Thursday 13 February 2020

Francis Tin Box Makers

(and Colin Smith)

Colin Smith was (or is) a journalist who worked for the Kentish Mercury for many years. He is very proud of their work in producing articles on with local industries. In particular he masterminded a special supplement in 1969 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Francis Tin Box manufacturers of Greenwich. The supplement consisted of many articles about manufacturing methods, products, but, most of all, Francis’ staff. Here are a couple of extracts:


Surrounded by bits of wire, transistors, circuit diagrams and photoelectric paraphernalia, a young man called John Smith works in a small office perched high up in the five-gallon drum department. On the fast-moving automatic one-gallon rectangular manufacturing line, a can passes a beam of light and a blob of hot solder spits out to land precisely at the base of the neck, which is to be fitted. In the same split second, flux arrives precisely on the other side of the neck. The device which ensures that the solder and the flux arrive at the right moment thousands of times a day is a simple example of what can be done by the application of electronics in the tin box trade. John Smith, a 31-year-old Eltham man has been electronic engineer for Francis for the past six months. He arrived there from the Associated Electrical Industries factory in Woolwich, which was closing down. John is only the second man to occupy the office, for it has only been in the last five years that electronics - through the inspiration of chairman Mr. R. P. Lang - has begun to play a major part in production. To the layman the things John Smith and his staff of two, a wireman and an electrician, deal in add up to something akin to black magic. The talk is of photoelectric cells, capacitance probes, proximity switches and micro cells. John would rather we didn't talk of magic boxes and magic eyes, because this suggests that there might be something mystical and impractical about the whole business. In fact there is no doubt that electronics, married inextricably to engineering skill, are the promise for the future of Francis.


The Francis war effort wasn't confined to making camp kettles and meat tins in 1939-45. They made bombs and torpedoes too. Workers at Trundleys Road used to make large square tins destined to be filled with an incendiary mixture. One of those who remembers what happened in the Second World War is 65-year- old drum shop charge hand, Harry Keeble, who has worked for Francis for 51 years. He said: "We used to make 65lb. bomb cases and aerial torpedoes weighing 250lb. They stood as tall as I was. We made cases for depth charges as well." Harry, one of the characters of the drum shop, actually started working for Francis when he was only 13 years old. "I should have been 14 really, but I was only 13 when 1 came into the business as a lad." When he started work he earned 4d. an hour. Now he's looking forward to retiring later in the year to end a remarkable period of service.


As a young woman working for F. Francis and Sons as a solderer, Miss "Lil" Solomons - now a shop clerk - used to call in at Mence Smith's on her way to work to buy a threepenny bamboo cane. When she got to the factory in Trundleys Road the cane would be cut into six-inch lengths and handed around to the girls on the benches around her. The bamboo cane was an essential bit of equipment for any solderer in the old days when everything was done by hand. Today it is done automatically. But in those days no self-respecting solderer would be without her cane. She started work for Francis at 15, following her father into the Deptford business that he served for 30 years as a press operator in the heavy drum shop. Lil. as everyone knows her, is now an office worker. In her earlier days she reckons she did every single job in drum making other than grooving. Today as shop clerk, she collates the information from work sheets and calculates...


Five gallon drums - a familiar sight where ever oil is to be found - are turned out by the thousand every day at the Francis factory. Chimeless - they're the ones with a domed top and inset handle - and standard ones with a flat top, are made for a wide variety of customers. Although they may look more or less alike to the outsider, these drums are made to the precise specifications of many different customers. Some have larger openings than others, handles are different, and the type of tinplate used may vary from one customer to another. All this gives Francis an opportunity to display one of their greatest attributes - versatility - although they are well aware of the advantages of standardisation in speeding up production. One of the most modern and efficient machines in the factory is the Soudronic body welder used in the manufacture of five-gallon drums. This can produce bodies at the rate of 20-22 a minute, compared with about half that number by the old hand-welding methods. After leaving the body welder the drums travel by conveyor belt to be flanged, socketed and double seamed….

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Francis’s was their address in the 1960s ‘Thames Ironworks, John Penn Street, London’

This piece first appeared in GIHS Newsletter March 2005

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