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The Reyrolle Story: Three - A Proposition

Approaches are made to persuade Alphonse Reyrolle to relocate his London factory to Tyneside.

Robert Owen continues his outstanding history of one of Britain's major industrial concersn.

About this time, Reyrolle recruited two other employees who were to spend their working life with him. One was Frank Coates who was the firm's first graduate engineer. He recalls: "I joined Reyrolle in May 1899 at Pancras Street as his assistant. There was a shortage of space so I shared his office and was in constant touch with him."

The other was a George Pawsey, an eighteen-year-old in 1899, who applied for the advertised job of Junior Clerk. He got the job and recalls that he found Mr. Reyrolle a lovely, principled man who loved animals; lived above his office and
every morning at ten to eight used to take his two dogs for a walk.

Work started at 8 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m. on weekdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. As Alphonse Reyrolle worked in London, several major developments in the field of electricity generation took place. Two of these were in north-east England. First: In 1880, the Tyneside pioneering engineer, William Armstrong - later Lord Armstrong of Cragside - made his residence in Rothbury, Northumberland, the first home in the world to be powered by electricity. Although Armstrong owned a large engineering works on the River Tyne at Elswick, the lighting for his house was carried out by J.H. Holmes of Newcastle.

Second: In 1884, Charles Parsons - later Sir Charles Parsons - manufactured the first multi-stage reaction steam turbine. As well as transforming marine transport, this led to large scale electrical generation, resulting in the production of relatively cheap and plentiful electricity. By 1889 Parsons had his own factory in Heaton, Newcastle-on-Tyne. The first power station in the world to use Parsons' turbo-generatmg plant was commissioned the following year at Forth Bank Power Station near Newcastle Central Railway Station.

Being an industrious, small factory owner in central London, Reyrolle met many influential customers and associates, who must have discussed the above. One of them was a Charles Merz, an engineer working for British Thompson Houston, (BTH), manufacturers of electrical plant. It was a meeting that was to greatly influence Reyrolle's future.

Charles Merz was born in Regent Terrace, Gateshead in 1874, the eldest child of Dr John Theodore Merz, a naturalised British subject of German descent. His father was an industrial chemist and a well-known business man. Many years later, Merz Court, housing the scientific departments of the University of Newcastle, was named after him. Like his father, Charles was a highly qualified engineer and later became a partner in the prestigious engineering consultancy firm of Merz-McLellan. He was also very likely responsible for Alphonse Reyrolle being initiated at the Queens Westminster Lodge of Freemasons in London.

In 1899, Charles Merz returned to Tyneside to advise on the building of a new power station at Neptune Bank, Wallsend, on the north side of the River Tyne. Coincidentally, just opposite on the south side of the river at Hebburn, was a five-acre dyestuff research facility called Blaydon Manure and Alkali Company, one of the many commercial interests owned by the Merz family. Hebburn in 1899 was a small industrial town of about 15,000 people, where most men worked in coal mining or shipbuilding.

By 1901, Charles Merz was a Consulting Engineer to Newcastle Electric Supply Company and, aware of the quality of Reyrolle's work, was in a position to 'put much work his way', but for the unsatisfactory location of his factory. He therefore asked his 23-year old brother Norbert Merz - a chartered accountant - to negotiate with Reyrolle about a possible move to the north east.

Norbert Merz was to have a very long association with Reyrolle! Writing forty years later he recalls, "Reyrolle's history began with the great development of the electric power system in the north-east. The engineers saw the control of distribution would be one of the most important parts of that development. My brother Charles had known Mr Reyrolle in London when he had done some work for him, and he realised Mr Reyrolle's mechanical engineering ability. So that the development of proper switchgear could be watched and have the benefit of trial and experiment, it was considered essential that any works, although entirely under separate ownership and risk, should be in the north-east district where daily contact with plans, designs etc., could be maintained by the engineers.

I was asked by my brother to negotiate with Mr Reyrolle, the possible formation of a limited company that would set up works in the north, and move him from his small place in London. The Blaydon Company's works at Hebburn being vacant and available on cheap terms, it was proposed to start there."

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