150 years ago in 1860, Barnsley based Engineering Company, Qualter Hall & Co Limited, was founded... thanks in part to the American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton industry!
Today, as Qualter Hall proudly celebrates its 150th anniversary, the company is also celebrating a healthy order book, a particularly spectacular achievement in the light of the current global economic downturn and a real testament to a company that has, without doubt, stood the test of time far more than most.
Founded in 1860, Qualter Hall has a heritage in servicing the deep mining industry. Over more recent years, the company has diversified its core skills and now employs around 140 people dedicated to mechanical, structural, electronic, electrical and fluid power engineering. Operating through four main divisions - Mining, Hoisting & Transportation Systems Division - Mechanical Handling Division - Specialist Manufacturing Division - Large Presses/Heavy Metal Forming Machines Division (Hugh Smith Engineering) - the company has built up a renowned reputation for providing a unique service in the field of bespoke, turnkey project engineering both in the UK and Worldwide.
Although engineering advancements of today would be unrecognisable to its original founders, the whole ethos that made Qualter Hall so successful from the start remains very much the same today - a highly personalised company, where co-operation arises naturally from close contact between the various divisions giving a greater ability to compete successfully with larger companies.
It all started in 1860 when George Bower, a moulder living in Lancashire, was granted a patent for a unique type of piston with adjustable rings to compensate for cylinder and piston ring wear. Unable to achieve the commercial success on his own, and requiring practical help, he joined forces with blacksmith friend, John Qualter and also a young engine fitter, Edward Hall. These 3 craftsmen between them had the complimentary skills needed to ensure an effective engineering partnership. However, none of the partners were in a position to contribute a substantial sum of money to kickstart the business. On top of that the American Civil War in 1861 meant that there was a serious shortage of cotton in Lancashire leading to widespread unemployment and depression. As a result, Qualter and Hall 'emigrated' across the 'border' to Barnsley, but Bower refused to leave Lancashire and the piston project was temporarily shelved.
In 1867, following the end of the Civil War, the partners were able to establish their own manufacturing facilities in Barnsley. Bower would remain involved in the company from across the border in Lancashire, but a fourth person, moulder John Needham was brought in to balance the partnership. The Company was first established as The Railway Foundry Company and later as Needham, Qualter, Hall & Co. Premises were leased from the Midland Railway Company and small scale production began. From this time onwards, the history of the Hall family would be tied to Qualter, Hall & Co, but the other founders' families would be responsible for the eventual establishment of two more Barnsley based engineering companies.
Invented at the time when the steam engine was the basis of all engineering power, the unique piston design enabled the Company to establish itself firmly within a short period of time and there was plenty of opportunity to build up sales locally, which was vital in the days when advertising and marketing techniques were rather unsophisticated. The piston evolved and improved and its applications grew, in particular it was used in colliery winding engines and haulages. By the time sales began to decline in 1885, the piston had done its job and firmly established Qualter Hall as renowned colliery engineers.
Following the piston, it was natural that the steam engine would come next. The first order came from Denaby Colliery in 1872, but by 1893, steam was losing its battle with electricity in the collieries, so Qualter Hall turned its attention to developing various ram pumps which heralded the start of the manufacture of a wide range of hydraulic equipment. While Edward Hall developed his engines, Needham and Bower established the company as iron founders and produced a range of coal preparation equipment.
The 19th Century ended in a blaze of expansion and hope, but also proved to be an end of an era as both founders died at the turn of the Century - John Qualter in 1899 and Edward Hall two years later. After Qualter's death, the shares were bought by Edward Hall and from that time, the fortunes of the Company were controlled and directed by the Hall family.
The original partners had achieved great things with very little capital, had built up a prosperous manufacturing company and been able to take advantage of late 19th century coal mining industry. They had built up a good reputation which was to stand them in good stead for the years to come. In 1910, the company was re-organised to become a limited company and in 1928, premises were purchased which would house, with various additions, the Company ever since.
During the depression of the 30's, and thanks to the prudent managerial skills of its owners during the early decades of last Century, Qualter Hall was in the happy position of being able to offer extended credit to colliery companies, resulting in more orders than anticipated. And, due to overall shortage of mining work, they were also able to spend time extending their manufacturing range which involved installing their first electric arc welding equipment - a revolutionary technique. It was also at this time Qualter Hall secured various structural steelworks contracts including a new stand for Barnsley FC which in turn was the catalyst for a number of other similar projects.
During the 2nd World War, the Government declared mining to be a top national priority, so while the mining industry kept them very busy, there was no time for diversification into other areas. Then came the National Coal Board's declaration to carry out extensive reconstruction of the pits, other 'pipeline' projects were put on hold and Qualter Hall focused all their attention on the development of three main types of equipment which they felt would be vital to the modernised pits of Britain. This turned out to be the right decision and in 1945 they won a major contract with the Lofthouse Colliery Company which resulted in the revolutionary Lofco mine car handling system which continues to be developed today.
The recession of the early nineties, which coincided with the demise of the British Mining Industry, completely transformed the engineering industrial scene in Britain, leaving very few companies such as Qualter Hall, with a history dating back to 1860, still in operation. Qualter Hall's survival was due entirely to a radical and strategic diversification policy. From 1989, a number of acquisitions were made, including Robey's of Lincoln, M B Wild of Birmingham, GMT of Leeds, Needham Brothers and Brown of Barnsley and, more recently, Hugh Smith Engineering of Glasgow with their range of large machines for plate forming and bending in synergy with Qualter Hall's moving machinery.
Today, Qualter Hall's reputation in the field of engineering excellence is more far-reaching and more firmly established than ever.
Over the years the company has grown and diversified its core skills so that its current activities take in an extremely wide range of market sectors providing a unique service in the field of bespoke, turnkey project engineering both in the UK and worldwide. Including, for example, projects for the mining, power generating, water, rail, ports, construction, transport, nuclear, specialist steel construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing industries. Typical projects include many types of bridges (moving and static ), Ro-Ro linkspans for ferry ports, water control gates for harbours and rivers, various winches, nuclear waste handling machines (special projects involving robotics), specialist structures, railway rolling stock components, nuclear waste storage boxes, architectural steelwork, mine shaft systems, mine winders and haulages, underground mine transportation systems, Hugh Smith large machines for plate forming and bending, and control systems fully integrated to suit specific installations.
Qualter Hall's export success now includes projects for over 25 countries, and with a strategic export initiative in place exports account for approximately a quarter of total business. Typical examples of recently received ongoing export contracts include:
• Belize - Kendal Bridge
• Indonesia - Baturusa Bridge
• India - Vertical Plate Bending Machine
• Morocco - Double Drum Hoist for silver mine
George Orton, Managing Director of Qualter Hall says: 'Qualter Hall's greatest strength has always been its ability to evolve, adapt and diversify according to the economic and political challenges of the time with flexibility and ingenuity, right from its humble beginnings 150 years ago through to the present day. I am extremely honoured to be part of the Qualter Hall history and, from our current position of strength, we hope to continue to move forward with our on-going business plans and objectives in such a way that would make our forbears proud.'