A Poole-d History
by Marie Tieche
A MONTH had gone by since I had written to the letters page of the local newspaper requesting information on Vulcan sewing machines and the identity of the manufacturer. Perhaps my lead had been incorrect - they weren't made near Bournemouth after all. Oh well, back to the drawing board.
Going shopping on the afternoon of 20 February 1998 was a big mistake. I came home late to be greeted by my husband Colin exclaiming "Where have you got to all afternoon? The 'phone's been going mad".
I dumped the shopping on the kitchen floor at about 6-30pm and finally got off the 'phone three hours later. The rather nice evening meal I had planned on creating -thrown together would be more accurate - had turned into cheese on toast and I had got writer's cramp with all the scribbled notes I had taken. It's days like this when I wish I could write shorthand. My letter had finally been published, but I expect you guessed that bit.
I was very surprised at the numbers of people who made the effort to get in touch, especially as the company disappeared about 20 years ago. All were previous employees except for one lady, who was 'phoning on behalf of her 89-year-old mum, and I eventually got two more offers of help via letters.
Most people gave pretty much duplicate details about the company, but it was interesting how almost everyone provided me with a little snippet that no other person had, some of it a bit naughty and note repeatable.
Fortunately for me, the most important caller was the former company secretary, Dennis Stevens, who provided me with much of the history of the company, having worked for them for about 39 years. Following is an account of what they had to tell me, with a few details discovered in newspaper cuttings and in "Brown Brothers" catalogues, who have been well known in the UK since the 1890s as factors of bicycle and motorcar parts, games, household goods and paints.
SYDNEY S BIRD is the company name you are trying to find. This is the manufacturer of the Vulcan sewing machine, and they were made down on the south coast in sunny Poole in Dorset.
Mr Bird would seem to have been a forward-thinking chap in his day, and it is believed he had connections with John Logie Baird, inventor of television, and he may well have helped found the Baird television company.
Before the second world war, a licence was required to produce toys, a market which Bird wanted to get into. To save the bother of applying for the licence, in c1932 he simply bought out two companies that already held one. One was Prestico who manufactured children's construction kits, similar to Meccano, but requiring no nuts and bolts, the components being pressed together.
The second company was Morthan, as in "more than a toy", which was already producing sewing machines. Other toys included scales with weights, a cooker using small solid-fuel tablets to heat it up, and a battery-operated washing machine, which heated up enough hot water sufficient to wash a hanky.
Perhaps Bird was looking after the interests of his grandchildren.
The local scrapman was on to a winner at this time, as he discovered that the metal off-cuts he collected from Morthan were just the right size and shape as those being used by the Prestico company. He was making a nice tidy profit, thank you very much, until someone woke up to what was gong on.
The parent company was located in Cambridge Arterial Road, Enfield, Middlesex (not far from the Essex factory, Editor) next to the cooker manufacturers, Belling Lee, and was producing walkie-talkies, capacitors and condensers. it is thought that by this time Sydney S Bird had already taken over a company called Airspace Radio Condensers, of Tring in Hertfordshire.
During WW2 about 100 sewing machines a week were being produced, and these probably looked like the Singer 20. The Brown Brothers' catalogue of 1952 shows a picture of this same machine, but the description of it clearly applies to the "Dumpy" black model, and measurements quoted of 9" x 5" x 7" correspond exactly. Price was 34/6d (1.72.5p). The same basic mechanism as the "20" is used; the feed dog is exactly the same shape, but the drive to the hand wheel is different.
After the war, production of toy products went mad, and by 1952-3 some 3,500 sewing machines were being made each week, with a lesser number of cookers.
One of the major products of the Bird factory was the "Turret Tuner" which enabled old BBC-only TVs to be converted to receive the new independent TV channels, which didn't go down too well the manufacturers and retailers of new TVs. It was the demand for this product, and insufficient space at the Enfield site for expansion, that led to Bird relocating, and a partly-built factory was produced in Fleets Lane, Poole, in 1953.
The site was formerly occupied by Solway Morgan, who had gone bust. It specialised in refurbishing army tanks, making one good one from two or three bad ones, a gun turret from one, tracks from another, etc.
Mr Stevens' office was a shed in the middle of the factory floor, and here he worked while the factory walls were built around him. Gents Clocks, the industrial time-clock people, was also on the same site and parcels for them were often left outside the men's loos.
By completing and adding to the building, and utilising adjacent premises, Sydney S Bird occupied 80,000-square feet of floor space.
Only 40 key personnel moved from Enfield with the company, and they were encouraged to buy property in the Corfe Mullen area, and a small-fry builder, Harry J Palmer, assisted with this. It is now a very large concern in the Broadstone area.
The new workforce was recruited from the Poole area, where, by 1957, Bird was the town's largest single employer of labour, having some 1,000 people on its staff. There were excellent rates of pay too, as staff were paid at London rates, and earned 8/-d (40p) per hour, which was about 3/-d (15p) above average.
Virtually the only employment for anyone in the Poole area before this time, was a company making power boats. During the war it built MTB's-motor torpedo boats. Today houses now stand on this site.
Bird's company offered great employment opportunities to the women in the area, and they made up 75% of the work-horse.
The teletuners were despatched in their thousands each week, along with smaller radio components in similar numbers. Everything was stamped, pressed, drilled and tapped, spot welded and turned in its own machine shops, and there was a self-contained plating department and tool room. Bird's "boffins" even built their own Wobbulator, which was a television station simulator transmitting signals, over a closed circuit, on all the proposed frequencies likely to be used, either here or abroad.
The new Industrial Nurse was a bit of an "odd" lady. The first thing she did when she took up her post was to make herself a cloak which she wore on her rounds every morning, and she spent much time talking to some of the ladies. Men very much enjoyed working in this female environment, and she probably did too.
Sydney S Bird marketed all its electrical equipment under the "CYLDON" trademark. This name was dreamed up by Bird's sister-in-law, and was an amalgamation of two of his son's names, Cyril and Donald. Cyril died at a fairly-young age, and the company was run by Donald and Cyril's son, also called Cyril, who eventually married a local girl and set up a boat-hire company and moved to the Mediterranean. An elder brother, Sydney, is thought to have gone out to Australia in the early 1950s to set up a similar company.
Morphy-Richards' Cyldon" door chimes are something you might remember. They were two long chromed tubes of unequal length, and I can well remember a friend having a set in their hall when I was quite small. Mr Richards of Morphy-Richards used to be the sales manager for Sydney S Bird. On the outside of the factory, a huge "Cyldon" sign was fixed to the wall.
Other products produced by the company included cine reels up to 35mm and recording spools. All toys were sold under the "Vulcan" trade mark. It is unknown how long the "Dumpy" model was made, but it was eventually replaced the "Featherweight" which was available through Brown Brothers' catalogues in 1956. Strangely, although the picture showed the model, the description was again of the dumpy model, this time priced at 34/-d (1.70). Sewing-machine needs for the featherweight were 4/6d (22.5p) per dozen.
The mechanisms were almost the same as the two previous models, utilising the same toothed drive t the hand wheel, but the feed dog is a different shape entirely. The mosaic castings were either bought in or made in-house, depending on who I spoke to, but painting and plating were done at the factory. Sewing machines were made all year round, and production was particularly busy during the run up to Christmas.
One employee, Peggy, will remember her time there with some embarrassment. She went to the loo one day, flushed the toilet, and managed to pull the cistern off the wall and on to her head, knocking herself out.
The next range of sewing machines was designed entirely in-house, and if the "Senior" model is anything to go by, it was patented in 1956. In fact the "Bournemouth Echo" of 19 February 1957 says that the company was concentrating on producing three models of sewing machine in the toy department that year. They were designed to take the standard Singer needle, although Vulcan needles were still sold as such in 1959 for 4/6d a dozen.
Brown Brothers' catalogue for that year show pictures of only two out of the three machines available. The "Junior' retailed at 31/3d (1.56), the "Minor" 23/3d (1.66), and the "Senior" at 41/-d (2.05).
Comparing the "Senior" with the previous " Featherweight" model, we can see that the overarm castings are identical, the only modifications to this being the addition of three raised lines and the "Vulcan, Made in England" script, which matches that on the "Junior" and "Minor". The sewing mechanism is, however, common to all three.
According to the electoral roll, Sydney S Bird was living at 15 Pinebeach Court, Pinecliffe Road, in Poole in 1956, which must have been a very exclusive place to live, and probably had beautiful views cross Poole Bay to Studland and the Isle of Purbeck one way, and the Needles and the isle of Wight the only. Only an assumption, of course, not yet having gone to look at this address, for at No.2 lived a couple who were unlikely to have lived anywhere ordinary - Sir Bernard and Lady Norah Docker - he of BSA and she of the gold-plated Rolls-Royce.
Bird did not appear in the electoral roll of 1959, and as he would have been getting on a bit by now, I think we can take it that the manufacturer went to meet his maker.
Eventually Sydney S Bird became a public company, and about 1962 the company merged to become Astaron-Bird, a holding company comprising three firms: Sydney S Bird, Astaron Electronics and Morthan Ltd in 1964.
Bird's was the first firm to produce the 625-line TV tuner, and also made trimmers, variable capacitors and permeability tuners. It was also famous for producing electronic organs loved by teenagers and beat groups of the time, and these were also played in churches, theatres and other places of entertainment. One was called the Kentucky organ, as it was invented by Ken Tuck.
A new amplifier range was launched in 1965, plus two new organs. One was futuristic and for professionals, the other for home use, called somewhat unimaginatively the "Home Bird". Astaron Electrics concentrated on its new radar, called Raymarc, and echo sounders which were being fitted to trawlers and ships all over the word. Secret government work was also art of its remit.
The Morthan company continued to make the children's sewing machines, selling many thousands in this country and abroad, and were distributed by A L Reese who was based in Swansea and Cardiff, I Wales. There was always competition in the children's sewing-machine market from "Little Betty" machines, and although of inferior quality, they did affect sales because they were so cheap. However, such was the success of this small group of companies, that it now employed 1,500 .
By 1966 the company had started to make car radios, and it seems likely that these were either sold as Motorola or Radiomobile, and during the preceding two years had developed its ship-to-shore communications and marine radar. Echo sounders were now an affordable 35, instead of around 200, and an output of 2,500-3,000 was being made every week.
I have been unable to find out any manufacturing dates for the next range of machines, the "Countess" and the battery-operated "Classic", but would suggest that they were made from the early to mid-1960s until the end of the decade. However, I do remember when I was five or six having a burgundy-coloured "Countess", so they must have been around in 1963/4.
They were probably discontinued when Astaron-Bird was taken over in the early 1970s by the Brocks group of companies, who was well known for its alarms.
In June 1979 a British Safety Council award was made for achieving a lower-than-average rate of accidents at the factory. A week later, though, whether by bad management, the recession or competition for its products, the fortunes of the company took a downturn. By 1979 total staff of the company was down to 600, a fall of 900 in 14 years, and in March 1980 a token walkout by 300 people against proposed redundancies was made.
The Bournemouth Evening Echo at the time stated that Brocks exported 80%, 4 million-worth, of its goods. By now, A L Reese, the sewing-machine distributor, had gone bust, no doubt owing Brocks money, and as a result share prices dropped. In June 1980, 200 workers were finally made redundant, leaving 370, due to competition from the Far East, high-interest rates and poor foreign-exchange rates. Since the redundancies were announced, the group had diversified into video-display equipment, which projected life-like images from a TV, video cassette or camera, and could be used to promote sales of records with full-size video shows of pop stars.
Turnover in the company was around 6.5 million, most of which was generated at the Poole site, and exports were 2.5 million. A new subsidiary was set up at this time, called Brocks dynamics, which had an option to buy, in 1981, an equity interest in Ling Electronics Inc of California, USA, the word's leading designer of vibration test equipment.
The Brocks group continued to make marine navigation and environmental test equipment, as well as in-car entertainment, which reminds me of another little anecdote.
One of the group consultants was a bit of a one for the ladies and often used to ask the odd unsuspecting (or willing) lady out to his car for a quick smoke (?). some of the electrical whizz kids thought they'd have a laugh and wired up the back seat of his car so that whenever anyone got in it, they received an electric shock. He eventually became famous as a Conservative MP who was returned to Parliament with the biggest-ever majority recorded. I'm not mentioning any names!
By October 1980 a one-day week for the machine shop had been introduced and a three-day week for assembly workers and admin staff. The American market had collapsed.
On 3 March 1981 the receivers were called in after a 3 million property deal fell through. The company was reportedly in debt to the tune of 12 million. Shares fell sharply and were suspended on the cock market at 17p. The remaining 160 jobs were at risk, although trading was allowed to continue, but in May another 100 people were sacked to leave just a slim-line 170.
The order book remained "healthy" and the future looked "rosy" with orders for navigational and communication equipment being received from Germany, South America, Australia and others. Of the Brocks group only Seafarer Navigation International remained on part of the 152,000 square-feet site worth 4 million, and this was to be sold by Goadsby & Harding. In October another 64 people found themselves without a job, but rescue was at hand.
Mike Sykes of Brooks and Bob Spink, formerly a Brocks consultant and how of Seafarer, bought a 70% interest in the company with County Bank, the merchant banking arm of the National Westminster bank owning the remainder. The new company was to be called Seafarer Navigation International Ltd, and with the sale of the factory site to the Horstmann Gear Group, moved an and went from strength to strength.
Somewhere near the end of all this the American company, Standard Communications, bought the concern and wished it handn't. Although this information came from Mr Stevens, no reference seems to have been made in the newspapers.
It was all over the group in 1981 but the Vulcan sewing machine had seen its demise around 10 years earlier. It is fondly remembered by many of the staff that I spoke to, and many have the odd one tucked away in the attic. They all said how much they enjoyed working for Sydney S Bird, but no-one commented on how they liked the later company.
Even Little Betty machines would appear to have gone the way of their rivals Vulcan, and I don't recall seeing anything made today that approaches the quality of the old machines.
Well, that's the story as I found and heard it. There are bound to be some inaccuracies and a bit more research is needed, but I think I've swallowed the hook and am looking forward to more digging about.
I've still got two models to find to complete my collection, a Minor and a Regal, although I'll need to double the collection to take in all the variations.
Still, you can't beat a bit of exercise on a Sunday morning ...