WELCOME TO THE BU HISTORY WEBSITE
The British United Shoe Machinery Company (BU) was Leicester’s greatest manufacturing company. It existed between 1899 and 2000, spanning the twentieth century, and at it’s peak employed over 4000 people at it’s Union Works site in Leicester.
The BU History Group wants to hear from you. Please share your memories and photographs.
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
One of our members was wondering how much this leather punch might fetch. It is of course a BU product (can just see the logo on the handle).
Date posted: October 15, 2021No Comments
How a single sentence can alter...0
Ian Breward recounts how he joined BU in 1959 and what it was like during those early years.
“I left school at 14, two weeks before my 15th birthday. I left with no qualifications, nothing. I had looked for work as a TV and wireless technician but with no luck. How a word or sentence can alter or make your life . My father worked at The BU, he asked me how are you doing finding a job, I said no luck . So he said ‘Would you like me to ask for you at my place?’ I said yes, not knowing what his place was. And that sentence gave me a good life, and I thank him for that to this day .
“They sent a letter to go in MacDonald’s road to take three tests (mathematics, English and a practical test). The practical I was first up; it was a box of parts that fixed together and I had to put them together. There were about 10 of us. I waited and the letter came and I started at BU with 146 other boys on the same day. We were photographed and given a white boiler suit and a number – mine was 614 – and a set of checks like coins for the stores to get jigs or tools out. We were then marched to the sound of wolf whistles to where we would start learning. I was taken to AT dept. (Apprentice training). We were given a place at a vice on a bench. There was the trainer and and apprentice helper. We spent the next three weeks learning to file flat. They gave us a square block of metal and put it in the vice, then put two dents in it and we had to file that flat. We were shown how to use a micrometer to check it was flat. My finger was blistered. We were taken and shown the canteen and where we could make our tea. Next we had to make a tool box. Each operation was shown once and then we had to do it. Once we had finished that we were all given a piece work job. I was put on the pop-rivet machine for assembly. It was the best job for the best money. Two others were on the concertina part of it and I did the nozzle. I felt happy getting paid but the other two boys did not like me being on that part on the job and said to me to tell them you want to swap. I said no. So when I left at night they were waiting for me and held a knife to me and said they would cut the brakes on my bike if I did not ask to move jobs. When I got home I was in a state and my father asked what was wrong. I told him and he told the AT and we were all called in. After that the two boys were sacked I was given a dressing down. I was in that department for three months and now it was time to be given our new department. The foreman called me in and said you are going to B2. Well, I knew that was called the salt mines and a bad place to be. I said to the foreman, ‘why am I going there?’ he said, ‘look son, if you can work there for a year you will be able to work any where in the world’. So off I went into that department. It was underground, no windows the concrete floor was missing in parts leaving just soil. There was always a blue mist in the department. There were ladies there, about six of them. One worked the big grinder wheel; she had an old sack over her head and down her body and her clothes were burnt from the sparks.
“We were on piece work. I had no time to go and wash my hands to eat my food, like the others I just wrapped paper round it. I worked next to a blind man who did the same job each day. He sold cigarettes from his draw for three pence each. Everyone smoked, you could not smoke as they would have call you out. I was put on the tapping, a small machine with a chuck at one end and a tap wrench the other. I tapped all day hundreds of parts for three months. One week I did not make my pay and the foreman came he said ‘You have not made your pay, just short, I am going to let you stay but if you do not make your pay next week you will be out’. I was late one day and the gate was shut. They would shut the gate where I worked at three mins past 7,30am. I knocked and the bobbie hole opened and the gatekeeper said ‘Yes?’ ‘Would you tell my foreman I am here’. He came and said ‘Why are you late?’ ‘I overslept’. ‘OK, go home and get some sleep and come back tomorrow. But if you are late again do not bother to come in at all.’ I went home with no pay and was never late again.
“My school friends had followed me to the BU and one was working in the same dept as me, B2. He had been given a job that had 5000 parts, he had to counter sink each side. He had done about 2000 over two or three days when the foreman came to look at them. He picked up five and said that’s no good and tipped all the 2000 back into the others to do them again and walked off. My friend said, ‘That’s it, I am leaving.’ He left and went on to be a plumber.We were both waiting for the foreman to finish talking to the inspector so he could give us a new job – he would give a bad one and then a good one. He said to the inspector ‘I am sweating like a pig’, I turned to my mate and whispered ‘He is a pig.’ He said, ‘What did you say?’ I said ‘I am hot too.’ But I got bad jobs for a week.
“They said that in the first year 50% would leave or get the sack – I think more. Next they put me on the tapping machines for three months. Then they put me on the tumbling machines; I had to load them up first thing in the morning and empty them at lunch and then refill them. I had to put chemicals in with the parts, sulphur was one, no masks or gloves, the other guys would have laughed at me. I wore the soles off my shoes in three weeks. I only had two pairs but they gave me some clogs to wear. I could now walk around as I had nothing to do after I had filled the machines up. I walked and thought how dirty the place was – the toilets bowls with wood screwed on them, and the toilet wall were black you could write on them with your finger.
“I was sent to Alderman Newton school on courses to get me up to standard. It was hard but I passed. I was now 16 and they said you are moving to L dept up on the third floor. It was Shangri-La, bright and roomy. I made friends the first day there. We were all taken to the dentist and looked after by a great guy, Mr Fisher, who said he was earning 6 and 4 pence each examination. I stayed with him after I left the BU. We would play snooker on Saturdays in the institute. I liked L dept and the people were great. I was called in to the apprentice guy in the offices, I did not know why. He sat me down and said ‘Mr Fellsted has given you seven out of ten, that is the highest any apprentice as ever been given, well done.’ I thought, Why?? I was now doing three nights a week at Charles Keene college, 6pm to 9pm. 44 hours at work plus over time, working on piece work non stop to make my money. I was in L dept for about one year and then I was told I would be going over to HA (Heavy Assembly). It was off Ross Walk. I had by now been signed up as an apprentice, but told I could still be dismissed. I was given the Number 7 clicker press, five at a time. No one had ever made there money on them. So I was worried. I worked as hard as I could with tools IE reamers that had had there day I was shown how to knock them up so they worked . No one would ever ask the foreman for a reason for a new tool. I had a crane to lift the clutch up about 18 inches off the floor, but there was no time for that. I would do it like all the other guys, lift them. We had to wire our machines up, 440 volts. I was one day wiring one up when I put my other hand on the screwdriver, I went 10 feet across the room and the box blew off the wall. I thought some one had hit me with a sledge hammer in the middle of my back. I was 18. As I was not making the money I put in extra for finishing of some parts. That kept me ok. But after some time they came to me, the foreman and the time and motion guy, they said to help you we are going to pay you 75% of what you earn. I said ‘how is that going to help me?’ ‘Let me finish’, he said. At that moment my father arrived. They said to him tell Ian to do as we say. He said at home I am in-charge but here you are and off he went. I said to the Time and Motion guy, ‘You take off your coat and whatever time you do it in I will except 50% as my time because I know I am faster than you.’ Well what they did was to give me and other five machines that were good for time but they had to take them off another guy and he did not like that. He had to show me how to do the operations . He only showed me once and said that’s it, but it was better now. While in that dept one day a group of men came in and every one started looking busy. When they had gone I said, ‘Who was that?’ They said the old foreman, he had left five years ago and they were still scared of him. The one we have now reads his bible every day at his desk. 18 inches off the floor so he could see every one in the room. I broke a drill and said to the guys I am doing to get a requisition for an other one, they said, no do as we do, buy our own from a shop in Church Gate. I said no way, and walked to his desk, they were all watching me. I asked and he gave me one. They said I was the first to do that.
“Most of them had a bike or a motorbike and side car. I had passed my test and was the only one with a car. I was told that my time there was finished and I was go to AT and show the new apprentices how to use the small tools. I did that for about six month. I was happy and all was going well. They then sent me to CD (Cutter Dept.). The dept was smaller, I was shown by an older engineer, it was intricate. We had a special cutter that could be only used once then they had to be sharpened the sharpening was not paid for so we lost time doing that. Another guy had the same cutter but would come over and take ours as we had to sharpen them. The guy I worked with did not like him and was glad to move, and for me to take over. In that dept there was unskilled and semi skilled, they had the same jobs each day, whereas I had different ones each day. I saw fights over one guy taking another guys jobs. The foreman did nothing, just let them finish. I left from that dept because an unskilled guy showed me that he was getting three time more than what I was getting and I had spent six years putting up with bad conditions and verbal abuse and physical abuse, going to the tech and getting poor money. My mate, when I was on 3.50 they were on 5 plus doing other jobs out in the world.
“I did not know how good the apprenticeship was until I worked in other factories .The indentured apprenticeship carried me around the world without it I would never have had such a good life. But It was hard, long hours non stop work and studying, working with guys that were still fighting the Second World War – now it’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ones that went to war did not like the ones that did not, saying we put our life on the line and these guys were getting paid good pay and getting all the best girls. In the factory there was a guy who had plates in his head and one whose arms were missing. I enjoyed my time mostly as you do not have much time to talk or make friends on piece work.”
Date posted: June 7, 2021No Comments
John Clayson was born in Leicester and grew up on the Belgrave Road where his father had a bike shop on the corner of Roberts Road close to Union Works, and many of his customers worked for the BU. “Often people would bring their bike for repair before they ‘clocked on’. If they arrived before the shop’s opening time they would leave the bike outside with a note tied on. Dad would try to have their bike ready to ride home that evening.” Below, John gives a commentary on the above superb photo and also recollections of growing up in the area and working at BU as a student labourer in ‘BR710 Department’. Take it away, John!
I’m attaching a photo I took from my bedroom window in February 1966 (note the snow on the roof at bottom left!), which shows the stretch of road which ran up past the main BU frontage, though of course it’s not visible from this angle. What you can see (just) is a spotlight fixed near the top of the lamppost on the extreme left edge. It was there for the winter months to illuminate the policeman who, at finishing time (always signalled by the BU’s hooter), stopped the traffic on Belgrave Road at Macdonald Road so the hundreds of workers leaving on their bikes and on foot could cross over safely. In those days there were no traffic lights on Belgrave Road between the Abbey Park Road junction and Melton Turn. I remember that ‘Melton Turn’ was actually a roundabout (probably put in after the trams finished) until the early 1960s when traffic lights were installed there too.
Ross’s Walk and the ‘BU’
Going north from Roberts Road, Ross’s Walk was (and, of course, still is) a normal side street. There were several corner shops, notably a greengrocer’s on the corner of Hunter Road run by Fred Coulson and his wife, and Evans the butcher opposite, on the corner of Buller Road. Both of these shops were regular ports of call when Mum took my sister Julie and me shopping as toddlers. One of my earliest memories is getting a serious telling off after Mum noticed that I’d picked up a small piece of raw mince from Mr Evans’ counter and I was beginning to chew it! There was an off-licence on the corner of Hildyard Road where Mum used to go to get her annual bottle of beer for the Christmas pudding mix.
Beyond MacDonald Road the character of Ross’s Walk changed yet again as it bisected the mighty ‘BU’ factory. With austere factory buildings on either side this stretch could be said to have had a dismal appearance, but it was actually quite a lively place. Small internal transport trucks constantly crossed the road, towing crates of machine parts between the two sections of the works. Workers walked regularly from one side to the other across the street, and also overhead on an enclosed bridge at second floor level. Then there was the noise of the machine tools, the smell of hot cutting oil and, behind some mysterious frosted glass windows on the west side, strange, coloured flames could be seen – was this where welding, or brazing, was done? Further on, towards Holden Street, Ross’s Walk was bordered on the left by a tall fence surrounding the BU site. The buildings behind it were outbuildings of various sizes rather than tall factory blocks. Near the far end of the site was a shed where the building maintenance squad was based and, beyond that, a sawmill with its noisy dust extraction equipment constantly on the go during working hours. Here were made the packing crates for the shipment of shoe making machinery all over the world.
A Summer Job at the BU
In the summers of 1973 and 1974 as a student summer holiday job I became a labourer with the BU’s building maintenance squad.
I got the labouring job the first year (summer 1973) after doing a short work experience course for undergraduate engineers at the BU. One week of this was spent on the shop floor, where I worked on a horizontal milling machine ‘helping’ to make cast iron parts for one of the company’s many products. The skilled and experienced tradesman to whom I was assigned was very patient, although I suspect his production bonus suffered that week as he kept an eye on me! I don’t remember any of my parts ending up in the scrap bin, so I must have been reasonably competent.
With such a vast estate the company had a maintenance team all year round, the BR 710 Department, and they took a few students on in the summer to help with the outside repairs. The squad tackled just about every job going, from roof repairs, through broken windows, to unblocking drains. The latter was the speciality of one Norman Heap, who was also the driver and operator of their lorry-mounted Simon hydraulic platform which facilitated access to places high up on the outside of the buildings. As jobs demanded you got to go to every part of the site, from the plush, well-furnished Directors’ offices on the Belgrave Road frontage to dingy air raid shelters below the buildings on Ross’s Walk. In fact, the job was a passport to go almost anywhere in the factory and see what was going on there while, ostensibly, checking for leaks, blockages etc.
Job cards came in from all over the factory and the manager of the department decided on priorities, then despatched his staff accordingly. One morning I might be sent with Ernie the joiner to help him to repair a door, then in the afternoon I could be lifting gully (drain) covers and scooping many years’ accumulation of smelly slime into a wheelbarrow! One of my regular weekly jobs was cutting the lawn just inside the Macdonald Road entrance. Still, it was an excellent introduction to the whole range of building maintenance tasks, knowledge and skills I’ve used any number of times around the house, thanks to the BU!
A particular job I recall with amusement was helping to dig a hole inside the factory for the concrete foundation of a new machine tool. This was done with pick and spade, once we’d broken through the concrete floor with a pneumatic drill (powered by the factory’s compressed air supply, which could be hooked into almost everywhere). My mate Frank and I completed the digging in a couple of days and then we carefully positioned the shuttering for the holding down bolts for the new machine. A lorry full of ready-mixed concrete arrived outside to fill our hole and complete the job. To save barrowing the concrete in through the door we rigged up an inclined system of troughs leading from the back of the lorry, through a window and into the hole. Then the driver began to deliver the concrete while we levelled it off in the hole with our shovels. As it reached the correct height Frank shouted to the lorry driver to stop, but Frank’s increasingly frantic yelling and gesticulation were ignored. The concrete continued to flow until the lorry was empty. By then we had wet concrete spreading around our feet and across the inside of the building. The driver had decided that we’d ordered a full load and we were jolly well going to get it! I spent the next couple of hours barrowing the excess concrete away before it set.
All in all a great experience as a young man. The family feel of the BU certainly came across. Living nearby I knew several men who had worked there for years, and many of them found time to search me out for a word if they learned I was around their area of the works.
Date posted: May 26, 2021No Comments
Some fascinating early BU history here. Mr. Arthur Hopkins started work as a youth with the company when it was still Pearson and Bennion in 1890. He was with the firm for 55 years, retiring in 1945, and was the secretary of the Company since its formation in 1899.
We are very grateful to John Hopkins for providing this information and the newspaper clip from the occasion of Arthur’s retirement. Arthur was John’s Great Grand Uncle. If anyone has any further information about Arthur, John would love to hear form you – Email email@example.com Thank you.
Date posted: May 3, 2021No Comments
We’re delighted to be able to publish a selection of Peter Mayes BU documents. Peter, who began with BU in 1961 (see fifth image below) and worked mainly in the tool room, has incredibly managed to retain all the important documents that followed him through his work life. Here, we include his acceptance letter, his Quarter-Century Club certificate and his apprenticeship indenture papers and completion certificate. The second image appears to be a group of fresh faced apprentices – not sure which one is Peter? A real slice of BU and British industrial history. The full collection has been deposited with the Leicester Industrial Museum at the Abbey Pumping Station which they intend to use when they do an exhibition about the BU.
Date posted: April 20, 2021No Comments
BU Clicker Restoration Project0
Geoff Roberts from Sheldon, Birmingham, owns a BU Clicker machine (see photos). Its in need of some repairs and Geoff is determined to restore it full working order. However.. this is where someone may be able to assist.. he really needs a manual, or in fact any information, that could help. Please have a look and get in touch with Geoff – his email address is at the bottom of this post.
He thinks its similar to the USMC Type C model but there are differences in the machine construction, possibly 1920s vintage.
Date posted: April 8, 2021No Comments
Always nice to find a bit of...0
Peter Ridgers has contacted us from Down Under.
“A Top of the morning to all. I was employed by the Company as a Road man from 1977 to 1987. A fancy name for a service technician. I did my time in Adelaide, South Australia.
My direct boss was Kay Warralow. I trained under the one and only Jack Coventry. In my eyes one of the greatest gentleman that ever lived. The company’s General Manager was John Fleming who to this day is one of my best friends.
Anyway, I’m doing kitchen renovations and came across this. It brought back fond memories.
If the English Gentleman Tony Walker happens to read this ‘Good Ay Mate’.
Hope this puts a smile on a face or two.
Cheers from Australia – Peter Ridgers”
Date posted: March 1, 2021No Comments
Happy Birthday Allan Barcroft0
Happy 97th Birthday to Allan Barcroft. Lasting Mechanic based at the BU Waterfoot branch in Lancashire. Hope you have a wonderful day.
Date posted: February 13, 2021No Comments
John Walter Randall, Patents...1
Sad news, I’m afraid. John Randall, who worked in the Patents Department for nearly 40 years, died earlier this year at his home in Burton Overy. John went from University graduate to director during his time at BU, and left in 1990 to join Black and Decker. Chris, his son, has been in touch and the family would love to hear from anyone who remembers John. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you.
Date posted: December 8, 20201 Comment