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Forgotten king of our vibrant industrial past; A new book has been published on one the regiorn's busiest factories, which employed 12,000 at its peak. MITYA UNDERWOOD has the details.


TYNESIDE is world-famous for its industrial heritage. Lord William George Armstrong, Charles Merz and Sir Charles Palmer have all made history as brilliant and instrumental engineers in the North East.

But Alphonse Reyrolle is a name some won't be as familiar with.

Despite his name becoming less and less well-known as the years pass, there was once a time when Reyrolle and his Hebburn factory paid the wages of more than 12,000 workers.

Former employee Robert Owen, 72, has written a book about the factory's history in an attempt to give Alphonse Reyrolle recognition.

"Everyone knows about people like Armstrong and the Palmer family, but no-one knows much about Reyrolle.

"It just doesn't compete with the likes of Swan Hunter, despite employing so many people.

"Lord Armstrong got his peerage and Charles Parsons became a Sir.

"All Alphonse Reyrolle got was a block of flats in Hebburn built after he died.

"It's important people know more about him and know what the factory meant to the region."

Alphonse Reyrolle was born in Correze, France, in October 1864.

He moved to London in 1883 to finish his engineering training.

Reyrolle became relatively successful, but couldn't resist the pull of the North East.

Robert's book, The Reyrolle Story, tells how ambitious Reyrolle was impressed by developments in electricity generation, two of which happened in this region.

Lord Armstrong's Cragside

home near Rothbury, Northumberland, became the first in the world to be powered by electricity and Sir Charles Parsons manufactured the first multi-stage reaction steam turbine.

Reyrolle also came across Gateshead-born Charles Merz, who went on to invent the first National Grid.

On May 16, 1902, A Reyrolle & Company Ltd took over a redundant alkali factory near

Hebburn railway station and started manufacturing equipment for the electicity supply industry.

The Merz family bought lost shares in the newly-four company.

The factory made immediate impact in the region.

South Shields-born Robert writes: "Shortly after starting up on Tyneside, the local press invited to view the new works Reyrolle & Co Ltd.

The Evening Chornicle described the building as large and airy.

'This was not a view shared by George Pawsey who, after arriving from London, described Hebburn as a mucky place.

"He must have quickly adjusted to his new environment because the following year married Miss Pennock, the female to work in the factory

Over the years the factory grew. Although a private rman Reyrolle was known to be a good boss.

In the days before the NHS, he took out insurance for al employees.

By 1905 the factory employed more than 200 people. By end of the First World War employed 800.

Reyrolle died in 1919, aged pounds 54, but his legacy was to live on Robert writes: "His funerall March 3, 1919, at St Michael; Roman Catholic Church Westmoorland Road, attended by family and friend representatives from the French Consul, local engineering companies and more than 2( his employees.

"He was buried in St John Cemetery - now known Elswick Cemetery - about half mile from where he lived.

"Reyrolle named company. director William Negas, engineer Alfred Gueritte accounting colleague Norbert Merz as executors and trustees of his detailed will. The three men were charged with overseeing his estate of pounds 17,000 - equivalent to more than three-quarters of a million pounds in today's money.

"The capital of the limited company was, of course, separate from this amount."

Like any business, the Reyrolle company had its ups and downs, but at one of its peaks, engineers like Charles Parsons were desperate to buy shares.

The Reyrolle factory was dedicated to providing entertainment for its staff. Day trips to the coast are recorded as far back as 1912.

According to Robert, who worked there between 1950 and 1960, there was every sports and social club you could think of.

'They used to put on special trains and there was a great exodus from the Shields area to the factory," he says.

'There was a tremendous camaraderie. Discipline wasn't so tight back then. And there were sports committees for everything you can imagine.

"They used to take us on activities as well, it was amazing.

"It was a very happy place with a good spirit."

The factory boomed in every way between 1946 and 1967. Its sports teams became more active and ended up producing a number of professional sportsmen. One of the most famous was Busby Babe Ray Wood, former Manchester United goalkeeper.

Robert writes: "Perhaps the most successful of the many Reyrolle sportsmen was Ray Wood. An apprentice during the late 1940s, Ray played in goal for Reyrolle Juniors in the Jarrow and District JOC League.

"After experience with Newcastle and Darlington, he signed for Manchester United. Keen for him to complete his training, John Gray - Reyrolle training officer-arranged for him to finish his apprenticeships with Associated Electrical Industries in Manchester.

"During the 50s Ray went on to become a member of the famous Busby Babes and gained three caps as an England goalkeeper.

"On February 6,1958, he was injured in the Munich plane crash that claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players."

Trouble hit the factory in the late 60s, but it managed to recover with good management.

In June 1967 the Chronicle reported how two police cars were called to Hebburn Ambulance Hall to rescue Reyrolle's strike committee chairman Ken Coonie, who was trapped inside the hall.

An angry crowd of 200 people - some of the 2,500 laid off because of the three-week-old strike - were waiting outside, jeering and booing a decision to continue the stoppage.

By 1980 Reyrolle was again struggling for survival after recovering from its problems.

A fall in orders and the economic recession forced more redundancies.

'The 80s were undoubtedly the lowest in the long history of the former Reyrolle company, with the growing service economy replacing the old manufacturing industries.

"It remained to be seen if the management had done enough to save Alphonse Reyrolle's onetime business from complete oblivion."

Sadly it hadn't. The redundancies continued and eventually it was taken over in 1998, becoming VA TECH Reyrolle. The company is now owned by German-based Siemens Company and employs about 600 people.

Robert writes: 'There was never a permanent memory to

Alphonse Reyrolle in Hebburn or a commemorative plaque within his former company.


It is also doubtful whether many people would have remembered the French entrepreneur if the newly-formed Reyrolle Heritage Trust had not celebrated the company's centenary in 2001.

'The only physical memory to Alphonse Reyrolle on Tyneside is, sadly, the impressive memorial stone on his grave in Elswick Cemetery, which

unfortunately states his age as 55 instead of 54 years."

The Reyrolle Story, by Robert Owen, published by Write Good Books, ISBN 1905295073, is available to order from bookshops now.

Alternatively, see Hildred Whale at South Tyneside Central Library. Price pounds 9.50.

What are your memories of Reyrolle? Write to Mitya Underwood, Evening Chronicle Groat Market, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1ED.


FOOTBALL PEDIGREE: Above, Munich air disaster survivors Bobby Charlton, left, and Ray Wood. Right, Reyrolle Juniors; DETAILED HISTORY: Author Bob Owen and, right, the cover of his book The Reyrolle Story; CAPTIVATED: In 1957 hundreds of engineers on strike from the Hebburn works of A Reyrolle and Co Ltd listened to speeches by their union leaders; ONE FOR THE LADIES: Alphonse Reyrolle among the girls on a rail trip to Redcar in 1912; GIGANTIC PLANT: An aerial view of the Reyrolle factory in Hebburn
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 8, 2007
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