This site is a reconstruction of an earlier version much of which was lost. It's in a very early stage at present. There's much more material to come – including many graphic images. The only article that's anywhere near finished is Tommy and Eddy. meanwhile, please be patient and visit the site later when it's more complete and presentable.
You have reached a website which my colleague Alan Gall of SDA Electronics and I are using to generate a history of the companies and people associated with the late and – by many ex-employees – genuinely lamented General Electric Company. We're currently working on the early stages of the company's history but our aim is to present a comprehensive record of the companies, people and places associated with the company from its birth in the 1880s to the day in 2002 when, after crassly being renamed Marconi and suffering a painful decline, it finally died.
If any of the logos to the right bring back fond memories or if you have any knowledge of the companies or people listed at the end of this introduction, we would welcome your input. But, I must emphasize that this is a not-for-profit exercise and that, although contributions will readily be acknowledged, there is no question of payment – unless you have something really special!.
My name is Robert Cutts. I am a 72-year-old retired engineering lecturer living in Bristol UK. After leaving school in 1955, and before starting my apprenticeship at the de Havilland Engine Company, Stag Lane, Edgware, I spent a couple of months working at the GEC. But my forebears worked for the firm for very much longer than that.
My grandfather, Arthur George Cutts, started with the company in about 1900 and was with them for over 40 years. He was a copy-clerk to the Accounts Department at the company's headquarters at Magnet House, Kingsway, London. One of his duties was to transcribe the accountants' scribbles into copperplate handwriting for presentation to the board.
Arthur's son – my father – Edgar John Cutts, joined the company in 1920 as a 14-year-old office boy just before Magnet House moved lock-stock-and-barrel from its original location in Queen Victoria Street to new, purpose built, headquarters in Kingsway. Through evening classes and correspondence courses my father broadened his education and thereby rose through the ranks to become, in 1949, Assistant Secretary under the Secretary and director Tom Kerr. He was still in that post in the late 1950’s when the company entered a period of turmoil. One of the consequences of that turmoil was the enforced departure of most of the old guard and my father was amongst those who got their cards.
The founding father of the GEC was Gustav Binswanger who later renamed himself Byng. He, along with his brother Max and their colleague Hugo Hirst, founded the firm in the late 1880's. All three were German-Jews from south-western Bavaria. Hugo had already changed his surname from Hirsch to Hirst and, some ten years later, the Binswangers followed suit by adopting the name of Byng. Though the cautious Gustav Byng was the firm's founder and provided most of its cash, the driving force for the expansion of the company was the flamboyant Hirst. That is not to say that Byng did not play a crucial steadying role in the early years. In fact, had he not restrained some of Hirst's over-ambitious schemes, the firm would undoubtedly have gone bust.
Gustav Byng was dogged by illness. He contracted tuberculosis in the late 1890s and spent long periods in sanatoriums. By 1910, aged only 55, he was dead and the reins of the company passed to Hirst. Fortunately another cautious Bavarian Jew, Max Railing, had joined the company at about the time Gustav Byng's health first began to fail. Railing was an accountant with a strong head for business. He increasingly assumed the restraining role that Byng had played in the early years of the company. Hirst, the ambitious showman and Railing, the careful accountant, together formed an ideal team. They continued to guide the fortunes of the company until the early years of the Second World War when both died.
In 1901, Max Railing was joined by his brother Adolph Harry, an
electrical engineer, who became chairman of the company after Hirst died. Max Byng left the company in 1908 as a result of a wrong- doing the exact nature of which is lost in the sands of time. He had co-written a widely-read book on telephony in 1898 and there is some evidence to suggest that he became a sort of international telephony whiz-kid. He died in 1936.
Gustav's son, Ernest Byng, joined the company in 1910. He soon became a director and remained in post until his death in 1944.
Among the young Hugo Hirsch's family in western Bavaria were his cousins were the sisters Leontine and Amanda Hirsch. Hugo and Leontine were childhood sweethearts so it was not surprising that, soon after he reached England, they married. A few years later, Max Railing married Amanda – so a family connection was forged between the two men who guided the GEC through the years from the death of Gustav Byng to the early years of WWII when first Max
Railing, and then Hugo Hirst, died.
Gustav Byng, Hugo Hirst and Max Railing built up the company from its small beginnings to a major force. By 1913 the company was secure enough to commission a grand new headquarters in Kingsway, London. WWI delayed its construction but, by 1921, it was ready. Named Magnet House, it not only served as the head office of the company but also housed its main showrooms. Members of the public went there to buy their electrical requirements from a wide range of items. In fact the GEC motto at the time was "Everything Electrical" and the company was structured in such a way that electrical items could be manufactured in-house and sold direct to customers throughout the British Empire (as it then was) through a network of branches. And each branch was housed in its own mini Magnet House.
Hirst was arguably the greatest industrialist of the first half of the 20th Century. He was widely-respected, multi- talented, colourful and, above all, a superb manager. Though born a German Jew he enthusiastically espoused the traditions, ways and even the established church of his adopted country and its Empire. During WWI he gave the war effort the GEC's highest priority. Then, and at all times, he missed no opportunity to forward the interests of his adopted country, his firm and his employees – often at the expense of the interests of his country of birth. Always interested in new ideas, after the war he set up the Hirst Research Laboratories in Wembley. Later he staved off a take-over by the American General Electric using methods that even the Stock Exchange frowned upon. But Hirst cared not a jot for what the fuddy-duddies in the Stock Exchange thought. As far as he was concerned he was keeping a great British company British. In his later life he hob-knobbed with prime ministers and lived the life of a country squire with a racing stable and a herd of prize pigs amongst his prided possessions. In 1934 he became Baron Hirst of Witton, the suburb of Birmingham where he had set up the main works of the company in the early years of the century.
When Hirst died in 1943 the question of who should succeed him arose. His only son, Harold Hugh, after serving in the army fighting against his father's country of birth, had died in 1919. Four months after Harold died, his only son, Hugh Harold, had been born. He became a keen pilot and had joined the RAF soon after the outbreak of hostilities. But, while on active service in 1941, he also died.
With both his only son and only grandson pre-deceasing him, Hirst hoped that Max Railing would take on the reigns after his death. But Max died a year before Hirst so the mantle passed to Max's younger brother. He was now plain Harry having, for understandable reasons, long since dropped his first name, Adolph. He was a gifted engineer but a less talented manager and, under his stewardship, the firm lost ground to its main rivals, AEI and English Electric.
When Harry Railing retired in 1957 the reins passed to Leslie Gamage, son of A W Gamage the founder of the Holborn store now sadly defunct. In 1919 Leslie had married Hirst's elder daughter Muriel and joined his father-in-law's firm. In his early years Gamage had served as secretary and, during Harry Railing's chairmanship he had been joint managing director with Railing. He had much of the flamboyance of his father-in-law but little of his ability to manage. Profits slumped and management consultants were called in.
One outcome of the management consultants' recommendations was the forced departure of Gamage and his replacement by Arnold Lindley. Lindley was an engineer by training. He had been with the company about as long as had my father and Gamage. Under him the firm's secretary, my father's boss, Tom Kerr was promoted to Deputy Managing Director with responsibility for finance. The secretary's post therefore became vacant. My father expected to get it but, in January 1960, one Timothy Ellis got the job. Tim was the husband of Veronica Rose, a granddaughter of Hugo Hirst through his second daughter, Irene. In fact Tim and my father got on quite well and my father held no long-term grudge. But the Ellis-Cutts partnership did not last long. In April 1961 Arnold Weinstock entered the arena and, seeing him coming, Tim Ellis left the company and, like his grandfather-in-law, taken on a pig farm. Meanwhile my father was given the job of closing all the branches. The management consultant's had seen correctly that a network of branches selling direct to the public was not appropriate to the 1960's and Weinstock was fully to endorse their recommendations. Under him not only did the branches see their nemesis but even Magnet House, Hirst's pride and joy, was sold off and later demolished. What was left of the company was completely reorganised.
A Polish Jew, Weinstock had married the daughter of Michael Sobell's whose company, Radio & Allied Industries, was making mega-money selling television sets. By 1961 Weinstock was running Radio & Allied and had hatched – or perhaps been given – the idea of making a reverse takeover of the GEC. By 1963 he had brought it off. Meanwhile my father, having completed his task of closing the branches and unenthusiastically firing their managers, my father, after 42 years service, was himself given his cards. For the rest of his life, he was bitter about the way he and his colleagues at the company had been treated – and he put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Arnold Weinstock.
But my father was wrong. A company which before his arrival had been in a parlous state went from strength to strength under Weinstock, at least in the early years of his tenure. It soon took over of AEI and merged with English Electric – which itself had recently taken over Elliott Automation, a company I had been with for three years. All these companies had themselves made acquisitions so a multitude of British companies had come together under the GEC banner. For a brief period, the company was the UK's largest. But Weinstock's early flair didn't last. Under his later stewardship, instead of investing in new projects, the company amassed a cash mountain. Like Hirst, Weinstock wanted to hand over the reins of the company to his only son. But, also like Hirst, he outlived his son. And, just as the death of his grandson in 1941 had finished Hirst, the death of Simon Weinstock from cancer in 1996 broke both his father's heart and his spirit.
The subsequent handover of power was botched and the company landed up with George Simpson of British Aerospace who decided to attach it to the dot.com bubble. He sold off parts of the company that didn't fit the dot.com concept to firms such as British Aerospace and a French company that eventually became Alstom. He sold the premises to firms like British Land. And he changed the revered GEC name to Marconi (a company that had been taken over by English Electric in 1946). The new Marconi flourished for a while – but, when the dot.com bubbled burst, Marconi itself not so much burst but fizzled out. Simpson, after being ennobled by Tony Blair in 1997, left the company in 2001. The last bit of Marconi went to Erricson in 2005.
So a great company rose and fell – and it seems to me that that idea could form the basis of a comprehensive on-line record and maybe even a book. Whether on-line or on-paper, though the record should be based on the GEC itself, it should also embrace as many as possible of the component companies that found their way into the company. Some of those companies are listed on the next page.
Companies that found their way into the GEC
Charles de Grave. Established in 1670 as a scalemaker in London and, as such, the earliest recorder constituent part of the GEC as it was in 1998. The de Grave company was taken over by W & T Avery in 1922.
Boulton & Watt. Formed in 1775. James Watt (of steam-engine fame) and Matthew Boulton (manufacturer of metallic items) came together to produce the earliest power-assisted machinery. Taken over by W & T Avery in 1895.
Avery. Founded early in the 18th century as a manufacturer of weighing machines. Took the name W & T Avery in 1818. Took over Boulton & Watt, De Grave and Oertling in 1922. Was itself taken over by the GEC in 1979. In 1993 the GEC combined it with the Dutch-based company Berkel to form Avery Berkel. In 2000 that company was sold to Weigh-Tronix, an American company but with their HQ remaining in London. In 2003 the company changed its name to Avery-Weigh-Tronix.
Robert Stephenson & Co. Formed 1823 as manufacturers of steam locomotives. Merged with Hawthorn Leslie to form Robert Stephenson and Hawthorns Ltd in 1937 and taken over by English Electric in 1955.
Dick, Kerr & Co. Another locomotive manufacturer, formed from the merger of W B Dick and John Kerr in 1883 and later taken over by English Electric.
The Marconi Company. The original company set up in 1897 by Guglielmo Marconi. In 1901 made the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. Taken over by English Electric in 1945. In 1963 English Electric and J Lyons & Co (who had developed the Leo computer) set up the jointly-owned English Electric Leo Company. In 1964, EE bought up Lyons stake and merged it with Marconi to form English Electric Leo Marconi. After GEC took over EE, it became GEC-Marconi, the defence subsidiary of the GEC. After the subsidiary was sold to British Aerospace, George Simpson resurrected the Marconi name and used as the new name of the entire General Electric Company.
William Elliott. Founded in 1803 as an instruments shop. Became William Elliott & Sons in 1850, Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd in 1916 and Elliott Automation in about 1960 after which it was taken over by English Electric.
The Robertson Lamp Co. Formed in 1893 as a joint venture between the GEC and other groups. After the WWI, an agreement was made with the German Osram company to make use their patents for the manufacture of lamps in the UK. Robertson lamps became the Osram division of the GEC. British Osram
The Express Lift Company. Formed in 1917 from origins dating back to Josiah Easton's water rams in the 1820's. At first an independent company with financial backing from the GEC. In 1928 it took over the rival company, Smith Major & Stevens. Then in 1935 it was absorbed into the GEC.
The Fraser and Chalmers Engineering Works, Erith. Manufacturers of Material Handling Equipment. Founded in 1892. Acquired by the GEC in 1918.
Woodhouse and Rawson, Queen Victoria Street, London. Manufacturers of a wide range of electrical goods. Went into liquidation in 1894. Premises and stock taken over by the GEC whose headquarters were then opposite thos of Woodhouse and Rawson.
Laing, Wharton and Down Ltd. Formed in 1886 to sell the products of the American Electric Co which became the Thompson-Houston Electric Company in 1892. The British firm became part of British Thomson-Houston Ltd (BTH) when it was formed in 1896 as a joint venture between the American Thomson-Houston (which, by then, was part of GE of America) and British and French investors. BTH joined with the British Metropolitan-Vickers (which had started as the Westinghouse Company), and smaller companies, to form the Allied Electrical Industries (AEI) in 1928.
Plessey. Formed in 1917. In the face of several attempts to take it over, it remained independent for many years. Indeed, in 1968, it had itself unsuccessfully attempted to take over English Electric. But, in 1989, it finally succumbed and most of the company found its way into the GEC.
These, and many other companies, are shown in an excellent diagram at GEC roots. Some of the other companies on the diagram are Garrard, Associated Automation, Charles Tayleur, Napier, Ruston, Hornsby, Gilbarco, Woods of Colchester, Cannon, Credenda, Simplex, W T Henley, Edison Swann and Ferranti.
The following texts have been referred to and are available, complete or partially-complete, in Google Books or the Internet Archive:
Protection; the Views of a Manufacturer. Gustav Byng (Eyre and Spottiswoode1901).
A History of the Marconi Company. W J Baker (Methuen, 1970)
Kings of Commerce. T C Bridges and H Hessel Tiltman (George G Harrap & Company, 1928).
The GEC Research Laboratories 1919-1984. Robert Clayton and Joan Algar (Peter Peregrinus Ltd, 1989)
Speculators and Patriots: Essays in Business Biography. R P T Davenport-Hines (Routledge, 1986) [includes parts of Two Autobiographical Fragments by Hugo Hirst of which I have procured the complete versions].
A company of Many Parts. A. Heerding, Derek S. Jordan (Cambridge University Press, 1988) [In two parts – the company concerned is Philips].
Ferranti and the British Electrical Industry, 1864-1930. J. F. Wilson (Manchester University Press, 1988).
A comparison of the Defense Acquisition Systems of France, Great Britain, Germany and the United States. Editor Tony Kausal (Defense Systems Management College Press, 1999).
Dudley Docker: The Life and Times of a Trade Warrior. R. P. T. Davenport-Hines (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
Form and Fancy: Factories and Factory Buildings by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939. Joan S Skinner (Liverpool University Press, 1997) [describes the construction of buildings at Witton].
Big Business: The European Experience in the Twentieth Century. Youssef Cassis (Oxford University Press, 1997).
Owen D Young and the American Enterprise. Josephine Young Case and Everett Needham Case (David R Godine, 1982).
Scale and Scope: the Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism. Alfred D Chandler Jr (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990).
Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. Priscilla Robertson (Princetown University Press, 1952)
The people speak!: anti-Semitism and emancipation in nineteenth-century Bavaria. James F. Harris. (University of Michigan Press, 1994)
The Jewish Confederates. Robert N. Rosen (University of South Carolina Press, 2000).
Other books that have been referred to include:
The Marconi Scandal. Frances Donaldson (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1922).
Forty Years of Electrical Progress: the Story of the GEC. Adam Gowans Whyte (Ernest Benn, 1930).
The GEC: its History, Structure and the Future. T W Heather (GEC, 1953)
BTH Reminiscences: Sixty years of Progress. H A Price-Hughes (British Thompson-Houston Co, 1946).
Anatomy of a Merger. Robert Jones & Oliver Merriot (Pan Books, 1970)
Take-over: the Facts and Myths of the GEC-AEI Battle. Sir Joseph Latham of the AEI (Iliffe Books, 1969)
More than Management Development: Action Learning at GEC. Edited by David Casey & David Pearce (Gower Press, 1977).
Why are the British bad at Manufacture. Karel Williams, John Williams and Dennis Thomas (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983)
The Memoirs of Lord Chandos. Oliver Lyttleton, Viscount Chandos (The Bodley Head, 1962)
European Cases in Strategic Management. John Hendry and Tony Eccles (Chapman and Hall, 1993)
Start Again Britain. Charles Villiers (Quartet Books, 1984)
Power for the World's Railways: GEC Traction and its Predecessors – 1923 to the Present Day. Rodger P Bradley (Oxford Publishing Co, 1993)
English Electric Tramcar Album. Geoff Lamb (Ian Allan Publishing, 1998)
Weinstock: the Life and Times of Britain's Premier Industrialist. Alex Brummer and Roger Cowe (HarperCollinsBusiness, 1998)
Arnold Weinstock and the Making of GEC. Stephen Aris (Aurum Press, 1997)
The Osram GEC Bulletin, June 1937 (The General Electric Company Ltd, 1937)
The Making of the Electrical Age: from the Telegraph to Automation. Harold I Sharlin (Abelard-Schuman, 1963)
Control Your Destiny or Someone Else will: how Jack Welch is making General Electric the World's most competitive company. Noel M Tichy and Stratford Sherman (Currency Doubleday, 1993)
The Politics of Bavaria – an Exception to the Rule. Peter James (Avebury, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1995).
The archives of The Times and The Daily Telegraph
Thanks are due to the following people for the help they have freely given:
Sandra Potter, great granddaughter of Hugo Hirst (for relating her memories of the Hirst family and providing photograhic material).
Jonathan Ellis, great grandson of Hugo Hirst (for relating his memories of the Hirst family).
Robert Jones and Oliver Marriot, authors of Anatomy of a Merger (for sanctioning the use of material from their book).
George Newkey-Burden (for help with procuring archive material from The Daily Telegraph).
Michael Hughes (for help with procuring archive material from the Bodleian Library, Oxford).
Dan Goldberg and Veronika Krapf (for providing genealogical information concerning the Binswanger and Hirsch families).
Nigel Horne (for relating his experiences of working with Arnold Weinstock).
Pip Maclellan and the staff of School of Law, University of Reading (for showing me round Foxhill House, the home of the Hirst Family for many years).
Ian Cutts, my son (for help with the compiling of this website).
Pauline Cutts, my long-suffering wife.
Robert Cutts, May 2009