A History of Mather & Platt Ltd.
CHAPTER 2 - A Lancashire BusinessLink to full frames site if you have arrived on this single page.

What Art was to the ancient world”, wrote Disraeli, in his novel, 'Coningsby', “Science is to the modern: the distinctive faculty, in the minds of men, the useful has succeeded to the beautiful. Instead of the city of the Violet Crown, a Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses, yet, rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as was Athens”. (1)

When Disraeli wrote these words in 1844, Manchester was a newly incorporated town and, along with Salford, which was separate from it by an administrative rather than economic boundary, was mainly pre-occupied with the production and distribution of cotton goods. It was cotton that had transformed villages lining the banks of the Irwell into crowded workshops, “the great metropolis of machinery”. By 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, there were nearly half a million people in Manchester and Salford, where there had been only 25,000 eighty years before; at this time cotton goods made up about one third of the total value of British exports. The firm of Mather & Platt, whose history is told in this volume, was a characteristic product of the Manchester enterprise during that period of expansion.

Mather & Platt Limited grew up to cater for the demands of local industry to manufacture, in the heart of the cotton area, plant and machinery for the bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing the textile materials. The engineers who serviced the cotton industry were small men making machines by hand but between 1800 and 1850, a revolution in tools and a differentiation in workers trades, helped to shape the engineering industry on which Britains industrial supremacy was based.

Manchester was a centre of engineering as well as of cotton cloth production. It was there that Roberts, Fairbairn, Whitworth and Nasmyth applied and developed the principles of Henry Maudslay, whose automatic screw cutting lathe, built in 1800, marked the beginning of the engineering revolution. While these important developments were taking place, it is reasonable to suppose that the first Mathers and Platts of our story, were each pre-occupied with small scale production, seeking customers and exploring new techniques in the back streets of Salford. It was only after the move to Salford Iron Works in 1845, and the establishment of the partnership between the Mathers and Platts in 1852, that the first steps were taken in the evolution of the firm from a small business, mainly producing textile machinery, into an important general engineering undertaking.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when textiles were already ceasing to overshadow all other branches of British industry, the firm of Mather & Platt took over new inventions at a critical stage and extended the horizons of its enterprise. In addition to the production of textile finishing machinery, it had already manufactured steam engines, bored artesian wells and supplied the associated pumping equipment. Having provided a host of other machines for special purposes, it now acquired the rights to make machines that were to lead industry forward from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, three new important lines were developed.

In 1873, Professor Osborne-Reynolds designed a turbine pump that was to mark a definite advance in centrifugal pumping. Mather & Platt developed and improved upon this new invention and in doing so laid the foundation for what eventually became a flourishing Pump Department.

In 1883, the rights to manufacture Edison’s electric dynamo were acquired by the firm and, as a result of improvements by Dr. John Hopkinson, the Edison-Hopkinson dynamo reached a degree of perfection not previously known in such machines. This was the first stage of setting up the Electrical Engineering Department.

Finally, also in 1883, William Mather, whilst on holiday in the United States, secured the sole rights to market the Grinnell automatic sprinkler in all parts of the world except the United States and Canada. This was the event that marked the beginning of yet another side of the firm’s activities, the foundation of the Fire Engineering Division.

Events have proved that the manufacture of these new products was taken up at the right time. Technical innovation and business initiative went hand in hand. Business initiative was necessary to see the extent of the opportunity: technical invention was necessary to open up new horizons of industrial progress. Much of the basic scientific technique involved in new inventions depended upon research and experiment, often in fields of pure physics and chemistry.

The city of Manchester was as important a centre of scientific and technical research as it was of business enterprise. Reynolds, working at Owens College, was first attracted to the problems of centrifugal pumping by his philosophic interest in fluid motion. (2) Hopkinson, also educated at Owens College and Trinity College, Cambridge, was interested in the fundamental theory of magnetism as well as in the construction of dynamos. (3) For both men, Manchester was an ideal centre, but their conception of science, which Disraeli had already considered a “distinctive faculty” in 1844, was far removed from the craftsman's skill of the eighteenth century textile inventors. The applied science of the twentieth century depended upon the large-scale organisation of research, both in factories and universities, along the lines inconceivable to Disraeli when he wrote Coningsby

By learning the lessons of scientific advance and by building up a team of skilled workmen, the firm of Mather & Platt was able to become an engineering undertaking of worldwide renown. Flexible and adaptable enough to move without difficulty, after a period devoted to the mechanics of textile finishing machinery, into the age of oil and electricity. This move was made whilst maintaining its leadership in the field in which it had its origin. The production of textile finishing machinery continued and expanded but it was developed in association with new developments in industry. The firm, which grew up to serve the needs of the local manufacturers in the early phases of Manchester’s industrialisation, still claims, with pride, that it “can equip a textile print works of A to Z” in any part of the world.

(1)            Coningsby, Book IV, Chapter 1. “It is the philosopher alone who can conceive the grandeur of Manchester, and the immensity of its future. There are yet great truths to tell, if we had either the courage to announce them or the temper to receive them.”

(2)         R.W. Bailey, The Contribution of Manchester Researches to Mechanical Science, a paper read to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, June 1929.

(3)         J. Greig, John Hopkinson, 1849-1898, The Hopkinson Centenary Lecture, November 1949, printed in Engineering, 13 January 1950.

It has been suggested that it was in its pre-occupation with foreign business, that the firm of Mather & Platt evolved its enlightened attitude towards invention and research. Lancashire was the home of the firm, but the world was its market. In concerning itself with the export trade during the early part of the nineteenth century, it was typical of Manchester business as a whole. In seeking particularly adventurous overseas outlets it was exceptional, as it was also in its constant willingness to learn technical lessons from teachers in other lands.

Manchester was proud of the fact that it was the manufacturing centre of the world as well as the industrial centre of the kingdom. “Our treasures of iron and coal” wrote Henry Dunckley, in 1854, “our crystal mountain streams and convenient outlets to the ocean, could hardly have failed to render us distinguished in the annals of commerce”. If providence had never planted the cotton shrub, we would, in all probability, never have known that prodigious expansion of trade, which has distinguished the last hundred years. In that case, our exports would probably have been little more than half their present amount; our command over the productions of foreign climes would have been proportionally less. Also the magic impulse which had been felt during that period in every department of national energy, making us almost a new people, would never have been communicated. This wondrous plant had become one of the most powerful agents of civilisation and, associated with human skill, had given a broad and ineffaceable impress to the condition of the world. (1) The Manchester manufacturer had his attention drawn as naturally to the state and the problems of international trade, as, “that of the farm labourer to the state of the weather in the time of harvest”. (2)

While Mather & Platt were still engaged mainly in the production of textile machinery, and before the manufacture of the centrifugal pump and electrical machinery played an important part in their programme, they were actively engaged in developing worldwide trade. In this respect, they were pioneers even among the many business firms centred in Manchester. As a youth, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, William Mather visited France, Belgium and Germany. In 1860, under the guidance of his uncle, Colin Mather, he first visited Russia, which in later years was to play a central part in the firms expanding trade and, reflecting later upon his commercial career, he claimed “I must have spent nearly half my life there, at intervals from that time up to the end of the century”. (3)

In 1883 he first visited the United States and with bubbling enthusiasm, wrote of his stay that ”no like period was ever lived with so much mental and physical enjoyment of a high order before”. (4) Those Russian and American associations were no doubt uppermost in his mind when he christened his son, the present chairman of Mather & Platt Limited, Loris Emerson; “Loris” after Loris Melikoff, the Russian commander in Armenia in the Russian Turkish war, and “Emerson” after the American writer and philosopher.

(1)         H. Dunckley, The Charter of the Nations, an essay on the results of Free Trade to which the Council of the national Anti-corn Law League awarded its first prize (1854, pp.7-8.)

(2)         Ibid., p.13

(3)         L.E. Mather, Sir William Mather (1925), p.32.

(4)         L.E. Mather, op. Cit., p.193. Both these statements and that quoted under footnote (3) come from diaries of Sir Williams’s travels.

It should not be thought from this that William Mather was the first or only member of the original partnership to travel in Eastern Europe. From 1878, John Platt, another partner in this great enterprise, spent eleven winters in Russia, of which six months were in that part of Russia which lay two hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle. Colin Mather and his sons were also eager travellers. Colin Mather senior was one of the earliest travellers to Russia in search of business for the firm, and the younger Colin, travelled regularly and extensively in the United States and Canada. He negotiated a considerable amount of business for textile machinery in both countries, giving his personal attention to the design, erection and start-up of new plants. He would spend as much as six months of the year in the New World until the McKinlay tariffs came into force and put an end to shipments of textile machinery to America.

For the great part of its long history, the Company has provided men to go abroad under contract to supervise the erection of plant and machinery. It has also been the policy to send its apprentices outside the home country to gain experience on the erection and start-up of new plant and as a result the firm acquired an international reputation. In 1928, on completion of a round the world trip, John Taylor, at that time, Vice Chairman of the company, said “It was inspiring to learn that the name of Mather & Platt was so highly considered wherever I visited.” (1) This reputation has been maintained through all the great historical changes of the last hundred years and the Company still retains its international outlook and the travel reminiscences of directors and employees would fill a book larger than this volume.

A study of the early order books of the firm gives the same sense of a truly international undertaking. A sales book of 1866 is punctuated with recurring references to customers in Holland, Germany, Russia and the United States. Beneath one order, there is a characteristic footnote “The whole to be arranged as per plan agreed upon by Mr. William with them on the premises”. These foreign orders, which established the goodwill and prosperity of the firm, long before the days of government sponsored export drives, jostle with local orders, such as for a boiler for the Salford Union Workhouse. The blending of local and international was most aptly illustrated when the new works at Newton Heath were built round a machine shop that was originally the American machinery hall of the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

From what has been written it is clear that even in its internationalism, the firm of Mather & Platt was a child of industrial Lancashire. The career of William Mather emphasises the relationship even more. It proved impossible in international Manchester, with its high-articulated interests, to separate business and politics, commercial and public life. Behind these different activities there was felt to be an underlying unity of purpose and theme. As chairman of the Company of Mather & Platt Limited, incorporated in 1899, William Mather could survey many years of business progress. As the Manchester Guardian said of him in later years, “The claims of a great business have never detracted from the labour and devotion with which Sir William Mather was ever ready to meet those of public duty.”  (2) William Mather’s philosophy was shaped by the city in which he lived. At the age of seven he had driven all day long with his father in a large barouche at an Anti-Corn Law League demonstration and had been seated, wedged on the box seat between two large sheaves of corn. (3) Over fifty years later, as Sir William Mather, he still proclaimed himself true to the gospel of Cobden and Bright, which had made Manchester and Salford the centre of a crusade.

(1)            Proceedings of the Annual General Meeting, 29 February 1928.

(2)         The Manchester Guardian, 2 September 1913

(3)         L.E. Mather, Sir William Mather, p.246.

William Mather’s philosophy of life was far from narrow, though he strove hard for free trade and international amity, based upon the exchange of goods and services, he believed also in close relations between employer and employed founded on deeper ties than mere economic association. “Men are not doing their duty in simply making a prosperous business”, he once said, when addressing an influential Lancashire audience. “They are doing their duty in that business when, prosperity having come and means have accumulated, they determine that other people shall be helped and other institutions assisted, so as to make the world a little sweeter and happier.” (1) Making the world “a little sweeter and happier” meant recognition of duty both in international and local affairs.

William Mather’s public career as a Member of Parliament, town councillor, and member of innumerable committees, was a tribute to his public spirit. When he encouraged trade with a country, such as Russia, he acquired a personal interest in it, which made him seek to understand its international point of view honestly and without bias and to communicate that knowledge and enthusiasm to his partners and fellow directors. As an advocate both of both Anglo-Russian and Anglo-American friendship, he stood out among his contemporaries, and in his belief in the entente-cordiale with France, he won the support and friendship of all concerned with good relations between the two countries.

In local life Sir William was interested in the administrative problems caused by the artificial division of Manchester and Salford as he was in the broader questions of Alsace Lorraine or Poland. In his own workshop he saw that close relations between employers and employees were as important as close relations between the countries in the bigger workshop of the world. One of the last acts of his business career was to draft a scheme “for harmonising the interests of capital and labour”. It proclaimed that “class distinctions such as master and servant can have no party either as a definition or relationship in the future.” Long before the First World War focussed national attention on the problems of industrial relations, the firm of Mather & Platt had already evolved, under his direction, a policy based on the encouragement of technical education and the establishment of welfare services. In 1893, the firm had been one of the first to experiment with a 48-hour week and its labour policy always remained progressive and frequently pioneering in character. In 1917, when the phraseology was not very familiar, Sir William wrote to his son that he had “always had continuity and full employment before me all my life”. (2)

When Disraeli wrote about Manchester, businessmen themselves were not finding it easy to fit into an established social order in which landed interests were supreme. Many of them had built their factories as monuments to the skill and power of “their order” as much as “to obtain a return for their great investment”. (3) In Victorian times they established their position and by the 1880’s many of them were anxious also to help labour to find a new place within the social order. That labour did find such a place, smoothly and without violent jolts, was due partly to its own developing organisation and partly to the attitude of enlightened employers like Mather & Platt who, in the words of Sir William, insisted that “labour must be regarded not as distinct from but as a actual partner with the shareholders in the concern”. (4)

(1)         Sir William Mather, The Textile Industry and its Future, an Address delivered to the Annual Conference of the Textile Institute, October 1915.

(2)         Sir William Mather to Mr Loris Mather, 21 October 1917.

(3)            Coningsby, Book IV, Chapter 3.

(4)         Sir William Mather, Ways to Industrial Peace in the Nineteenth Century, February 1917

A family business in Manchester and Salford, converted into a limited company in 1899, was in a favourable position to switch over from a paternal policy in labour relations to one of closer association with the democratic age. In the Salford of the late nineteenth century, Mather’s Queen Street Institute, opened by Bishop Fraser in 1873, stood for responsible interest in the welfare of others within the framework of a local community. “We bought a lot of wretched cottages in a slum” said William Mather, “and cleared a large space on which we built the Institute”. (1) In the years since 1900, which have seen the growth of Park Works, a large factory population has inevitably lost some of the intimate ties, which existed at Salford, but a labour policy based on the same ideals has been evolved. This evolution was made to fit a changing society and it has not only prevented friction but has encouraged active co-operation. Salford was a world in itself, when local worlds still remained coherent and self-sustained, even within the framework of international commerce. One man, asked for his opinion on the story of fifty years at Park Works, replied simply, “Well you see, I was a Salford man”, as though that should explain everything, which in a way, it did. Even though times have changed, Mather & Platt Limited still remains firmly rooted to its Manchester and Salford background.

Traditionally its employees have been local men who have given long years of continuous service, in fact many of them have served the company for the whole of their working lives. The firm has been able to maintain a loyalty and cohesion which enterprises of more recent growth have not always enjoyed. Some of the workers in the firm have already seen their names pass into works legend, men like Joe Heap, Jack Greaves, Joe Mundy, Tom Roberts, George Taylor and Jim Clark. Others who have remained anonymous, helped to make the expansion of the firm possible, the early mill-wrights, working in Brown Street, Salford; the first travelling representative, touring strange lands and the broad ranks of skilled engineers. Of these it was written by a member of staff at the beginning of the twentieth century, while the Boer war was in progress,

“We’re nobody particular, no lasting fame is ours,
We’re but the parts that go to make the force that over powers,
We’re soldiers, but every one of us, with tools upon our backs,
We wage the war of commerce, but we leave no banner tracks.
We nothing know of guns or spears, we’re simply engineers,
But where the white man dares to tread, you’ll find us pioneers,
We desolate no smiling land; we raise no battle cries,
Let others fight to conquer men, we fight to civilise,” (2)

These were the men who provided the high level of technical skill without which a great engineering concern could not expand. With outstanding works managers like Edwin Buckley, who rose from the ranks of manual labour, the Company was able to draw upon the talents and resourcefulness of the Manchester and Salford neighbourhood.

The achievements of Manchester as a centre of free trade internationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century have often been appraised. Its contribution to the shaping of the twentieth century has less often been acknowledged. The leaders of the Manchester school would have been disturbed to see the way in which twentieth century wars have shattered the international society of which they dreamed. They would have hoped, like William Mather, that out of the struggles a New World would arise.

(1)         L.E. Mather, Sir William Mather, pp.93-94.

(2)            Memories, by Sea-Hay (C. Aitchison) (1899-1903).

A world free from the “idiotic waste” and “scars of war”, when “the doors and windows of bounteous nature will pour out her riches so that we shall lack the store houses to contain them”.(1) Although Mather & Platt Limited was destined to make a large and important contribution towards the war efforts of the twentieth century, William Mather’s words still express the authentic vision of Manchester.

For most part, the story of Mather & Platt is the story of the developing arts of peace, the making of the hidden machines that have helped to produce a world of vast potential plenty. Yet during the First World War, more employees of the firm were killed in the fighting than the total number of employees in the works during the middle of the nineteenth century.

The history of Mather & Platt Limited takes us back far from an age of violence and international tension deep into the “Hundred Years Peace” which followed the final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. An age of rapid economic expansion in which the firm was built up on sure foundations. In this chapter, an attempt has been made to describe the developing personality of the firm as reflected in one of the greatest characters and its close links with Manchester and Salford, the cradle of its activities.

To understand its fortunes more fully, it is necessary to turn to another chapter and there examine the origins of the partnership between Mather and Platt and the growth of the modern Company.

(1)         Sir William Mather to Lord Eversley, Christmas Day 1915.