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The Early Years

When Appleby Bros, for whom Henry Coles had worked since 1872, left Southwark in 1878, they vacated a factory in Emerson Street and a rather smaller workshop round the corner at 8 Sumner Street. It was this work- shop (later re-numbered 89 Sumner Street) which Henry Coles took over in the following year.

 

Like his mentor, C. J. Appleby, Henry Coles was a versatile general engineer. Although he later came to specialise in cranes, to begin with he made a wide variety of equipment. Sumner Street was close to Clink Street. Here was sited the old city jail hence the slang term for prison became `clink' and it is part of the folklore of the Coles history that, in addition to equipment for honest businessmen, the company also made hard labour machines for use in `the clink'. Exactly what these machines were is not clear, but the order books for the late 1880s indicate a regular trade between Coles and the Home Office.

 

For details of what other products Coles made during those years it is necessary to rely upon the one or two order books which have survived together with a couple of catalogues, advertisements (from 1887 onwards) and a few stories in the trade press. For many years now, it has been accepted within the Coles organisation that the first crane was the fully slewing, rail-mounted grabbing crane shown on page 19. In fact, this was one of several similar machines sold to Glasgow Corporation Gas Works in 1895. A similar crane, but rigged for hook operation, was supplied during the 1880s to the Jersey Harbour Board.

 

Whether or not this was the first crane, it is clear that the Jersey/Glasgow design was quite outstanding for its time. An article in Engineering of August 1895, concerning the Glasgow Gas Works installation, is glowing in its description. The `extremely simple and direct manner' of transmitting the crane motions and `the small amount of gearing required' offer ad- vantages unique to this maker's cranes'. Technical journals of the day were not inclined to throw praise about, so this article speaks volumes for the Coles machine. As with all Coles rail cranes of the time, these machines had a single superstructure bedplate casting, an unusual and far reaching innovation. In addition, the grabbing crane (at Glasgow) had a patented live roller slewing race.

 

The catalogues for the period also show evidence that Coles looked beyond steam the essence of Victorian power for the motive force for his cranes. The 1895 catalogue lists hydraulic and electric cranes on the front cover. Inside, there is no mention of the latter, but an engraving does appear of a rail mounted hydraulic crane. This machine was literally hydraulic that is to say, water driven and was designed to take its power from water standpipes at the side of the track. It was offered in a variety of sizes. Hydraulic power was not new fixed base water driven cranes had been installed in Newcastle docks as early as 1847 although Coles appear to have been the first to suggest rail-mounting. It is not known whether he sold any of this type. He did, however, install three fixed base hydraulics at Woolwich Arsenal in x886, which installation warranted a full page article in The Engineer.When Appleby Bros, for whom Henry Coles had worked since 1872, left Southwark in 1878, they vacated a factory in Emerson Street and a rather smaller workshop round the corner at 8 Sumner Street. It was this work- shop (later re-numbered 89 Sumner Street) which Henry Coles took over in the following year.

 

Like his mentor, C. J. Appleby, Henry Coles was a versatile general engineer. Although he later came to specialise in cranes, to begin with he made a wide variety of equipment. Sumner Street was close to Clink Street. Here was sited the old city jail hence the slang term for prison became `clink' and it is part of the folklore of the Coles history that, in addition to equipment for honest businessmen, the company also made hard labour machines for use in `the clink'. Exactly what these machines were is not clear, but the order books for the late 1880s indicate a regular trade between Coles and the Home Office.

 

For details of what other products Coles made during those years it is necessary to rely upon the one or two order books which have survived together with a couple of catalogues, advertisements (from 1887 onwards) and a few stories in the trade press. For many years now, it has been accepted within the Coles organisation that the first crane was the fully slewing, rail-mounted grabbing crane shown on page 19. In fact, this was one of several similar machines sold to Glasgow Corporation Gas Works in 1895. A similar crane, but rigged for hook operation, was supplied during the 1880s to the Jersey Harbour Board.

 

Whether or not this was the first crane, it is clear that the Jersey/Glasgow design was quite outstanding for its time. An article in Engineering of August 1895, concerning the Glasgow Gas Works installation, is glowing in its description. The `extremely simple and direct manner' of transmitting the crane motions and `the small amount of gearing required' offer ad- vantages unique to this maker's cranes'. Technical journals of the day were not inclined to throw praise about, so this article speaks volumes for the Coles machine. As with all Coles rail cranes of the time, these machines had a single superstructure bedplate casting, an unusual and far reaching innovation. In addition, the grabbing crane (at Glasgow) had a patented live roller slewing race.

 

The catalogues for the period also show evidence that Coles looked beyond steam the essence of Victorian power for the motive force for his cranes. The 1895 catalogue lists hydraulic and electric cranes on the front cover. Inside, there is no mention of the latter, but an engraving does appear of a rail mounted hydraulic crane. This machine was literally hydraulic that is to say, water driven and was designed to take its power from water standpipes at the side of the track. It was offered in a variety of sizes. Hydraulic power was not new fixed base water driven cranes had been installed in Newcastle docks as early as 1847 although Coles appear to have been the first to suggest rail-mounting. It is not known whether he sold any of this type. He did, however, install three fixed base hydraulics at Woolwich Arsenal in x886, which installation warranted a full page article in The Engineer.In addition to the rail cranes, the early publicity material refers in some detail to overhead, Goliath and fixed based cranes, as well as to excavators, grabs, rock drills and compressors. Coles owned the rights to two excavator systems. Système Couvreux, devised by French engineers Couvreux and Bourdon, was used on the Suez and Panama canals, as well as on other major sea excavations. The equipment used a chain of buckets to cut excavations and make embankments in one operation. The second type of equipment was the Gatmell excavator `originally devised by the late Mr. Gatmell for sinking cylinders on the Empress Bridge over the River Sutlej' according to the catalogue. What success Coles had with his excavators is not recorded. He may well have sold some, although by the time he started his business, the great age of canal construction was past, and the need for such equipment was quite limited.

 

He did sell at least one Goliath crane, an event which was covered in a long article in Engineering. The machine, which was clearly a one off, was used in harbour construction in one of the Greek islands. In his earliest catalogue (dated c. 1887) Coles offers similar machines for £550; it seems there were few takers, since Goliath cranes do not appear in the second catalogue (c. 1894).

 

By the 1890s, the order books indicate that rail cranes were taking pride of place in the company's output (although grabs sold until the 1920S and overhead cranes until after the Second World War). An average of 15 20 rail cranes a year were made, mainly in the 2 TO ton range (although one 15 tonner was sold in 1894) and with usually more than ~o per cent going overseas. Customers ranged as far apart as Milford Haven, Glasgow, Riga, Vladikavkaz, China and Rotterdam.

The orders were obtained without a sales force, although judging by his later performance Walter Coles seems to have done some travelling. Henry Coles' passport shows that he visited Portugal on business in i888, and this seems to have been his only trip outside the UK.

 

Of course, at this time the British influence on world trade was at its peak, and much of the contracting work was handled from London. As the company s reputation grew, so customers came to Coles for cranes, mining equipment and compressors. It was not until 1887 that the company bothered to advertise, and by that time considerable success had already been achieved.

Sumner Street is now a fairly wide thoroughfare lined with prestige offices. At that time, however, it was one of a cluster of mean streets, where dwelling houses and small workshops stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

 

Presumably the close proximity of the factory to the London Docks would have been an advantage in despatching overseas orders, but how Coles coped with the business of sending cranes to the rest of the 13K is not clear.

 

What is known is that by the mid 1890s, it was necessary to move to an area more conducive to expansion. A number of options were open, mostly centred on the industrial north and midlands. Other crane manufacturers were located at Leicester, Leeds, Manchester and other industrial centres. A site was found in Derby, and in 1898 the whole company transferred there. In consideration of the refinement of his product line (and of the affection for his roots) Coles called his new factory The London Crane Works. It was to be the home of his company for the next fifty years.

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