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An insider's view of the Smith Corona works

By rob taylor  |  Posted: April 05, 2012

An advert for Smith Corona, dating from the sixties or early seventies.

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FOUR weeks ago, in edition 1019, we took a look inside the West Bromwich firm of British Typewriters Limited, or Smith Corona as it became after a takeover by an American firm. That item has brought in several responses, one of which is so comprehensive we're going to serialise it.

Mr D.H. Bayley of Sutton Coldfield has shared with us an insider's view of the company, which begins over forty years ago ...

"It was 1970 when I joined SCM (UK) Ltd. I had had a rough time at Mitchells and Butlers, and decided that it was time to move on after joining them in 1954.

"I was appointed Company Accountant under Denis Brown, Financial Director and Company Secretary. It was clear to me that there were problems within the accounting sector, the previous holder of the position had been sacked for incompetence and it was clear from the first day that I had walked into a problem area. This did not concern me; I was sure that the experience that I had from M&B gave me enough knowledge to cope and within the first three months I had made many system changes.

“It was about then that the MD came into my office and asked if I had had a tour of the factory. I replied that I had, at my interview. His response was 'That is not what I mean. Come with me.' "For over an hour we walked, and he told me about almost every machine on the premises. What it was and what it did, and its importance in the flow of parts.

"After about a year I was informed by the Managing Director, Mr Doug Dwyer, that we were to be visited by a team of Auditors from the Head Office in new York.

SCM had originally been called Smith Corona Marchant, a name formed from the associate companies; LC Smith, The Corona Typewriter Company, and Marchant Machines.

“Eventually the four company auditors arrived and proceeded to take the systems within the factory to task. NOTHING was exempt.

Whenever there were questions regarding the accounting practices I was requested to attend the board room to explain. However, many of the procedures were the responsibility of my superior Mr Brown. Their comments were always the same: 'How would you deal with this problem?', and I was compelled to answer. Which meant on may occasions that I disagreed with the existing procedure.

"Towards the end of the audit the team was joined by two very senior officials from the New York office. I was amazed when I was invited to meet them and to join them for lunch. It seemed like a job interview but I was very wary, having spent so little time with the company.

"As soon as the audit was over the Managing Director was told that there would be an audit report which would set out the audit findings. The report would demand that certain corrective action be insisted upon. But nothing would be discussed until after the report had been presented in New York.

"It was many weeks later (I had completely dismissed the report from my mind) when, late one Friday afternoon, I had a call from the MD telling me that he wished to see me in the staff canteen.

'Do not tell anyone where you are going', he said.

"This seemed extremely strange and I wondered what it was all about. I went to the canteen at 5.15 as instructed.

The MD was already there and his first words to me were 'Mr Brown is leaving tonight.

He has been sacked by the Americans. I have tried to reverse the decision and delayed it as long as possible.

But I have had the Divisional President on the phone this afternoon and I have been told to promote you.' "I was flabbergasted and felt completely out of my depth. I went home in a daze and told my wife, who was very understanding, and we talked a lot before I made my decision. I asked myself why I had done so much studying to turn down such an opportunity when it arose, and resolved to see the MD first thing on Monday.

"This decision led to another period of my life and made a lot of changes. The first impact was when I had to go into Mr Brown's office to clear up files etc., and made arrangements with the secretary to file the piles of paperwork that littered a desk in there. But what I found on that desk was amazing. In these unfiled papers was the history of British Typewriters Ltd, which I found extremely interesting.

"The company was the idea of a man named Norman Wetherall Mawle, who lived in Park View Road, Sutton Coldfield. He was a salesman who attended a machine exhibition in Switzerland in 1935.

At this exhibition he saw a portable typewriter and he bought the rights to it.

"On his return to West Bromwich he formed a company by appealing to all of the local businessmen. There was a list which included the names of many of the directors and owners of local firms who had been approached to buy shares in the proposed new company. The list included the number of shares that each investor intended to take. Mr Mawle must have had a considerable influence and many contacts in the area.

"There were copies of his letters concerning the acquisition of the Hudson Soap premises, which were then located in Hudsons Passage, off the High Street in West Bromwich. There were also papers that stated that he had acquired the company registration of a typewriter called The Blickensderfer Typewriter, which was one of the first typewriters built. He had decided that the name should be changed to British Typewriters Limited. Mr Dwyer had one of these antique typewriting machines; where he acquired it I did not know, but it was a fascinating design and it was still working. It did not consist of a group of bars, each producing a letter (lower case and capital), but a circular printing head with each letter arranged around it, very similar to the golf ball design that was developed by IBM in the 1970s. It was fascinating to watch the head spin round to the selected letter, then lock just before contact with the paper and roller. It was exceedingly slow by comparison to the current models, and of course all metal, where the latest models had cases entirely of plastic mouldings, which came in various colours.

"There were of course a number of photographs, the most notable one was of a man named Brown (George I think) who played the xylophone.

He weighed about 18 stone and was depicted standing on the cover of a typewriter to show how strong it was.

"There were other fascinating papers relating to the war years, and Authorizing Documents which proved that there were vehicles travelling though occupied France with equipment to Switzerland. I was disappointed that I could not discuss many of my findings with anyone, even those with long service like the Personnel Manager 'Barney' Rudge, who had been in employment with British Typewriters since the late 1930s.

"I had been employed with SCM for just over a year when we experienced two devastating fires within two weeks. At this time the factory premises were being extended to double the size and the new section was still empty, which proved to be very useful when trying to increase the level of production.

We had a small section which was repairing and building copying machines, another of the parent company products. It was thought that the printing liquid which was used in the printing process, together with the typewriter plastic (which was oil-based) made the fire worse. However, as the builders were still on site, we did not have to wait long before the rebuilding was started.

"There were some difficulties getting parts that were produced in-house; the worst being the typewriter cases which were all plastic moulding, and we were compelled to find companies that had spare capacity. Most of the moulds had been saved, so we were able to use other moulding companies to provide the parts, using our moulds. Also, fortunately for us, there were a number of engineering companies closing down, and there were sales of the machinery that we required.

"Then one morning I had a message that Mr Dwyer wanted to see me in his office.

As I walked in he said 'Do you know how much this loss assessment is going to cost us?' My response was 'no'.

"’£20,000,' was the reply, 'but you know what? It isn't going to cost us a penny.' Rather naively, I asked why.

'You are going to do it,' was the response. And so I had the responsibility of preparing a system to account for all the expenses. I had a very good cost accountant in Peter Crump, who I gave the day to day responsibility to: after we had set up a number of different cost centres which we thought necessary. I had to stay informed because I had the responsibility of negotiating with the Insurance Company of North America representative.

They were very accommodating and at the first meeting a sight assessment was made, and we were given a cheque for £100,000."

 More from Mr Bayley next week. In the meantime, Mr G Hanley has written the following on the same subject, with a slightly different note on the firm's origins: "My father Mr Frank Hanley worked at the British Typewriter/Smith Corona for most of his life, at first he was working at George Salter's spring works in West Bromwich when a local solicitor, Mr Bache, decided to start a typewriter company which later became The British Typewriter Co.

"They moved from George Salters to Hudsons Passage in Pitt Street and were bombed out during the war, and moved to premises on the corner of Edward Street and Victoria Street. Later they were bombed again and moved to the rear of Kenrick and Jefferson in Bratt Street.

"In later years they moved to new premises which became Smith Corona, on Birmingham Road. I believe the Managing Director was a Mr Mawle. I also remember my father telling me that they made a gold-plated typewriter for the ueen.

"The typewriter became so well know because it was one of the first portable ones, it was only a matchbox and a half high. It became very popular with sports reporters, etc."

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  • Black Country Bugle User  |  January 10 2013, 5:22PM

    I worked at the West Bromwich SCM factory from 1961-1981 with it's demise. Sadly the workshops have been demolised, and Keltruck, have aquired the old factory, with trucks parked on the same spot, where i had so many memories. frankly although now retired I miss it all! I wonder if mr Doug Dwyer is still on this mortal plain?

  • Black Country Bugle User  |  October 03 2012, 12:38AM

    My Father was Donald G Lycan Sr. He was Vice President of International Manufacturing and Engineering for SCM Inc. His office was on Park Avenue, New York, New York USA. He worked for SCM from 1964 to 1970. He was in charge of factories around the world including the one in this article. I believe he promoted Mr Doug Dwyer to the position of MD. I do know that he and Doug were great friends as well