OVER the centuries the Black Country has given birth to many unique characters and companies, all of whom have contributed to the daily life of its inhabitants.
Some appear and fade into near oblivion; others make their mark, their memory soon forgotten. There are, however, those whose innovation, steadfastness and originality leave an imprint on the fabric of society, its legacy seemingly in a state of perpetuity. George Salter & Co is one of these, their story firmly embedded in the local community.
For generations the Black Country was home to inventors and scientists whose determination and foresightedness gave the region a name synonymous with radicalism, independence and perhaps even a sheer bloody-mindedness.
By 1760, the Salters were living in Bilston; one of them George was known at this time to be an innkeeper while another, William, was a manufacturer of 'pocket steelyards', an apparatus akin to small weighing devices; another Richard was believed to be the first to manufacture springs for which the company is globally famed and for which West Bromwich and the name Salter is forever and inextricably associated.
Richard eventually helped the performance of these steelyards with the simple addition of a spring, an innovation to become the forerunner of the many weighing mechanisms we have today. Around 1780 Richard moved to West Bromwich where not only did the manufacture of springs continue, but along with his nephews John and George, bayonet production also progressed, principally because bayonet steel was the most suitable material for making light springs. Richard died in 1791, but his pioneering legacy continued.
1825 saw the first use of the name 'George Salter & Company' and by 1849 'Old' George Salter had died, another family member being passed the mantle of responsibility – this was the latter George's nephew John who had married into the Bache family of Hagley, a significant name in the future history of the company. John died in 1852, his young sons George and Thomas taking on an active role in the company.
However, they were disadvantaged by their extreme youth and a person of more commercial experience was required who was John Silvester.
The Silvesters were a West Bromwich concern involved in the manufacture of sad irons and had already at this time been amalgamated with Salters. These sad or flat irons were manufactured with the Salter's world famous logo, the Staffordshire Knot above which was stamped 'Silvesters Patent'.
In 1862 a later Thomas Salter was at the helm, a man perceived more of a local philanthropist than of the typical 19th century employer of stern repute. He promoted recreational facilities for his employees and actively organised local flower shows. His most important social advancement was his introduction of the Sick and Burial club, an enormous boon to his workers at a time when insurance to cover absence from work simply did not exist; such grim and truly Dickensian conditions would surely have been alleviated by this revolutionary introduction.
Thomas Salter and his sons were avid devotees of cricket, a sporting link travelling down the ages bridging the 19th century with a name synonymous today with sporting prowess – West Bromwich Albion.
Seven employees of the team worked at Salter's which in 1888 won the FA Cup. With the cricket season over members of the team looked for alternative recreation; ostensibly it was this that led them to form a football team and thus the embryo of today's Premiership Club began.
Thomas steered the company through fierce competition, progressing from the simple products of its very early days to the myriad of spring balances and other devices such as roasting jacks, steam pressure gauges, musket bayonets and domestic weighing machines. In 1887 Thomas passed away, the share of the firm equally split between his sons George and Thomas; it was George who now bore the onus of cementing the future success of the company.
In 1895 George announced the development of an item that was to become ubiquitous throughout the land – the British Empire Typewriter was born. George and his brother paid homage to their father by continuing the social advances previously alluded to, playing active roles in the community; George became an Alderman for West Bromwich in 1888 and town mayor on several occasions.
The Bache side of the family steadily grew, 1893 witnessing the arrival of 16-year-old Ernest William Bache, a move that proved to be momentous as he later became Works Manager and eventually Managing Director. Ernest worked at Salter's during one of the world's most pivotal points in history. War compelled Salter's to switch to the manufacture of springs for guns and for rifles. These years saw many changes in the factory's history, one of which was the death in 1917 of the former director George; he was the last of the Salter dynasty, the Baches now took centre stage.
The post-war years saw the company winning back markets and orders lost during the 1914-18 conflict. The early 1930s witnessed the terrible hardships of the Great Depression, Salter's facing yet more challenges to survive; but survive it did and it is testament to their resolve that by 1936 they were able to build a new 5-storey factory – at the time the tallest building in West Bromwich - unromantically titled 'North Building A'. By summer, 2013 this particular edifice had fallen victim to demolition, another housing development encroaching upon the heritage of the town.
As war once more loomed in 1939 it saw the return of Salter's involvement in the production of munitions, manufacturing more than 750 million springs. It also provided parts for some of the world's most iconic companies such as De Havilland and its Mosquito aircraft.
In 1943 Ernest 'Bill' Bache died, leaving behind a business which, despite years of austerity, boasted a workforce of 2,500. In 1954 it exhibited a spring balance that could weigh anything up to 200 tons, at the time the world's largest.
By 1961 Salters owned 27 retail shops in West Bromwich, their products growing ever diverse. Springs were widely used in the motor, aviation and railway industries. At home they found their way into prams, beds and bicycles. Guns, coffee roasters, gramophones, clocks, rat traps and numerous other everyday items possessed the Salter fingerprint. Their durability cannot be questioned, many still in existence today.
By 1973 it was bought by the American company Staveley Industries. In 1998 the weighing business became the Weigh-Tronix Corporation. The 21st century saw a management buyout of Salter Housewares and by 2004 the company was subjected to another sale, this time to the U.S. based HoMedics Company.
Operating still today, the legacy of George Salters remains intact albeit far from home from its roots in West Bromwich. From the primitive devices of 200 years ago, to those mechanisms of today able to detect even the stroke of a pen on paper, those Black Country men and women can be duly saluted for their centuries of commitment – and innovators in every sense.
Did you or your family ever work at George Salter? Email your memories to editor@black countrybugle.co.uk, write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk