The following is the early life story of William Henry Allen, in his own words, in a speech he made on January 3rd 1902. It provides an interesting insight into the character of the man and the definitive history of his early life and his company. It is not known the occasion or event at which the speech was made. The words, punctuation and grammar are his, the paragraphing and format is mine.
The first impression I had of anything in the engineering way was as a lad of seven years when I saw a big locomotive with a polished copper firebox come into Cardiff station. The deep impression made upon my mind in seeing the driver put the great engine into motion by merely moving the handle was for ever afterwards an inspiration. I immediately went home and with a reel of cotton and a little weight I made a small machine which went by gravity and the handle of the brake formed the starting handle which I had seen.
This remained in my mind until I was suddenly told when a boy at school at the age of fifteen that my mother, a most progressive woman, had purchased a Works for for me at the price of £5,000. I immediately left off my Classics and devoted the rest of my time to Mathematics and Mechanical Drawing, such as it was in those days.
I left school at fifteen and a half, and soon after, when I was sixteen years old, without any tuition beyond that of natural inclination I made a most respectable engine 3″ diam of cylinder by 6″ stroke, which I had by me for many years, and which unfortunately was sold when I happened to be away once.
I then took up my apprenticeship at the Wern Foundry, Carmarthenshire, which employed 1,000 men, and where the best of material and workmanship was turned out, all done by hand labour.
When I returned, after completing my indentures, to take up my position in the Works, I found a relation had got possession of it and I therefore started as a foreman in my own Works. In a year’s time, that is at the age of 23 or 24, I became convinced of the fact that Country Works of any description was not what I was intended for, and happening to see one Christmas time some pictures in the ‘Engineer’ descriptive of Lectures at the Royal Institution I was seized with the idea that London was the place for me. I then wrote to three of the most important firms in London, i.e. John Penn & Son, Gwynne & Co., and Merryweather & Son, to enquire if they wanted a young man, but all of them replied in the negative.
Three days afterwards, a division of opinion having occurred in the Gwynne family, the son, Mr James G. Gwynne, wrote for my testimonials. Naturally, at that young age I hadn’t any, but having faith in myself and relying upon my personal appearance I determined to go to London. It was a poor journey in those days, taking 8 hours. My future employer seemed to be impressed with my personality after we had discussed the economics of workmanship and engaged me there and then, hardly allowing me to go home to fetch my bag. This part of my life was nothing short of romantic, I remained with Mr. Gwynne for eleven years and during the last few years the whole of the business was carried out by myself, as I was not only Manager, but Chief Clerk, Cashier, Prime Cost Clerk, Chief Draughtsman, Mathematician and General Foreman of the whole establishment, where we turned out £ 50,000 worth of work a year.
The beginning of the business was the construction of the necessary motive machinery for the manufactory giving occupation to 100 men, and in the course of a month the engine was started and the shafting went round. Within a month after that, at the end of 1880 (I think we worked on Boxing Day on that occasion) we sent out our first piece of machinery. From that day to this the advancement of the Works has been on progressive even lines with an angle of 40 degrees. The first year I was successful in securing no less than £10,000 worth of orders, on which we made something like 7% profit. The following year that amount was doubled and in the year after that we turned out £30,000 worth of machinery.
There was no difficulty whatever in establishing myself because I was well known, and as a designer and manufacturer of certain machinery it has got noised abroad that my work was first-class and a great improvement upon what the World had been possessed of before. Consequently there was no occasion for references or anything of that description.
My work there at the beginning was carried out under very difficult circumstances. The education I had had scarcely fitted me for that class of work and there was a great deal to be learnt. In two years, however, I gained the complete confidence of my employer, which from that moment was never shaken. The cause of my leaving Gwynnes was that my employer, who had not been to the Works for three years, commanded me to do something which I considered a point of honour. I immediately resigned and there and then decided to commence business on my own account.
This was easier said than done when one considers what it meant, the difficulty of finding a site for Works suitable for carrying on an engineering business, the people to work it, the necessary appliances, and all that kind of thing, but everything seemed to go by a natural law with me, and no sooner did I look about for a Works than I find an ideal one on the old manufactory of the very firm who years ago I had written to for employment, Messrs. Merryweather, at the bottom of York St., Lambeth.
The Works were originally built by Reynolds, one of the earliest newspaper proprietors in London, who built his villa alongside, and carried on a printing establishment there for many years. When Merryweathers first took possession they enlarged it, but when I went there only ruins remained of what at one time had been a very respectable workshop. It required a certain amount of courage to take on a lease of a tumbledown workshop with £400 a year attached to it, but I made no difficulty about it and in two days’ time the property was mine. The furnishing of the office and the procuring of the ordinary tools was the work of an afternoon, and at 9 o’clock on the morning after leaving my employer I walked into my own offices surrounded by about 50 workmen who demanded work under me.
The business progressed at such a rapid rate that by the end of a few years we were an important firm, doing well and saving money, and the Works had to be constantly enlarged year after year and other portions of the surrounding properties taken in. Only ten years after we commenced we were employing as many as 450 men. Probably however the fact that we were adjoining the railway was the predominating factor in the phenomenal progress of the Works and in a very great measure responsible for its future history. Messrs. Merryweather had hung on to the Works for years in the hope that the Railway Company would take possession of it, and so through force of circumstances be bound to contribute a handsome sum to their Exchequer, but no such luck attached to them. On the other hand, I had not been in possession more than three months before the Railway Company commenced to move their basis. A distance of six inches cost them £200: two years afterwards they had to move another three or four feet, for which we charged them £1,500. The following year they took a great slice and for this we received the sum close upon £14,000.
Every year small sums were obtained for little trespasses on the ground but each time they came the price went up higher, until at last the company determined that we should be got rid of and demanded to know what I would go out for. On the spur of the moment and without hesitation I fixed the price at £40,000. The following day they offered me £35,000 but I declined to take anything less seeing that I was approached at a moment’s warning and had no time to make out my estimate. After haggling for two months I beat them and they gave me the full price. That is the particular story that determined our leaving London.
It was very difficult to decide upon a new site for the Works. Mr Richard and I travelled all round Essex and the North of Surrey and thought of every conceivable place until Mr Kempster, who was then in my employ, suggested that I should go and see Bedford. There was nothing to be had in Bedford having gone round to the various Auctioneers, and I was on my way back to the station when a little boy came running down the High Street and informed me that he knew where there was some land to be sold close to the Bridge, and upon seeing the land I determined that it was mine. I went back to Sharman’s office, and the same afternoon, within two hours of landing in Bedford, deposited 10% of the value and so secured the site which is now history. The progress of the Works here (in Bedford) is simply a repetition of that of York Street (Lambeth). The first year here we turned out about £50,000 worth of machinery; that soon became doubled and doubled again as the years went by.
I attribute the success of the Works largely to our never failing determination to carry out our contracts to the letter, to encourage confidence in those who had confidence in us, and to make the best machinery at all hazards. To these facts beyond any other may be attributed the success of the business. Practice of the highest class has been our aim. We have added Science to Practice to help us in our thoughts, and by combining the two we are now in possession of as good a Works as can be found in the country, having regard to the economical disposition of the shops distributed over a small area.
Recognising the value of, and the need for, keeping apace with scientific progress, immediately I went to London in 1868 I joined all the Scientific and Engineering Institutions that I could think off, and have been in constant touch with them either by correspondence or by personal attendance at the various meetings during the last 40 years. Being alive to the necessity of a broad mind one or other of the members of the family periodically visit various parts of the World, and return with new ideas for the improvement of our methods.
In the very early period of the business, my son Richard was taken into partnership, at the early age of 22, the outcome of which is apparent to everyone. Much doubt was thrown upon the vision of this course at the time but results have proved that I did right. From the first I afforded him the same advantages as I had myself in the matter of joining the various Institutions and travelling, so that he might be fitted for the task of building up the business which is before him.