Setting up Siemens Industrial Museum in Woolwich
By Iain Lovell
This account describes the setting up of an industrial museum at the AEI (formerly Siemens Brothers works in Woolwich) in the late 1950s. It covers not only the exhibits displayed but the circumstances under which it was commissioned and the interactions of the personalities involved. It is written from a position of personal involvement
In 1958 I was employed by AEI Woolwich limited as a student apprentice on a ‘sandwich course’; alternating the first six months of each year at college with six months work experience, comprising 6 to 8 weeks spells in various departments of the company. A chance conversation over lunch with another student at the company’s research laboratory in Blackheath, where we were both working, lead to one of the most interesting assignments of my career.
Siemens Brothers, one of the earliest electrical engineering companies, had been founded in Woolwich, on the south bank of the Thames a century earlier. There had been three Siemens brothers who set up engineering businesses in different parts of the world - Werner Siemens stayed in Germany and later combined with Halske; Karl Wilhelm Siemens came to England and set up in Woolwich, changing his name to Charles William and married an Englishwoman; Oskar Siemens set up in America.
The company had undergone many changes and amalgamations being known at various stages in its history as Siemens Edison Swan, Siemens Editswan, and latterly, AEI Woolwich Ltd, part of the giant Associated Electrical Industries group. During the 19th century a museum of the products had been set up but by the 1930s had become neglected. At the start of the war space became very scarce because of military production needs and there was bomb damage to some buildings. The exhibits were dispersed into various storerooms, pressed back into service or lost
A decision was taken to restore the museum as far as possible for the Duke of Edinburgh‘s visit for the company’s centenary. The new museum was to be housed in a former library used by William Siemens in Woolwich. In charge of this project was Dr George Sutton, director in charge of the research laboratory in Blackheath. Reporting directly to him was Brian Rispoli, a student. It soon became obvious that Brian would not be able to complete the work alone within the five week deadline. Following a lunch time conversation with me he put my name forward to Dr Sutton urn and I was asked to join the team. Also co-opted onto the team was Terry Card, an instrument maker, who was assigned the task of restoring the exhibits. An exhibition designer John Arnold was contracted through the firm of Cyprien Fox to do the display work.
We used a conference room on the lower ground floor as an office/workshop. Off it led four individual offices one of these was uses sporadically by Dr Sutton and the other three were unoccupied. Access to the conference room was via a store room, for want of a better word, containing a huge number of books, ledgers and other documents. They dated mainly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries but some went back to the 18th century. They included an almost complete set of bound volumes of the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (originally known as the Society of Telegraph Engineers) from its inception in about 1870 tot the 1930s. There were a number of text books, mainly on engineering but also on biology, botany and other sciences. Many were beautifully illustrated and some were printed in German. There was also the first wages book and the letter book. I was told this collection included the Obach Library, a private collection left by a senior employee named Obach many years earlier supposedly on condition it was properly looked after. These books were stacked against walls, stored in cardboard boxes or left lying in piles on the table on the floor. Amongst them were the components of a number of steel shelf units intended to store the books but never assembled
The building had some bizarre architectural features. The position of some light switches in and around the storeroom bore no logical relationship to that of the fluorescent tubes they controlled; operating a switch might light a tube in a distant corridor, sometimes after a number of seconds, as the starters were not all affective. The heating was by large cast-iron radiators most of which were at floor level, as is normal. Some however were anything from 2 to 6 feet above the ground
The exhibits were brought to the conference room in crates and cardboard boxes. Many were damaged scratched or dusty. The books in the storeroom with invaluable in researching the exhibits and most of our information came from that source. Some time before we started on the project the Company had lent several of the instruments for a temporary exhibition to the Science Museum who returned them without the descriptive notice. The notices were jumbled together with the instruments and some were inaccurate but nevertheless made a very useful starting point for research.
One of our earliest tasks was to sort the useful books from the irrelevant once and assemble one of the dismantled bookcases to store the frequently used volumes. in doing this we risked precipitating a strike but there was not time to wait till the millwrights arrived - when they eventually came to assemble the other cases the Duke of Edinburgh‘s visit was over. Because of the short time span John Arnold had been obliged to design a showcase and order them to be made before he knew what was to be stored in them.
Dr Sutton was a striking person of a great charm, born about 1890. A little over 6 feet in height he had a tall wave of white hair, slightly yellowed like antique ivory and large horn rimmed glasses. the most startling aspect of his appearance was the informality of his dress, at a time where a dark lounge suit was just about acceptable office wear for an ex executive, he would typically wear pale yellow corduroy trousers, a bright red plaid patterned open neck shirt, a hounds tooth sports jacket with leather patched elbows and sandals. It was very rare for him to wear a tie. He appeared to us to be quite detached from the hurly-burly of office politics. He had a profound knowledge and great interest in the history of engineering. he spoke frequently and always with the greatest fondness about his father who had been an engineer or scientist and I remember him saying was a member of the Horological Society. his father had a laboratory/ workshop in the garden of their home where as a boy Dr Sutton was allowed on occasions to watch him work
John Arnold was a completely different character, born in 1915; he was a short stocky man with a friendly outgoing manner, a lively sense of humour, sometimes a bit vulgar by the standards of the day, and a ready smile. He was very quick to see the potential of the exhibits and how they could be arranged to demonstrate engineering themes, although he had virtually no technical knowledge. He also had great dynamism and well understood the urgency of the deadlines. He had some pithy descriptions of the type of person one met in publicity work. One was the ‘little Emperor’ i.e. the self-important head of department who could not understand how anyone could attach any importance to anything other than his department. Another was the ‘Ancient Mariner’ who, as in the poem, insists on describing his own interests at inordinate length when you had other urgent business to attend to.
This first appeared in the GIHS newsletter for December 1998