I started at Messenger’s in 1970 or 1971 and left at the very end when they finished. I was there 9 years, although it was not a long span it is about 20 per cent of your working life. I did my apprenticeship at Morris’ Pumps before going to Messenger’s. My dad put me onto the job as he was foreman in the machine shop and he set me on in the fitting shop. That was when they were manufacturing machines for F. J. Edwards but it was near the end. They had a few batches left to complete and that was what I first worked on when I went there. They were made of heavy cast iron, made in the foundry, machined and fitted on-site. They were old fashioned very heavy machines; I can remember making metal punching presses that had a 3ft. fly wheel, like you’d see on a traction engine. They were run off of a standard Brooks motor that were either bought-in or supplied by Edwards. Everything else was made on-site and fitted-up on-site. Before I went there, they were making a lot of Edwards’s machines, which were collected by Edwards’ own lorries.
When I went there, they were still casting odd parts for boilers, mainly for repair work but they were not making complete boilers. They still had the old patterns and moulds to be able to cast the parts and the old gents in the foundry still had the knowledge.
My dad went to work for Messenger’s about 15 years before I started. They sacked my dad that is in effect what they did. He was the works superintendent at the time: a new company came in and put money into Messenger’s and they had a big shake-up. This was about three or four years before they shut down.
Messenger’s went into a number of ventures with the knitting industry. In Leicestershire they were three circular knitting machine manufacturers including Stibbe’s and Kirkland’s. Messenger’s got involved in manufacturing a circular knitting machine, starting from the beginning by making the castings, machining them and finally putting them together. They invested heavily in buying-in, at additional expense, some large machinery for the roundabout, the circular borers, because they had to make a 6ft. bed for the knitting machine. The machine shop was taken up by making the carcasses for these circular knitting machines. It started off by working with Healy’s of Leicester Ltd., a development company, who had been taken over by Tube Investments (in 1971), together with Alfred Kohorn from America, who I think was a needle manufacturer and actually put up the money. Mr. Billing’s, a Directory of Healy’s come over and put his own men in and it was that time when my dad left. The knitting machine was going to be the saviour of Messenger’s. I became involved with the knitting machines and went to Leicester to learn all about it. We had a number of guys who had come from Cotton’s when they closed down and although Cotton’s produced different machines, they had knowledge of the industry. We had a good cross section of workers at Messenger’s, some who had been there for a long time and some who were new but had been involved in other industries. These knitting machines didn’t take off – we got them working, albeit we had to do some modifications. It came to Messenger’s after the development stage, where they had built two. As a company, Messenger’s probably bit off more than they could handle, workwise. We were OK because we could do it all. The technical parts of the machine, such as the cam-box were made at Healy’s in Leicester, because they were supposed to be the experts. We manufactured the rest and put it all together. Several guys came in from Healy’s to help run the machines, because they knew all about them. They were good to work with because you learnt a lot from them. We built about ten machines, five of them ended up back in our fitting shop and we ran them for a while knitting fabrics. It appears that the timing was wrong; the bottom was falling out of the market. This was probably one of the contributory factors that helped push Messenger’s over the edge, because they had invested quite a lot in terms of buying machinery, employee’s time, etc. and got nothing back in return.
I still have a catalogue of the circular knitting machine that we made; it has an artist impression of the machine although it doesn’t show the detail of what Messenger’s done. We made the machines for an American gentleman, a Mr. Alfred Kohorn and he named the machine “Nicole” after his niece. The knitting head was 48in. or 60in. diameter and the cloth came out as a rolled up bale and was stored in the bottom part which was made of fibre glass. The pattern makers made the fibre glass mould and they actually made the fibre glass parts at the bottom. There was a double door that opened to allow the fabric to be removed. We took a couple of these machines, one a 48in. and the other a 60in. to an international exhibition held in Basel, Switzerland I went for a fortnight, unfortunately when we got there, there was problem. The lad who had been running the 60in. machine had broken a number of needles, regrettably he never said anything about it. When we set-up the machine up it kept knocking, there was a small piece of needle, no larger than the end of a pen top, that had gone into a gear tooth. At the exhibition, we had to take it all apart and we worked overnight in setting it up, but we couldn’t fix it completely. It still made a noise because a piece of the gear was missing, although the other machine worked fine. We thought that it was a taste of things to come but it didn’t work out. At the exhibition it was all very secretive and everything was covered up and people who were from rival manufacturers would come round posing as potential customers to see what you had. The same pair of machines went to America to another textile machinery show unfortunately I didn’t go with them.
I can remember when we were making the prototypes; I was going to Leicester and the second in command there, Harry who was a good guy, told me that I should get out of this job before you start because your eyes will go. When the work started, the machinery was up to-date if not slightly in front of the market. However, by the time they came on the market, the bottom had dropped out and it was too late.
Five of the machines went to America. We had to make a modification, which we did in our factory and sent it over so that their engineers could install the modifications. The work lasted on and off for about 5 or 6 years, whilst it was always secondary to the engineering shop work, people thought that it might go somewhere. Messenger’s could turn themselves to almost anything in the general engineering line and whilst there were a number of other schemes they didn’t come to anything.
We made another prototype knitting machine where Derek Davey eventually had his unit; it was towards the end of the old boiler house. We had to build the staging so that the top half was on one level and there was a tank below where the fabric dropped into, it was a like a brushed fur fabric. It was all hydraulically controlled. The people who design it were the people who designed the first machine and we got involved with a second time, they were nice guys. One of the guys had worked for Kroy Knitting Developments Limited in Canon Street, Leicester; it was a new small factory unit. Unfortunately, this was another venture that didn’t come to anything and presumably Messenger’s lost money on it.
We also made pumps – Messenger’s took over the production of single-stage pumps for Barnes Bowser. Typically, it was an engine and pump on a trolley or base plate – you’d see them around farms being used for irrigation, etc. We made the casting, machined them and fitted them up. This was another case of out of date design that was being beaten by more modern technology. I don’t believe that Messenger’s made any money on the pumps.
At the time, Messenger’s were always trying one thing or another to make money. We made treadle guillotines for cutting picture frames, for Art Forma, I think, a Loughborough-based company on Belton Road. Messenger’s got involved in both the design and the manufacturer of these guillotines but it was never possible to go into mass production because it needed time spent on it to be set-up properly and then tested. Things never seemed to go one hundred per cent straight forward. We turned them out, they went out and did the job but it appeared to take a lot of effort to put something together that should have been relatively straightforward. This was another example of things not going out of the door as fast as they should have and it sort of reflected badly upon us.
For quite a while there was talk that the Company was going to close. We had to get from one winter to the next and get the money to buy the oil to heat the factory. It was a large site with a large area of Victorian buildings that had to be both maintained and heated. The only place that was hot was the foundry, when they had the furnace going. Everywhere else had oil fired blowers going. They had the old boiler in the boiler house that was, I think, supposed to heat the whole factory; it certainly went to the offices – they had the old fashioned cast-iron radiators in them. In the rest of the works they eventually got rid of whatever heating system they had and went to oil-fired blow heaters. That caused a few problems because in the winter time, there no oil because they hadn’t paid the bill. The problem with heating was that it was a bit of a rabbit warren and there were large doors which were open because of the forklift truck coming backwards and forwards. They did have plastic sheets across but it didn’t make a great deal of difference.
When I was there they weren’t really making greenhouses, there was Bill Cubley, a joiner, was only person there making greenhouses. Prior to that they had an additional shop built on the end – that was the greenhouse shop. It had a wooden floor, with breeze or concrete block walls and was made for laying out the greenhouses, etc. That shop was where we built the knitting machines, because it was not being used; it was ideal. It had an oil-fired blower heater in it, which we used because the knitting machines required being warm to be operated. The shop was large enough to get 5 machines in, with each having about a 5ft. diameter base.
In one of the middle shops, they built a cabin cruiser for one of the Director’s. I can’t remember his name (Mr Bell?); I think that he died of a heart attack. When I was a kid I went with my dad and I can remember seeing the base of the boat that was in the process of being built. It was made of thick plate. I know that they made one but I don’t recall them making more.
I can remember at weekends going with my dad delivering greenhouses, if they couldn’t get a driver to go out. It had to be delivered and it was helping get the money in. At one time they did engineering work for JCB. I can remember going with my dad to drop of steelwork and then going on to deliver a greenhouse. My dad used to go out and get work in, he’d been there a while and had the benefit of both being an engineer and knowing what Messenger’s could do. If it wasn’t feasible then he would tell them and he probably knew someone else who could do it. My dad finished up down the Brush and I think that he was there about 12 years before he retired. I can remember my dad driving down to Coventry on a Friday afternoon to pick up a cheque.
Messenger’s did a lot of fabrication, heavy fabrication work. They did fork lift truck masts for either Coventry Climax or another forklift truck manufacturer. Messenger’s did a lot of work for Coventry Climax, they used to make the carriages, both machining and fabrication, which involved at lot of work. It was good work because it was general engineering, which they were good at. They had a lot of machinery, when meant that they could do most things; albeit the machinery was old but it worked. There was no numerical control machinery and all the machinery was manually operated. There was a good set-up in the machine shop; they did a lot of work. If it had stayed at that, then Messenger’s might have survived. They also did fabrication work for Brush Transformers, making underground transformers, for the pits, etc. Messenger’s made the flame-proof enclosures, which were bolt on pieces; they were fabricated, machined, put together and then pressure tested. It involved a lot of processes and kept quite a few blokes busy. It was good business because you knew that Brush would pay. My dad had tie ups with Brush because he worked there before going to Messenger’s. He obviously still knew people there and what they did – they used to put things out to tender. He also has the tie up with the right people to make sure we were giving them what they wanted. They did fabrication work for Rolls-Royce before they went bankrupt in 1971. We made frames for transporting engines and when they went under Messenger’s were owned but a little by them but not as much as other companies.
Because of the size of the site Messenger’s began to let units out before it eventually closed. Once it had closed down Bennett Brothers, who were builders, bought the site and then let most of the buildings as individual units. The old joinery shop, where we built the circular knitting machines, was let to someone who built lorry bodies, although that didn’t last long.
The row of buildings at the back of the site was originally used for timber sheds, with the old railway track in front which they used to bring in the timber. Originally the sheds had open fronts for drying the timber.
In the machine shop, they had a 6ft. planer, it was a monster machine. It had a large table bed, with one cutting tool on a bridge and the table with the work on it went backwards and forwards, whilst the tool stays still. It was a very useful piece of kit for the area and a number of local firms sent work for it. Down one end they had three horizontal borers, where the tools turned and the work retained stationary; they also had a number of vertical borers where the table goes round and the tool post remains stationary. There was also a line of drilling machines ranging from the hand-operated drills up to large machines.
I never had a lot to do with the foundry; I used to help the foundry maintenance people in there and the foundry maintenance shop was next to the canteen. At the time our fitting shop foreman, Cecil Downs, was living in one of the houses and the foundry superintendent in the other. Both of Cecil Downs’ sons worked in the machine shop, I used to see one of them, Mick he was a member of the fishing club and he used to come down the pub with them.
I never really knew what the buildings down the side near the front of the site were used for; they just seemed like storage sheds. The old forklift truck was kept in one of them and during the 3-day week we put a large generator in one of them; we had to take the roof off and I think that the large concrete base is still there. On the other side was the car park, which has now been built on (currently occupied by Decotel K C Johns Ltd). At the very end there was a garage that had doors that opened outwards. When we packed up the circular knitting machines, they were all placed in that garage, all in bits and they sat in there for a long time. Later we took them out again and re-built them, when we thought we might be able to sell them. We took a couple of them to a factory in Leicester, where we built them and got them running and left them there, although I don’t know what happened to them after that.
I think that they had a boiler in the other half of furnace maintenance shop; it had a screw feed, using coke or anthracite. I think that it must have heated the offices as it appeared to be too far away from the works to warrant all that pipework. I can remember in the machine roof cutting the cast iron pipework to remove it, I can’t remember why.
Cross and Sansom did work for Messenger’s and the lads in the pattern shop, which was run by Ken Dalby, had dealing with them. I think that Messenger’s must have closed the pattern shop because one of lads went to work for Cross & Sansom.
I think there had been numerous occasions when other Companies had put money into Messenger’s and it appears that they were not willing to do any more.
I wouldn’t like to say how many were left at the end; most of the lads in the machine shop had left and got jobs before the Company finally finished, I presume that they must have got a pay-off. Some left before and weren’t worried about a pay-off and just got a job. When Messenger’s finished, I was one of the last out. I was hanging around waiting, more because they hadn’t told me I’m going yet. They were still paying me and I thought I could worry about it later. They kept me on doing stock taking for the receivers. We were marking things up for the sale, although I didn’t actually go to. That was it, I was off and I was out of work for 12-weeks – you had to be out of work for 9-weeks to qualify for your severance pay. The guys who left before the firm shut received both redundancy and severance pay and walked straight into a new job. The severance pay was hundreds not thousands and certainly didn’t keep you for the 9-weeks. I went to work for the Water Board at the sewage works at Wanlip. My mum found the job advertisement but I didn’t get the job that I went for, which was on diesel engines, because I hadn’t done the work before. A week later, they suggested I come back to have another look at the plant work, it wasn’t quite as much money but it was good and I stayed there 20 years. I took early retirement when they were looking to getting rid of 5% of the workforce. I miss both the work and the blokes.
Mr Derek Burder who lived in Burton Walks at one time, was there when I was there and I think that he may have left before they called in the receivers but I’m not sure. I worked with Jack Kerry, who came in to supervise the work on the knitting machines, but that was later; there were a couple of other guys before that. Jack Kerry taught me a lot and he stayed with the Company as a Directory and there was another chap called John who was the accountant. When the end came it appeared to come very quickly.
There was a number of Indians worked there and they were all good lads. The worked in the machine shop and the foundry, some had done their apprenticeships there.
My dad had a heating system in his greenhouse, which used an electric emersion heater-type system connected to the hot water pipes. I wouldn’t say that it was cheap to run but it was there to keep the frost off.
There was a miniature greenhouse, about 4ft. long. It was always hanging around the factory and one day it disappeared. One of the blokes, Jack Rowe who was a labourer, forklift and small lorry driver, had taken it and put it in his front garden; anyway it was missed and he had to bring it back.
I remember Electroway Heaters, they were on the far side for the car park, then it was Heatrae Sadia, but I don’t know too much about them.
I can remember the chaps on the horizontal borers; there was Ken Baker, who was an old timer and I think he came from Whitwick. I can remember them talking about putting the rifle in the gun barrels during the Second World War. It must have been a gun barrel of some size for them to be able to machine it.
During my time at Messenger’s we used to get large billets of steel arrive by lorry, probably directly from the steel works. They were turrets bits for a tank for the Ordnance Depot at Chilwell. Messenger’s used to machine them and squared them up using the old large flatbed planer. We had the size of machine that allowed us to do the work.