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Friday, 7 August 2009

Frank Hills and Thames Ironworks

The profits of the Hills chemical business appear to have been invested in heavy engineering. In 1871 Thames Ironworks was `the greatest shipyard of all'. It had been established following the bankruptcy of C.J.Mare in 1856109 and had been launched with a capital of £100,000 in £5,000 shares, all sold on the first day of issue to 'local engineering companies'.

Frank Hills joined the board sometime before 1864 and first appears in the list of board members for a new share issue at a time when he was the peak of activity with the gas companies. He acquired a controlling interest in the company in 1871 and was Chairman of the Board until his death.

Thames Ironworks is best known for the construction of HMS Warrior but this, the largest warship in the world when built is berthed as an 'historic ship' at Portsmouth. She was only one of many important, and often glamorous, ships built at the yard. The ironworks also produced the structural ironwork for many important civil engineering: Hammersmith Bridge, Menai Bridge, the roofs of Alexandra Palace and Fenchurch Street Station are only a few of the high profile projects in which they were involved.

In 1898, after Frank's death, the company took over John Penn and Sons, engine builders of Greenwich, and went on to expand that business. It was this expansion which led to the manufacture of road vehicles at Greenwich and Vauxhall.

The company appears to have embodied revolutionary methods of workplace management and, under Frank's son Arnold, and went on was to embrace Labour Co-partnership. Arnold, who is perhaps another subject, wrote extensively on the Christian and temperance duties of employers.

Frank Hills' involvement with Thames Ironworks paralleled the period of their greatest success: `by the early 1870s they were pre-eminent. Perhaps their golden age was in the 1890s when they specialised in quality work. The impetus from this period of excellence carried them, alone, over into the next century'.

Frank loved being Chairman of Thames Ironworks. There are stories about him excitedly running round each new battleship as it set out on its first journey down the Thames.114 He was not to know that this was the last moments of Thames shipbuilding and that his son, Arnold, would fight the Government and see the works closed down together with the skills which had made it famous.

Frank returned to Kent in his old age and lived at the grand house which William Wells had built - Redleaf - with his 'zoophytes' and a new gramophone. It is said that he could recite 'Paradise Lost' in its entirety off by heart. He had made a very great deal of money. He was a very remarkable man, one of the great Victorian industrialists, and almost unknown.

A document exists in the Kent Country Archive by which Frank agreed to give power of attorney to his sons. It is signed in a sadly frail hand and witnessed by his butler. He died in 1895, closely followed by his two eldest sons. The Deptford Chemical Works was put into the hands of Thomas Herbert Hills - perhaps Thomas's son. It was administered from a distance by the husbands of Frank's two daughters, Constance and Annie. Within a few years it was bankrupt.

The works at East Greenwich were sold to the gas industry and the old tide mill site became home to a power station. The Anglesey works closed in the 1890s and the Spanish mines were taken over by United Alkali.

Thames Ironworks was put in the hands of Frank's third son, Arnold. Successive volumes of Thames Ironworks Gazette chronicle Arnold's favourite causes - vegetarianism, total abstinence, West Ham football club and labour co-partnership. In the next century his bravery in the face of ridicule and defeat can be seen as he addressed massed rallies in Trafalgar Square while paralysed from the neck down and supported in a specially made invalid basket.

He argued the case for warship contracts to be continue to be placed with London shipyards but on 21st December 1912 a notice was pinned to Thames Ironworks' main gate - 'Our extremity is God's opportunity and I do not doubt there is still in store for us a Happy New Year'. Thames Ironworks closed two years before the First World War which would have ensured their future and perhaps the survival of large scale shipbuilding on the Thames.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the difference between Frank and Arnold than family stories of how, after Frank's death, Arnold poured a cellar of prize claret down the drain. Arnold, talented, honest, brave and idealistic, ultimately failed. 'Elusive' Frank had made the money.

It is very likely that many more of the enterprises of Frank Hills and his brothers remains to be discovered. Frank found a niche in the exploitation of gas industry wastes and was prepared to use the patent system to ruthlessly exploit what he could. His success rested on resourcefulness, tenacity, luck and relentless energy.

Gas company directors, in minuting their dealings with Frank Hills, sometimes allow what seems very much like exasperation to creep into the records. He seems to have been very difficult to pin down, and he has been difficult to research. Although secrecy is understandable in a world full of rivals how was it that someone so successful should be so ignored at his death? Even the gas industry, from which he had taken so much money, never gave him an obituary. Perhaps secrecy had grown to be a habit with him, perhaps he was hated. He was devoted to his family, he always looks cheerful in his portraits, and, until the day of his death, he could recite the whole of Paradise Lost from memory.

This saga has come a very long way from the first hesitant ideas about the use of gas industry tar and liquor. Someone like Frank Hills was bound to have come along and turn it the exploitation of them into a multi-national corporation.

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