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‘Pens and ink don’t belong in this new Atomic Age’ — British Typewriters in the ‘50s

By gavin jones  |  Posted: April 26, 2012

Inside the Machine Shop.

Inside the Machine Shop.

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THE WEST Bromwich typewriter producer known variously as British Typewriters and, after a takeover by an American group, Smith Corona or SCM, has brought in several responses since being featured in a couple of photographs in our 8th March edition.

Mr K Fellows of Wolverhampton is the latest to respond, and he has supplied us with an excellent source of information on the firm, in the form of a company newsletter. Mr Fellows explains: "My wife Marlene Fellows (nee Scoltock) worked at British Typewriters from August 1954 till August 1961.

 She started at Hudson Place in the Accounts Department, before moving to the Birmingham Road works in 1956 as receptionist. I've enclosed the works' newsletter, dated October 1956.

 "Marlene doesn't remember the Queen visiting — only Noele Gordon!" Mrs Fellows' copy of the newsletter, the Empire Times, is of particular interest, not just because it is the first edition since it was suspended during the war, but also because it documents the firm's move to its new home on Birmingham Road. It is introduced by Managing Director William Mawle, who is evidently proud of his firm's survival given the effects of the Second World War, but is convinced that pen and ink are consigned to the dustbin of history now that typewriter production is well and truly back on track ...

 "Twenty years ago, in those hurly burly days when the baby Empire portable was born, I predicted quite a future for it.

 Million "Times have changed.

 Hitler stepped in and dealt our thriving baby a nasty smack. But looking back on the two intervening decades, the prediction wasn't far wrong. Upwards of a million of our babies and their relations have gone out to face the world. They're still going.

 "Our organisation has grown, in spite of all sorts of difficulties. Whatever success we may have had has been due to our dealer customers.

 It has always been the policy of our company to sell through the trade. We believe that the same policy will bring further success in the future.

 "We now have a brand new factory, the latest of its kind in this country. Here at West Bromwich we have lively, enthusiastic production and sales staffs ... we're also starting a sort of French Revolution in reverse. They kicked the aristocrats out. We're planning to put them in — an Empire Aristocrat in every home.

 "Why not? We're rushing forward into the atomic age, the automation age. Pens and ink don't belong to it. Even if the old man never wrote a letter in his life, young Jim is studying engineering and has homework notes to make.

 Young Jill is secretary of the Current Crooner's Fan Club.

 Mrs Gossip has her 15 letters a week to write.

 "And then, in the small shops and little businesses, they're knee deep these days in forms in triplicate. Doctors, solicitors, clergymen, reporters, authors, accountants — how can anybody afford to be without an Aristocrat? "In the meantime, this first issue gives me a welcome opportunity of sending my greetings to all of you. Old friends and new, I assure you we in the OED (Office Equipment Distributors) organisation are at your service."

   There are photographs of the new works both inside and out, and you may just be able to make out that rather than ‘British Typewriters’, the works entrance bore the wording 'Empire Typewriters', with large flags flying from the roof. The editorial celebrates the new phase by recapping a bit of the firm's history. Curiously, this seems to be at odds with other recorded histories of the firm — though such stories are of course never particularly straightforward: "At the time of writing, the new factory, equipped with all the latest machinery for its specialised work is humming like a top with activity as skilled workers deal with the home and overseas orders for Aristocrats to meet the Christmas present rush.

 "The move into the new factory, completed 12 months ago, started an important new chapter in the history of the organisation which, despite the wartime bombs, has been a story of rapid development.

 "The roots of OED go back a long way, to the beginning of the century when what is believed to be Britain's first typewriter was made at West Bromwich. In 1904 the pioneer firm that made it, George Salter and Co Ltd, took over the London business of Empire typewriters and formed a subsidiary, which rapidly established a reputation for lightweight machines.

 "In 1936 came the next major step. The subsidiary, British Typewriters Ltd, was entirely reorganised as an independent company. It moved to premises in Victoria Street, West Bromwich, and began manufacturing and marketing a new and revolutionary portable, the baby Empire.

 "Streamlined and weighing less than 9lbs, the new machine had an immediate success. Three years of great activity followed, during which home and export output greatly expanded.

 "Then came the war, and with it, in November 1940, the destruction of the premises.

 Stocks of typewriters, components, jigs, drawings and some tools, were lost. Fortunately much of the modern production plant was saved.

 "It was transferred to temporary premises and later to the old soapworks. There after the war and its consequent problems, production of portables was resumed.

 Soapworks "With the introduction in 1948 of the Empire Aristocrat, the ideal machine demanded by postwar conditions, sales began to rise.

 Export targets set by the Ministry of Supply were invariably reached ... demand quickly outstripped the capacity of the old soapworks, and a licence to build a new factory on the Birmingham Road site was obtained.

 "Construction began in 1952. Two years later production departments moved in.

 Last year they were joined by office and administrative staffs. In this new setting, OED is well equipped to continue its forward progress."

   Hitler's best efforts had done little to halt the progress of the West Bromwich typewriter manufacturer, and so there was never really any danger of a small group of burglars causing any major problems. Especially when they were foolish enough to lead the police, quite literally, to their own doors. A brief story in the Empire Times outlined what had happened during, and after, a recent break in ...

 "Have you noticed that at shows and exhibitions almost everybody invited to test a typewriter types his own name and address? "A similar manifestation of human vanity led to the detection of a trio of burglars who earlier this year broke into the OED offices.

 "Some typewriters were missing, but the disarray in the office showed that the thieves had also played with other typewriters, which had not been taken away.

 "Examination of the roller of one of these machines by alert CID men disclosed a very helpful clue. One of the intruders had typed his own name and address. Though he had thrown away the paper the impression of his handiwork wasvisible on the platen.

"Police called at the address so thoughtfully provided and the result was that the typist and his comrades in crime were quickly arrested and charged."

 The Empire Aristocrat — even if the company did say it themselves — was the portable typewriter of choice back in the nineteen-fifties.

Examples of this model had found their way to the four corners of the earth, often in the hands of some of the best known names of the times.

Word had reached West Bromwich that police officers in deepest Kenya relied on the Aristocrat to type up their records; while the English cricket side had had one amongst them on a recent tour of Pakistan, in the care of the secretary of Lancashire County Cricket Club.

From some of the warmest places on earth to the coldest, there seemed to be an Empire Aristocrat there ...

"Everybody at OED was proud to learn that an Aristocrat went to a very cold place, with a very distinguished man — Colonel Sir John Hunt, the leader of the historic Everest expedition. How far up the world's highest mountain he took the machine is not recorded, but afterwards Sir John was kind enough to say that it had been a great help to him in writing his reports.

Furthermore: "Recently it was learned that OED will have a particular interest in another heroic adventure in a very cold place.

"Squadron Leader John Claydon, a member of the New Zealand Party which will be taking part in the 1957/8 crossing of the Antarctic Continent, is another satisfied Aristocrat user. He took his machine with him on one of the preliminary trips last winter.

"On it, at Shackleton Base, he typed a letter to Mr B Worley, trade representative in OED's London office, in which he descried some of the New Zealand Party's adventures.

He added: "'The typewriter is still going strong and I am finding plenty of use for it in my spare moments.' Adventure "Wen S/Ldr Claydon sets off on the main expedition he will again have with him his Aristocrat. So OED is more than usually interested in the forthcoming Antarctic adventure, and confident that its equipment will stand up to the very exacting conditions it is likely to encounter."

 There is an excellent selection of photographs in the newsletter too, giving some idea of the variety of comings and goings. The Mayor and Mayoress of West Bromwich, Alderman and Mrs J.W.

Banks, accompanied by Town Clerk J.M. Day, paid a visit that year too, making presentations to six long-serving employees. In the photograph from that day, the receptionist presenting the Mayoress with a bouquet is Marlene Scoltock.

Finally, some expansive shots of the inside of the new factory, including the "spacious, well-lighted assembly shop, where expert craftsmen get a quart of precision mechanism into a pint-pot of space."

The new factory also included a press shop, toolroom, machine shop, inspection, packing and despatch departments, and an administrative block ...

"Here is made every part of the Empire Aristocrat, excepting only certain minor components such as the rubber platen. Machines produced here go all over the world."

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  • Black Country Bugle User  |  February 01 2013, 6:47AM

    Words from a time when Britain was'great', producing high quality machines. I have an Aristocrat and it still works perfectly...

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