Engineering a spot in history

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THE PERFECT Christmas present for the man (or woman) with a mechanical bent and an interest in antique engines is a book by Perthshire author John D. Ellis.

A fount of otherwise difficult to find information it is pragmatically titled ‘Scotland’s Engineering Heritage’ with a sub-title ‘A History of the Stationary Engine Makers of the East Coast’.

The book contains chapters on Alexander Shanks & Son, Arbroath, and Anderson Grice, Carnoustie, as well as myriad information about other engineers and manufacturers.

The comprehensive section about Alexander Shanks & Son opens with a piece about the early life of Alexander Shanks, the founder of the company, and describes his first business ventures in Orchard Street and Ogilvy Place. It relates that in 1841 the engineering shop was moved to premises in Dens Road. That same year was also the year of the creation of the product for which the company became world famous – the lawn mower.

Superbly illustrated, the Shanks chapter goes on to describe the evolution of the company’s cutting machines and their move to a much larger premises in 1854.

It takes in the move into the production of steam-driven machinery in the 1860s and the introduction of malleable castings, which became quite a large part of the business with over 1,000 different patterns available by the end of the century for such things as ploughs, carts, tram and railway vehicles, and spanners, .

It described a change of direction by Shanks to manufacture mowers for the upper classes and professional users.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the company’s larger products and made by Shanks throughout the 1870s was the tank railway locomotive. The book reveals that it was made in three sizes and three were still running in the 1960s at the Santa Madeleina Sugar Company in Trinidad.

Shanks created a subsidiary company in Buenos Aires in 1888 but this was to lead to their downfall and in 1893 the parent company was forced into liquidation. However, the assets were purchased by a new company and Alexander Shanks and Son, limited, was incorporated in 1894. It brought out new designs of lawn mower including a steam machine fired by paraffin. Various stationary engines were redesigned at this time and Shanks also made an entry into the internal combustion engine market.

The book reveals that during the First World War, Shanks did munitions work and lawn mower production was restricted.

In post-war years, sales of the company’s oil engine improved, hand mower production increased and a new range of horizontal steam engines was introduced. A new motor mower was brought to the market in 1922 and several new or updated machines were also included in the company’s catalogue. However, competition came from all quarters and began to make inroads on Shanks’s customer base.

The onset of the Second World War saw Shanks return to manufacturing munitions and other war contracts and the workforce increased considerably. It was not until October, 1945, that mower production was resumed.

Mr Ellis describes the company’s move into manufacturing agricultural implements and a merger with Charles H. Pugh of Birmingham, which made Atco lawnmowers, in 1952 virtually ended Shanks’s lawn mower business.

The firm soldiered on until 1965 recording bigger and bigger losses and in 1968 was taken over by Giddings & Lewis Fraser Ltd.

Mr Ellis devotes a chapter to the Anderson-Grice engineering company in Carnoustie, which in its heyday was famous for heavy lifting and stone cutting and planing machinery.

One interesting aspect of which, unfortunately, little information is available, is the production of a motor car at the Carnoustie factory, The sporty two-seater was named the ‘Dalhousie’ after the Marquis of Dalhousie. It is believed that a total of six were made and four were sold. However, as they were in competition with such prestigious vehicles as Rolls-Royce, the venture was ultimately unsuccessful.

The company’s catalogue of stationary engines continued to expand although it suffered during the depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In 1939 The Anderson-Grice Co. Ltd., geared up for war work, building amongst other things Bailey Bridges and steam cranes. Post-war the Taymouth Engineering Works built a variety of cranes, stone saws and polishing machines and much of the production went abroad, mainly to South Africa.

The 1950s and ‘60s were decades of steady sales but a lack of investment and development led to the receivers coming in in 1983.

However, the closure was shortlived and the Anderson-Grice Company re-opened after being taken over by Low and Duff Development Ltd., an Arbroath-based chocolate-making machine manufacturer. Despite considerable investment Anderson-Grice finally ceased trading in 1996.

Mr Ellis’s book is magnificently researched – a task that took 10 years – and copies are available from the author at: John D. Ellis, Easter Sunnyside, Near Methven, Perth, PH1 3RF. He can be contacted on 01764 683245. Orders should be accompanied by a cheque for £21, which includes postage.