United Wire Works

Text of booklet published late 1940s

Introduction and Foreword

William McMurray, founder of the firm, 1825 – Click to enlarge

William McMurray, founder of the firm, 1825

Willaim McMurray
Click image to enlarge

This history of The United Wire Works, Ltd., traces the development of the industry of paper machine wires from its earliest stages in this country down to the present day. It is intended primarily for circulation amongst those concerned in the business of papermaking. At the same time it is hoped that it will interest those whose affairs lie in other and kindred industries. In a sense, all other industries and businesses are kindred. Paper is a universal commodity and a primary necessity for all the affairs of men. Without paper machine wire weaving, that commodity, as we universally know it to-day, could not exist.

In sending you this complimentary copy of the history of our organisation we hope that you will find its contents interesting and informative.



This is a short history of a venture which began a hundred and twenty-two years ago, and affects (albeit unconsciously to them) the habits of most people in the country. On Mr John Burnett lay the task of collecting the extremely diffuse material for the history of THE UNITED WIRE WORKS, LTD. Mr Burnett, with whom I have collaborated in the later stages, is an expert in his own line, if ever there were one. He has spent a lifetime in the service of the industry. To use the hackneyed but inevitable metaphor, he began at the bottom of the ladder, and ended at the top. He is now retired; but I doubt if there are any who know the minutiae of the business and industry better. Certainly none knows its history better, if as well.

When I was asked, in my professional capacity as a writer and a journalist, to assist in the presentation of this history, I had but the faintest idea of what ’wire weaving’ really was. I was shocked to find that I did not know that, were it not for this industry, my trade, profession, what you will, as practised in its various forms by hundreds of thousands of men and women all over Western Europe and elsewhere, would cease to exist. I approached my task therefore with all the greater gusto for the discovery of my own ignorance of something essential to my own business. It is often thought the story of commercial undertakings, particularly those that began deep in the last century, must be dull, dry, and of interest only to those concerned in them. This is often so: but this dullness and aridity often spring from a lack of imagination on the part of both the presenter of the story and the reader. The resurrection of old ledgers, the resuscitation from dusty files of forgotten boardroom minutes, can be intolerably tedious except to those who remember the facts behind those columns in the ledger, the human beings present at those dead board meetings.

It is with the use of the words ‘human beings’, however, that the scene can be illuminated. The figures in those ledgers represent the hopes, the fears, the timidity, the boldness, and success of men not very far distant from us. The boardroom minutes though usually expressed dryly represent, to the eye of imagination, even more vividly these human emotions, actions, and reactions. Moreover, those facts recorded in the ledgers, those decisions taken in the boardroom, often affect the lives of human beings to-day – yours and mine for instance.

This is particularly true of nineteenth century commercial ventures that have survived, and not only survived but achieved success in this our own century. It has been the fashion to give the industry of a hundred years ago, and later, some hard knocks recently. When I say recently, I mean that a fashion begun by the powerful, humane, but often unbalanced indignation of Dickens in Hard Times has survived and is accepted nowadays often unthinkingly. ‘Gradgrind’ was a brute. And 'Gradgrind's prototype did exist. But ‘Gradgrind’ was the exception. He exists in every age, taking from his circumstances and his time the colour and shade of a brutality that was native to him, and will always be native to a certain kind of man.

In point of fact the men of a hundred years ago or so who were concerned in this country in industry were a curious blend. They combined a hard practicality with romantic ideas which sometimes (but always unvocally) merged upon sentiment. They were very careful to see that their ledgers balanced on the right side – and to handsome profit. Their romantic side took two forms. They were not frightened to risk their all on some invention in which they believed. They knew that they lived in an expanding age. Like their fore-fathers, the Elizabethans, in their age, they determined to expand with it.

The other side of their romantic temperament showed itself in the fact that they honestly believed that they were building a ‘brave new world’. They really thought that Science (with its handmaid, Industry) would relieve most of mankind’s physical distresses. They really thought that the steam-engine, and later the internal combustion engine, the electric telegraph, the steel ship, and so on would make man at last content.

Well, it is not their fault if it hasn’t made us much more content than we are. It is not the fault of our grandfathers that our fathers and ourselves have so frequently turned their inventions and their industry to ugly, mischievous, and destructive purposes. There are very few of the products of man’s inventiveness and industry which have not been used to distress mankind as much as to ameliorate his lot.

Amongst the more innocent industries that grew up in our grandfathers’ time, and reached a climax in our own, I would certainly include that one of which it is the business of Mr Burnett and myself to compile the history. It would be difficult to imagine an industry which did less harm than one without which the world would fail to receive its paper supply. But that is to anticipate. Here is the story of how ‘The United Wire Works’ grew into being.


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