Belsize and the First World War

This post is part of a series on the history of the Belsize Motor Company (also Marshall and Company).

At the outbreak of the First World War Belsize was one of Britain’s biggest volume vehicle producers, with a works capacity of around 3,600 cars a year; the company’s capital had been increased to £300,000 and dividends had been at or above 10% for 4 years.

The company quickly adapted to war conditions by producing lots of 3-ton lorries, which were much in demand from the War Office. The Commercial Motor reported in October 1914 that no deliveries could be made to private customers until at least December.  The 3-ton lorries can be seen below with War Office markings. There are also several more pictures, held privately, of similar Belsize lorries in use at the front.

An example of Belsize lorries in use during the war (Image from the Museum of Science and Industry)
An example of Belsize lorries in use during the war (Image held at the Museum of Science and Industry)

Lorry production continued into 1915 and 1916, however the shell crisis soon had Belsize starting munitions production.

Evidence for Belsize’s war work comes from trade journals, the company annual reports in local newspapers and ASE (Amalgamated Society of Engineers) Manchester District Committee Minutes held at the Working Class Movement Library.

The minute books report the “Shell Department” trialling the production of 4.5” shells, at 4750 a week at the beginning of 1916. This quickly escalated until the ASE reported a big order for 18 pound shrapnel shells that would:

“stretch their resources to the utmost it will mean the employment of 2500 females, 450 unskilled men, their greatest difficulty will be regarding skilled labour for setting up.” (ASE Manchester District Committee Minutes Book 21/11/1916)

The company and the ASE had many disputes during the war, mostly over the influx of “diluted” labour, both unskilled male and female workers. Belsize were constantly looked to use such labour on lathes and other machines that the ASE considered reserved for their members. The trouble with this was the general shortage of skilled men, which is noted in the comment above.

By the end of the war the company was producing around 70,000 shells a week, making about 4 million over the course of the war. The works had been extended to increase production and the company had at least 4,000 female munition workers, follow the link to an image of a few of them.

Despite the company’s successful contribution to the war effort, through the manufacture of munitions and aeroplane engines, vehicle production had stopped, and the firm struggled to quickly convert the plant back to motorcar manufacture. W. G. Harrison, who worked at Belsize during the war, remembered working on a prototype of a post-war car in 1918. The parts were machined at night and fitting was conducted in the yard, with a sheet protecting the car from the weather during the day.

The company directors were optimistic at the Annual General Meeting in December 1918. However 1919 was to prove to be one of the most disastrous years in the company’s history and will be the subject of another blog.

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