The Story of Dowson, Taylor & Co.
Fire Engineers
Ralph Dowson and John Taylor formed the original partnership - and later, company - which provided the future public company, Mather & Platt Ltd., with the basis of one of its most innovative and successful departments - the Fire Engineering Department.

The early enterprise and dogged determination of these two men brought about the eventual restructuring of the Mather & Platt parnership and, as a result, the core business of the new company was modified to exploit the rapidly growing demand for fire fighting and protection equipment on a global basis.

On leaving school, John Taylor joined the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company at Bolton and in the evenings, studied shorthand and other commercial subjects in order to fit himself for office work. He soon discovered that life in the office of the Railway Company had little to offer to one of an adventurous outlook, so he obtained a position in the works of the Bolton Chemical Fire Extinguisher Company. Here he had his first real encounter with that stirring element “fire” and here he found adventure in plenty for he soon discovered that he was working in a sinking ship. Sales were not enough to keep the place going, the firm was losing money and it could not pay its way.

The lessons he learned from its failure helped to develop an acute commercial sense which was such an asset to him and to the Company in later life. Many young men would have lost heart when they saw the firm they worked for sinking and would have sought a safe job elsewhere. Not so John Taylor and a young colleague named Ralph Dowson who enjoyed his confidence and with whom he was prepared to embark on a business career.

These two enterprising and energetic young men, confident in their own ability and possessing a great capacity for hard work, decided to strike out on their own at an age when most of today’s engineers are still serving their apprenticeship. In 1883, Dowson and Taylor started their own firm, in Bolton, under the title “Dowson and Taylor, Fire Engineers”. Thus began a partnership which was to play a great rôle in the future of Mather & Platt Limited.

The title “Fire Engineers” which Dowson and Taylor adopted was indicative of a new attitude towards that enemy of civilisation “Fire”. It told of the resolve of engineering science to place its resources at the service of a crusade which has since saved the world untold damage and many millions of pounds. John Taylor brought to this early venture the great qualities of the self-made Lancashire man, hard headed business sense, a determination to get the best out of himself and those about him and great energy.

The first aim of the new firm was the perfecting and marketing of a Chemical Fire Extinguisher called the “Simplex”. It held five or six gallons of liquid, weighed about eighty pounds and was carried on the back as a soldier carried his pack. In 1884 it was awarded a medal at an International Exhibition in London and was soon installed in royal palaces, railway stations and public buildings. Taylor's Variable Pressure Alarm Valve

Taylor's Variable Pressure Alarm Valve

"The Simplex was a sealed or non-valve device of the Parmelee type, though much more sensitive in its operation, and had the great advantage of being placed on the market in conjunction with the well-known Variable Pressure Alarm Valve invented by Mr. John Taylor.

This valve is operated by the flow of the water, and is constructed so as to prevent false alarms being given by any variations of pressure in the main supply pipes.

When the water pressure has achieved an equilibrium above and below the valve, the clack, which is of differential area, drops by its own weight upon a seating on which is grooved an annular chamber with an outlet pipe to a small water motor, to the spindle of which are attached revolving hammers that strike a loud-sounding gong.

In practice the opening of a Sprinkler Head reduced the pressure above the valve, which is lifted by the upward flow from the main supplies, and so long as this continues, water passes to the motor and the gong sounds a continuous alarm. In the clack of the valve there is a small compensating valve which takes up any violent fluctuation of pressure without lifting the Valve itself, thus obviating false alarms.

Next to Mr. Grinnell's invention (sprinklers) this ingenious valve of Mr. Taylor's remains the most important advance in the development and practice of Automatic Fire Extinction. Previously there was nothing better than a rude and clumsy clockwork arrangement consisting of a cord wound round a drum with a weight attached which, when released, caused a hammer to strike a gong just as in an 8-day clock. When the weight reached the ground the alarm ceased. Mr. Taylor's new Valve was speedily adopted by Mr Grinnell himself and applied all over America. It is still an integral part of every Sprinkler Installation.

The patent rights covering John Taylor's Alarm Valve were later granted to the Grinnell Corporation in America, and his alarm valve continued in use into the modern era."Henry S. Parmelee (often found written 'Parmalee'.

Following this early success, the next stop was to produce a more portable machine and it was not long before the well-known “2 gallon Simplex” extinguisher made its appearance. The “Simplex” Chemical Extinguisher is still recognised as an efficient hand appliance with which to fight small fires.

Some of the secrets of John Taylor's success have been attributed to “his swiftness to learn from others; his ability to pounce upon a new idea and his eager eye for anything which might further his life’s work”.

Thus, in 1881 when Bolton received a visit from an American fire-fighting enthusiast named George Parmelee, John Taylor had been quick to see the possibilities of the automatic sprinkler. Parmelee was out to market an automatic fire extinguisher. Automatic! Here was a word to fire John Taylor’s mind. Some fire engineers ridiculed the idea, but Bolton was ready to learn. The Corporation allowed Parmelee to build a shed in the Wholesale Market ground for the purpose of giving practical demonstrations.

According to eyewitness accounts, as published at the time, the demonstrations made a great impression on all present, but some months later Mr. Parmelee - whose brother, Henry Parmelee, had invented the original system in America - decided upon a more thorough test, under conditions approximating to a Cotton spinning mill. He adopted the bold policy of hiring the Spa Mill in Bolton, an old cotton-spinning factory of non-fireproof construction, five storeys in height, with wooden boarded floors, which were saturated with the oil of fifty years work.

The building was fired on 22 March 1882. The fire was extinguished in a short time and the demonstration was a marked success. It made a profound impression on the large and influential company present; but another result - and one of more importance to this story - is that John Taylor, who was one of the eager spectators at the initial demonstration, had already been charged with enthusiasm and had decided that he would one day perfect a sprinkler of his own. Sir William Mather - ChairmanThus it came about that before long, Lancashire cotton mills were installing the “Simplex” Automatic Sprinkler, designed and manufactured by the firm of Dowson and Taylor.

It was about two years after Parmelee had given his first sprinkler demonstration, in Bolton that William Mather made the visit to America (see details elsewhere) and brought back from the United States, the world selling rights, apart from North America, for an automatic Sprinkler called “Grinnell”. No sooner had John Taylor studied the mechanism of the “Grinnell” head and seen it tested under fire conditions, that he knew this to be the best sprinkler head yet invented. John WormaldWith typical forthright resolution, he cut out sentiment, jettisoned his own sprinkler head and henceforth installed “Grinnell” heads, which he bought from Mather & Platt.

Mather & Platt themselves had achieved little success in marketing and installing the Grinnell; account books of the period demonstrate as much with evidence of losses as a result of their trying to expand in this area. On the other hand, Dowson and Taylor had prepared the ground well and had grown their reputation as 'Fire Engineers" - and, in buying the product from Mather & Platt, were achieving on the back of their own reputation, considerable success. With the additional support of a new partner, John Wormald, the marketing strategies of Dowson and Taylor outstripped anything that Mather & Platt could achieve on their own.

John Wormald's experience in the insurance business (detailed elsewhere on this site) made him an invaluable exponent of fire protection and his knowledge, contacts and vision enabled Dowson and Taylor to make huge advances. William Mather understood the strength of the Dowson, Taylor, Wormald team and, in recognition of their potential as much as a means to further his American acquisition, he alligned himself more closely with Dowson and Taylor.

Events moved quickly during the next few years and in order to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding business, Dowson and Taylor was made into a limited company, Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd., with Ralph Dowson and John Taylor - joined by John Wormald as Managing Directors and William Mather as Chairman.

Although John Taylor had been quick to realise the potential value of the Automatic Sprinkler System in the cotton mills of Lancashire, and although he obtained approval for his own automatic device, the reluctance of mill owners to spend money on equipment to extinguish fires was a big obstacle to progress. Only some financial encouragement from Insurance Companies could bring about the necessary change in their attitude. What John Taylor had in mind, a bonus or rebate on fire insurance premiums, did not appear to be in the interests of local insurance officials. Their income depended on turnover and turnover meant increasing rather then bringing about a decrease in the premium paid for fire insurance. Greater fire losses in a given industry meant higher premiums to be paid by the insured within that industry. If higher losses in an industry meant an increase in premiums and greater commission for the ‘agent’ what did it matter?

The new outlook necessary to counter this attitude and to ensure the general acceptance of the principle of rebate on insurance premiums as an inducement to install automatic sprinklers found one keen advocate in the person of John Wormald. As a young insurance official interested in cutting fire losses, he had witnessed Parmelee’s sprinkler demonstration in Bolton and had since taken a prominent part in exploring the possibilities of sprinkler protection.

John Wormald realised that financial success for the Insurance companies depended not on total premiums received, but on the difference between premiums and claims met. It was sound business to make a big cut in the total amount paid out, to cover fire losses, in return for conceding a reduction in premiums received. He saw plainly that if he could make a big cut in the amount paid out in respect of fire losses by the simple expedient of offering attractive rebate on the premium normally paid, the net result would be a considerable gain for the Insurance Company. He communicated his enthusiasm to others in the insurance world until, in a few years, this principle was firmly established.

Thus, while still a young man, John Taylor had proved his capacity for big business by joining forces with men like Dowson and Wormald who would work hard with him to build up the business in which they were engaged. Typical of the man was the advertisement, which first brought into service of the firm a boy who was later to become Secretary to the Company. It was brief and very much to the point, “Wanted, Office Boy, not afraid of hard work and with his head screwed on the right way”. There was no demand for matriculation standard; and not even a promise of a bright future in an age of golden opportunities, for John Taylor always held that hard work brought its own reward. How hard the three Managing Directors worked in the early days of Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd, can best be judged by the achievements of the first ten years.

Once the big Insurance Companies had accepted the principle of allowing rebates on insurance premiums in respect of buildings protected by automatic sprinklers, and the efficiency of Grinnell Installations had been established by their satisfactory performance in extinguishing numerous mill fires, the future was assured. It was merely a matter of time before the cotton mills and warehouses of Lancashire were fitted with sprinklers as a matter of course.

Some men might have been content to reap the local harvest, not so John Taylor and his colleagues on the board of Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd. They lost no time in planning to cultivate a wider field and the minute books, covering their first twelve months as a limited company, contain references to the activities for negotiating business in the Metropolitan district; to the appointment of Resident Managers for Scotland and Ireland; to the establishment of branch offices in London and many provincial centres; to negotiations for agencies to cover special industries in the British Isles; to the completion of agency agreements to take the “Grinnell” system to France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and India as well as arrangements to stage demonstration fires in London for Press, Insurance Officials and leaders in Industry. Quite ambitious programmes for one year for a company still in its infancy!Martin Cox

In view of William Mather’s business connections with Russia, it is not surprising to find that he was instrumental in bringing the “Grinnell” system to the notice of his many friends in that country. He sent John Wormald to Russia and he secured concessions from the Russian Insurance Companies, with the result that automatic sprinklers were soon installed there on a big scale. During his early years as Chairman of Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd., William Mather himself watched over the interests of the new company on the occasion of his annual visits to Russia, but as “Grinnell” business expanded in that country, it became a full time job. Accordingly, John Wormald himself took charge of the business and in due course arranged for a branch to be opened in Moscow under the supervision of Martin Cox, who later became a Director of Mather & Platt Limited. As a means of cementing the connection and studying the technical problems of the country, John Taylor himslf also spent some months each winter in Russian mills for many years.

One of the most important events of this period was the completion of an agreement in 1890 under which “Grinnell” Sprinkler heads which, under the terms of the original arrangement with Frederick Grinnell, had been imported from America, were in future to be made in England by Dowson Taylor & Co.Ltd.

For some years the story of Dowson Taylor & Co, was one of uninterrupted success but in 1896, the Company suffered its first great loss. This was the death of Ralph Dowson, (see his obituary linked above) who fell ill and died in Bombay, whither he had gone while on a ‘tour to further his company’s business interests in India'.

From this point until the Company went into voluntary liquidation in order to join Mather & Platt Ltd., the destinies of Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd., were in the hands of John Taylor and John Wormald as joint Managing Directors. This was a great combination and each man made an outstanding success of work in his own sphere: John Taylor, the engineer, carried the responsibility for the works production policy and all technical and commercial administration. John Wormald, from his headquarters in London, devoted his tremendous energy to formulating and. carrying out an aggressive sales policy at home and overseas. Much of the success of Dowson, Taylor and Co. Ltd., was due to the ability of each in his own sphere and to the fact that each concentrated on his own work. There was no overlapping and in all phases of their business dealings each manifested supreme confidence in the other. Later they carried this same principle into good effect in administering the business of Mather & Platt Ltd., of which company they were destined to become managing directors.

Thus, it is John Taylor who must be regarded as the father of the Fire Engineering Department at Mather & Platt and it is to the Taylor family - the father, his son and his grandson - that the 20th Century expansion, with attendant successes for the Fire Department, must be attributed. The Taylors, as may be seen by Mather & Platt Ltd.'s own article, "The Taylors of "D", were always at the helm of this important and most enduring facet of the company's business.

The Taylors of 'D' To the article, "The Taylors of "D"