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The ‘iron man’ of Banbury
It was the Banbury Guardian, in its obituary of May 11, 1905, that named Sir Bernhard Samuelson as the town’s “modern founder . . . who gave the town its industrial character and modern growth”.
Banbury in the mid-19th century was a small agricultural town, in which weaving, brewing, malting and small-scale engineering were the chief occupations. The arrival of business entrepreneur and engineering expert Samuelson in 1848 heralded the start of a major growth period for the town, which altered dramatically in size and character throughout the years of the Industrial Revolution.
Bernhard Samuelson (pictured) was born on November 22, 1820 in Hamburg, but was brought up in Hull, the eldest of six boys born to Samuel Henry Samuelson, a merchant, and Sarah Hertz. Initially he followed in his father’s footsteps, but later developed an interest in engineering. While still in his twenties, he was appointed manager of an export company in Manchester, and later established his own railway network in Tours, in France.
In 1848, Samuelson bought a small agricultural engineering firm in Fish Street, Banbury, following the death of its owner, James Gardner.
With Samuelson at the helm, the Britannia Works, as the business became known, expanded rapidly, establishing an international reputation for the range and quality of its agricultural tools and machinery.
Gardner’s original site to the south of Fish Street became the Upper Works, and included machine and fitters’ shops, powered by a two-cylinder steam engine. In time Samuelson established a new site, known as the Lower Works, which stretched from Swan Close to the canal, and became the main focus of the company’s development.
By 1870, a light tramway connected the two sites, and continued down to the railway station, where a small depot was built to store incoming materials and finished goods awaiting export.
The Britannia Works represented a revolution in Banbury, which for many years had been content to produce machinery on a small scale for local use. Samuelson introduced the concept of mass production, with goods being exported all over the world.
During its heyday, the Britannia Works produced vast quantities of digging and mowing machines, chaff and linseed cutters, lawnmowers, rollers and reapers, and won prizes in 1850 for its turnip top cutter and churn.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851, the company was granted a licence to manufacture the American-patented McCormick reaper, which became one of its most successful products. The Britannia Works soon became one of the town’s major employers. During the first ten years the number of people employed jumped from just 27 to nearly 300 in 1859, peaking at 500 during Christmas 1870.
Demand for labour soon outstripped local supply, and Samuelson was forced to look beyond Banbury for his needs. The result was a steady influx of people into the town, with meadows around the Cherwell quickly disappearing under rows of houses. The census returns of 1841 and 1851 showed a population increase in Banbury of 1,552, which at the time was an unprecedented increase in a mere decade.
Samuelson was an unusually generous and caring employer, with his workers enjoying higher wages and better working conditions than elsewhere in the county. The average wages for labourers in Oxfordshire during the 1850s and 60s ranged from 11-15 shillings a week; Samuelson’s workers received around £2 2s. 0d. At the heart of Samuelson’s philosophy was a strong belief in class equality. “I regard the whole of us as fellow workers, and I shall always be glad to do anything to oblige you,” he told his workers in 1850. The company motto was “The Britannia Ironworks expects every member to do his duty”, and from the start Samuelson encouraged a feeling of unity and loyalty among his workforce, advocating a “fusion of classes”.
In 1871 he earned his workers’ respect by reducing their working week from 60 hours to 55¼, prompting them to form a procession to Samuelson’s house at Bodicote to show their appreciation.
But Samuelson’s generosity didn’t stop at the gates of the Britannia Works. He set up a mutual assistance fund for his workforce, and frequently organized recreational activities for them. Of greater significance, though, was his impact on the educational facilities in Banbury, which benefited not only his workers but the whole town.
In 1851, a new infant school was opened in Cherwell Street, to cope with the extra demand brought about by the expansion of the Britannia Works, and ten years later Samuelson financed the building of the Britannia British Schools (later the Cherwell British Schools), which by the end of the century had 400 children in attendance.
Adult education was also a priority for Samuelson, and in 1884 he paid for the relocation of the Mechanics’ Institute from Church Passage to a larger site at Marlborough Road. Adult classes flourished there, and led to the foundation of the Banbury School of Arts and Sciences, which had its home on the upper floors of the Mechanics’ Institute. In 1893, Samuelson helped finance a secondary and technical school, which was built onto the Mechanics’ Institute, opening under the name of Banbury Municipal School and eventually becoming Banbury Grammar School.
The Mechanics’ Institute building is now used for Banbury Library, and is the location for the blue plaque, unveiled in April 2002.
Samuelson’s other great contribution to Banbury was to serve as its MP for nearly 30 years, representing the Liberals. He was elected by a margin of just one vote in a by-election in 1858, losing his seat at the General Election to Tory Sir Charles Douglas two months later. He regained the seat in 1864, and held it continuously for the next 20 years. When the Banbury constituency was merged into North Oxfordshire, he was once again returned as MP, and served until 1895 when he retired and was made a privy councillor.
In the House of Commons, Samuelson was renowned for his industrial expertise, and he campaigned tirelessly for the development of scientific and technical training. He also became known for his opposition to the idea of compulsory vaccination, and his stance in this issue contributed to his triumph in the 1880 election, when he won a massive 63.59% of the votes cast. Samuelson’s work was recognised in 1881 with a fellowship of the Royal Society, and a baronetcy in 1884 for his services to the people.
He died at his London residence in 1905, after contracting pneumonia, and was buried at Torre cemetery in Torquay. Britannia Works, sadly, outlived him by less than 30 years. A fire in 1912 devastated much of the Lower Works and many of the nearby housing, and signalled an irreversible downturn in the company’s fortunes. A temporary closure in 1928 was followed by a major restructuring, but it was not enough to save the company, and it closed for good in 1933.
Nevertheless, Samuelson’s legacy to the town lives on, and the obituary in the Banbury Guardian may be considered a fitting epitaph: “Sir Bernhard may therefore well be styled the founder of Banbury as it exists today, while he was, undoubtedly, for half a century its presiding genius.”
Further Reading Ted Clark – Banbury History and Guide (Sutton, 1992) Brian Little – Banbury: A History (Phillimore, 2003) William Potts, revised and edited by Edward T. Clark – A History of Banbury (Gulliver Press, 1978) Barrie Trinder – Victorian Banbury (Phillimore, 1982) All available in local libraries