Engineers and community benefactors – White Walls foundry
Having been used to researching long lost and forgotten histories of Agricultural Engineering firms by various long-winded and torturous means,slowly piecing together tangled threads of information, in this instance, we are completely indebted to the Village of Compton in Berkshire, for the collation and creation of a fantastic record of life in this historic village.
In the book ‘The Story of Compton – A Berkshire Downland village’, (ISBN 9780953949007 Linnet McMahon and David Mankin) the history of Whitewall Iron Works is not only described in detail, but its position can be seen in context with its place in the surrounding village. This example typifies the way that some Edwardian and Victorian industrial entrepreneurs, often driven by strong religious or philanthropic beliefs, not only became benefactors of their own community, but projected their influence much further afield in the form of mutual societies, and promoting better living standards for their employees .
Following an e-mail in 2011 asking whether I could help re-home a small but substantially built hut sitting in the hedge of a house in Hertfordshire, an enthusiastic ‘Huttist’ was quickly found wanting to take on the restoration. With collectively around 500 round trip between us we converged on the site to be confronted by a new breed of hut to me at least. Very distinctive iron work, small and no maker’s plate – more of that later.
As for proof of manufacture, I hadn’t a clue, but evidence turned up a few days later in a case study on the Plankbridge web site, depicting a lovely restoration by Richard Lee and Jane Dennison which thankfully still had its plate attached. The search was now on to discover the hidden past of T Baker and Sons, Engineers of Compton. We now had a name, and were soon to discover much more about Thomas Baker, his sons and their business than we could have ever hoped for.
In the book ‘The story of Compton’, a passage describes a cast iron plate fitted to the coffin of William Baker (1800-1839). This suggests that the business was started either by William or his family predecessors, then continued by William’s wife Hannah who passed away in 1847.
Thomas the son, was born in 1824 and under his leadership the business became Thomas Baker until around 1930, when it became T Baker and Sons, with George Lewis Baker and younger brother Sidney entering the firm. There-after the company became T Baker and Sons Compton Ltd. The family succession continued with Donald Baker who later took over from father George Lewis.
Built on the former site of White Walls Farm, the works grew to substantial proportions employing around 90 people at its peak. The foundry was around 100 feet by 30 feet with an overhead one ton crane traversing the length of the building. An oven for drying cores at one end of the building and a cupola was situated on one side supplied with iron and coke hauled by a small truck on wheels hauled by a windlass. The main workshop, about 100 feet long by 60 feet wide had a large machine shop with lathes, drilling machines and other metal working equipment. The woodworking department contained bandsaws, circular saws planners and so-on. In both ‘shops’ line shafting conveyed power generated initially from a steam engine, power by off-cuts of wood, presumably supplied from the Mill which cut local timber into planks which were stacked for drying and used in the woodwork shop. Steam power, as with so many other Victorian Agricultural Engineers was superseded by a Ruston and Hornsby Gas engine and then a 90hp Blackstone Oil engine as new technology came to the market.
For those that managed to make it through to the fifties, adopting to new market trends and diversifying to meet the pressures from competitors in a global market, electricity would ultimately sweep all former motive power sources before it. To complement the main buildings there was a selection of store sheds and paint shops which were used to maintain, repair agricultural equipment or build up new machinery.
1894 Thomas Baker catalogue advert – kind permission L Mahon
Products and services
The Whitewall Iron Works had no fewer than five Blacksmith forges for shoeing horses, tyres for wheels and making fitments and iron work for other products. There was even a cornmill for grinding Farmers cereal. It seems that there was at least one threshing team attached to the works consisting of a traction engine, thrashing machine, baler, living van and a water cart available for contract hire. A bore-hole sinking service was also offered for local farmers.
Surviving catalogues from 1894 and the 1920’s show a diverse range of products including of course Shepherd huts and well heads, water pumps, water and liquid manure cartssanitary tumbler carts for Butchers or Farmer’s, street watering carts and vans, street sweeping machines, builders and contractors carts. In addition other Horse drawn agricultural equipment was manufactured from ploughs to harrows. A patent armoured hose was produced to complement its range of products and even an early pedal cycle called the ‘Compton Cycle’.
It is reported that the Daily Mirror newspaper on the 31stJanuary 1939, in an article entitled ‘She Saves Life of Village describes how Sidney Baker’s widow, Aunt of Donald Baker agreed to spend £5,000 of her own money to save the business from bankruptcy. It seems that debts of £25,000 had accumulated and thankfully the offer of Mrs Baker’s money satisfied creditors. In the piece, the paper reportedly described T Baker and Sons as ‘The work, life and soul of the village’.
It seems that the arrival of the tractor and mechanised machinery not only impacted the need to fold large herds of sheep, but also hit the traditional horse drawn cart and wagon business that Baker’s relied on so heavily. Baker’s may have also invested in a mass-production cast iron moulding machine, but it was technology quickly surpassed as steel, and its flexible fabrication and joining techniques helped to cut down manufacturing times, so desperately required in supporting the war effort. During the war.
The Iron works did complete war office contracts for road blocks, sectional floating piers for commando’s, anti-aircraft gun mounts and tar sprayers for making roads in the desert. Following the war, Baker’s tried to diversify manufacturing cinema seats and in 1945 also bought the Hungerford business of Oakes Brothers. It seems that even though the business was distributors for combine harvesters in the county, bad debts finally caused the business to collapse in the 1950’s.
The premises were taken over by a financial company, then one that made lifting gear with the British Hoist company arriving in 2003. In turn becoming Jones Cranes in 1970, and finally closing themselves in 1983 drawing to an end heavy industry on the site. The foundry buildings were then demolished, as was sadly the former owners house. The site is now occupied by the headquarters of Baxter’s Healthcare in the UK.
Historic Shepherd huts acknowledge the help and support of Compton Parish Council. Also special thanks to Linnet McMahon, for permissions and extract associated wih T Baker and son Ltd.