Part 2: Rise and fall of North British Rubber Company

The North British Rubber Company started life in January 1856 when an American investor called Henry Lee Norris arrived in Scotland as a passenger aboard the SS Harmonia. The ship was carrying as cargo some rather specialised equipment, and among the other passengers were four skilled American workers called Louise Dixon, Sophia Terry, Hannah Dixon and Walter P. Dunn. With the specialised equipment, these five people were to found the first vulcanized rubber plant in Scotland for the manufacture of India-rubber boots and overshoes.


The Three Founders of North British Rubber All were American Citizens involved with the Rubber industry in the USA. (Image: NBR Wrinklies)

As I was researching for the book I came across a rather interesting copy of the labour contract which was entered into by one of the American workers, Louise Dixon, and her employer in 1855. It gives a revealing glimpse of the working conditions at the time, and were probably considered to be quite reasonable back then in 1855.

Articles of Agreement, made, concluded, and agreed upon the 22nd day of October A.D. 1855, between Louise Dixon of the City of New Bruns­wick, County of Middlesex, State o£ New Jersey, U.S., on the one part, and the North British Rubber Co., Norris & Co., of the other part, as follows

The said Louise Dixon, for the consideration hereinafter mentioned, doth hereby covenant and agree, that she will sail by the next passage of the ship Harmony for Glasgow, Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and there render such lawful and reasonable service, or labor, as may be re­quired by said Company, until they shall have made such preparations as are necessary for the manufacture of Rubber Boots & Shoes, and that she will, after they commence the manufacture of Boots and Shoes, labor for the said Company, for the term of one year, and make herself generally useful to the Company in making Boots and shoes learning, and instructing others in that art; And the said North British Rubber Co., Norris & Co., doth covenant and agree that they will pay to said Louise Dixon, the sum of one dollar for each day from the time she arrives at Glasgow, Scotland, until such time as they are ready to commence the manufacture of Boots and Shoes, in Scotland, and after such commencement, the sum of one dollar for each day’s services, or labor, rendered to said Company, and said Company further agree to pay the passage of said Louise Dixon on board ship Harmony to Glasgow, Scotland, and all other necessary traveling expenses, from New Brunswick to Glasgow and at expiration of above time and labor, if said Louise Dixon desires to return to America, the said Com­pany do agree to pay her passage and necessary traveling expenses from Scotland to New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S.

To the true performance of the several covenants and agreements aforesaid, the parties bind themselves individually, by these presents, in witness whereof we have hereto set out hands and seals, on the day and year above mentioned. [1]

Having been blessed with a rather good memory, even after a lapse of sixty years, I still have some vivid memories of what was for me a very enjoyable and interesting period of my life. Now with the help of computers and Google I can put some flesh on all the bones and discover many other fascinating details about the early days of the company and its founders.

Norris found the site he wanted in Edinburgh. His company took over the former Castle Silk Mills which occupied a 22-acre site on the North bank of the Union Canal at Fountainbridge, near to the canal terminal basin called Port Hamilton. (The Canal was eventually closed to commercial traffic in the early 1920s, and the terminal basin was filled in to allow the building of the Central Halls and Regal Cinema, now called the ABC Cinema, but the slightly shortened canal is still open and used for recreational purposes).

The company quickly expanded and was soon a major employer in Edinburgh – by 1859 it employed more than 600 workers, making a wide range of rubber goods including boots and shoes, rubber hose and belting. For the first few years of the company’s operations Henry Lea Norris was the General Manager, and was responsible for much of the company’s early success, but in 1860 Norris returned to America, and another American, Douw Ditmars Williamson Jr. was appointed General Manager. Born in New York on 15 November 1830, Douw Ditmar Williamson certainly had an unusual and rather adventurous early career. In 1844 he Graduated from Peekskill Military Academy and entered a commercial house as clerk. In 1849 he went to Brazil where he remained for over a year, before making his way to Panama and Ecuador having taken ten days to cross the Panama Isthmus on a mule.

As something of a liberal himself, at some point he must have befriended the Italian Revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in 1851 he was with Garibaldi in Havana when Garibaldi’s American friend Col. William Logan Crittenden and fifty of his filibusters were executed by a Spanish firing squad. Williamson himself was pursued by Spanish troops but escaped and returned to New York.

By the time he arrived in Edinburgh in 1860, Douw Ditmars had married Mary Frances Dodd and during their six-year stay in Edinburgh we can see from the 1861 UK census that the family lived at 6 Greenhill Gardens with two servants, Elisa Fraser and Agnes Yorkston. They later moved to 11 Church Hill and finally to 8 Whitehouse Terrace.

Though they had no children of their own, Douw and Frances raised their orphaned niece Cornelia Dodd Bodwell (1863-1943) and nephew George Norman Williamson Sr. (1853-1905).

There are some photographs of the family which were taken when they lived in Edinburgh, and also one with Robert Louis Stevenson which was taken in the garden at 11 Church Hill. That particular photograph was taken by a friend of Douw Ditmars, called Thomas Dunkin Paret, who was born in New York and was a student at The University of Edinburgh from 1860 to 1865.  The author, Robert Louis Stevenson is on the right and was probably about 14 years old when the photograph was taken. He is standing with two acquaintances, one of whom, Robert Thomson ran a school for boys in Frederick Street Edinburgh, so it’s likely that George Norman Williamson was a schoolmate and became a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson’s. They probably kept in touch and remained friends, because there is mention of an American, called “G. Williamson” or “G. N. Williamson”, in several of the books written by or about Robert Louis Stevenson.

During his six-year stint as manager of the North British Rubber Co., Douw-Ditmars was responsible for rebuilding and enlarging the works which had been heavily damaged by fire in 1863. Under his control, in 1861 a new but separate company, Scottish Vulcanite Co. was formed for the purpose of making vulcanite combs and other goods. Sharing premises and services with North British Rubber both companies became successful and profitable. In 1910 the Scottish Vulcanite Company was taken over and became part of the North British Rubber Company which in 1911 started to manufacture gold balls.

Following the fire of 1863, it became nearly impossible for the company to obtain fire insurance for the mill buildings and contents, and it was only after the company installed an automatic sprinkler system (the invention of Mr Henry Parmelee, of New York, son of the first works manager of the company) that the mills and their contents could be fully covered by insurance. Because of this high risk exposure, several of the original American shareholders decided to dispose of their shares which were taken up by a local Solicitor, John Murdoch, a local merchant Hugh Rose, and a Leith ship owner, William Thomson. On purchasing the shares, all three were appointed to the board as directors.

It’s worth pointing out that Hugh Rose and another young Scottish entrepreneur James Craig, both in their early twenties, had met in Edinburgh and set up in business together in 1829 dealing in oils and paints. Originally based in New Street, then at Greenside Place, in 1874 they opened a new large paint mill in Leith and in 1880 Craig & Rose won the tender to paint the new legendary Forth Bridge and the company has now provided that same service for more than 100 years until 1998. (In 2000 the company moved to new premises at Dunfermline in Fife.) Hugh Rose was a director for many years, and when he retired from the board he was replaced by his son and then his grandson Hugh who served until he also retired in 1956.

Although not quite as big as the Forth Bridge contract, could I just say that they also supplied the marine paints for the George Gibson ships when I worked for that company in the 1960s.

The other new Director, William Thomson was a Leith ship owner who with his brother Alexander, had a sailing ship Carrara built in 1839 to import marble from Italy. In 1847 Alexander Thomson retired from the partnership and William Thomson & Company, Leith was founded – the company would eventually become Ben Line Steamers Ltd.

With the new Scottish shareholders and directors now having a greater say in the management and control of the company, the 1870s and 1880s became a period of rapid expansion in the size of the company and the number and diversity of the rubber goods which it produced.

In 1888, the original North British Rubber Co. founded in 1857 with a share capital of £10,000, was wound up and the present North British Rubber Co. was formed with a capital of £350,000 to provide for further expansion. The capital of £350,000 was all paid up with 2000 £100, and 2000 £25 ordinary dividend earning shares, plus 5000 £20 preference shares at a fixed dividend. In 1890 there was another major breakthrough for the company when William Erskine Bartlett, who was the General Manager of the company, took out the Bartlett-Clincher patent on what would become the first detachable pneumatic tyre in the UK.

Production of the Clincher Tyre was started at Castle Mills for sale to the general public in 1891, but for some reason, in 1897 the company sold the Bartlett-Clincher patent for pneumatic tyres to the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co. for a reputed price of £973,000. Was it the correct decision to sell to a competitor the patent for what turned out to be the basic design for all subsequent inflatable tyre developments? Time will tell.

Picture of a Turkish rug (1900) showing the North British Works (Image: NBR Wrinklies)

The company expanded rapidly through the 1890s and into the 1900s, and in 1910 the North British Rubber Company purchased the Scottish Vulcanite Company, formed in 1861 for the purpose of making vulcanite combs and many other products. Edinburgh now had an extensive bus service, and every bus was fitted with North British Tyres.

Through WW1, North British Rubber had to make drastic adjustments and turn nearly all production over to the products required by the fighting services.

After the end of the war in 1918 a series of global recessions followed including the major Wall Street crash of 1929. For the North British Rubber Co these inter-war were unlikely to have been prosperous or allow for expansion or replacement of outdated machinery.

During the six years of WW2 the North British Rubber Company again made the necessary adjustments with more than 80% of production being of war materials. It was a work regime of three shifts round the clock for seven days a week and with little time for maintenance and repair, we can be sure that by the time the war ended in 1945 both production equipment and operators would all be worn out.

In the hope that it would help the company through what was sure to be a difficult post war period, in 1946, the North British Rubber company entered into a close technical agreement with United States Rubber Company, one of the largest rubber manufacturers in the world.

In 1955 the US Royal Tyre was launched from Castle Mills, replacing the old North British Tyre, and in 1956 the controlling interest in the North British Rubber Co passed to the American Company.

[1] Woodruff, William, The Rise of the British Rubber Industry during the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool Univeristy Press; 1st Edition edition, 1958) – via NBR Wrinklies Specimen labour contract for the American rubber workers brought to Scotland in 1855
– Read Part 1: Rise and fall of North British Rubber Company – An insight into my experiences working at ‘The Mill’
– See Flickr page Industrialist D. D. Williamson to view more photographs and interesting information regarding Douw Ditmars Williamson Junior’s family, residences, and businesses in New York, Edinburgh, and Dresden. [Photo credit: rmanders]
– See NBR Wrinklies website for many fascinating stories from former staff