United Wire Works

Text of booklet published late 1940s

Chapter 4

Having set his hand to the concluding sentence of the previous chapter, the chronicler is, to put it mildly, somewhat taken aback when he realises what he has calmly proposed to do. He has proposed to skip over forty-seven years – forty-seven years during which the two greatest wars in history were fought, and a revolution in national, international, industrial, and social affairs was achieved, passed through, or endured (as you will) by the vast majority of the inhabitants of these islands.

It goes without saying that the process of these immense events had a deep influence on the various industrial concerns in this country. Some have survived. Some have unhappily collapsed. The bright expanding dream of Victorian optimism was, in many instances, shattered by the cold half-light – no, not of dawn, but of evening.

The United Wire Works not only survived the crises and troubles of these forty-seven years, but may even be said to have been strengthened by them. Had the first European War broken out in the first years of this century (as it nearly did), it is doubtful how successfully the newly formed Company could have survived the storm. That they would have survived it there is little doubt.

At this point the figure of Mr Burnett rises in this collaboration to mention with affection and regret for past colleagues the names of some of those whom he remembers in this early, expansionist, but extremely important period. There was first of all, Mr John McFarlane, of whom much mention has been made already. He died in 1903, six years after the foundation of the Company of which he was first Chairman. He may be said to have conceived the idea of The United Wire Works almost from the day on which he entered the service of the original concern founded by William McMurray. With its achievement, in a sense, his life-work may be said to have been completed. The growing commerce and organisation of the industry between the opening of the twentieth century and 1914 were carried on by younger but none the less able hands and minds.

Of these there are a number of names. It would perhaps be invidious to pick and choose amongst them. They are set out in the Appendix.

With the beginning of the 1914-1918 War the essential materials for the productions of the Company were, of necessity, withdrawn almost overnight, or at least reduced to such small proportion that the industry could hardly proceed. One can easily understand that to politicians and soldiers, at a time of crisis, the use of phosphor bronze and its related material were more useful for the manufacture of munitions than of paper.

It is ironical to reflect that the situation in the 1939-1945 War was, if not reversed, largely equalised. One who has worked in the Foreign Office during the recent war can testify to the fact that it was a conflict, almost as much of paper as of high explosive. Many a leaflet dropped from an aeroplane did more damage than did a score of bullets. At any rate, if it did not it was supposed to; and the consequent outpouring of paper was stupendous. Words and ideas were, in the recent war reckoned almost as important as lead, steel, and the materials of destruction. ‘Almost’ is the operative word. Nevertheless that point of view needed paper – and got it.

It was not so in 1914 to 1918.

There was obviously a certain amount of paper for war and governmental purposes. It was very limited, however, and the Company found itself in the position early in the war of facing curtailment of its raw materials. In short, it had to do something about it itself. It was a matter of larger concern than that which affected The United Wire Works. The whole paper trade was involved.

Something had to be done. The details of how it was done really belong to another story. Let it suffice to say that the war of 1914-1918 faced the paper trade in general and ‘The United Wire Works’ in particular with a challenge which they met. In meeting it the Company laid the basis for an organisation which was to deal with the emergency of yet another war within twenty-one years. The Company had begun to organise the source of their own raw material. Just as the making of paper depended on the skill of the wire weavers, so did the wire weavers themselves depend on the regular supply of material to their own purpose. The war of 1914 – 1918 gave them their challenge and their opportunity. They met the challenge and seized the opportunity. The result was an industry which was able to co-operate and assist in another conflict which was to come only twenty-one years later in 1939.

Though paper was a more essential element in the war of 1939 than in that of 1914, something of the same difficulties faced the Company all over again. Not only the loss of manpower from executive to machine hands, but the lack of the control of raw material again threatened the output of the Company.

If the industry of The United Wire Works was to survive there was again only one thing to be done. The Company must have its own wire mill. The executive who is now the present Chairman of the Company was released from military service in order to take charge – the Government had by now realised the full importance of paper – and the Wire Mill at Granton was begun, and completed with astonishing speed. The ‘first bar’ was cast in 1941. The Company was now in the enviable position of controlling its entire production ‘from ingot to the final manufactured article’.

It may be platitudinous to say so; but one cannot help observing how often it takes a war or a major crisis to effect a real advance in science and industry. With all the crippling difficulties which ‘ The United Wire Works’, in common with other concerns, had to overcome during this period, it is undoubted that they emerged from the war years in an even stronger, a more compact position than that which they occupied in 1939.

So after these discussions we come to ‘The United Wire Works’ as they are to-day at Granton. In a sense the history of the industry as we now see it may have been said to have ended as well as begun in the year 1897 when the Company was founded. It ended the long period of evolution whereby the works of Mr William McMurray in 1825 in Glasgow became the driving force in a vast concern with international networks of influence at the end of the century. It began in the sense that something entirely new was launched in 1897. The early stages of any great concern always provide more fruitful material for the historian than does the later period. It is a fair guess to say that, had the first half of this century not contained the two greatest wars in history (and a consequent revolution in custom and commerce), the story of ‘The United Wire Works’ would have been the pleasant but not unusual one of gradual and prosperous expansion. As we have seen, however, events forced the pace and precipitated action that would not otherwise have been taken, or at least would have been delayed.

In 1925 the Company found their Leith Walk premises too cramped. The flowing tide of building had swept round them. They decided to move to a spot where they would not only be able to build but also to expand in future years. They chose an outlying portion of Granton, the small seaport below Edinburgh. It is here that the works (with the Mill that was founded in 1941) now stand.

It is a pleasant and spacious spot. When one is in the grounds of the works one is conscious of four things in its setting. First (though one can scarcely catch a glimpse of it), there is hanging over it the precipitous City of Edinburgh, the ancient capital of Scotland and, it is perhaps not too much to say, the capital of modern printing. Second, there is the space of ground adjacent to the works. One gets the impression that here is an industry that has the room to expand its lungs, chest, and arms. This impression of space and air is, to the visitor, reinforced by the third element – the presence of the sea that, in the form of the Firth of Forth, runs nearby. Finally, there is the Kingdom of Fife which, on a clear day, seems to be so close across the Firth that you can almost imagine yourself leaning out of any of the north-facing windows of the works and touching the opposite shore with your hand. In these surroundings the modern works lie to-day.

What goes on in these works, is, of course, of more importance than their environs.

Here, the layman, the chronicler of this history, can only give expression to his impressions of tours of the works conducted under the expert guidance of his more skilled collaborator. To the technician many of the descriptions and details that follow may seem, as has been said earlier on, so obvious as to be scarcely worth mentioning. Still, this book, it is hoped, will be read by some who are not in ‘the trade’. It is to them that these concluding paragraphs are primarily addressed. ‘Primarily’ is the operative word, for no matter how expert a technician may be in his own job, the other man’s technique of his job is usually of interest.

The place where everything starts, the place which is the centre of the whole works, is the Mill, the place where the crude metal is produced, or at least fashioned into the material which is used for the subsequently more delicate processes. This is the place which was founded, achieved, or what you will, by the crisis of the last war. It began in 1941 as a war necessity: it has now become an integral part of the concern.

Here large masses of phosphor bronze are melted in huge and intensely heated furnaces. They are then poured, in a liquid state, into moulds. From these the metal emerges in the form of bars of approximately six feet in length, and with the width of the average human wrist. They are massive, heavy, jangling, thick rods of metal. When one sees them first it is difficult to believe that they will ever emerge in the exquisite and delicate form of a paper machine wire which is their eventual fate – or at least the fate of most of them.

The fact that The United Wire Works can control their raw material by this means from its elementary state does, of course, give them an immense advantage in the trade. It is as if a writer, such as the present chronicler, were able to make his own ink, paper, and pens. He would then be entirely free of arbitrary or accidental stoppages and shortages in stationers’ shops. If this parallel seems a trifle laboured to the reader who is not a professional writer, he may rest assured that such shortages and stoppages are one of the curses of the writer’s life, nowadays. Leonardo da Vinci mixed his own paints. How many of us engaged in the trade of words have not recently wished that we could make our own material? However, we cannot. And the fact that The United Wire Works have managed to mould for themselves the essential matter for their trade-the basis of our own paper should really be a matter for gratitude rather than envy. These thick, cumbrous rods of phosphor bronze are then passed through a process of rolling and drawing to an immense length. Before this can happen to them, and at various stages during these operations to them, they must be annealed-that is subjected to the influence of intense but slow heat. Under the effect of annealing they become sufficiently ductile to be drawn out to a hundredth, a thousandth part of their original width.

This elongated piece of pliable metal, this wire, born out of thick rods, is then sent in two directions. Part of it goes to the Narrow Loom Department where wire for ordinary industrial and domestic purposes is woven.

This, however, is but a subsidiary part of the production of ‘The United Wire Works, Ltd’. Their main concern is the making of fine wirecloth for the manufacture of paper.

The bulk, therefore, of the wire, borne out of these massive rods, is sent to the paper machine wirecloth department where the final, most important, and most delicate part of the process and manufacture is carried out.

There has been given earlier in this book a comparison, in Mr Burnett’s own words, of the early stages of paper machine wirecloth manufacture and those that are in existence to-day. He has already mentioned the complicated advances that have been made in the important matter of ‘seaming’ these webs of wire into one endless whole. He has touched upon other minutiae of this craft which is so delicate that it amounts to an art. There is little that one would add, even if one could, to his enthusiastic but technical description of the process of the manufacture of paper machine wirecloth. It is only possible to give an impression of the product of this final process.

The reader is here referred to the photograph reproduced below, where he will see a picture of a Paper Machine Wire, constructed on a power loom, no less than 28 ft. 6 in. wide. In the photograph the cloth appears as one solid sheet of metal. The camera (so far as the eye can judge) has, on this occasion not lied. If any of us, even the most sharp-eyed of us, were to enter this section of the works and see, for the first time, this vast belt of cloth, we would say that it was one long, wide strip of solid metal. It would only be when we came up to it, looked at it closely or even through a magnifying glass that we would perceive that we had been deceived. It is not a solid mass of metal but a gauze or web woven from strands almost as fine as those of the spider's web itself – yet how much more closely constructed. Each one of these delicate strands is the product of the elongation of one of those heavy, thick rods which were earlier turned out in the Mill nearby.

It is this cloth, whether turned out at this great width or in narrower sizes, that makes the production of paper possible in these islands. Without it the paper on which these words are written, that which the reader now holds in his hand, could not be made.

We are inclined sometimes to take paper too much for granted. It is one of the most essential materials in our daily lives. Without it we would have no newspapers, no books, no magazines, no cigarettes, no method of communicating with our friends who live distant from us more than a few miles. Paper in science, social life, and medicine, and a score of other branches of modern existence is a primary necessity.

Yet how is paper made? Without the complicated, delicate manufacture of paper machine wirecloth it simply would not exist in the way in which we must have it to-day. It was young Louis Robert who first thought of the invention which has made the modern paper industry possible. It was the initiative of old William McMurray and his relatives which led the way in co-ordinating through industry the vast results of this invention.

The works at Granton to-day continue and prosper, and there are expansions in progress which would have staggered their original progenitor. Much optimism has been enjoyed in this industry since the days of 1825 when the young William McMurray set up in business in the Trongate in Glasgow. Many difficulties and near desperate situations have been faced. Both have been dealt with; for it is difficult to decide whether quick success or unexpected setbacks are more dangerous to a growing enterprise.

With its world-wide trade, with its long experience of ups and downs of trade, with its intimate connections with one of the most essential of the materials of modern life, and finally with its contented working staff, whose amenities and welfare are the concern of the Directors, ‘The United Wire Works’ faces the future with confidence.

Its history which these collaborators have endeavoured to tell can find a parallel in the story of a number of other industries begun by our Grandfathers and Great Grandfathers in the last century. The wonder is (considering what has happened in the last forty-seven years), not that a few of them have declined, but that so many of them have survived so bravely and expanded so well.

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