in certain essentials they had to speak with one voice – the size of rail gauge for only one instance.

Mr Arthur McFarlane was therefore authorised by the Directors to bring together as many of the firms concerned in this essentially national industry, whether in Scotland or England, to come to some general terms of agreement. This, Mr Arthur McFarlane achieved in the last year of the nineteenth century. Then, with the foundation of the ‘Paper Machine Wire Manufacturers’ Association’, this national industry was able to speak with one voice-to the Government, to its customers, and to the public as a whole. In short, a wholly non-political co-ordination or nationalisation of an essentially national industry was put through without fuss or party squabble.

So ended the nineteenth century for this industry which had sprung from so many sources – First, from the brain of young Louis Robert, the inventor, then from the expansionist activities of Henry Fourdrinier, and finally, from the activities of William McMurray and his family in Scotland. The chronicler cannot help reflecting that old William McMurray was born a few months after the battle of Trafalgar was fought. The Frenchmen and the Scotsmen, at the time when the one part of them were young and the other were being born, were officially as bitter enemies as were to be found in Europe. Nevertheless, brains, inventiveness, and industry crossed the channel and overcame bitter international differences. The result is what is to be seen on the shores of the Firth of Forth at Granton to-day. The twentieth century had begun.

It was, perhaps, a coincidence that this industry of paper machine wire weaving, which had begun in the mind of an inventive young Frenchman, should have reached its climax, from the point of view of organisation, almost exactly a hundred years later. The invention was produced in 1798: the most important co-ordination of the industry of wire weaving occurred in 1897 and 1899. From those two years, and from the passing of one century into another, there came the foundation of an organisation which, though placed in the capital of Scotland, is international in its influence.

From that time the progress of the industry and, in particular, of The United Wire Works has been smoothly expansionist. An appendix is given at the end in which the names of those who either by position, or personality, or by both, made this expansion and success possible. The McMurrays and the McFarlanes have already entered the course of this narrative as it proceeded. It is only fit to mention here, at the end of this chapter, two prominent personalities that influenced the concern in this century-apart from Mr Arthur McFarlane – that is to say the two other Chairmen.

Mr John MacCormack became Chairman in 1903 until his death in 1924. There are many who remember his untiring and business-like zeal. His association with Mr Arthur McFarlane, who succeeded him, was an ideal example of the combination of executive ability on the one hand, and the driving force of inspiration on the other.

After Arthur McFarlane’s death in 1934, his place was filled by W. D. T. Green, M.B.E., who at this date is both Chairman and Managing Director of the Company. The last chapter in this book is devoted to the industry as it is to-day.

Home Introduction Main pages Maps Information Contact me