Cincinnati: Biggleswade's biggest employer

We chart the rise and fall of a manufacturing giant

One of the largest and best known employers in Biggleswade for around 40 years was Cincinnati producer of high precision machine tools for industry.

With a huge factory based in Dells Lane, this was a company who made 'machines to produce machines', manufacturing a wide range of grinding, milling, boring and broaching apparatus; hydraulic presses; and injection and compression moulding machines for plastics.

The company was originally called Weatherley Oilgear Ltd and moved from London to works in Palace Street (now Bonds Lane), Biggleswade in 1939. With around 200 workers they were the town's first taste of big-time engineering.

In 1958, the company built a new factory on the Dells Lane site, which included two huge workshops known as Healds and Weatherley sides, along with administration offices and a canteen. The site was entered by an impressive gate complete with gatehouse security.

On construction of its new factory, Weatherley Oilgear also put in a path between Dells Lane and the railway path. At the time, the North Beds Courier wrote: "On each side is a fine new chainlink fence – a real improvement for the tenants of the adjoining council houses – and street lighting is promised. The path crosses one end of what used to be Bumpy Meadow, a favourite shortcut to the station and playground for youngsters of the area."

Efforts were made to landscape the grounds and to make an attractive environment to work in.

Of the factory itself, the newspaper reported: "The buildings have the most pleasant surroundings. Here is a huge glass, brick and concrete building, light and airy day and night, surrounded by some of the most magnificent gardens in the town. The huge rockery which has been built fronting the new wing is a crafstman's work of art."

In 1961, the company increased in size when it first merged with tool manufacturers Churchill and Co Ltd. They were then taken over by US giant Cincinnati Milacron. At this point, the company became known as Weatherley-Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Milacron UK had been founded in Birmingham in 1934 with the directorship of Sir John Benn under the name Cincinnati Milling Machines Ltd. It was the first overseas manufacturing plant of parent company Cincinnati Milacron (founded in Ohio in 1884). They produced a range of milling and cutter sharpening machine tools, operating throughout the war. The merging of these two successful companies was seen as a way forward.

In 1971 following the retirement of Weatherley Oilgear's managing director and chairman, Herbert Weatherley, the company changed its name to the parent company Cincinnati Milacron. This was its golden time as by then it was by far the largest employer in the town with 1,000 employees, exporting and exhibiting worldwide.

At its height, Cincinnati Milacron incorporated five separate divisions producing machine tools, plastics processing machines, industrial robots, process control and minicomputer systems, grinding wheels, cutting fluids, speciality chemicals and printed circuit boards.

These were the Electronics Division, the Injection Moulding Division, the Heald Division (producing grinding and boring machines), the Robot Division and the Broaching Division.

In addition to the Biggleswade site, the firm had factories at Tamworth and Bedford, as well as four UK direct sales offices. Overall it employed 2,400 people.

Despite redundancies over the next few years, it remained Biggleswade's largest employer with about 500 on the payroll until 1982.

Writing about a factory visit in the 1970s, Dave Boggis described the Cincinnati site as "vast, complex, sprawling, alive with activity" and painted a vivid picture of life inside the workshops: "Something of the truth behind the legend can be seen in a walk round the division's offices at Dells Lane.

Through the engineering office, you come into the main workshop area, where specially trained men and women workers are busy making printed circuits and sub-assemblies at one end of the area, these being assembled into big metal cabinets at the other end. ... Once the eye has grown used to the jumble of wires and pins, contacts and printed circuits, the main workshop area takes on an air of efficient, ordered activity.

"Electronics workers operate intricate machines, while sub-assemblies trail sheaves of cables like handfuls of yellow spaghetti..and an overalled woman works at what seems to be a giant immensely complicated spider's web."

Cincinnati were world famous for their broaching machines and in 1947 made the world's largest broaching machine ever at Biggleswade. It weighed 55 tons and went by police escort to the Standard Motors plant at Coventry to be installed on their production line.

One of the company's main clients for these machines was Rolls Royce and they used them in the manufacture of their aeroplane engines during the late 1960s.

The company had an excellent apprenticeship scheme to support its expansion during the 1960s. It also had a very active sports and social club which held annual dinners, sports activities, Christmas parties for employees' children and did everything from gardening to craft making. Many former employees must have fond memories of their time in the club.

A small taste that Cincinatti's golden era was not going to last forever came in 1971 when of the 1,200 workers, 180 people (15 per cent of the workforce) were made redundant due to a drastic decrease in business. Then in 1975 a further 170 lost their jobs.

However, in common with other Biggleswade manufacturing firms, the recession of the early 1980s saw things go from bad to worse.

1981 had already seen the introduction of a four-day week for over half the employees but 1982 saw an even worse year for the firm. 146 people lost their jobs in January due to lack of orders.

At the time Martin Roberts, a Langford Cincinnati worker of 13 years was quoted as saying "Redundancy is a trend in the country now isn't it? It's all very worrying."

Other employees described the threat of redundancy as "slow torture" and "like a sword hanging over them."

That year also saw the state-of-the-art Electronic Systems and Industrial Robot division move to Biggleswade when the Bedford factory had to close down. One hundred employees were transferred. Unfortunately it meant more redundancies for the Biggleswade workers despite the company's move into making high technology computerised machine tools known as CNC turning centres,.

In a bid to try and increase the firm's efficiency and save money, troubleshooter John Bloxham was appointed General Manager. His first, probably highly unpopular move was to stop the company coach service for workers living in the villages and he introduced a 39 hour week with two-shift working.

Then in October, 1982 despite the development of a fully automated 70,000 lathe, there was a shock announcement that 275 would be let go when nearly all the departments at the machine tools manufacturing plant were transferred to the firm's UK HQ in Birmingham.

Only broaching machine manufacture and some spare parts work employing around 50 people were to be kept at Dells Lane. At the time the Apex Union objected to the November 5 date saying it did not give workers the statutory 90 days notice of redundancy.

When the October 1982 announcement was made, industrial engineer Tim Greaves who at that time had just finished his apprenticeship said: "You could have cut the air with a knife when the notice went up. The place went dead. It's virtually closure."

Work was consolidated into the northern end of the premises leaving the large assembly hall at the southern end of the factory empty.

The sports and social club was wound up as its membership had dropped from over 250 to 50 and the club's sports field was put up for sale, along with a 10 acre plot, primarily for housing development.

1983, the same year that the Biggleswade Chamber of Trade stated at a meeting that the town needed more industry otherwise it would become a 'dormitory town', saw the final phase in the company's redundancy programme but fortunately 20 staff who were due to be made redundant had a last minute reprieve.

In 1987 the firm was sold for 450,000 to Cardinal Broach Company, a subsidiary of Brooke Tool Engineering, and the site was sold to Hillson and Twidgen property developers. By then there were only 38 employees left. Cardinal Broach moved into the old Smart and Brown factory for a while, becoming Cardinal-Weatherley (this closed its doors in Biggleswade a couple of years ago).

The huge Dells Lane factory was demolished shortly afterwards and although the company continued to operate in Birmingham, their Biggleswade days were over.