A History of Mather & Platt Ltd.
CHAPTER 8 - Changing HorizonsLink to full frames site if you have arrived on this single page.

This book set out to tell a story, the story of a Lancashire enterprise and its transformation into a great general engineering undertaking. From small beginnings in the early nineteenth century it has become an international concern. In the course of its evolution it has acquired a distinctive character and a special reputation. The big mass producing firms of the world, with their household names, are well known to the general public. Mather & Platt Ltd has always been the servant of industry, providing quietly and efficiently the machinery without which the country’s primary and secondary industries could not function. As the industrial structure of the country has changed, there has been a steady evolution of the Company’s range of products.

The first Mather, making his rollers and simple accessories for the local bleach crofts, was in the middle of his own market. His technique was simple, but it was careful and competent. He would have been surprised to see the workshops of 1952, the crowded foreign order book and the modern office organisation. The concern has not grown suddenly in giant leaps: it has rather expanded steadily to meet the requirements of a changing world. Perhaps the crucial decisions were taken in the l870’s and 1880’s in a period that is sometimes described as a period of “great depression” in British industry. It was then that the partners and directors took strategic decisions that enabled the concern to play an important part in the shaping of the new technology of oil and electricity. But the 1870’s and 1880’s was only the beginning. It was the move to Newton Heath, a gradual move, which made possible large-scale production in the various departments of the firm.

A mass production policy was never adopted although advantage was taken of new Engineering techniques. In deciding to concentrate on production for individual orders rather than on standardised output the Company was remaining true to the business principles of the first Mathers. In deciding what new lines of production to undertake an element of risk has always been present.

Technical invention has opened up new productive possibilities but commercial success has depended upon sound judgement as much as upon science. The Company has had to decide not only what new lines of production to manufacture but also what existing lines of production to abandon. Historians and economists have sometimes drawn a distinction between “old” and “new” industries, the first set of industries representing Britain’s industrial past, and the second pointing the way to the future.

Those who have controlled the destinies of Mather & Platt Ltd have never been content with such simple distinction. They supplied a variety of needs for many trades and in turning to the manufacture of electrical engineering or fire engineering products they did not abandon but rather expanded the production of textiles and general machinery. The company’s quickness in seizing opportunities enabled it to see the technical and commercial possibilities in well established as well as in infant industries. It has thus been able to expand in many different phases of English economic history. Indeed it was out of the great depression of 1931 that the latest of the departments, the Food Machinery Department, was born.

The conditions of the world since 1945 have been difficult, but beneath the uncertainties and. conflicts of the times there are stirring many new forces, which will shape the pattern of a new industrial future. In the textiles industries the increasing range of synthetic fibres and the discovery of the new uses to which they can be put are changing not only technology but also economic organisation. The textile industries are being linked up more closely with the chemicals industries: the scale of plant is growing and. the type of machinery required is changing. In the fire engineering industry new methods are constantly being evolved to deal with complex fires that would have baffled the more fatalistic industrialists of the early nineteenth century. In food processing, discoveries in bacteriology and the nutritional sciences are making more scientific food conservation a practical possibility. Finally, overshadowing all these forces of change is the great enigma of the technology of the future and the exploitation of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

It may be that the technical changes of the next century will surpass in magnitude and significance the technical changes of the last hundred years. As a producer of essential machines Mather & Platt Ltd must always watch the changing horizons. It can never rest satisfied with the technical equipment of today. Not all the inventions of the future will be of direct interest to it for one of the secrets of its success as an enterprise has been its unwillingness to be dazzled by tempting prospects in lines of production unrelated to its existing structure. But it must scan the sky and judge at which point on the horizon there is a new opportunity to be seized.