I was intrigued to discover that the North British Rubber Company is the subject of a very interesting exhibition currently being held by the Edinburgh Printmakers, Remembering the North British Rubber Company. I certainly do remember the old manufacturing company and the Castle Mill Works in Fountainbridge very well indeed because I worked there as an engineer from 1957 till 1960. In our house as I was growing up ‘The Mill’ was often a frequent topic of conversation as my mother, Elizabeth Robb, had worked in the hot water bottle department there from leaving school in 1912 till she married my father in 1926. Every Wednesday an old friend and colleague of my mother from ‘The Mill’, Isa McNeil, came and had tea with us, and the gift she brought was always a packet of Toblerone chocolate. My mother’s Uncle, Willie Gilbert (my Great Uncle), also worked there so when I joined the company I became the third generation to work there.
I started work there in 1957 after answering an advert for a position as Power and Services Manager at the North British Rubber Company (NBRC) in Fountainbridge. By that time the company had been established for 100 years and it employed about 2500 workers manufacturing a full range of rubber goods, golf balls, and vehicle tyres. It was then the largest employer in Edinburgh but, as I explain in the book, I was a bit disappointed in what I saw on my first day at work. Walking round the factory buildings I saw sights that seemed to me to be straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. The boilers were old, very old, some even ancient, having been built as far back as 1905.
When I joined the company, the rehab team set up by US Rubber, to carry out the refurbishment of NBR was already in place and was led by an extremely competent and pleasant American called Joe Livermore and in July 1957, with a fanfare of trumpets the company gave details of the £3 million Modernisation Plan.
The vulcanite plant in the West Block was demolished and its two large 1906 built Cornish Boilers were cut up and consigned to Stevie Dalton’s scrap yard.
Also in the West block was the Rubber Reclaim department where old worn tyres and other rubber goods were taken, metal and fabric was stripped from the tyres before going into about thirty 1 mitre diameter spheres called digesters which were then pressurised and heated with Jim’s steam before being rotated for perhaps a couple of hours. All of the equipment had I believe been supplied by the US during the war under the Lend/lease agreement.
At that time, all the tyre curing was done in the East Block with tyre presses which used a technology which was very old and was now outdated. To bring the tyre production into the twentieth century, the company ordered from America the very latest McNeil Bag-o-Matic presses which caused quite some excitement when they were delivered and installed. These new presses were fully automatic and were of course piped up and supplied with Jim’s steam, hydraulics, compressed air and pressurised water at 300 deg f. For me it was all very interesting and I must say I learnt a great deal about control systems particularly, which stood me in good stead in my later career.
While all of this was going on in the East and West bocks, a large area of the Central block was cleared for the installation of new compressed air and hydraulic systems and two new water tube boilers with chain grate stokers with automatic coal feed and ash disposal.
By end 1959 all the major refurbishment work had been completed. Jim was now managing the new boilers and all the sparkling new pumps, compressors etc, and it was now all systems go. Probably the entire £3m had been spent, and being 1959 there would quite likely have been some cost over-run. All the old equipment which had previously covered the place, including my suits in dust were gone and the massive chimney was demolished.
But all that new and expensive equipment had been installed in factory buildings most of which were built in the 1830s and were not really suitable for the type of mass production that was needed. In 1965 the company purchased a site at Newbridge, just outside Edinburgh and built a modern tyre factory there to produce the tyres and other rubber and plastic goods which were then being produced at Castle Mills and Heath Hall. Production was gradually transferred to the new site, and in 1973 after 117 years, all production ceased at Castle Mills.
The Newbridge facility continued production for a number of years and changed hands in the 1980s but in, August 1999, the then owners, Continental Tyres of Germany, announced the closure of its Newbridge plant near Edinburgh, and all 774 workers were to be made redundant. The German-owned company blames the move on market conditions, and the fact that the plant has incurred losses of almost £30m over the previous five years.
The decline and fall of the largest employer in Edinburgh is certainly an interesting but also rather sad story and the script could have been written by the historian Edward Gibbon himself. Sadly, North British Rubber Co is just one of the many famous names in the history of Britain’s manufacturing decline.
That’s not quite the end of the story, however, but I will have to invite you to read the curious twist at the end of the tale in Chapter 16 of my book…
Exhibition: Remembering the North British Rubber Company
19 October – 30 November 2015
Venue: St Bride’s Community Centre, 10 Orwell Terrace, Edinburgh, EH11 2DZ
Exhibition Open: Monday – Thursday 10.00am – 3.00pm, Friday 12 noon – 3.00pm, Saturday 12.30pm – 2.30pm
– See NBR Wrinklies website for many fascinating stories from former staff
– Read Part 2: Rise and fall of North British Rubber Company – A detailed investigation into the start-up and history of the North British Rubber Company in 1860’s Fountainbridge, Edinburgh