Press Articles

 Transcript of article published in the Black country Bugle 20th February 2003


My wife and I have found great interest in reading the articles on Chance Brothers Ltd in recent issues of The Bugle. Joyce ( nee`Nicklin ) worked in the Personnel Dept. from 1949 to 1964 whilst I served an engineering apprenticeship in the Lighthouse Drawing Office from 1946 to 1952.

I will always be grateful for the basic grounding in engineering which I was given at Chances. Not only was the apprenticeship well organised and controlled but the breadth of experience on one site was quite exceptional. Starting as an office lad in the LighthouseDO I was immediately introduced to the workshops by having to deliver drawings ( blue prints in those days ), works orders, and all kinds of messages. Almost every engineering activity could be found in one or other of   the works departments plus the grinding and polishing of glass prisms in the shop managed by George Woodcock and described by Ray Kenny in The Bugle of 12thSeptember. DO lads were well accepted in all the departments and the chargehands and operators seemed pleased to explain things.

The DO was upstairs and had a side door which led directly into the main workshop via a steel stairway so your first view was from above. I remember a large variety of lathes from small centre lathes to capstans, autos, and large faceplate machines , big horizontal and vertical borers, a large planer, pillar and large radial drillers, gear cutting machines, etc.   The nature of the work was such that one-offs and batch production were normal. The overhead crane was frequently moving large castings up and down the shop.   At the foot of the stairway was a maintenance section with two machine tool fitters- Jack Ashley and Tom Gibbs. Beyond manager Jack Corbett`s upstairs office was a section of die-makers working on moulds for the Pressed Glass Dept. One large centre lathe in the central gangway was often used to try out new equipment such as copying devices and an electronically (or was it pneumatic) controlled sizing device - my first experience of automation. The operator on that machine was named Whitehurst who I think had a brother, Edgar, who was toolsetter on the autos.

Most machine operators will tell you that there is no such thing as a “putting on tool” but I saw one in my first year at Chances.   A large expensive casting had been produced under size on diameter. The casting was set up on the vertical borer by the operator, Daniel Nation, with a device like a modified welding torch positioned to lay down a continuous spiral bead of metal around the rotating casting. I cannot remember exactly how the rough surface was finished off but I believe it was done successfully.

In the far bay of the machine shop was a section of smaller lathes, mostly capstans, driven by belts from overhead shafting. Like all apprentices I was to spend a period on   this section as part of my training. The supervisor was Jim Inston who is shown in the photograph checking a measurement with Les Bunting at the lathe.


Another valuable part of the training was 9 months spent in the Toolroom . The manager was Arthur Sleigh and I remember names of some toolmakers as Jim Akehurst, Harold Morton, Albert Baker, Bill Southall ( who I met again at Accles & Pollock ), and Geoff Riley ( a Glassworks Apprentice ). Two names which escape me are a centre lathe operator who I saw turning squares and cams with a relieving attachment, and the jig boring operator who was always willing to explain what he was doing. One of the duties of toolroom apprentices was to periodically take batches of small tools and harden, temper, anneal, or case harden them as required on a wind blown coke hearth – judging temperature by colour. Another task I remember was when Geoff and myself were required to sort a large stock of jigs and fixtures stored in the old tram sheds on the opposite side of Oldbury Road,   though I cannot remember why.

The most inspiring sights I recall were full lighthouse optics being tested in the fitting shop. To see the sweeping beams projected from what looked like a huge gleaming cut glass wasps` nest rotating on a beautifully proportioned cast pedestal was a picture which ,more than 50 years on, I can still see in my mind`s eye.   I regard myself as being very privileged to have seen such a fine example of the skills and romance of our engineering heritage, and I make no apology for sounding rapturous because remember , as a 16 year old, I had watched all this happen from drawing board to finished article.   I have seen many other impressive examples of fine engineering in my life but I always say that my sense of wonderment was born at Chance Brothers in the late 1940`s.

From around 1850, when James T Chance joined the family firm, Chance Brothers Ltd was one of the major suppliers of lighthouse optical systems in the world, and the only one in Britain. The apparatus in the illustration was one of the largest made at 2.66 metres inside diameter. It was constructed for Manora Point lighthouse near Karachi about 1908 when it projected a   one and a half million candlepower flash every seven and a half seconds. The revolving lens unit weighed 6 tons but floated on mercury such that it could be turned with one finger. However Muriel Harper was correct when she wrote in The Bugle of 29th August that Chances did not make lighthouses.   In most books on the subject Chances receive little mention, with the credit for lighthouse design being attributed to the engineers of Trinity House, Northern Lighthouse Board, Commissioners of Irish lights, Imperial Lighthouse Service, and similar bodies world wide.   Nevertheless designers from Chance Brothers ( and then Stone-Chance ) contributed tremendously to to the development of smaller optics, more powerful light sources, and modern control systems such that by the 1950`s Chance electrified lights were replacing older installations ( usually in the same buildings ) eventually leading the way to `keeperless` automatic lights before the end of the twentieth century. Sadly the days of magnificent romantic   lighthouses are coming to an end as they are replaced by small modern units which look like car headlights. But it could be said that Chance Brothers Ltd put the light into lighthouses, In a long line of Smethwick based designers Bill Richey and Harold Gough were respected worldwide. In 1946 Bill was already past retirement age but worked for a few hours most days and was a smashing old chap to talk to.

In 1946 the Drawing Office was upstairs in the Lighthouse Offices and immediately alongside the main workshops. It had its own air conditioning unit which made it a very pleasant place to work. George Nicol, the manager, with Harold Gough and Bill Richey worked behind a screen at one end of the long office whilst behind a screen at the other end drawing filing cabinets were positioned around a large drawing board ( about 10 foot square) used for optic layouts. Between the two screens were 16/18 draughtsmen and tracers.

The group photograph shows all but two of the DO staff at that time plus the managers of two associated offices. Rather guiltily in 1946 I salvaged the damaged print from a waste bin – only recently have I effected some computerised repairs. The back row are all senior draughtsmen L to R :- Len Neenan, Bill Dimmock, Joe Whitehouse, Tony Slingsby, Jack Lovesey, Jack Batten,   Jack Rainbow, and Ken Kirk.   Seated in the middle row :- Brenda Eades & `Polly` Hemmings (tracers ), Harold Gough, Jim Lord ( General Office ), Bill Richey,   George Nicol, Harold Hipkins ( Estimating ), Gwen Piper ( tracer ) and Bobby ? ( typist ). Seated at the front :- John Ingleby, Les Bunting, Ray Green and Mick Martin , junior draughtsmen at that time.

Bill Dimmock and Ken Kirk were the two draughtsmen who did the optical layouts working on hands and knees with stockinged feet on that 10foot square board.   I believe that Ken was a member of the Magic Circle.

Two draughtsmen missing from the group are Jack Lenham and Stan Doran. Jack I remember as a good cricketer, also because he did many drawings for Point Lynas lighthouse, Anglesey, for what was then The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board   ( sung to the tune `little lambs eat ivy` ).   Stan Doran was also a good sportsman ( and always full of artfulness ) who I met again when we were both lecturers in Further Education.

Derek Staines and myself were the two office boys who started work in August 1946.     We were required to toe a narrow line. Nevertheless I have only good memories of a wholesome learning experience where discipline seemed to occur naturally as a result of the firm, fair and friendly atmosphere. We were given suitable searching, listing,and drawing tasks sharing a drawing board with a service engineer, named Barratt, who we only saw occasionally.   I believe this must have been the Ernie Barratt referred to by Norman Smith in his letter printed in the Bugle of 17th October. In that same issue of The Bugle Ron Griffin described some of the glassmaking processes on the adjoining site. Many of our errands took us through the glassworks and it was impossible to resist pausing a while to watch some of the spectacular sights.

Most days many of the draughtsmen would walk over to the pavilion on the recreation ground for their lunch break. At least once each week this would mean one of us lads collecting a bulk order of fish and chips from the shop on Oldbury Road.   After lunch we would kick a football around.   I used to cycle to and from Causeway Green each day and it was quite usual for me to do this in the company of Harold Gough, Len Neenan and / or Jack Batten.

In late 1947, I think, it was decided to combine the three drawing offices i:e   Lighthouse, Sumo Pumps and Austinlite Electrical, and we were all brought together into what had been the Austinlite Offices above the Electrical Shop. This was not so good for the Lighthouse people because we had to leave our air conditioned office for a much larger one which had two glass walls and a glass roof making it cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer. My first spell in the big office was to be less than 12 months before I started my works training but it proved to be very interesting.   There were four or five office lads from the different DO`s and two , David Leadbeater and myself, were given the task of integrating the three drawing filing systems. The filing cabinets were sited along a balcony which ran above ,and for the full length of, the Electrical Shop. Many of the lighthouse drawings dated back to the 1850`s and we found several from the 1890`s which were the work of Bill Richey.

The manager of the combined office was Norman Stacey.   George Nicol and Bill Richey had retired and Harold Gough moved elsewhere.   I guess there were 40 or more draughtsmen and tracers altogether. Some of the ones we joined up with I remember as Jack Fisher, Jack Mason, Norman Fieldhouse, Tom Slatford, Bernard Simmonds, Eric Rowles, Norman Bladon, Don Whitehouse, John Hickling, Keith Williams, Norman Birch, Stan Downing, Derek Butler and Stan Evans.

As I write memories keep flooding back but I will mention just two more. All DO apprentices were required to spend about 6 months on the Tracing Section supervised by Miss Hemming – another example of the well planned training. We had seen that in earlier days the draughtsmen had worked with ink directly onto cloth ( often embellishing their work by drawing human figures climbing ladders or standing in the lanterns), but I guess it was more convenient and quicker to work in pencil on paper and employ tracers to make durable linen copies when required.

A Print Room served both Lighthouse and Glassworks DO`s and at that time provide blue prints or white prints. In 1946 this was sited in an old building next to the Pattern Shop behind the Blacksmiths. When the DO`s were combined the Print Room, with its irascible supervisor, Bob Growcott, was moved to the far end of the balcony above the Electrical Shop. Bob had lost one forearm but could manipulate the large rolls of paper and load the copying machines with remarkable dexterity.

After my final spell in the drawing office I left ChanceBrothers in 1952 to serve 3 years in the RAF. As Muriel Harper related the Lighthouse Works became Stone-Chance Ltd in 1954 and moved to Crawley in Sussex so in 1955 I found employment at Accles & Pollock Ltd – another fine family firm in those days.

Like Muriel I would like to hear from old colleagues.   Probably spurred by the articles in The Bugle I have renewed my interest in lighthouses. To help with my researches I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has memories, memorabilia, books, photographs (which I could borrow ) and especially human stories connected with Chance lighthouses.

Thank you Bugle for allowing me to make this link with the past.

Alan Taylor.  

This aerial view is of Chance Brothers Works in 1946, including the Recreation Ground at the top.

Spon Lane runs across the bottom of the picture leading to the Spon Croft, bottom left, on the corner with Oldbury Road.   The two canals and the railway indicate the right hand boundary of the site.

The Lighthouse Works were contained in the buildings running up and down the view from just above centre to the Recreation Ground.