EMIAC 91: Ploughshares into Swords

Lincoln, 12th November 2016

Conference Details


The Great War had a huge impact on Lincoln’s engineering companies and they quickly turned to the manufacture of a diverse range of military equipment and munitions for the armed forces. The Tank was developed and manufactured here and the city became one of the most important centres of aircraft production in the country. It also saw the recruitment of female labour into factories for the first time which would eventually lead to political emancipation. This conference opens with an introduction to Lincoln’s industries in the period leading up to the Great War and follows on with accounts of the principal activities, the products and the people who made them.


Organised by the Society for Lincolnshire History & Archaeology and held on Saturday 12th November 2016 in Lincoln.

The conference programme:

09:00 Registration

09:30 Welcome and introduction

09:40 Lincoln's Industries leading up to 1914

10:30 Refreshment break

10:55 Lincoln's Industries in the Great War

11:35 Great War Tank Development

12:20 EMIAC Business Meeting

12:40 Lunch

13:40 Aircraft made in Lincoln

14:25 Women Munition Workers

14:45 The Tank Memorial

15:00 Films

16:00 Tea and close of conference

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Clayton & Shuttleworth-manufactured Handley Page O/400 bomber being towed out of the factory by a C&S tractor
Clayton & Shuttleworth-manufactured Handley Page O/400 bomber being towed out of the factory by a C&S tractor.

Image courtesy of: Walls, J. & Parker, C. (2000) Aircraft made in England. Lincoln: Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

Conference Report

Peter Robinson

For his first presentation Peter gave an overview of how Lincoln's industry developed to meet the need of wartime Britain. In the early days manufacturing industries were located along both banks of the River Witham. With the arrival of the railways some of the smaller businesses were put out of work with others diversifying into new work such as agricultural engines and machinery.

In the 1842 Nathaniel Clayton ran a boat building business; Joseph Shuttleworth became a partner and the business built up a thriving foundry and engineering business. By the turn of the century the Titanic Works had been built to accommodate the growing business. With the advent of [the Great] war the Abbey Works was built on the other side of the river to meet the need for ever more space for aircraft production.

Joseph Ruston bought a third share of Burton & Proctor, millwrights and implement makers, in 1857. The following year Burton sold his shares to Ruston when the name was changed to Ruston Proctor & Co. By the turn of the century the company employed over 2,000 people producing steam engines and shovels.

During the war they turned their attention to aero engines, producing over 3,000 in the Boultham area; aircraft were also built under licence from Sopwith. Over 3,000 people were employed on aircraft production. The company also produced gun barrels, flamer-throwers using either oil or gas and hydrogen equipment for filling airships.

Founded in 1854 as an engineering concern Robey & Co Ltd, based in the Globe Engineering Works, built aircraft under licence from Sopwith and Short.

William Foster began his career as a flour miller but in 1856 converted his premises into a foundry and engineering shop - the Wellington Foundry - and began producing grinding mills. The company went on to become well known for its threshing machines and traction engines.

During the war under William Tritton's direction, the company was responsible for designing and developing the tank.

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Peter Robinson (2)

At the beginning of the 20th century William Foster & Co Ltd were experimenting with a Pedrail system on their traction engines. But nothing came of it.

Whilst Richard Hornsby & Co were renown steam-engine manufacturers, their attention was turning to oil engines and in 1896 produced the first 'cold' compression-ignition engine. In 1903 Hornsby won the £1,000 prize offered by the War Office for the development of a tractor capable of pulling 25 tons for 40 miles without stopping.

Chief Designer David Roberts patented a chain-track system and in 1905 fitted it to a tractor. Light weight versions were fitted to a Rochet-Schneider and a Mercedes car.

Despite numerous successful demonstrations of both tractors and cars, there was little interest in tracked vehicles from both the public and the military, which by now had coined the term 'caterpillar'.

Roberts sold his patents to the American Holt Manufacturing Company in 1911. A year later the Army ordered over 400 of Holt's caterpillar-tracked vehicles made under licence by Ruston of Lincoln.

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Richard Pullen

Graphic images illustrated the need for a tracked vehicle in a theatre of war. The war had become bogged down with trenches stretching from the English Channel to the Alps and the ground a water-logged quagmire from continual heavy shelling. The enemy had an estimated 200 times more machine guns than the allies and the barbed-wire entanglements between the lines could be several feet high.

Major Walter Wilson and William Tritton, MD of William Foster & Co, have been officially credited with the creation of the first tank. A freelance engineer of some note before the war, Wilson was seconded from the Army to Fosters to develop designs for a trench-crossing machine.

Following successful trials of their Daimler petrol-engine-powered tractor, Fosters adapted it to carry its own 'bridges' for crossing trenches. However it was quickly realised that a tracked vehicle was required.

Before the war Fosters had built the tracked Yukon and the half-track Centipede tractors. Neither Wilson, who had been supervising trials of a Bullock tracked vehicle, nor Tritton were keen to use the American track system; their fears borne out by trials of the Number 1 Lincoln Machine.

Tritton designed a new simpler track system, which was tested on Little Willie, a modified Number 1 machine. Whilst successful in trials, it was not able to cross the wider trenches being dug by the Germans.

Based on Tritton's new track and Wilson's concept that the tracks should travel around the hull of the vehicle rather than be located beneath the hull, the now familiar rhomboid shape of the tank was created.

This design used the engine and gearbox from the Daimler-Foster tractor. Since it was mounted centrally in the hull, a turret was impracticable. Sponsons extending out from the sides housed the armament - either 6lb naval guns or Vickers machine guns. Known as The Wilson Machine or Big Willie, the prototype was completed in 36 days. Later known as Mother this first tank was soon in production. Because of limited capacity, production was shared with other manufacturing facilities.

Whilst the first operational use of the tank in September 1915 might not have been the desired success, it did demonstrate its potential capabilities by achieving in a day what might have taken the infantry four months. The military had to learn how to use them.

Meanwhile Fosters continued to develop the design with the Mk IV being the first truly battle-ready tank delivered to the army in 1917. The Wilson-Tritton designs could not have been realised without the work of Foster's draughtsman William Rigby.

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Charles Parker

With the onset of war large engineering companies faced two problems: their labour force was depleted as men joined up and their international markets were no longer available. With the defeat at Loos in 1915 attributed to a shortage of ammunition, the Ministry of Munitions was created to oversee production of all armaments. To accept 'war work' factories had to agree to becoming a controlled establishment whereby only government approved materials could be used and all work completed under the supervision of government inspectors.

Three factories turned their hand to the production of aircraft. Ruston Proctor & Co started building BE2c aircraft before moving on to Sopwith's 1½ Strutter at the end of the year. From 1917 the Camel, the premier fighter of its day, was coming off the production line. In the latter stages of the war this was phased out in favour of the Snipe. In addition to 200 BE2s and 250 1½ Strutters, 1600 Camels were produced at their Boultham Works. Aircraft were test flown from West Common.

Ruston, Proctor & Co was the largest producer of aero engines during the war. More than 3,000 were built and tested at their Spike Island Works. The Anchor Street Works undertook aircraft-related woodworking.

By 1915 Robey & Co were already working with Sopwith to produce their 'Gunbus', a pusher biplane with the engine at the rear, at their Globe Works.

The company also had aspirations to design and build their own planes. The first, a scout plane, was never tested due to non-delivery of the engine. Their Robey Peters Fighting Machine was designed for maritime patrols. Two gunners were to sit in separate nacelles in the wings: a Lewis gun in the port nacelle and a recoilless Davis gun in the starboard. Although test flown from Bracebridge Heath with mixed results, it never went into production and Mr Peters left the company.

More than 200 Short 184 seaplanes were produced under licence from Short. At peak production one plane a day was produced.

During the early days of the war Clayton & Shuttleworth manufactured airship components. In 1916 they received orders for the Sopwith Triplane to be followed a year later by the Camel.

The company is perhaps best known for producing the Handley Page O/400 bomber designed to carry the 1650 lb bomb, the heaviest used during the war. These planes were so large they had to be flown from the factory's 'Handley Page' field. An order for the Vickers Vimy bomber was cancelled after the armistice when only three machines had been completed.

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Neil Wright

With factories turning to aircraft production women with sewing skills were required to sew the canvas panels covering the fuselage and wings.

As the men left their factories to join up, women were required in ever increasing numbers to replace them. However the unions demanded that they should only undertake unskilled work; whilst they were 'allowed' to operate lathes and other machinery they were not to be employed in setting-up the machines.

Whilst many contemporary photographs show women working in the relatively clean environment of machine shops or assembly areas, some women found their way into the 'dirty' areas of the casting shops.

Neil showed a number of images in which the women felt proud to be an important part of the war effort.

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Richard Pullen (2)

This short presentation described the creation of a memorial to the people who designed and made the tank. Located on the Tritton Road roundabout, which is close to the site of Foster’s factory where the first tank came off the production line in 1916, the memorial is a 2D 1½ times size model of a Mark 1 tank. Fabricated from COR-TEN steel it shows male and female figures standing around the tank dressed in their work wear with spanners and paintbrushes in their hands. Alongside are figures of Tritton, Rigby and Wilson who were the designers, developers and manufacturers of the tank.


The first of three films shown was archive footage of the trials of the Hornsby chain-tracked tractors and cars.

Gas turbine manufacturer Siemens can trace its Lincoln heritage back to the early years of agricultural implements manufacturer Burton and Proctor.

Devils Porridge was the title of the last film. Again using archive footage it showed the construction of the factory built in 1915 to produce Cordite, the manufacturing operations and the development of Gretna and Eastriggs. By 1917 the factory was producing 1,100 tons of cordite per week.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

This conference did not organise any walks or visits. However the following are a few of the images shown during the presentations.

In 1917 Ruston Proctor & Co completed the 1000th Sopwith Camel
The 1000th Sopwith Camel built by Ruston Proctor & Co, 1917.
Hornsby tractor of 1909
Hornsby tractor of 1909.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Peters in the gun nacelle of the prototype Robey Peters fighting machine
The Holt 120 tractor, circa 1914.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Holt 120 tractor, circa 1914
J A Peters in the gun nacelle of the prototype Robey Peters fighting machine.

Images of aircraft courtesy of: Walls, J. & Parker, C. (2000) Aircraft made in England. Lincoln: Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

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