William Mather at age 21William Mather and the early years of the business ...

The entry of William Wilkinson Platt into the partnership coincided with the withdrawal of Colin’s brother William, who had been associated with him since the 1830s. William had been more interested in public life and politics than in engineering and at the time of his death in 1858, he had few business interests. However, as a result of domestic circumstances, it was William's son, also called William, later Sir William Mather, rather than Colin’s sons who was destined to play the biggest part in the subsequent development of the business in the nineteenth century.

Colin Mather had three sons, the eldest, William Penn Mather, whom after spending a few years in the family business decided to emigrate to America. The second, John Harry Mather was sent to Alsace to study tinctorial chemistry, in which the firm, as makers of dyeing machinery, had an active interest. The youngest, another Colin, spent over 40 years in the family business and in due course became a director of the Limited Company. Colin played a prominent part in the technical developments of the time and left his mark in many branches of engineering, especially that associated with the textile finishing trade.

When Colin Senior met with an accident at work and was compelled to take a less active part in the affairs of the firm, it was to William, the second son of old William that he turned. (1) and not to his own children, who were still too young to accept important positions in the business. Young William was capable, far seeing and energetic and in 1850, at the age of twelve, he had begun three strenuous years of apprenticeship in the family business. He had broadened his industrial education by spending some time in Germany and had returned at the age of eighteen to work in the family business. It is on record that his hours of work extended from 6.00 am to 6.00 p.m. and most of his evenings were spent at night school in the Mechanics Institute, which both the Mathers and the Platts had sponsored three years before.

This was learning the hard way, but it paid good dividends, for, as a result, William Mather always understood the value and dignity of manual work and the importance of establishing happy relations with his employees. As he said on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in the course of a celebration at Belle Vue, he had “always loved working men from his youth”. Because he knew so much of them in his early life, he had “a profound respect for the honest, diligent, earnest, working man”. (2)

In 1858, the year when his father died, William was made assistant manager at the Salford Iron Works. Five years later he was taken into partnership with Colin Mather and William Wilkinson Platt and the occasion was marked by a celebration at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. All employees were given half a day’s holiday and invited to attend a social gathering, the first of many similar functions given by the firm. The programme included a characteristically Victorian meal and a feast of speech making and dancing. (3)John Platt, son of William Wilkinson Platt

Young William Mather represented a new generation, wider in its interests and more cultivated in its tastes, than the generation of pioneers who first saw the possibilities of advancement in the world of machines and factories. It was fitting that for a time he should be the sole figure on the stage of the story of the firm. Colin Mather retired soon after 1863 and William Wilkinson Platt in 1872. William Mather was thus left in sole control between 1872 and 1878 when he took into partnership young John Platt, the son of W.W. Platt. The men of the new partnership were different from those in 1852, representative of a changed age, about which we know more and of which we can find out more if we try. Indeed, we have numerous photographs, diaries, records and outside observers’ comments to help us. Of John Platt, who had served his apprenticeship at Hulses’ machine tool makers in Salford and who died in 1927 at the age of 79, we have fewer records. So far as can be traced from available documents, he spent much of his time travelling in search of business and frequently visited Italy, Austria, Germany and Russia. A study of old order books indicates that as a result of his efforts in these countries, he left a definite imprint in the commercial history of the concern.

Between the beginning of the 1870s and the end of the nineteenth century, the firm was expanding rapidly, both in the size of its plant and the scope of its operations. In 1873, adjacent property in Deal Street, known as Drinkwater’s Mill and the whole of Foundry Street were taken over. This increased accommodation provided new offices, a lodgeman’s house, stores, pattern and joiners shops and a light fitting shop and the number of employees increase to about 600. From 1888 onwards, land was being acquired from the Salford Corporation. In 1894 agreement was reached concerning the closing of a portion of Union Street in order that the area covered by the street and two rows of cottages, could be absorbed into the Salford Iron Works, thus providing space for a fine erecting shop and new offices. The new erecting shop soon became know as “Klondyke” as it was being erected about the time when gold was discovered at Klondyke in Alaska. The men working in the building through the winter felt that the term was a bright and apt one. “Klondyke” was more up to date than the rest of the buildings, but it marked the effective limit to the expansion of the Salford Iron Works site. In order to expand further the firm had to look outside, just as William and Colin Mather had looked across the way from Brown Street nearly fifty years earlier.

As the firm expanded in size the partners had another problem to face, should it remain a partnership or be turned into a limited company? The Limited Liability Act of 1862 had codified previous legislation, but the limited liability Company had not yet become dominant or even a representative type of business organisation. However, between 1889 and 1891, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of changeovers from family businesses to limited liability companies, particularly in the north of England, and the question arose as to whether the partnership of Mather & Platt should follow the fashion. William Mather’s son-in-law, John Petro, (4) who had been making a close study of the Companies Acts, discussed the idea with his father-in-law, who was at that time much opposed to the changeover.

This opposition was based on interesting, but at that time fairly commonly held grounds among family industrialists, he said that he could not part with what was “his creation” and that “the works would always remain the private property of the partners”. He thought that enterprise would not be fostered nor advancement made under the control of a board of directors; and that the personal element would depart from the Works. (5)

This opposition was gradually overcome; indeed the roots of it had in fact been cut away before William Mather expressed himself so strongly. In 1888, Dowson and Taylor, a firm which had been installing automatic sprinklers, the selling rights of which Mather had acquired from Frederick Grinnell in 1883, was turned into a private limited company with William Mather as Chairman and his partner John Platt as one of the directors. The Dowson and Taylor firm, which had moved from Bolton to Blackfriars, Salford, had for some years been interested in fire-fighting devices and by this time was acting as sub-licensee of the Grinnell patent. The success of this venture was calculated to make William Mather less sceptical in considering a general changeover in the status of the Mather & Platt partnership.

In 1892, he agreed to form Mather & Platt into a private limited company with a capital of 40,000. The first directors were, William Mather, John Platt, Dr. Edward Hopkinson, who had managed the Electrical Department since its foundation, and Hardman Earle, who was also connected with the Electrical Department. The funds of the company were increased by the private issue of mortgage debentures to members of the family. So certain were the directors that there would be no change in the constitution of the private company, that these debentures were issued as “irredeemable” and a “first charge on the works”.

At this stage it is necessary to consider in detail the Dowson-Taylor partnership, to which brief reference has already been made, and which later amalgamated with Mather & Platt - and to consider, too, the evolution of Fire Protection in America as developed through Frederick Grinnell and his companies.

(1)         The first son, also called Colin, died in 1857.
(2)         Quoted by Sir John Wormald in "The Sprinkler Bulletin" July 1908.
(3)         L.E. Mather, Sir William Mather, p.14.
(4)         John Petro married William Mather's daughter, Alice, in 1891.
(5)         A statement of John Petro, quoted by L.E. Mather, Sir William Mather, p.21.