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  info@buhistory.org.uk

Con te partirò – Time to Say Goodbye

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Since our first post on the newly created BU History website back in June 2013 we have added 157 more. This is likely to be the final post and the end of the BU History Group. We’ve run out of puff! The website will officially come down at the end of June this year, so there’s not long to delve through the archive here. Thank you for your interest and support and especially all the people who have shared their memories of life at BU.

Many of the documents that have been donated to the Group over the years have now been deposited at the Leicester Record Office in Wigston, including a full set of Unison magazines and an amazing photo album from 1928 that has only just been received. They are all available to view. The reference is DE10750. Staff at the RO are incredibly helpful so if you want to have a BU forage you know where to go.

All the Best –

Burt

Date posted: May 7, 2024

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Michael Broughton

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Does this name ring any bells? Michael was well known around BU being in charge of insuring employees’ cars and sorting their accidents for several years before moving into risk management for all of the companies in the group. He sadly died in 2009.

Michael’s daughter, Audrey, has written to us from her home in Gillingham. Audrey also worked at BU as did both her parents, and her grandad, Sidney Spafford (another quarter-century man).

It would be great to hear from anyone who remembers Michael (or Audrey). Email info@buhistory.org.uk

Since her mother’s death earlier this year, Audrey has had access to her dad’s personal effects and papers. Incredibly she has unearthed a photograph album dated 1928, which contains 50 professional photos of Union Works along with a floor plan of Tucker fastenings at Birmingham.
Audrey has very kindly sent these items to us and presently they will be added to the BU Archive housed at the Wigston Record Office. This is of course a public archive and anyone can visit and ask to view what they have. The staff are super helpful, just ask for a list of BU documents (might be an idea to say the British United Shoe Machinery Company).
The photo album is extraordinary. Very clear photos of different departments and individuals in their offices. One is of Charles Bennion who died later that year (1928). They throw a light on what Union Works was like a century ago and how it was for people who worked there. For instance, Charles Bennion’s office seems remarkably sparse considering his position as founder and Chairman. We hope to deposit these items at Wigston in May of this year.
The photo below is of other items Audrey has recently found at her parents home: They include the floor plan for the Emhart office suite at Oadby. Also the Air Raid Precautions booklet for Union Works which is date stamped on the front, 1937. Fantastic stuff!

Date posted: March 29, 2024

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The Sharpe Brothers

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Frank Sharpe has written about his family who worked at BU.

My dad, Les Sharpe, seen in this photo, worked in the boring and jig tool-making area.

 

My late father and some of his brothers worked at the BU during and after the war. Lesley, Frank and Bill Sharpe; each did their apprenticeship at the BU.

“My dad, Leslie Sharpe, died fairly young (59) and I was in the army abroad for many years so sadly missed a lot of time with him, but Uncle Frank was alive till his 80s so I asked him about my dad as they were close. I’ve no idea when they left the BU my dad was a bit of a joker in his youth and one story Frank told me was about their foreman who used to have a higher stool and table to work at to keep an eye on all his student lads.

One day early before he arrived my dad tied cotton to the lamp hanging lamp above his perch and fed it along the beams above everyone’s heads and anything above the lamps, which were in a long line down the workshop, was always in the dark. During the day my dad started to slowly pull on the cotton till the foreman’s light was swaying. At first, he didn’t notice but as it became worse, he put his hand up and stopped it. Gently my dad kept it swinging Everyone on the shop floor knew what he was up to except the foreman, and they were snickering as the lamp built up momentum. Like trying to squat a fly, the foreman would stop it time and time again, eventually, he stood up and tried to see what was moving his lamp when every other lamp was still. Just then my dad gave a big pull, and the lamp knocked his bowler hat off and the shop floor erupted into laughter. He lost his hat and his composure and shouted down to my dad giving a loud “If I find out who’s doing this, I’ll have his pay docked for messing about!!” Nobody ever told him, but he had a good idea who it was!

My dad went from the BU to work for a plastic injection moulding firm that made well-known toys as a foreman engineer, then later he worked for a Ratby engineering but had a massive stroke from stress and smoking-related problems. Like most wartime people, he smoked from 13 years old. I miss him still. He served in the Royal Artillery for his national service, and I served 22 years in the RA which he was greatly happy about. Uncle Frank went on to do fitness training with Harry Weldon a boss of his from the BU and did Charles Atlas-type shows and also played rugby for the Leicester Tigers reserves after the war (during the war he served in the home guard aged 16, a bit like Pike in Dad’s Army.  They lived at 22 Wand Street and my mum at 64 Macdonald Rd through the war years. My grandmother many years later was a night cleaner at the HQ of The BU.

Date posted: March 10, 2024

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Terry Pell

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Terry Pell, an ex-employee of BUSMCo Ltd. is searching for a film made in 1970 that contains him.

“In December 1970 the BUSMC company magazine UNISON (No.29). I have just found this magazine article (copy of the article below) after all these years. In this magazine, an article referring to myself Terence Pell, and Jackie Coltman putting a film together (colour slide/into 8 min’ film) to talk about life at the BU (then the main employer in Leicester) made for our old School, Roundhill Comprehensive School in Thurmaston Leicester. I`m asking if it’s possible to get a copy of this 8 min film? It was shown then on a TV set / portable projector with a built-in screen. I`m really hoping this can be found (in an accessible form) as to be honest, I can’t actually remember doing the film. My children and grandchildren who I showed the below article would love to see this (as well as myself) as not much of my life then was actually recorded.”

If anyone has any information, please send an email to info@buhistory.org.uk and we will pass it on to Terry.

Date posted: August 17, 2023

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Jack Till

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Sue Templeman sent this wonderful picture to the BU History Group. It’s the BU Cricket Team from the 1920s and Sue’s grandpa, Jack Till, is sitting on the ground on the far right. Jack was an engineer at BU. The photo is so clear, if you zoom in it seems to almost bring everyone back to life. The detail is incredible, so unusual to see photos from 100 years ago that have this quality. This is also the case with an earlier photo Sue sent us which is on this website, entitled ‘A Pill for Bill’. Fantastic.

Date posted: December 16, 2022

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Syd Bown

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We are sorry to hear of the passing of former BU man Syd Bown. His funeral is taking place at Loughborough Crematorium at 11 am on Friday 26 August if any old friends or colleagues would like to attend.

Date posted: August 9, 2022

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John Ellis shares his memories...

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John in his school uniform 1967 aged 15 – just as he would have looked when at BU.

 

“I have a few memories and tales to tell of my short time at the BUSMC in 1967.

“In May 1967, two weeks after leaving Guthlaxton, that fake “Grammar School” in Wigston, Leicestershire, (I had failed the 11-Plus exam in Leicester) after sitting exams for the short-lived, worthless and therefore pointless CSE exams, which were never recognized by Leicester employers, I began my working life at the British United Shoe Machinery Company in Belgrave Leicester. At a few months short of my 16th birthday I was supposed to become an apprentice engineer at the BUSMC, but that was the choice of the careers officer in Wigston and was not my choice at all as at Bushloe and Guthlaxton schools in Wigston  I had opted out of metalwork in favour of woodwork.

“On the first day at the BUSMC, we new recruits were seated in a classroom in MacDonald Road with a cup of tea and a biscuit and received a welcoming speech by the Personnel Manager. After the chat, we were told to enjoy our tea and biscuit as the firm would not provide another until we retired.  That caused some muted laughter, but I didn’t laugh as I knew it would be true. We were then given some IQ and aptitude tests, some days after which I was categorized as an apprentice “Mechanical Engineering Technician” which was one step higher than the majority of “Craft Apprentices” who were destined to become shop floor machine fodder. My unexpected elevation in status was mainly on the back of my Guthlaxton Grammar School attendance, where I had achieved precisely nothing of note.

“As a not-yet 16-year-old, the BUSMC initially paid me £3/15/0d (£3.75p) for 40 hours of work (9p per hour). On my 16th birthday in the August of 1967, I received a magnificent £1 per week pay rise.  One shilling (20p) per day extra. What could I spend it on? Almost all of my pay disappeared immediately on transport or fuel costs, either by Midland Red and Leicester Corporation buses, or on my ancient motorcycle, plus board and lodging payments to my mother, clothing etc.  Certainly, monetary values were different back then compared with today, but it was all relative. A skilled worker would have been paid more than me, but their financial commitments would be proportionately greater; they being probably married, with children and rent or mortgage to pay. It struck me even at that young age that employers paid their workforce just enough to keep them alive and to get themselves to work to continue their slavery. This was recognized way back in the 1840s by two German gentlemen in London by the names of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Nothing changes, nothing does and never will, because, because (Spike Milligan).

“I began in the Apprentice School on the third floor of the old Law Street building, which had wooden floors. At the end of the day, the apprentices would clock out and run to the paternoster in the newer building in MacDonald Road to escape the BU as soon as possible. We were warned that if any more than two lads were caught riding in the same cubicle of the paternoster at any one time, they would all be sacked. I counted eight on one occasion and more than once saw the chain and sprocket in the sump of the paternoster because we couldn’t all get off on the ground floor in time.

“The head of the apprentice school was an older man named Arnold, whom I was told was a one-time motorcycle racer. Arnold was assisted by a man called Keith, who may have been Keith Cox whom I met again decades later as a workshop technician in the design and manufacture faculty at Leicester DeMontfort University (formerly Leicester Polytechnic). All of the workshop technicians at DeMontfort University had worked at the BU at some point or other. Keith Cox had left the BU years ago to be the head of the apprentice school at Stibbe’s before that too folded.

“In the apprentice school, I remember a blonde-headed kid from New Parks who was named Nurse and another called Mervin. When we went for a medical exam in Ross Walk, we were all asked to strip to the waist for the doctor to examine us, but Merv wasn’t paying attention and stripped naked. He was asked by the nurse to cover up his lower regions.

“The apprentices were given small batch jobs on which the skilled workers could not make money on. The 3rd-floor foreman, a portly man with a girlfriend one floor down, gave me 5 off, 2 1/2″ bore shafting collars which had been bored then drilled and tapped for the securing grubscrew. The last operation had created a burr inside the main bore which I was asked to remove. The foreman suggested that I should do so by running it through with a 2 1/2″ hand reamer. This was intended as a “bucket of steam” or “Long Weight” hoax by the foreman, but I went along with it. I went to the tool store on the 3rd floor where the storeman asked me to “wait there” whilst he had a look, returning some minutes later to say that he hadn’t a hand reamer that big in diameter. So, I went down to the second-floor tool stores and came away empty-handed. The last storeman told me “someone’s pulling your leg mate”. Undeterred I went down to the ground floor tool store and do you know what, – he actually had a 2.5″ hand reamer which was about 18″ long and weighed quite a bit (this was actually a machine reamer as it had a Morse Taper and two flats at the tail end). On returning to the 3rd floor the foreman asked me why I had been off the floor for so long. I told him the story, showed him the reamer which I held in a vice and rotated the shafting collars on it to remove the burrs in a jiffy.

“After a short period of manual filing, thread tapping and sheet metal folding I was installed as a permanent appendage of a monstrous pre-War (which war?) Churchill grinding machine with six abrasive stone blocks the size of house bricks clamped to the fast-revolving drum making a noise like a running down air raid siren. The noise of the machine frightened me to death. Every now and then, just to keep me awake, the magnets which held the flat workpieces to the magnetic machine table would fall away and at the next pass of the trough under the grinding blocks, the parts would be sent flying at the end of the enclosed end of the trough, sounding like a machine gun. The to and fro (left to right) passage of the machine trough beneath the grinding head also sprayed me with stinking coolant called “Suds” (water miscible oil) which entered the pores of my skin and my lungs.  There was no PPE. In my free time, even after a hot bath with Lifebuoy less than sexy soap and a hair wash with Vosene less than sexy shampoo, the persistent smell of suds caused friends and others to ask “Can you smell oil?”  Yes! I reeked of it permanently.  So, in a very short time, the BU had transformed me into a social leper.  Girls did not want to know me.

“Most of the work at the BU was repetitious “piece work” and a work rate was fixed by the “time and motion” man.  If a worker didn’t meet the target time to complete the job he could be sacked.  Not that the time was ever reassessed to check that it was fair and achievable. It was always the worker’s fault. If the worker managed to complete the task in less than the allotted time and the time and motion man became aware of it the time for the job would be cut to the faster time for the next batch, making it even more difficult to reach the target and the worker would have to go flat out to stand still.

“I was five minutes late at the gate one morning, arriving on my Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle and sidecar. The gate in MacDonald Road was locked so I asked the gateman if I could come in. He rang through to my foreman who refused me entry, saying that I was too late and that I should come back for the afternoon shift. I thought sod that. It’s a nice day, I’ll have a ride out on my motorbike, which I did and had a lovely day riding around Charnwood, apart from my sidecar wheel fell off and the lights failed at dusk and I had to leave the outfit on a grass verge in Anstey and get home by bus.

“One apprentice was sacked attempting to oil blacken the handles of the tap-wrench we all had to make. The trick was to heat the steel and then thrust it below the surface of the black oil in a gallon tin which would result in the handles becoming black. This lad had just touched the surface of the oil with the red-hot steel, which heated the oil above its flash point and the tin of oil caught fire.  The lad just stood there looking at it, at a loss what to do about the fire. The foreman smothered the fire and the lad was escorted off the premises and told never to return.

“Another apprentice was sacked after he used the “fast traverse” button to lower the cylindrical abrasive wheel of the circular grinding machine down into the revolving machine table. The grinding cylinder exploded and some of it penetrated the sheet steel guard at the rear of the machine and broke a pane of glass in the window beyond sending shards of glass into the courtyard below. Another was sacked when he managed to stall the centre lathe he was working on but he hadn’t the intelligence to switch it off and the electric motor burnt out. Yet another was sacked for leaving the suds pump running on the Churchill grinder overnight.  Iron filings blocked the drain and the trough filled and overflowed onto and through the wooden floor ruining thousands of pounds worth of electronic equipment on the floor below which was ready for delivery to the customer.

“In the courtyard was a department which always smelled of adhesive fumes. An old man who worked there came out into the yard to have a cigarette and became a human torch when the fumes still escaping from his overalls ignited.

“Lunchtimes, after a feed in the canteen, many of us new apprentices would retire to the Cossington Street Recreation Ground, or to Bruin Street where there was a high school (now a primary school) then with interesting if not interested young teenage ladies. There I met Christine off St Matthews and a blonde girl from Martin Street whom I was interested in, but neither meeting progressed anywhere.  I arranged to meet Christine one evening on the St Matthews estate, but she didn’t turn up. Then I left the BU.

“The BU had bike racks. Nobody except maybe the bosses turned up in a car. I had a motorcycle which I may have parked on a nearby street. Other times I arrived on the bus or cycled from Wigston. Whilst standing near the clocking-in machine on the 3rd floor of the BU Law Street building I was approached by an older apprentice who sold me a Belstaff Trialsmaster waxed cotton motorcycle jacket with a green ribbed corded velvet stand-up collar for £5 which I withdrew from my Post Office savings account without my mother’s knowledge.

“I was sent to Charles Keene College one day a week.  Charles might have been Keene, but I wasn’t. There was a break for one hour from 5 pm to 6 pm, following which there was a Tech Drawing lesson. The fluorescent lighting in the Tech Drawing room bothered me and all I could see was the glare from the white of the paper.  Pencil lines became invisible and my eyesight was never the best. So, I didn’t go to the Tech Drawing lessons and later not to Charles Keene at all. Also, the stink of the canal basin next to Charles Keene turned my stomach. I remember driving my motorbike and sidecar into the Painter Street car park, smelling the canal, performing a rapid U-turn and buggering off for yet another day off joyride. For which I would lose £1. Was I bothered? Not one bit. The BU Personnel Manager came to learn of my non-attendance and called me to his office.  He gave me two options; either to turn over a new leaf and continue as a Craft Apprentice, but that a black mark would be entered on my career record, or I could leave. Faced with that simple choice, leaving was a more attractive option.

“I left the BUSMC after 6 months to work even more briefly for Constone in South Wigston, but that is another story. In 1967 I began my working career on the bottom rung of the ladder and ended it 47 years and over 50 later in the cellar. My longest job lasted nine years, the shortest 90 minutes. Told the boss that the job wasn’t for me and left.

Mid-career I found that I had a natural aptitude as a “motor vehicle refinisher” (paint sprayer) which I did for nearly a quarter of a century. I loved it. Every job was different to the last. Repetition and piecework are mind-numbingly boring.

 

All the best John Ellis

 

Date posted: August 7, 2022

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Joseph Gouldbourn

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Hi – Does this name ring a bell with anyone? We’ve been contacted by Veronica Hoyles who is trying to find out more about Joseph Gouldbourn. He was an inventor at BU. It is definitely a name from the past as Veronica is in touch with Joseph’s grandson who is approaching 85 years of age and who never met his grandad. Any old-time BU historians, can you please help?? Thank you – Burt

Click on this link to see one of his inventions from 1918 (there are quite a few if you google the name) –

US1288561

Date posted: June 21, 2022

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No 6 Harness Machines

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Phil Goodchild is a traditional full time working Harness Maker in the UK specialising in heavy horse harnesses for heavy horse breeds.  He owns and uses a B.U.M.C  No 6 treddle harness sewing machine.  “It is an amazing piece of machinery ad it still works today as good as it did when new.  The serial number is 8491 and is still fully original.  I bought it from a saddlery workshop in Darwen, Lancashire.  My friend Bryan still works in the original workshop his Great Grandfather started.  It was this Great Grandfather who bought two brand new No 6 harness machines.   They remained in this shop from sometime before 1920 until 10 years ago,  I now own one of these machines so really, I am the second owner from new of my machine.”
“I have been searching high and low for any info relating to dates and serial numbers of various B.U.M.C machines and I cannot find anything.    I also have a very old B.U.M.C hand pull leather splitting machine I use almost every day in my harness workshop. Again,  a wonderful quality bit of kit is still in superb condition.  I am wondering if there is info etc regarding manufacturing dates and the related serial numbers.   As far as I can ascertain my No 6 harness sewing machine must be at least from around 1915 to 1920 going by what my friend who I bought it from could recall from his family history and handed down info from his Great Grandfathers time.  I have attached a couple of pictures of the machine, also one of my B.U.M.C  splitter for your interest.   The serial number of this is 549.

If there is any chance any info or existing records for a No.6 harness treddle machine exists I would be eternally grateful to be pointed towards it. This is for my own personal interest and that includes being n active member of the Facebook group we have for these machines.

Please email me, Phil Goodchild on info@pgharness.co.uk

Date posted: January 14, 2022

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Reg Lewis

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Hello Everyone – Ian Lewis has contacted us to see if anyone has any information about his grandfather, Reg Lewis, who worked at BU between 1914-1935. Ian thinks he may have assembled prototype machines for BU, and could have been working at the Rothwell depot as well as Union Works. Delighted if anyone can give us any info. Cheers!

Ian also sent in this page from ‘The Engineer’ magazine from 1922! BU getting a good mention.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL

Date posted: December 13, 2021

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