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The Plessey Company

The article below has been composed to accompany the others that have been written about the radar site at Sommerton, Cowes, Isle of Wight, and gives an insight into the origins of the Plessey Company.

The Beginning in 1917

Picture of Plessey Logo the 'squiggle' represents the word 'Plessey' as displayed on an oscilloscope.
Plessey Logo: the 'squiggle' represents the word 'Plessey' as displayed on an oscilloscope

The origins of Plessey are interwoven with the career of William "Bill" Oscar Heyne, who was born in Dresden, Germany on the 8th November 1888 and came to live in England in 1893. The family came from Germany and lived in Moss Side Manchester, Bill's father was a mechanical engineer and his son was educated both in England and Germany where he was trained in engineering then returned to England. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he was interned in the Isle of Man as a foreign national. He was released in 1916 on the condition that "he found work of national importance". He obtained a position in London with a company manufacturing woodworking machinery for the use in the production of structural members for aircraft. In that year he married Elizabeth M. Meyer at Paddington. Later that year he moved to the Clutsam Action Company a manufacturer of piano-forte actions, however demand for this type of product was limited especially during the wartime and the owner, Thomas Hurst Hodgson, decided to sell the Company. However, even though Heyne had only worked for his company for about a year as a production engineer and salesman, Hodgson realised the value of is employee and decided to utilise his skills.

He formed a new company called Plessey on December 11th, 1917. The memorandum and Articles of Association defined the objectives of the new Company to be "machine engineering and machinists and manufacturers of piano-forte, organs, piano-players and musical instruments of all kinds". The new Company had a nominal share capital of £3000, of which only a £1000 of shares were issued and these were divided between Hurst Hodgson, Mr.C.H. Whittaker, a school friend of Heyne who held them on his behalf as he was still technically an alien, and two brothers, Raymond and Plessey Parker. The names of these two original shareholders provide a clue to the unusual name of the Company, also Heyne's wife Elizabeth came from the village of the same name in Northumberland. The first factory was in Marylebone and consisted of shop premises and a large greenhouse in the back garden. Hurst Hodgson also had a financial interest in British Electro Chemists Ltd, which Heyne joined as a salesman and later took over for Plessey.

In 1919 the Company was reorganised, Hurst Hodgson and the Parker brothers were bought out [no details of new ownership available] and the company moved to new premises in Holloway. The premises were shared with another business, China and Metal Platers, with which a Byron. G. Clark an American was associated. Clark quickly again recognised Heyne's engineering ability, and saw the potential for Plessey to grow if more capital could be made available. In February, 1921, B.G. Clark put money into the Company, and in September of that year, his son, A.G. Clark, joined the company. This was the real beginning for what was to become the electronic giant Plessey, Heyne, aged 32, was Chairman and Managing Director, and A.G. Clark, aged 22, was the secretary, there were four other directors, the workforce varied between four and six people. The Company's premises were two rooms and produced jigs and tools; in 1922 the turnover was £4000, on which a small loss of £69 was made. This followed a loss in 1921 of £206, indicating that the company was moving in the right direction.

B.G. Clark, lived in Reading, and commuted by rail to Paddington, and during discussions with two of his travelling companions mention was made that Marconi were looking for firms to manufacture radio sets under contract. The three friends saw the potential and formed the British Radiophone Company specifically to tender for radio orders, which they intend to subcontract to Plessey. In July 1922 they won an order worth £30,000 for 5,500 Marconi crystal sets and 5,000 V2 valve receivers, Plessey had entered the radio industry at a very early stage.

As a result of this large order new premises were essential, and Heyne heard that a factory in Ilford was up for sale for £20,000. Together With B.G. Clark he viewed the factory and offered £7,500, which, to their surprise, was accepted. Plessey left their original premises in March, 1923 and in 1925 the original company was wound up, and the Plessey Company as it became was formed, with a share capital of £20,000. New Articles of Association were written and all reference to pianos and musical instruments were omitted.

The building purchased by Plessey had originally been a laundry but at the start of the First War was changed over to the production of shells and aeroplane components. After the war, tyre studs were made for Dunlop Co but this venture was never successful and the factory remained empty from 1921 until purchased by Plessey in 1922.

By early 1925 Plessey were manufacturing and selling 1300 radio sets a week to Marconiphone, and by September this figure had increased to 2500 sets. In 1926, orders from Marconiphone ceased when the company bought its own manufacturing company which was Sterling Telephone & Electric Co, in Dagenham. Faced with the loss of a large part of the factories output, the Plessey designed and produced the first portable radio, and called it the "National". It was a success and resulted in orders from other companies such as Symphony, Eunello, Columbia, Defiant and Sparta, to produce their brand of radios. Plessey also obtained orders from the Post Office for bells, buzzers and lever keys and later, in 1929, candlestick telephones. Thus began the long association with the Post Office and its future investment in telecommunications. Orders were also obtained from the Admiralty for wireless equipment at, and so started Plessey's long involvement with the Armed Forces.

A further diversification of the company’s product range was shown by the manufacture of a totalisator for Cardiff Racecourse and the Jenson cigarette lighter which, in 1928/9, was accounting for 8% of the company turnover. Plessey became involved with early television development and Logie Baird worked for a time at Ilford conducting experiments from the roof of the factory. The world's first commercially produced television receiver was sold for £25 and limited television broadcasting was first provided by the BBC in 1929.

A particularly important step for Plessey at this time was the development of the AC44 Airborne Transmitter Receiver, one of which flew onboard an Airspeed Envoy in the 1934 International Air Race to Australia. This was the forerunner of the TR9 communications equipment used in fighter aircraft for which important Air Ministry contracts were obtained in the late 1930's.

Throughout the 1930's licensing agreements were a major pattern of growth for Plessey, A.G. Clark and Bill Heyne made many visits to the United States and obtained vitally important licences from companies such as Breeze, Koffman and Pesco. "Breeze" was a comprehensive system of aircraft wiring to prevent radio interference. The "Koffman" licence was a cartridge starter which gave a burst of gas pressure to spin the aircraft engine for a "scramble" take-off, and the "Pesco" licence covered aircraft fuel pumps technology. The technology was further developed by Plessey and laid the foundations for the future aerospace and hydraulics side of the company.

In the year 1936/37 the company turnover exceeded £1 million for the first time and, and on the 17th March 1937, Plessey became a public company.

Picture of Plessey Ilford site c1930.
Plessey Ilford circa 1930

At the start of the Second World War in September 1939 Plessey was well placed to play a key role in the war effort, but space was at a premium. However, this was solved by opening up factories at other locations away from London; use was also made of the nearby Central Line tube between Gants Hill and Wanstead. This extension had been completed but not opened to the public before war was declared. In this tunnel, with its total length of 5 miles, some 2000 people were continuously employed producing equipment for the war effort; it was to become the most successful underground factory in the country. Plessey contribution to the war effort was considerable, with a total of 18 million shell bomb cases, 11 million Breeze connectors, 28 thousand aircraft pumps, 74,000 wiring harnesses and 23,000 engine cartridge starters produced.

When the war finished production requirements fell sharply and sales to the government dropped dramatically from £5 million in 1944/5 to £1/4 million in 1946. In line with this the workforce was reduced from over 11,500 to less than 6,000. In 1946, two major events occurred in the life of the company, B.G. Clark died in May 1946 and Bill Heyne who was tired after the stress of war time production demands together with increasing health problems, retired aged 58. He and his wife spent much of their time in South Africa where "Bill" died on the 20th April 1980 aged 92.

The Company looked at the growing demand for commercial radio and widening television market to increased sales, this together with the onset of the cold war, defence products were again in demand. In the 1950's Plessey put increasing emphasis on its research and development facilities and re-established itself as an important supplier of defence communications.

In 1961 the size of the Plessey Company doubled overnight when it took control of A.T.& E and Ericsson which brought with it a large proportion of Post Office business, together with overseas business establishments and a diversity of new products. It was at this crucial time in 1962 that A.G. Clark died, but the challenge was met and the Company continued to grow. A large portion of the growth was by acquisition, which included consolidating and strengthing, its overseas network.

Telecommunications became of great importance, and Plessey were the first U.K. company with electronic switching, and exported an exchange called "Pentex". Development work on the new in System X for British Telecom and other office systems was proceeding and in 1965 Decca Radar with factories at Addlestone and Cowes Isle of Wight was acquired giving the company additional markets and products. In 1988 the company itself was taken over by GEC and Siemens of Germany, and as a result various parts of the company became under different management and so ended 70 years of history.

From personal experience there were many offshoot from the main Plessey Company which will not exist in any records, so to preserve their history I have added three of which I have knowledge.

Plessey Manchester

This was initially a small drawing office in the early 1950's based in Lloyd Street, Manchester employing some 30 people and working mainly for A.V. Roe, the aircraft manufacturer based at Chadderton, Manchester.

Around 1955 a large contact was place with Plessey Manchester to provide design work for the installation of equipment and cabling for the Vulcan bomber for the RAF, and a modified long range Shackleton bomber for maritime reconnaissance for South Africa. This required a large increase in the drawing office staff and larger premises, two floors of the old large Richard Hayworth building [a surplus cotton warehouse] on the corner of Dale and Port Street in the centre of Manchester. The drawing office staff was increased to over a 100, there were also people based at Woodford the company's assembly facility.

Things were fine until the first of the government’s cuts in defence spending were announced early in 1958, Plessey was informed by A.V. Roe not to start any new work and only finish off that which was started. Staff were sub contacted to other Plessey establishments in an effort to find work, however by April staff were made progressively redundant and the office closed at the end of 1958.

Plessey Rotherham

This again was a small unit producing cable assemblies for the main organisation, the unit suffered in the general economic downturn and was forced to close.

Plessey Fairmile

This was classified defence research establishment in the late 1950s located on the Fairmile on the main Esher/Guilford road. At that time the facility was developing underwater submarine detection equipment. In trials against American equipment the British equipment proved superior but no orders were achieved, and I believe the project was scrapped.

Pictures of the Cowes Site

Picture of Aerial view of the site looking northwards, Cowes in the background c 1980
Aerial view of the site looking northwards, Cowes in the background c 1980
Picture of Aerial view of the site looking towards Newport
Aerial view of the site looking towards Newport
Picture of Front view of the site
Front view of the site
Picture of Picture of Plessey site 1974
Plessey site 1974
Picture of Picture of Plessey site 1995
Plessey site circa 1995. Picture provided by Adrian Steel

Source: Graces Guide and Tellumat.

Additional information on Plessey can be found at External link image

This page was last edited on: 11th July, 2015 13:24:11

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