HISTORY OF
METROPOLITAN-VICKERS Ltd


Metropolitan-Vickers Ltd. (Metrovick)

The American owned firm of British Westinghouse, formed in 1899 by the American George Westinghouse, was responsible for the formation of Metropolitan-Vickers. British Westinghouse was located at Trafford Park (July 10, 1899 to September 8, 1919) Manchester, an industrial area which became the focal point of many of Metrovick’s activities. British Westinghouse felt that the American ownership of its operations during World War One had been a hindrance, thus, in 1916 a British holding company was created to obtain the American shares and the Company became independent from US control. In 1919, the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company provided the capital for British Westinghouse to become ‘British’ and British Westinghouse itself was acquired by Vickers Limited. However the company’s name changed from ‘Vickers Electrical’ to ‘Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company’ on September 8, 1919.

In 1919, R. S. Hilton became the new Managing Director of Metrovick with G. E. Bailey appointed as works manager. Metrovick was soon faced with the inevitable post-war difficulties; political and labour unrest, import and export restrictions. However, there were positive signs for the company; the tonnage output for 1920 had increased by thirty per cent and the work force to almost 10,000. In 1922, Sir Philip Nash became the new chairman. The early 1920s proved to be a testing time for the newly established firm culminating in the general strike of 1926 which lasted from May 3 to May 12. The Metrovick works survived this period of industrial turmoil with the loss of only one days work.

1926 witnessed the passing of the Electricity (Supply) Act and the subsequent formation of the Central Electricity Board and the building of an electricity ‘grid’. This act was extremely beneficial to Metrovick as the Company was inundated with orders for heavy plant. Metrovick achieved its highest production level in 1927 but this success was overshadowed in January 1928 when Hilton left the company after nine years service. He was admired by many at Metrovick for his leadership qualities, playing an important part in guiding the company towards being a major competitor in the electrical industry. Hilton subsequently obtained the post of Managing Director of the United Steel Companies, later to be appointed Deputy Chairman, receiving a knighthood in 1942.

The company also expanded into overseas trade when in 1919, the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Export Company was formed. The Metrovick overseas trade business accelerated rapidly with offices soon established in Brussels, Bombay, Calcutta, Johannesburg, Melbourne and Sydney. Metrovick was particularly successful in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In 1922 a £1 million order to provide traction equipment in South Africa was obtained. The boldest move made by the company was with regarding its trading relationship with Russia. The Bolshevik regime was regarded with great suspicion by the outside world and as a result, Metrovick established close relations with the Soviet authorities without government support. Metrovick’s association with Soviet Russia was a prosperous one. Important contracts were obtained and in 1924 there were several orders for heavy plant. The 1920s was a period of considerable development for Metrovick with technical advances in the manufacture of turbines, generators, switchgear and industrial motors.

In 1928 Metrovick merged with British Thomson Houston (BTH) but on January 4, 1929 both these companies were amalgamated into AEI (Associated Electrical Industries Limited), this resulted in a long history of rivalry between the two firms which AEI failed to control. The formation of AEI coincided with the Depression of 1929 but there was a regeneration in trade from 1933. By 1938 AEI had fully recovered, obtaining Government contracts and increasing its work force to 16,000. The Depression had also affected Metrovick’s export business but there were noticeable achievements such the contract for railway electrification in Brazil. Metrovick was also active in Poland and Russia. The effects of the Depression resulted in the departure of Sir Philip Nash in 1931 as Metrovick initiated steps to decrease ‘the cost of administration’. Sir Felix J.C. Pole became the new chairman, with the subsequent task of steering the company through the turbulent year of 1933 when six of its engineers were arrested and found guilty in Russia on charges of sabotage and espionage. With the aid of Government intervention, the engineers were released and trade with Russia was resumed after a brief embargo.

The 1930s were years of expansion and innovation for Metrovick but the company was to find its manufacturing capability under considerable pressure during the Second World War. Metrovick, with its site at Trafford Park, was highly involved in the war effort, providing valuable equipment to the British Army, Navy and the RAF. The majority of Metrovick’s war production was undertaken at Trafford Park and Sheffield with the Company in close collaboration with various government departments. In 1936, Metrovick was involved in the construction of automatic pilots for the Air Ministry. The development of radar and manufacture of guns and gun mountings commenced in 1937. Metrovick’s greatest achievement lay in the manufacture of bomber aircraft with the Company embarking upon an aircraft assembly deal with A.V. Roe in 1938. Metrovick initially began constructing the 'Manchester' bomber before later concentrating on its four-engined successor, the 'Lancaster'. Success in this field was exemplified by the fact that 1,000 heavy bombers had been produced by the end of the war. The culmination of the Company’s war work was later published in 1947 in the book titled ‘Contribution To Victory’.

Metrovick’s post-war position was one of increased expansion with the construction of new factories and the internal alteration of existing ones. Captain Oliver Lyttelton (created Lord Chandos in 1954), became Chairman in 1945 with the aim of increasing the efficiency and productivity of AEI. In his first six years as chairman, Lyttelton achieved this objective but was incapable of resolving the commercial rivalry between BTH and Metrovick which was affecting the stability of AEI. The vast market for generating equipment after the war was extremely lucrative for Metrovick but its competitiveness with BTH intensified. The project at Larne in Northern Ireland, completed in 1957 by BTH, involved the construction of the largest turbine works in Europe. It was hoped that production turbo-generating sets works at Larne would surpass that of the existing factory at Rugby. This enterprise was resented by Metrovick who constructed a transformer factory Wythenshawe, costing £2.5 million, a fraction of Larne's £8 million price tag. Despite BTH’s new plant at Larne, Metrovick was progressing competitively in the turbine business. Relations between the two rivals again deteriorated when BTH secured the contract for the Buenos Aires power station worth £35 million. Throughout the 1950s Metrovick became established in the manufacture of domestic appliances such as refrigerators and cookers, which became a profitable enterprise for the company.

During his second period as Chairman of AEI (1954-1963) Lord Chandos resolved to extinguish the competition and internal divisionalisation between BTH and Metrovick. The regeneration of AEI was the major goal which Lord Chandos failed to achieve and his successive attempts at reorganising AEI were ineffectual. It was his struggle to suppress the disorder and conflicting rivalry within AEI which led to the long-established names of British Thomson-Houston and Metropolitan Vickers being eliminated from the electrical industry on January 1st, 1960. This was resented by many Metrovick employees. The remaining years of Chandos’ reign were difficult ones for both himself and AEI. In removing the old names, AEI experienced a decrease in profits and share values on the stock market. The indecisiveness of the board and executives at AEI did not assist the company through this turbulent period, as little action was taken to resolve AEI’s structural problems. Though Lord Chandos’ policy of product divisionalisation was essential to reassert AEI’s dominance in the electrical industry, the elimination of the customary names of British Thomson-Houston and Metropolitan-Vickers was deemed unnecessary by those in the engineering world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

'1899 - 1949 Metropolitan - Vickers Electrical Co. Ltd.'
John Dummelow (1949)

'Anatomy of a Merger: A History of GEC, AEI and English Electric' ,
R. Jones & O. Marriot, (1970),
Jonathan Cape, London. ISBN 0 224 61872 5

Take from the Marconi history files - please go the the GEC/Marconi web site for more information

 
 
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Last revised: December 19, 2010

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