‘The Father of the Siemens Brothers Engineering Society Archive’
Walter John Ford (1920-2014)
As it has become easier to store and retain historical records, through electronic files and ‘The Cloud’, it appears that many companies seem less inclined to do so than their predecessors, and it often falls to individuals who have the vision and foresight to ensure that valuable archive material is saved for posterity.
One such valuable resource is the Siemens Brothers Engineering Society Archive, and the reason that it exists is in large part due to one man, Walter John Ford. Because of his understanding of the importance of the company’s history, and his enthusiasm for preserving it, a collection of close to 1,800 items has been gathered together and made available for the benefit of future generations and researchers into the history of a company that, after the Woolwich Arsenal, was the second largest employer in the Greenwich area for over 100 years. Siemens Brothers was responsible for numerous technical innovations that radically changed and improved the way we live today, as well as making a significant contribution to the Allied efforts in both world wars.
John Ford was born on 8 May 1920 and christened Walter John, although it appears that from an early age he preferred to be known as ‘John’. In March 1936 he joined Siemens Brothers Limited at Woolwich as a trainee draughtsman. However, the manager of the drawing office decided that there were too many Johns already,so he told John that he would be called Ben, after the South African heavyweight boxer Ben Foord (1913-42), a nickname which stayed with him throughout his career.
In late 1936, he transferred to the Telephone Development Department, where he continued to work and study for his Higher National Certificate (HNC) in engineering until the outbreak of World War II. Ben volunteered for ‘Fire Watch’ duties at the factory, but was quickly transferred to Staincliffe, near Dewsbury in Yorkshire, where he was part of what was called the ‘Radio Department Team,’ which was secretly working on a Radar system then known as ‘Chain Home Low’. This was a vital technology that contributed significantly to the Allies winning the war.
The couple had two daughters, Carol in 1946 and Shirley in 1950. After the war Ben successfully completed his HNC and returned to the Woolwich factory in July 1945 as Group Leader of the Telephone Equipment Group.In September 1946, he moved to the new ‘Mechanical Division’, where in 1952 he worked with the BBC to devise switching methods for the outside broadcast of the Queen’s coronation. This transmission was a groundbreaking piece of television history!
In August 1954, Siemens Brothers had become part of the Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) Group, and by 1955Ben had been promoted to Head of the Technical Services Division, working closely with the other AEI companies. In 1958, the company’s centenary, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Works, at which time he was presented with two ‘Centenary Neophones’, one each for Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Ben was responsible for preparing the presentation case that they were mounted in, but it was Ruby that provided the upholstery skills.
|Prince Philip's visit 1958|
Returning to Woolwich in 1961, he spent three years in Overseas Sales, travelling the world,before becoming Assistant Chief Engineer for Development in 1964, and in 1966 he was appointed Head of Contracts for the newly formed Electronics Division.
When the Woolwich site closed in 1968, Ben joined Standard Telephones & Cables (STC) and moved north to East Kilbride,Lanarkshire, before returning to London in 1971 to live in Hatfield and work at STC New Southgate. Having learnt that the Siemens Brothers Engineering Society (SBES), still existed, he re-joined in April 1983, giving his first talk to the members on the ‘sticky’ topic of ‘What Ever Happened to Hot Wax’ in April 1984.Ben retired in 1984 and all too soon became his wife’s carer; Ruby died after a long illness in 1997.
Always needing a cause, as soon as he retired,Ben became involved with the Docklands History Group. This was formed in 1986 with the mission of assembling and retaining archive material and artifacts relating to the fast-disappearing London Docks and surrounding industrial area. Here he learnt from the archivist at the Port of London Authority Archive in Poplar, and the curator of the new Docklands Museum, being set up in the West India Dock, that as companies closed down or merged, buildings were demolished, and, all too often, past records, deeds, photographs and items of unique historical value were discarded and lost.
His work with the Docklands History Group inspired Ben to find out how much of Siemens Brothers’ history had been preserved in the local archives since the company’s closure. He was alarmed to find that very little existed, and so he determined to do something about it. In November 1991, 23 years after the Woolwich factory had closed, Ben wrote to the one hundred plus membership of the SBES, seeking Siemens Brothers Woolwich archive material suitable for inclusion in a permanent museum.Over the next ten years Ben accumulated some 1,500 artifacts, until his house was full to overflowing with donations from SBES members. As more items continued to arrive, in 2001 he decided something had to be done with this valuable collection. A six-man committee of SBES members was formed that year, and after three and a half years, the work of this committee resulted in the production of the SBES – Archive Material Catalogue, in June 2004.
Under Ben’s leadership , the committee of David Alexander-Smith, Brian Middlemiss, Bill Philpot, Jim Taylor and John Vamplew, set out with the goal of creating an archive that could represent the achievements and history of the thousands of men and women who worked for Siemens Brothers and its successors over its 105-year tenure of the Woolwich site. In addition to the detailed listing of artifacts the Catalogue contained a brief history of the SEBS, as well as the contact details of the six new custodians of the collection that the team had agreed on. Delivery of the artifacts to the new custodians was entrusted to Brian Middlemiss and Bill Philpot. A small number of artifacts were given to the Amberley Working Museum (delivered by John Vamplew), the Institute of Engineering & Technology, the Milton Keynes Museum, the Museum in Docklands, and Siemens UK. However, the vast majority of items, over 80%, were donated to the Greenwich Heritage Centre, now the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust.
The project team then disbanded but more donations continued to arrive, so a Supplement to the Catalogue was put together by Brian Middlemiss and Bill Philpot. It was issued in October 2006,adding close to 300 artifacts to the original collection. Following this Brian Middlemiss researched and compiled a full history of the SBES from 1897 to 2008 issued in October 2009, to accompany the Catalogue and its Supplement. Again, Ben’s extensive knowledge was invaluable.
As in many parts of Britain, the industrial history of London is rapidly disappearing. After Siemens Brothers became part of AEI and the Woolwich factory was closed in 1968, the site underwent many changes. The majority of the original buildings have been replaced by new development, and little remains to mark the many significant contributions to British industry made by the men and women who worked there. However, the property developer,U + I, is now undertaking a regeneration project on 5 acres of the Woolwich site, called the Faraday Works,which will preserve and repurpose some of the remaining original buildings. The redevelopment is named after Siemens Brothers’ long serving and iconic cableship,Faraday, that was designed by Sir William Siemens (1823-83) and was arguably the most import vessel of this class ever built. The U + I project will include a display of the history of the site in a permanent exhibition in the oldest building included in the plan. The material in the SBES archive is an unparallelled resource that will be used in this enterprise.
Ben and his committee wanted to assemble the archive material:‘for safe keeping and for the benefit of future generations and researchers’, and this they achieved,as their work has made secure a large part of the history of one of the most influential engineering companies in British history. This was only possible through the vision, enthusiasm, tenacity and dedication of Walter John Ford, to whom all industrial and family historians owe a great debt of gratitude.
At the age of ninety-two, Ben moved to Cornwall to live with this daughter Carol, he passed away there on 19 August 2014, aged 94.
|Telephone presentation case|
The Siemens Brothers Engineering Society, had its final meeting and dinner on 10 October 2013, hosted by Siemens UK and attended by the surviving membership. The Archive remains distributed over six locations, but the vast majority of it is now held at the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust Archive in Unit 15 at Anchorage Point off Anchor and Hope Lane, SE77SQ, and can be viewed by appointment.Brian Middlemiss remains the Guardian of the SBES Archive.