By Sharon O’Connor
The Parkhall Business Centre in Martell Road today is a busy hub for creative companies from coffee roasters to jewellery makers, artisan food start-ups to tech recruiters; it even has its own café. But the buildings used by these modern companies originally began life a century ago as the factory of the Telephone Manufacturing Company (TMC), the brainchild of Frederick Thomas Jackson. TMC became an internationally famous manufacturing company producing equipment such as telephones, switchboards, telegraph lines, electric clocks and ship’s telephones, all from a factory on this long, thin site tucked up against the eastern boundary of the West Norwood Cemetery and hidden from sight for the most part by the Victorian houses of Martell Rd.
FT, as Frederick Thomas Jackson was known to everyone, was born in 1881 into a Methodist farming family in Worcestershire, the eldest of three children. He left Bewdley Grammar School in 1896, aged fifteen, to begin work for his father, making cider and generally helping out. In 1902, after six years hard saving (and presumably a helping hand from his father), he had £40, enabling him to head for the bright lights of London. After several dead-end jobs he became a clerk at The Private Telephone Company. This was the start he needed and within four years he was Company Secretary, giving him an overview of the telephony business. Jackson spotted a solution to the problem of the high purchase cost of telephone equipment by offering it for rent. This made it viable for businesses to transfer from their outdated speaking tubes to modern telephones. In 1906 he married Mary Henrietta Parkes who had been born in Canton, China, where her father had been a Wesleyan minister. By 1911 Jackson was describing himself as an import/export agent working on his own account. The Jacksons set up home in Calton Avenue and had a son, Charles Hollingsworth Jackson and a daughter, Dorothy Gertrude.
In 1914 Jackson, joined forces with a solicitor from Glasgow called Campbell Cochran, whom he had met in the course of his business, to raise the capital to start their own company. Jackson was an energetic man ‘a great believer in optimism, system and organisation’. He started work at 8.20am, believing ‘the early hours [are] the most valuable in the business day’. He was described as silent, kind and shrewd.
At first TMC’s phones were supplied by a German company called Fuld, but following the outbreak of World War One, TMC could no longer import phones from Germany, hence the establishment of the Dulwich factory in Martell Road in 1915. Jackson named it the Hollingsworth Works after his paternal grandmother’s maiden name. At first TMC took over the premises of Offset Litho Limited, lithographic printers, at 42a Martell Road in what were four bays on the left of what is now the main block. In 1919 they took over the site of St Mary’s Industrial Home (where young girls had been trained for domestic service for the previous twenty years) at 40 Martell Road to build the main block; this is the part of the site visible from Martell Rd. They also built yards and buildings towards the south of the main block. TMC supplied other British companies such as New System whose slogan was ‘a penny per day per instrument’ and went from strength to strength. In 1920 TMC went public, acquired other phone rental companies and expanding into Belgium, France and Australia. The freehold of TMC's premises at Dulwich, together with some adjoining land, was purchased and a modern building erected for manufacturing and experimental research. Dr Robert Edwin Witton Maddison (1901-1993), the notable industrial chemist and authority on Robert Boyle, worked here from 1925-1941 as a research and development chemist. By 1921 the Jacksons had moved from 59 Calton Avenue to 20 Herne Hill.
TMC began advertising cutting-edge products such as the Laryngaphone, a throat microphone ‘the size of a wristwatch’, designed for use in aircraft or onboard ships to enable the crew to communicate clearly despite background noise. They also specialised in synchronous electric clocks using the trademark Temco. Synchronous clocks do not need an oscillator (like a pendulum or balance wheel) so are very robust, though vulnerable to power outages.
Factory output doubled but as the post-WW1 boom came to an end the company started to lose money. Jackson was in no doubt where the blame for this lay: ‘When people are spending a very large portion of their income in paying taxes one cannot expect them to spend much on anything except bare necessities. Until taxation can be brought down I cannot see any great revival in…the country’. The company concentared on exporting, establishing presences in Spain, South Africa, Egypt, China and India and Jackson was bringing new products to the market too. In particular, the handsfree telephone and the automatic (i.e. no operator connecting the calls) phone. TMC also arranged with the South London Electricity Supply Corporation to lay mains electricity into the factory, to create an alternative supply to that from their own generators.
In December 1925 their large overdraft at the Midland Bank fell due. When the Midland refused to advance them a further £60,000, Jackson stormed round to the Westminster Bank, who allegedly immediately took over the overdraft without asking for any security. This kept the company afloat and bought Jackson the time he needed to bring the company back into profitability. In 1929 profits doubled and the business was split into manufacturing (TMC) and rentals (Telephone Rentals or TR), though both were under the same board of directors. The firm still did not pay a dividend due to the ‘grievous burden’ of income tax. In 1932 TMC extended the factory again, with new workshops and an improved new west elevation, buying land from the cemetery to do so.
The site now had offices, labs, assembly, wiring, stores and despatch in the main block with machine shops, bakelite moulding rooms, presses, plating and polishing shops flanking the main building. Further expansion to the north of the site in 1933 added inspection areas, a lathe shop, tool rooms with a 500-seater canteen on the top floor. By 1937 they were employing 1600 people.
When World War 11 broke out, production was controlled by the Ministry of Supply and non-military telephony was low on the priority list. However, TMC had highly-trained research and development staff able to design and produce almost custom-built items and now started to move into specialist markets. The Secrephone scrambler telephone was one example. A scrambler, or Green Telephone, is fitted with a device that allows the intended recipients to understand each other but making it unintelligible to anyone else ‘
TR made Tannoy public address systems for Air Raid Precaution (ARP) use within factories and included a ‘Music While You Work’ system as an anti-fatigue measure. Wartime conditions took their toll as a third of their staff were called up but eventually TMC was placed on the Ministry of Supply’s ‘Vital List’ so was able to retain essential staff. The employment of ‘intelligent girls, aged not less than 18 years, for training in simple electrical maintenance’ also helped make up the shortfall. Shifts were extended using overtime, and night shifts were introduced. During the war years huge amounts of equipment was made at Martell Road including 1,300,000 microphones and 1,200,000 receivers. The amount of wire used in the coils and condensers was about 12,500,000 miles - enough to go five hundred times around the earth.
TMC’s British and European entities managed to trade consistently and profitably throughout the war and FT Jackson was awarded the OBE in 1941. The Dulwich works had their own Home Guard unit at the Hollingsworth Works as it was an obvious target for enemy bombers and Robert Howlett, who went to Alleyn’s School and lived in Martell Road, remembered that: ‘when they had exercises in Chancellor Grove, which was all bombed out houses, my friends and I ‘helped’ by pointing out the ‘defenders’ to the ‘attackers’.’
Business declined post 1945 and TMC were forced to sell their Australian business though they also expanded into Canada. A highlight of the firm’s business in the 1950s was the production of speaking clocks in Britain and Australia. TMC’s expertise in precision radio technology crossed over into their telephony work and into the fast-expanding telex service, and later into modems. Their speciality items continued to be a major product and now included ships' phones and military field sets. The increase in production necessitated some rebuilding and in 1952 TMC bought a strip of land adjoining the west of the site, along the cemetery’s eastern boundary, from the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company to facilitate the reconstruction of the machine shop by the architects A C Fairlough & D L Morris of Long Acre.
In 1960 TMC was taken over by the Pye group, becoming Pye TMC. Today it is part of Dutch giant Phillips. The Hollingsworth site was used as a depot by Lambeth Borough Council. In 1999 Workspace took over the site. The large factory floors have been subdivided into units of variable size and are bright and attractive, awash with natural light with large, attractive windows and high ceilings. The workspaces vary in size from 600 sq. ft to over 6,000 sq. ft. Since they have owned the site, Workspace have seen their tenants move from light manufacturing use such as carpentry to people looking for flexible office space with good recycling facilities, showers and cycle storage. Nick Bright, the centre’s manager, encourages tenants to meet and share experiences and this has led to some beneficial joint ventures between tenants, adding synergy to their individual businesses. Meeting rooms are available both for tenants and for members of the public.
Parkhall Business Centre now houses around 140 businesses ranging from Rococo, the noted chocolatier and cocoa grower, to wig-makers, electricians, design studios and online food supermarkets. Volcano Coffee Works has both its roastery and coffee house onsite and the popular cafe serves tenants and local residents alike.
With thanks to Bob’s Old Phones, Susie Schofield’s ‘Alleyn’s in the 1940’s and Nick Bright of Workspace.
From telephony to the internet - The Parkhall Business Centre - formerly the Telephone Manufacturing Company
By Sharon O’Connor