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The Reyrolle Story: Fifteen - The Eureka Vacuum Cleaner

...At the start of the 1930's about one third of houses in the UK had electricity; by the end of the decade, the proportion had doubled. The result was that Reyrolle showed its flexibility by manufacturing a small range of products for the home and farm...

Robert Owen continues his history of one of Britain's great 20th Century engineering firms.

All electrical equipment needs reliable insulation and for many years Reyrolle had imported insulation systems based on bakelised paper (B.P.) from Messrs Haefely of Switzerland. In 1929, a change in commercial policy led to Reyrolle - with the General Electric Company - being granted a licence to manufacture their own B P. insulation. A small new factory was built on the fringe of the New Town Works and the Hebburn Bushing Company was born in August 1930.

On a much larger scale, formal negotiations tookplace between Reyrolle and General Electric Company about a possible merger in 1930. For some unknown reason, the discussion died a natural death - it begs the question, however, what the British electrical manufacturing industry might have looked like, had it succeeded.

Sport within the Company also prospered during these growth years. The firm's cricket team was so ambitious that it toured Ireland and Southern England during the mid-thirties. Also, in 1936, a powerful Reyrolle football team won numerous awards.

The testing of switchgear likely to be subject to short circuit conditions, was always a major problem to electrical manufacturers and, particularly, to Reyrolle's T & R Department. Many senior engineers campaigned for a national testing station under an accredited authority. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain and it was left to individual manufacturers to cater for their own requirements. The Reyrolle answer to this was to build a new Short Circuit Testing Station in 1929. It was the world's first privately owned Testing Station and proved to be a maj or asset to the Company. During the following year, it attracted visits from many technical experts and senior officers from electricity companies throughout the world.

At the start of the 1930's about one third of houses in the UK had electricity; by the end of the decade, the proportion had doubled. The result was that Reyrolle showed its flexibility by manufacturing a small range of products for the home and farm. In 1935, it took a stand at the Royal Agricultural Show held at Newcastle and displayed a range of products for use in the farming industry. Perhaps its main product for the home was the Eureka Vacuum Cleaner, which was reported as being the most expensive available and purchased only by the upper-middle classes. The selling price was about 4. Fifty years later, it was reported that a Eureka Vacuum Cleaner was still being used by a Dr Ralph's family in Lincoln.

The Eureka Vacuum Cleaner was an ideal gift from colleagues when someone got married and Thomas Clayton and Maud Douglas were presented with one when they married at St Paul's Church, Wallsend on 3rd October 1933.

Records indicate that 31 marriages of Reyrolle employees took place in 1932/3 and the gifts from departmental colleagues included ten clocks, two dinner services, two fire-side chairs, three mirrors, numerous types of eating utensils and one lucky couple who received an all-electric wireless.

One Reyrolle product that was not so successful was the Company's sad attempt to manufacture and install an electric hare for Gosforth Greyhound Stadium at Newcastle in 1932. Sufficient to say that the product is remembered by the jibe, "The Reyrolle hare was the only one capable of being caught by the hounds."
"Stick to switchgear!" the Stadium manager was heard to remark!

As Reyrolle produced its first range of 132kv metal-clad switchgear, informal consultations took place with C.A. Parsons about the mutual interests of the two large Companies. The outcome was the formation of a company called Parolle

Electrical Plant to help with the overlapping project work of the two organisations. Perhaps a more significant development of the time was Reyrolle purchasing 60% of the private shares in Parsons, which was to become an important turning point in its corporate history.

About this time, and in liaison with other companies, Reyrolle was partly responsible for bringing a new factory to Hebburn. Pyrotenax opened a works in Hedgeley Road to manufacture insulating cables, an essential related product to Reyrolle's switchgear.

In 1934, Reyrolle lost its first and longest serving employee. Alfred (known as Fred) Nicod - a talented violinist and well-known swimmer in Hebburn Lakes, retired after forty eight years' service. He and his wife had eight sons and five daughters, many of whom also worked at Reyrolle. Working as an Apprentice Training Instructor, it was estimated that he must have trained nearly four hundred apprentices!

Also in 1938, Reyrolle lost its 'father' of metal-clad switchgear. Henry Clothier joined the Company in 1906, rose to Technical Director in 1921 and helped steer Reyrolle through its undoubted success, until his retirement from executive duties in 1937. A brilliant engineer but an unassuming gentleman, he once rescued someone from the River Tyne, then just walked away. Ted Alexander, an apprentice in the early 1930's recalls Clothier speaking to him whilst showing a group of visitors around the factory and recalls how humble and genuine he seemed. Henry Clothier continued on the Board of Directors and it was during a world-wide tour on behalf of the Company that Clothier died suddenly in 1938 while visiting New Zealand. His contribution to the development of Reyrolle and to the switchgear world in general was immeasurable.

By the late 1930's, Reyrolle had enjoyed an amazing twenty years of growth. It was now an international company and employed over 5,000 workers at Hebburn and many more abroad. As the inevitable war in Europe approached, Reyrolle became increasingly involved with manufacturing items for the War Office. New Town Works was extended to provide extra floor space for government contacts.
In June 1939, Company Chairman Sir Arthur Wood died. The new Chairman was Norbert Mertz, the young accountant who in 1901, advised Reyrolle to move to the north east. He was to lead the company through the difficult war years.

Apart from long-serving Frank Coates, Reyrolle was now in the hands of a new generation of engineers and managers, who had joined the company after World War One. Time would tell if they could cope with the problems of World War Two.


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