From 1920 to 1932 Paxman was one of fourteen 'associate' companies which together made up Agricultural & General Engineers Ltd (AGE). Paxman was one of the last companies to join the combine which failed disastrously in February 1932.
When the First World War ended in 1918 a number of agricultural engineering businesses, particularly in East Anglia, found themselves facing difficult circumstances. The defence work which had kept their factories busy during the war years, and the income which came with it, suddenly came to an end. The large export markets which had sustained these companies before the war had either been lost or were much diminished. Pre-war central European markets were now effectively closed to them. During the war, because of material and manpower shortages, British firms had been unable to meet the requirements of their South American, Australian and Far Eastern markets which previously accounted for a major proportion of their trade. Customers in those regions had consequently moved to American suppliers and large USA manufacturers were now well entrenched in these markets. Individually, and probably even collectively, the relatively small British family firms were not well equipped to compete against the Americans and win back more than a fraction of their lost trade. The only significant market left for them to exploit was their home market which was relatively small and at that time none too healthy.
One of the biggest problems facing British agricultural engineering businesses in the post-war period was a shortage of financial liquidity. After four years of war production most of the companies were in need of major investment in their buildings, in new machine tools and the development of new products suitable for post-war markets. The lack of funds for investment was compounded by foreign debts. Some businesses, like Richard Garrett & Sons Ltd of Leiston, were owed large sums by Russia. At the outbreak of war the Tsarist regime had retained monies and large stocks of unsold machinery belonging to Garrett and other foreign businesses. The new Soviet government which had emerged after the revolution repudiated all foreign debts in February 1918. The loss to Garrett alone was in the region of £200,000 which left that company with an acute shortage of working capital. Presumably other agricultural machinery makers were similarly affected.
Tom Aveling of Aveling & Porter and Archibald Maconochie, the jam and pickle magnate, came up with the idea of bringing together British agricultural engineering firms into one large combine. The perceived benefits of such a scheme were the reduction in competition in home markets and the creation of a business large enough to compete with the North American firms in overseas markets. Tom Aveling discussed the proposal with Colonel Frank Garrett, head of Richard Garrett & Sons, who was attracted to the idea which seemed to offer a way out of the liquidity problem facing his own firm. The discussions led to the formation of AGE on 4th June 1919 and Maconochie was appointed its chairman. In due course fourteen companies, listed below, were brought into the combine. The two best and most viable British agricultural machinery manufacturers, Ruston at Lincoln and Ransomes Sims & Jefferies, stayed out. Two other major firms, Marshall of Gainsborough and Fowler of Leeds, were not approached at all.
AGE took over the entire share capital of the companies joining the combine, in exchange for its own shares. The only exception was Peter Brotherhood of Peterborough in which AGE took a 70% holding. Maconochie, AGE's chairman, received a 5% 'entrepreneurial' commission, taken in AGE shares, on the value of the firms brought into the combine. Maconochie, who was in poor health, resigned in 1920 and sold all his shares at their height but gained little personal benefit as he died shortly after. His successor was Gwilym E Rowland whose qualifications for the post are difficult to discern. Rowland was acknowledged to be an indefatigable worker but a man determined to rule and maintain his own position by whatever means necessary. An intimidating personality, he adopted a strategy of divide and rule in his dealings with the combine's constituent companies and their respective chairman who sat on the AGE board. It was a strategy which worked successfully in his favour until his financial irregularities were uncovered and challenged shortly before AGE's collapse.
AGE was built on somewhat shaky foundations. Most, if not all, of the mainly family businesses which joined AGE were facing liquidity and other problems of their own. Their respective owners were each attracted to the amalgamation as a means of getting his own business out of a hole rather than forming one large new cohesive entity. Throughout the history of AGE each was primarily concerned with fighting for the survival of his own firm, making it virtually impossible to achieve sensible rationalisations which might have secured the combine's future. Shortage of liquidity and competing sectional interests dogged AGE to the end but these were not the only weaknesses inherent in the structure.
Initially a new head office was established in Kingsway, London, and a highly centralised business model was adopted. The original intention was to do all buying and selling from this office. With fourteen geographically scattered manufacturing sites the excessively centralised structure proved unworkable in practice. Its rigid inflexibility resulted in understandable discontent and opposition from the managements of the individual works. The central purchasing strategy collapsed very quickly. From July 1920, barely a year after AGE was formed, buying reverted to the individual works. Centralised selling to the home market was disbanded in October 1922 when the constituent companies resumed their former selling arrangements. Sales promotion and overseas sales, however, remained head office functions.
As previously mentioned, part of the rationale behind AGE's formation was a reduction in competition in home markets. To this end it was AGE policy that each member company should confine its activities to predetermined sections of the market so that it was not in competition with other members of the combine. Whilst there was much merit in this policy it unfortunately stifled, and to a large degree destroyed, the initiative, innovation and flexibility which had resulted in the earlier prosperity of its constituent companies.
A heavy and unnecessary drain on AGE's finances was the building and maintenance of a large prestigious London head office. A new subsidiary company, Aldwych House Estates Ltd, was set up to build Aldwych House on a site leased from London County Council. Costing some £400,000, construction commenced in spring 1920 and the new building was ready for occupation by autumn 1923. Aldwych House might not have been a bad investment if some of the office space had been let out to produce rental income. As it was, the proud and status-conscious Gwilym Rowland could not bring himself to relinquish ruling over a grand and expensive London headquarters, even as the group's finances became ever more strained. The heavy overhead costs of Aldwych House and its staff were passed back to the cash-strapped constituent companies as charges for head office services. Thus it remained a millstone around the combine's neck for the rest of AGE's existence.
A further weakness of the combine was that many of the group's products were firmly slanted towards the use of steam as a prime mover at a time when reciprocating steam engines were rapidly being displaced by the more convenient and efficient oil engine. Burrell, Garrett and Paxman were typical examples. Burrell, which had once been the Rolls Royce of traction engine builders, was already in a bad way when it joined AGE and remained wedded to its traditional technology despite plummeting sales. In 1929 the decision was taken to close down the Thetford works and transfer the business to Garrett at Leiston: a move which was completed in 1930. Garrett persevered with developing its steam wagons when it would have been better to investigate the use of diesel engines earlier than it did. Despite its fast declining steam engine sales, and pre-war experience with internal combustion engines, Paxman did not start serious development of a compression-ignition oil engine until 1925 or launch one onto the market until 1927.
By late 1931 AGE was suffering from a desperate shortage of liquidity. This led Rowland to juggle with such funds as were available, diverting them from their proper purposes, in efforts to keep the ship afloat. The final straw was his shipping off a large quantity of Howard's virtually obsolete and unsaleable machinery stock on open consignment to South America and fraudulently claiming cash under the government's recently launched Export Credit Guarantee scheme. Edward Barford tackled him on the matter and was instantly dismissed from the AGE board. Barford then began a hard fought battle to get Rowland removed.
AGE's Annual General Meeting in December 1931 was adjourned because the accounts up to 31st March 1931 were not available (they had still not been issued at the end of January 1932). Subsequently an extraordinary meeting was called at which Rowland was decisively defeated. He immediately left for an undisclosed destination and was never seen in public again. By this time AGE was indebted to Barclays Bank to the tune of £622,347. In February 1932 the Bank successfully petitioned for the appointment of a Receiver. Each constituent company was then sold off separately by the Receiver for whatever it would fetch. The prices obtained for them were derisory and did not reflect the values of their respective assets.
Despite all the weaknesses and difficulties outlined above, the majority of the constituent companies were basically sound. This was certainly true of Paxman which by the late 1920s was having considerable success in selling its new oil engines. After the crash most of the companies were revived by new owners or by the former family owners who managed to secure financial backing to buy back their businesses. Several, including Paxman, subsequently grew and prospered and a few have survived in one form or another to the present day. (1)
The member companies of AGE were:
1. Much of this information about AGE has been drawn from the following books by Robert Whitehead, the foremost authority on the history of Richard Garrett & Sons Ltd of Leiston:
(i) Garretts of Leiston, R A Whitehead, Percival Marshall & Co Ltd, London 1964. pp 194-236.
(ii) Garrett 200 - A bicentenary history of Garretts of Leiston 1778-1978, R A Whitehead, Transport Bookman Publications, Brentford, London 1978. pp 105-141.
(iii) Garrett Wagons - Part 3 Electrics and Motors, R A Whitehead, R A Whitehead & Partners, Tonbridge, Kent 1996. pp 116-121.
2. Garrett 200 - A bicentenary history of Garretts of Leiston 1778-1978, R A Whitehead, Transport Bookman Publications, Brentford, London 1978. p 140.
3. Garretts of Leiston, R A Whitehead, Percival Marshall & Co Ltd, London 1964. p 234.
4. The Story of St Nicholas Works - A History of Charles Burrell & Sons Ltd 1803-1928, Michael R Lane, Unicorn Press, Stowmarket, 1994. p 285.
Page updated: 26 MAY 2011