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Dobson and Barlow

Location Kay St and Bradley Fold

1871 A most interesting scene was presented on Saturday at the extensive ironworks of Messrs Dobson and Barlow, Kay-street, apropos of their recent concession to the hands (some 2,000 in number) of the nine hour system. Before leaving for the day the men and youths determined on publicly thanking the employers for the boon they had granted; a meeting was therefore improvised in the yard of the works, over which Mr Peter Knowles, of the frame department, was called upon to preside. The vote was carried amidst the utmost enthusiasm, and was briefly but happily acknowledged. Several rounds of hearty cheers brought the proceedings to a close.

Updated December 23, 2016 7:46 PM

Dobson and Barlow Ltd., one of the oldest engineering companies in the world, was founded in 1790 by Isaac Dobson (1767 to 1833) for the production textile machinery. The partnership of Isaac Dobson and Peter Rothwell built mules in Blackhorse Street and by 1850 the firm had opened a larger factory in Kay Street which produced a much wider range of equipment. By 1860 the firm employed 1,600 workers and by the late 1880s they were producing between 600 and 650 looms a year. In 1892 the firm became a limited liability company and, after building a second production facility at Bradley Fold in 1906, it was re-floated as a public limited concern with members of the Dobson family holding key directorships. The company employed 4,000 workers in 1913 but by then Bolton's oldest engineering company was apparently locked into a market which was becoming more competitive both at home and abroad. It's strength as a highly specialised producer of textile machinery was also it's weakness in as much as it's manufacturing facilities were suitable only for the production of this type of equipment and the skills of it's labour force had been either diluted or downgraded through overspecialisation.

Dobson and Barlow's main competitors between 1890 and 1913 were mainly Lancashire based companies such as Platt Brother's, Asa Lees and Howard and Bullough which were all vying for Britain's traditional markets. Platt Brothers of Oldham's business had the same weaknesses and faced the same threats as Dobson and Barlow with whom they were in fierce competition as were Asa Lees, another large Oldham firm. Between them these three companies alone employed around 20,000 workers and they were by no means the only textile machine makers in Lancashire with employment levels of over 2,000. By 1900 the world's largest textile machinery manufacturer was an American company, an unremarkable development considering the size and phenomenal growth of the US population at that time. However in 1913 Britain exported, in value, over 27 times as much textile machinery as the USA and nearly three times as much as Germany.

During the First World War Dobson and Barlow Ltd. became one of the most important producers of munitions in the region. They produced a wide range of war equipment including Mills No. 5 hand grenades, artillery shells, field kitchens, mobile workshops, naval mines and search lights. Apart from the significant disruption to their normal activities caused by munitions production, some 1,600 male employees volunteered for the armed forces.

Between 1915 and 1918 Dobson and Barlow actually withdrew from the textile machinery market in order to produce munitions, having to adopt an entirely different type of production strategy to achieve this. The fact that they could do so is not so much a demonstration of their flexibility as of the simplicity of munitions manufacture in terms of production engineering. Dobson and Barlow however seems to have re-entered it's pre-war markets with far more success than other, similar firms who were in financial trouble almost immediately after the war work ran out.

Company records indicate that a large proportion of the orders received between 1918 and 1921 were from Belgian and French textile producers who were re-equipping and refurbishing after the devastation of the war. The company's expensively produced brochure, published for an exhibition in France during 1924, shows the wide range of textile machinery then being produced. Activities at this time included the design, erection and equipping of complete textile production plants on a 'turnkey' basis, a service in which several of their competitors were also engaged. The firm's order books reveal that several such projects were completed in the Indian subcontinent during the 1920s and 1930s.

After 1931 Dobson and Barlow were incorporated into Textile Machinery Makers Ltd. and after then lost much of it's independence. Textile Machinery Makers Ltd., a scheme which would, it was believed, both reduce competition and avoid casualties, was a cartel composed of Dobson and Barlow, Platt Brothers, Howard and Bullough, Asa Lees and Brooks and Doxey with Tweedales and Smalley a member with associate status. Stanley H. L Greaves of Dobson and Barlow became Secretary of TMM Ltd. at it's inception and Sir Walter Preston was it's bank appointed Chairman.

As a group these companies attempted to control prices through agreements with foreign competitors and they also undertook a certain amount of 'rationalisation' within their own operations. The amalgamation of these competing firms was not a fusion of technology and design. As Farnie observes; 'Proposals made to the board of Platts in 1937 reveal the limited achievement of the merger during six years of association There appears to have been no rationalisation of product lines and no attempt to achieve scale economies through specialisation of individual plants. The formation of TMM was an attempt to control the market through restrictive practices and price fixing. For most of the 1930s TMM negotiated with several international organisations in order to form agreements on trade and price constraints.

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