During the early nineteenth century there was so much that was new which we take for granted - the machines themselves, the factories where they ran and the industrial towns where men worked and lived. For the thinking man of that era, these new social and economic phenomena raised strange problems which admitted of no easy answers; but for the first generation of business men they merely provided the essential conditions of advance in an age of change.
The pioneers of early industrialisation left few written records of their triumphs and defeats; they were men more interested in work rather than posterity. In working themselves to the bone as well as forcing others to work; in working without respite; in order to achieve success to expand their enterprises. At times they were men who seemed to be driven ahead by the logic of progress itself.
They were not often men who lacked humanity or social sense, they were men whose views of economics were often expressed in religious language, even though at times they seemed to have no time to worry about the general environment they were creating. Material progress meant individual forging ahead. Manchester streets may be irregular, wrote an outside witness surveying the scene in mid-century. Its trading inscriptions pretentious; its smoke may be dense, and its mud ultra muddy, but none of these things can prevent the image of a great city rising before us, a very symbol of civilisation foremost in the march of improvement and a grand incarnation of progress. That was what Disraeli discerned in Manchester more than ten years before the above words were written, but it was a clearer vision than that caught by the first industrial pioneers, who did not care to express their personal strivings in such sophisticated language. They saw their opportunities and they took them.
It was said that the Mathers came to Manchester from Montrose, Scotland, at an unknown date and for unknown reasons; so far as we know, they certainly left no written records of their journeys or their objectives. Also since they left no records of the daily business of their first enterprise, we know far more of the opportunities open to them in Manchester than of the way they tackled them.
The early nineteenth century is a dark age for that reason too, we know more of the world of necessities and opportunities than we do of the people who lived in it and shaped it.
Manchester, primarily a cotton manufacturing centre, was a city to attract the enterprising pioneer. In 1800 there were 38 steam mills in Manchester and Salford and by 1820, no less than 66 cotton mills in the two towns. Steam power was also employed in the bleaching, dying and printing branches of the cotton trade, and there were many finishing factories of this type in the Manchester neighbourhood. Lancashire was supplanting London as the chief centre of the calico printing trade and forging ahead of Scotland in bleaching and dying. As a result, there was a flow of Scotsmen across the border, men like the Cheeryble Brothers, so well described by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.
Merchants had to link up to the fortunes of Lancashire with the development of cotton producing areas overseas, and machine manufacturers had to provide and repair the large wheels, the cylinders, boilers and pipes and the rollers for printing, without which the cotton factories would have come to a standstill. The demand for textile machinery often of a very simple character, brought into existence a large number of one man or family concerns making machines by hand; roller makers, iron turners and millwrights. Some of these men and firms survived; others disappeared, hit hard, no doubt, by commercial misfortunes and trade fluctuations, which suspended demand for their products, or by the competition of more powerful rivals.
It is among the small men who survived that we first trace Colin Mather, cabinetmaker, of Gun Street, Salford, in 1817. He is probably the same man who appears as Colin Mather, a machine maker, and just over ten years later at Waterloo Place. The transition from cabinet making to machine making would be quite a natural one for an immigrant from a non-industrial area. By 1834, he had moved to Brown Street, Salford, that has often been regarded as the birthplace of the firm. The site was convenient, not far from the River Irwell, and by 1836, Colin had become associated with his brother William in an enterprise as that of Engineers, machine makers and millwrights, 23 Brown Street. Compared with some rival ventures, Colin and William Mathers establishment appears to have been small and unimportant.
In the decade after the Napoleonic Wars, two of the most renowned engineering partnerships in Manchester, were Peel, Williams and Peel, of the Soho Foundry, Ancoats and Galloway, Bowman and Galloway of Great Bridgewater Street, but by modern standards, these two firms were also small in size. Indeed, for some years Galloway and Bowman merely called themselves millwrights, although they employed pattern makers, iron and brass founders, smith's, firemen, hammermen and turners. Another firm, T.C. Herves, extensively employed in erecting mills and filling them with machinery, found work for 140 to 150 men.
There was one other active concern in Salford, which was to provide the eventual site for the Mather and Platt partnership at the Salford Iron Works. Indeed, the building was known as the Salford Iron Works when William Green drew his map of Salford in 1794. It was then owned by Bateman and Sherratt. Bateman lost interest in the firm, and the Sherratts, a Westmorland family, became the dominant influence.
In 1795, Aikin (J. Aikin, A Description of the Country to Forty Miles Round Manchester, (1795) p.176) wrote that, a considerable iron foundry is established in Salford, in which are cast most of the articles wanted in Manchester and its neighbourhood. Mr Sharrard is a very ingenious and able engineer, who has improved upon and brought the steam engine to great perfection. Most of those that are used and set up in and about Manchester are of their make and fitting up. They are in general of a small size, very compact, stand in a small space, work smooth and easy and are scarcely heard in the building when erected. They are now in use in cotton mills and for every purpose of the water wheel, where a stream is not available and for winding up coals from a great depth in the coal pits, which is performed with a quickness and ease not conceived. This was an interesting forecast of the sort of claim that was to be made eventually for engineering operations carried out by Mather & Platt and as a reference, it also showed how established was the Sherratt firm before the Mathers had begun their operations at all.
In 1834, when William and Colin Mather had begun their operations, a wage book dated 1829, established that they were in business as millwrights and engineers at the date that J. & T. Sherratt were described as brass founders, engine makers and iron founders. The description indicates that they were concerned primarily with general engineering rather than with the production of machinery for the textile trade, a task which was still left to small men, although from a later entry, it is clear that the Sherratts continued to do some textile machinery work.
In the eighteenth century, many cotton mills grew up in the same neighbourhood as iron works, and the textile industry and the engineering trades flourished side by side. As late as 1836, Sherratts still called themselves iron founders, steam engine manufacturers, millwrights and hydraulic press manufacturers". In 1837, Thomas Sherrat died, and two years later, his trustees leased the Salford Iron Works to John Platt. Little is known about John Platt, for he is not described in the Directories until 1836, when he was described as a machine maker, living in Roman Road Terrace, Higher Broughton. His workshop before he moved to the Iron Works was in Greengate.
Platt had entered into partnership with George Yates, the two of them continuing Sherratts line of business. From their small workshop in Brown Street, the Mathers could contemplate the roomy premises occupied by Platt and Yates at the Salford Iron Works across Chapel Street. For reasons which remain obscure, the Mathers and the Platts became connected when in 1845, John Platt leased the Salford Iron Works, or at any rate part of them, to William and Colin Mather. The premises were to grow substantially in size in later years, but here was the beginning of a larger Mather enterprise than had been envisaged before.
Stepping into the shoes of the Sherratts, they advertised themselves in the Directory as Engineers, Machine-makers, Millwrights and Iron-founders, Garden Lane, Salford. At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, they referred to their premises not as Garden Lane but as Salford Iron Works and went to London to display A calico printing machine for printing eight colours at one operation with drying apparatus, a sewing machine and patent pistons. The sewing machine for the batching of the pieces was a new invention of 1847. The patent pistons were made at Brown Street.
One year after the Exhibition, Colin Mather entered into partnership with William Platt, the son of John Platt, who had died in 1847. It was this partnership which laid the foundations of the later business. The younger Platt, who had carried on iron founding work in the Salford Iron Works, provided land, buildings and money for the new partnership, while Colin, apparently, contributed technical skills and ideas. This sort of division of labour in industrial partnerships was by no means new, indeed it had already been established as a well-tried recipe for business success.
Colin Mather, Cast Iron Colin, as he came to be called, was an engineer of ingenuity and brilliance. As the active head of the business, with Grundy as his manager, he not only built up an efficient organisation to produce textile finishing machinery, he also concerned himself with a wide range of ingenious ideas, including the design of piston rings, particularly for use in ships engines. There was also well boring, the production of magnesium in quantity in cast iron pots instead of in expensive platinum and porcelain vessels which had been used previously; and the method of preventing coastal erosion with a system of cast iron plates. He had something of Wilkinsons zest for turning iron into a universal material and it was easy to see from the list of his pre-occupations how he came to earn his nickname.
Such clever ideas have sometimes led engineers to their ruin, for as Campbell had written in the middle of the eighteenth century, an engineer ought to have a solid not a flighty head, otherwise his business will tempt him to make useless and expensive projects. These did not prevent Colin from building up the solid side of the partnerships activities for in 1852 the firm was employing about 125 men, ten years later the number had increased to 300 and in 1875, about the same number were employed.
The entry of William Wilkinson Platt into the partnership coincided with the withdrawal of Colins brother William, who had been associated with him since the 1830s. William had been more interested in public life and politics than in engineering and at the time of his death in 1858, he had few business interests. However, as a result of domestic circumstances, it was William's son, also called William, later Sir William Mather, rather than Colins sons who was destined to play the biggest part in the subsequent development of the business in the nineteenth century.
Colin Mather had three sons, the eldest, William Penn, whom after spending a few years in the family business decided to emigrate to America. The second, John Harry was sent to Alsace to study tinctorial chemistry, in which the firm, as makers of dyeing machinery, had an active interest. The youngest, another Colin, spent over 40 years in the family business and in due course became a director of the Limited Company. Colin played a prominent part in the technical developments of the time and left his mark in many branches of engineering, especially that associated with the textile finishing trade.
When Colin senior met with an accident at work and was compelled to take a less active part in the affairs of the firm, it was to William Mather , the second son of old William that he turned and not to his own children, who were still too young to accept important positions in the business.
Young William was capable, far-seeing and energetic and in 1850, at the age of twelve, he had begun three strenuous years of apprenticeship in the family business. He had broadened his industrial education by spending some time in Germany and had returned at the age of eighteen to work in the family business. It is on record that his hours of work extended from 6.00am to 6.00pm and most of his evenings were spent at night school in the Mechanics Institute, which both the Mathers and the Platts had sponsored three years before.
This was learning the hard way, but it paid good dividends, for, as a result, William Mather always understood the value and dignity of manual work and the importance of establishing happy relations with his employees. As he said on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in the course of a celebration at Belle Vue, he had always loved working men from his youth. Because he knew so much of them in his early life, he had a profound respect for the honest, diligent, earnest, working man.
In 1858, the year when his father died, William was made assistant manager at the Salford Iron Works. Five years later he was taken into partnership with Colin Mather and William Wilkinson Platt and the occasion was marked by a celebration at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. All employees were given half a days holiday and invited to attend a social gathering, the first of many similar functions given by the firm. The programme included a characteristically Victorian meal and a feast of speech making and dancing.
Young William Mather represented a new generation, wider in its interests and more cultivated in its tastes, than the generation of pioneers who first saw the possibilities of advancement in the world of machines and factories. It was fitting that for a time he should be the sole figure on the stage of the story of the firm.
Colin Mather retired soon after 1863 and William Wilkinson Platt in 1872. William Mather was thus left in sole control between 1872 and 1878 when he took into partnership young John Platt, the son of William Wilkinson Platt. The men of the new partnership were different from those in 1852, representative of a changed age, about which we know more and of which we can find out more if we try. Indeed, we have numerous photographs, diaries, records and outside observers comments to help us.
Of John Platt, who had served his apprenticeship at Hulses - machine tool makers - in Salford and who died in 1927 at the age of 79, we have fewer records. So far as can be traced from available documents, he spent much of his time travelling in search of business and frequently visited Italy, Austria, Germany and Russia. A study of old order books indicates that as a result of his efforts in these countries, he left a definite imprint in the commercial history of the concern.
Between the beginning of the 1870s and the end of the nineteenth century, the firm was expanding rapidly, both in the size of its plant and the scope of its operations. In 1873, adjacent property in Deal Street, known as Drinkwaters Mill and the whole of Foundry Street were taken over. This increased accommodation provided new offices, a lodgemans house, stores, pattern and joiners shops and a light fitting shop and the number of employees increase to about 600. From 1888 onwards, land was being acquired from the Salford Corporation. In 1894 agreement was reached concerning the closing of a portion of Union Street in order that the area covered by the street and two rows of cottages, could be absorbed into the Salford Iron Works, thus providing space for a fine erecting shop and new offices.
The new erecting shop soon became known as Klondyke as it was being erected about the time when gold was discovered at Klondyke in Alaska. The men working in the building through the winter felt that the term was a bright and apt one. Klondyke was more up to date than the rest of the buildings, but it marked the effective limit to the expansion of the Salford Iron Works site. In order to expand further the firm had to look outside, just as William and Colin Mather had looked across the way from Brown Street nearly fifty years earlier.
Serendipity and the cause of natural expansion saw Mather & Platt gradually leave Salford Iron Works behind. By the time the twentieth century rumbled in, plans were well afoot for re-locating much of the business of an increasingly successful concern to what was to become its celebrated Park Works site at Newton Heath in Manchester.
As Park Works developed, the older ties with Salford were gradually broken and production in the old works ceased entirely after the heavy Iron Foundry was transferred to a new building at Park Works in 1938.
The old works had been a home of great character and tradition; its rambling bays and uneven floors still showed where a cottage had been absorbed or a neighbouring street roofed over. Its grimy walls end great wooden cranes epitomised the hard work and individual skill, which had carried the roller makers forward to become engineers with an international reputation. When the last moulders left the old Iron Works in Salford, they carried to their new modern Foundry at Park Works the skill that had helped to make the companys products famous.
It was not without pangs therefore, that the ownership of Salford Iron Works passed from Mather & Platt Ltd. to Threlfalls Brewery, 'popular' neighbours in more senses than one during the nineteenth century. It is a legend of the old days that many Mather & Platt employees had their own methods of securing supplies of beer through a convenient hole in the wall, which separated the two buildings. From Threlfalls, part of the works subsequently passed to a well-known firm of motor car spring manufacturers. A few of the nineteenth century landmarks, including the weighing-in machine still survived in the 1950s.
The only production link between Mather & Platt Ltd. and Salford, which still persisted mid-century was the Plate Metal Works, known as the Boiler Yard, which had an interesting history. Originally owned by one John Platt a man not related to the Platt of the Mather & Platt partnership, but who occasionally did some work for the firm the Boiler Yard passed into the hands of the firm in 1870, when the same Platt was installed as foreman, in charge of about twenty-five men. Its one bay was extended in 1906, when the adjoining works of Edmondson and. Co., General Engineers, were absorbed and used as a machine shop and plate shop.