From Thames Ditton to the world

The records of the Willans Works engineering site at Rugby, which are being catalogued by Warwickshire County Record Office as part of its Boaters & Bright Sparks project, show how the Willans & Robinson company that built the site in 1897 grew from small beginnings.

It started life at Thames Ditton in Surrey specialising in engines for boats but soon expanded as it produced its innovative central valve engine that helped the firm gain a large part of the UK’s electricity generation market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To celebrate International Archives Day 2015 on 9 June (#IAD15) here are some examples of how Willans & Robinson gained an international reputation and received orders from all over the world including from places such as Europe, America, Canada, Australia, Russia and Japan. The records also show how the company had a network of agents in various countries to get orders.

One of the boats built at Thames Ditton in the 1880s was meant for use in the Sudan during the relief of Khartoum military campaign. The boat, called Sprite, became a works launch and later in its life was used by Willans & Robinson co-founder Mark Robinson during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee review on the Solent in 1897.

The boat Sprite built at Thames Ditton in the 1880s (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The boat Sprite built at Thames Ditton in the 1880s – CR4031/4/453/88 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

 

An early indication that the company was receiving international recognition came when one of its central valve engines won an award at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

Award winning Willans & Robinson engine on display at the 1900 Paris Exhibition

Award winning Willans & Robinson engine on display at the 1900 Paris Exhibition – CR4031/4/456/79 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The company also attracted attention from engineers around the world and this led to a visit to its Rugby works by the American Mechanical Engineers Society. This was followed up by an article on the works in the publication American Engineer. The company was mentioned in many professional and general publications and cuttings of these are in the collection.

The American Mechanical Engineers Society visits the Willans Works in Rugby c1900 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The American Mechanical Engineers Society visits the Willans Works in Rugby c1900 – CR4031/4/456/54 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

Willans & Robinson also had an international influence in other ways. Americans came to work for the company because of a labour shortage caused by men being called up to serve in the First World War. One of these men was Joseph McLean, who started work in November 1915. He died in 1917 and was buried in Rugby after the company paid for a burial plot in what was New Bilton cemetery (now called Croop Hill).

Joseph McLean's contract to work for Willans & Robinson as a moulder (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

Joseph McLean’s contract to work for Willans & Robinson as a moulder – CR4031/3/3 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The First World War also had another effect on the company as it built temporary huts to house Belgian refugees it was offering work to. These huts were still being used in the 1930s as temporary accommodation but they were eventually demolished.

The Willans Works is still part of an international network today as it is run by the Alstom group. So far during its history the site has been owned by Willans & Robinson; Dick, Kerr & Co. Ltd; English Electric; GEC; and Alstom. Further changes are coming as General Electric is taking over the Alstom Power division.