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The Derby Years 1898 - 1948

The London Crane Works at Slack Lane, Derby, was sited on an old brick- field adjacent to the Great Northern Railway. A rail track was laid through the centre of the main workshop, connecting with a private siding to the GNR, and making transportation easier.

 

One of the advantages of Henry Coles' abilities as a general engineer was that he could develop many of his own machine tools. Thus the factory at Slack Lane was fully self contained, with its own steam engine and belt driven generator which had been built by Coles before he left Sumner Street. The factory itself was on two levels, with the main machine shops about 20 ft below road level and the pattern shops at gallery level with the general office. Above the general office were the drawing office and director's office.

 

Compared with Sumner Street, the new factory must have seemed huge. There was room to work efficiently and to expand. Moreover with 20 years experience already under their belts the Coles workforce could face the new century with confidence.

 

In 1902, the promise of electrically powered cranes foreseen in earlier catalogues came to fruition with a 2-ton rail-mounted machine which took its power from overhead cables. It was apparently a one off and it seems unlikely that more were supplied.

 

In 1907, two years after the death of the founder, tangible benefits from the larger premises were beginning to be seen. In that year, a 40-ton rail crane was developed for use in steelworks, shipbuilding yards and so on. It was quite the biggest machine the company had ever built and it is doubtful whether such cranes could have been built at Sumner Street; three were supplied during 1907 to various customers.

 

In March of the same year, the Limited Company, Henry J. Coles Limited, was formed `to carry on the business of. . . crane manufacturer lately carried on by Henry James Coles, deceased'. The company, with a capital of /J25,000, was owned by Henry J. Coles' relations with 29-year- old Harry Coles elected as chairman and the founder's widow and brother Walter as the other two directors.

 

With the founder's heirs in charge, they did in fact carry on the business exactly as Henry James Coles had done. Innovations continued to be made. Notable among these was a rail crane developed in 1913, which was powered by the newfangled internal combustion engine driving the crane motions through a chain system.

 

From the recollections of people who knew him at the time, Walter Coles seems to have been the driving force. He was a more formally trained engineer than his brother (he had attended University College, London, in 1879 80) and he travelled quite widely in Western Europe in search of orders.

 

During the First World War the company, like most engineering firms, gave over its spare capacity to munitions manufacture. There were still plenty of cranes required, however, and towards the end of the war an enquiry was issued by General Pershing's US Expeditionary Force for a fully mobile crane. Hitherto, all cranes had been rail mounted so the military request represented a considerable departure from existing practices.

 

The war ended before the matter could be taken further but the concept had sown seeds of interest in the Coles organisation. In fact, the Coles' family were not enthusiastic about the idea, believing that rail mounting was essential for stability and the job of developing the mobile crane was given to Arnold Hallsworth, then a pupil apprentice who had joined the company in 1918, and who went on to become managing director in later years.It occurred to Hallsworth that the ideal arrangement for a mobile crane would be the Tilling Stevens petrol electric solid tyred bus chassis supporting a special single motor superstructure. The crane was introduced in the latter part of 1922. It created a certain amount of interest in the trade press at the time but only a few were made. Machines were sold to the Karachi Ports Trust, to Japan and in the UK. The relative lack of success was caused partly because the world was still in the throes of a post war depression and partly because of simple resistance to what was an entirely new idea.

 

However, it was a start and during the ensuing i~ years several attempts were made to perfect the mobile crane before the EMA was developed in 1937. Some of the developments were highly ingenious. An electrically operated mobile was developed in 192S. This used large batteries which were designed to be recharged overnight. It was a cumbersome system and

only one was sold, to a company in Japan (which country was clearly a major market for the products of the time).

 

A major breakthrough came in 1928 with the development of the world's first diesel powered mobile crane. This 1+ ton capacity machine had a direct diesel mechanical drive system from a 25 h.p. engine; six were sold, again to Japan, for the Osaka Harbour Board.

 

By this time, the ownership of the company had changed hands. The founder's son Harry Coles had been killed in action in France during 1917; he was 39 and unmarried. The running of the business was then left almost entirely in the hands of Walter Joseph Coles. Arnold Hallsworth re- members watching him `walk past the drawing office windows; if he was wearing his silk top hat we knew he had been away chasing an order'. He was assisted by his brother Ernest Coles and the founder's surviving son Harold Lewis Coles. In the mid 1920s tragedy struck the family when the three men died within a year of each other. All three were bachelors and as a result the firm was left to the founder's widow and his three daughters.

 

It was clearly impossible for them to run the business and in October 1926 the share capital of the company was sold to Alfred W. Farnsworth, William Searle and William Robinson. Farnsworth was the majority shareholder. He was a consulting engineer in Derby and he could afford to spend only two or three days a week in the factory. The day-to-day running of the business was left to Arnold Hallsworth who, at the age of 27, was appointed chief engineer and general manager.

 

Farnsworth took over Henry J. Coles Limited as a going concern, although exactly where it was going was far from clear. On the commercial front, the company had developed a fairly wide spread of agents in such places as Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. The latter agent was the founder's nephew, Frederick Bernard Coles, the son of the Frederick Coles who had joined in the new venture in 1879 (although he left shortly afterwards). An idea of the calibre of the agents as a whole can be gained from the fact that F. B. Coles was fully employed as an engineer with New Zealand railways at that time. Not all the agents were one-man bands however. In Denmark, Lowener had been Coles agents since the 1890s, although the association lapsed in the 1930s; following the Second World War, they were re-appointed, and they remain Coles distributors to this day.

 

On the technical side the search for mobility continued. The company was, however, increasingly hampered by poor market conditions. Even in the late 1920S orders were few and far between and when the depression of 1930 31 hit home, Henry J. Coles Limited tottered alarmingly close to the edge of disaster.

 

From a workforce level of about 100 people in 1927 the company slumped to about 50 people in 1931 and down to a low point of some 30 in 1934 35. During the period 1930 35 orders for cranes were coming in at the rate of only two or three a year. The company survived just on the sale of replacement parts for machines which had been supplied during the previous fifty years or so. It was fortunate that all of the machines which had hitherto been supplied were built individually; thus the parts for those machines were also made to order, thereby filling manufacturing capacity.

 

In addition to the cranes and the parts, Coles also made, under contract to Brown and Aitken of London, the B & A safe load indicator. Coles supplied these indicators through B & A to every other British crane maker, but even with the indicators and the irregular requests for replacement parts the orders for cranes were not sufficient in number. Things became so bad in 1936 that at one point Hallsworth despatched his drawing office manager, one Bill Woolley, to Admiralty headquarters at Bath to beg for a cheque so that the week's wages could be paid. The company seemed almost certainly to be heading for collapse.The occasions when a single occurrence can turn the prospect of disaster into the fact of success are rare, particularly in industrial concerns. But they do happen occasionally and just such a turning point in the Coles history came in 1937. To be precise on 13 July 1937.

 

The shop order book for the period tells its own story. Orders 37/158 to 3 7/207 (covering the period from early May to 12 July) had been for parts for various machines. Order 3 7/208 was for 82 2-ton EMA mobile cranes for the Air Ministry. It was the biggest single order for cranes ever placed with a British manufacturer and that one order was the starting point for Coles' growth to international status.

 

The way in which the order was obtained says much for the character of the people involved with the company at that time. As part of the re- armament programme, the Air Ministry had put out to tender a proposal for 120 2 ton mobile cranes (the number was later reduced to 82). The cranes had to be fully slewing. However, the Air Ministry had hitherto used cranes which relied on a 3 wheel `castor' chassis for their slewing capability. These machines, built by another British crane maker, had no separate superstructure but turned on wheels to slew loads. This design of crane was outlined in the specification from the Ministry.

 

Coles had no experience at all with this type of product, and clearly the company had no chance of getting an order working to this design. There- fore, when the tender proposal was drawn up, it was decided to ignore the Ministry's specification and to tender to build a machine with 4 X 2 chassis and a separate slewing superstructure, a type with which the Coles people were fully conversant. The machines were to be mounted on pneumatic tyres. This requirement had not been specified by the Ministry brief, and had never been attempted before in a purpose-built crane (although in 1936 Coles had supplied two cranes on Morris chassis with pneumatic tyres).

 

To the delight (and probable surprise) of the company and the undoubted chagrin of other manufacturers, the order was placed with Coles. It was at that point that problems really started. During the downturn over the previous decade, the company's workforce had dropped to a level where it was simply impossible to build even two cranes at the same time.

Moreover the Coles specification had been only the broadest outline. No detailed drawings had been made, no production engineering worked out.

 

Working at a feverish pace, and using sub contracted services as necessary, the EMA crane was developed into production. Delivery began in February 1938 and was completed by November the same year.

 

 

For all the panic with which the machine was detailed and built the EMA was a superb crane. In concept it remained the basis on which all Coles machines were built for almost 30 years. Variable voltage control gear; fully slewing superstructure with auto reverse steering; simple, easy to maintain power pack; absolute stability; these were all characteristics which users, both in the forces and in industry, came to recognise as the Coles trademark.

 

The machine developed; Mk II, III, V, VI, and VII versions followed with increasing capacities up to the 6 ton Mk VII Series 7 machine. More orders followed 37/208. During 1939 6o were built at Derby mounted on Thorneycroft chassis, to fulfil the promise of truck mounted cranes which Arnold Hallsworth had foreseen in 1922 and, again in 1939, a further 120 mobiles were ordered. This latter order was to be built in Sunderland, since by now Henry J. Coles Limited had been taken over by Steel and Co. Limited, who were based in that town.

 

The Derby works continued to build EMA cranes throughout the war, but increasingly production was transferred to the north east. By 1946 the Slack Lane plant was concentrating mainly on rail cranes which, with the development of truly mobile cranes like the EMA, were losing their popularity. In 1948 production of these was also transferred to Sunderland, where they continued to be made until the mid 1960S. Between 1946 and 1948 the Derby factory also built Coles Electric Eels.

 

These battery operated trucks were part of a diversification programme which developed after 1940s but which never really took off. In 1948 the Slack Lane factory was taken over by Pelapone Limited, another company within the Steel Group, who manufactured diesel engines and related equipment. In 1898 Coles had left London for bigger premises with the potential for expansion. Now, fifty years later, the company headed further north with even bigger prospects.

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