Look Back With Little: Memories of Switchgear

Drawing office apprentices. Left to right, John, David Merivale, Michael Page, Colin Harris
Drawing office apprentices. Left to right, John, David Merivale, Michael Page, Colin Harris

One of the best accounts of the industrial growth of Banbury can be found in a little book published by William Potts in 1942.

The purpose of this was to celebrate the centenary of the Banbury Guardian, of which he was editor.

Many of the items had already appeared in the newspaper. A classic example was a report on six years of progress by the Switchgear and Equipment works.

In 1932 this company took over a factory that had been built alongside the Great Western Railway on part of the old Britannia Works Recreation Ground.

The previous occupant had been the Austin Lighting Company who relocated to Birmingham.

The arrival of Switchgear and Equipment was not easy but made necessary by local demand for electrification and fulfilled a need for jobs following the closure of the Britannia Works.

Arthur Oxley, a founder member, was a man of perception, very much aware of a market for small electrical items such as isolators, circuit breakers and clamps as used on the London Underground system.

Banbury’s central location made it ideal for this enterprise but nevertheless Oxley had to work round the clock to get the business ready. He even slept on the premises.

As a result, in the words of Potts, ‘the firm met with success and steady progress’.

The inevitable consequence was that by 1937, the company had outgrown its capacity and had to utilise part of the former Britannia Lower Works.

At that time some 30-40 people were involved, one of whom was Rowland Humphrey who lived at Woodford Halse.

His memories include the experience of cycling with parts between different 
buildings but also the occasion when Albert Boote, his foreman, asked him to go to a shop on the bridge to collect lardy cakes and a bottle of Tizer! Roland’s 7s 6d (37½p) a week no way allowed for coping with such informal requests.

A serious fire was probably one of the reasons that Switchgear moved to the Southam Road in 1938, still under the controlling interest of Arthur Oxley.

It was here that 12½ acres of land were acquired and the necessary steel work achieved by a local business R.O. Wright, whose other contracts included Worthing Pier and one of the stands at Fratton Park for Portsmouth Football Club.

In a strange way, the intervention of war actually promoted company fortunes. Admiralty contracts fell their way and Banbury’s contribution to the hostilities took the form of mines and depth charges.

The main building was also geared to war.

There was a lookout on top of the factory and alongside a firing range between this building and an electricity sub-station.

During this period Switchgear’s payroll was dominated by female names. Women worked on one or two twelve hour shifts.

Between 1945 and the early 1970s when Switchgear and Equipment closed many people made their mark with the company.

Eric Woodbridge was a works director, Jack Turner had responsibility for technical matters and Bill Betts guided sales.

Many apprentices who turned up at the North Oxfordshire Technical College will have cause to remember Bill Beake.

There was also a social and sports life as well as shop floor existence. For members of the 25 year club meals and trips out to the theatre were occasions to remember.

A link with Grimsbury took the form of darts at the Blacklocks.

Recently David Merivale of Alcester has sent me his recollections of the mid-1950s company. He remembered the firm as family run in more senses that one. At lunch Arthur Oxley would help in the works canteen, serving tea from an enamel bucket.

Those at the end of the queue would note that the tea had lost some of its flavour. David was a drawing office apprentice. Today’s picture shows him with other trainees. Starting at the age of 15 his weekly wage advance to £4 9s 11d (£4.50) by the time he reached 20.

l I am grateful to David for his recollections and for sending me the photograph.