As the Rolls-Royce site on Pottery Lane faces the demolition gang, Len Grant nips in to chat with the one of the last employees about the site’s historic past.
When David Hibbert first joined Crossley Premier Engines in 1968 he was expecting to working as a fitter or an engineer. His career path changed after he returned from a stint at the local college. “As apprentices, we’d all done 40 weeks next door at Openshaw Technical College [now the Manchester College] before reporting back to the factory to be assigned our jobs. Some of the lads were taken to the shop floor but I was sent to the drawing office and started work as a junior draughtsman. There was no explanation, I was just told to get on with it.”
These were turbulent times for the engine manufacturers who – as Crossley Brothers – had built a new factory at Pottery Lane in 1882 after outgrowing their Manchester city centre premises. At the turn of the century business was booming. Francis and William Crossley at first made gas-fuelled engines, and then diesel and petrol engines. The potential for motor car engines was not lost on the two brothers – indeed Henry Ford visited Openshaw to see how they did it – and a new factory was established in Gorton in 1906 from which another branch of company history unfolded under Crossley Motors.
Industrial engines, for railways and shipping, continued to be designed and manufactured at Pottery Lane. In the early 1960s the company took out the licence to build a French engine called the Pielstick and, although they were selling well, the company went into liquidation and was bought out. Almost as soon as David had picked up his pencil and slide rule, the company became part of the Amalgamated Power Engineering Group and the sign on the side of the factory changed again to APE-Crossley Ltd.
“The shipbuilding industry was shrinking at that time and although we still supplied some engines to the Ministry of Defence – our engines still power HMS Ocean – we switched to producing engines for industrial power generation mainly in developing countries like Sudan, Fiji and Bermuda.”
Rolls-Royce took over the business in 1988 and continued Pielstick production for another eight years. “Understandably Rolls-Royce were more interested in producing their own world-beating engine rather than someone else’s under licence,” recalls David. “At their Bedford base they designed the Allen 5000 and tested it here for 1,000 hours. All was well until it went into the field and then problems occurred. By the time design changes were made the project had to be scrapped because it had been tarnished with a bad reputation.
“Over the last decade or so, Crossley Works has become a spares and service centre for the Pielstick product,” continues David. “We’ve had numerous redundancies over the last 25 years and it’s been sad to see the business slowly shrinking. We stopped operations all together in February and since then what’s left of the business has been transferred to Rolls-Royce in Scotland.”
At the end of 2009, David and a few colleagues were packing up, ready to leave Crossley Works – the last employees after 127 years – and make way for demolition workers preparing the site for future redevelopment.
Below is slideshow of historical and contemporary images of Crossley Works. It’s automatic: no need to click.