Frank Gilbertson (1873 – 1929): Founder of Swansea University - Part I
The Third Generation of an Industrial Dynasty
by Dr D. Hugh Jones, Swansea University Medical School
Without the efforts of Francis William Gilbertson (1873 – 1929) we would not now be celebrating this centenary – more than anyone else he was the motive force for the foundation of the University College of Swansea in 1920. Frank then became its first President, guiding developments in the early difficult years. What sort of a person was he and what were the circumstances under which he persuaded others to contribute? There are many interwoven strands: family background, education, religious and cultural values; involvement with the local community as employer and patron; inheritance and responsibilities as eldest son and owner-manager of a respected steel, tinplate and galvanising company; social hierarchy in the South Wales metallocracy, their trade organisations and government interactions; economic and social conditions before and after the First World War. Yet for all his leadership roles, he was a self-effacing man, happier out of the limelight after he had shown others the way forward in public service. A more self-serving character than his would have sought greater recognition in his own lifetime and so might have secured regular commemoration in the years since his death at the age of 56.
My interest in Frank Gilbertson began in late 1986 with a coincidence. I had started my academic appointment at Swansea University and begun house hunting with my wife, Sarah. We negotiated to buy a cottage in Pontardawe, not too far from my widowed mother in Crynant and a reasonable drive to the campus at Singleton Park. Our house had been converted in 1921 from stables situated in the former kitchen garden and orchard  of Glynteg House, built for Frank Gilbertson and his bride in 1895. So I can claim to live in Frank’s house – or at least his horses’ house – and we have been here ever since. When my Aunty May visited us in 1987, her first words on seeing Glynteg were “I’ve been here before!”: she had been a cook in the mid-1930s to Frank’s brother Cecil Gilbertson at Abercrave House further up the Swansea Valley, and had been sent down to help prepare for a function at Glynteg. She gave me some sense of the family as a good employer.
In the years since, I have gradually accumulated information about the Gilbertson family and really come to appreciate the fundamental role that Frank played from 1916 onwards in establishing Swansea University. This has come with a sense that his great contribution was in danger of being forgotten. Without Frank, we would probably still be looking forward to celebrating a centenary – but not now, not this Centenary in 2020, but perhaps as much as 40 years later. Nor would it be of this University with its present character, but some other alternative present and future. The approaching centenary provides me with both opportunity and motivation to try weaving the strands of coincidence into a coherent story – Frank’s story. Nevertheless, this is my personal view of that story, my interpretations of the evidence I could find and my speculations where there are gaps among the primary sources. It seems that getting to know Frank’s feelings was not so easy in his lifetime, as it is not an easy task after his death, with no diaries, journal or living witnesses surviving and most of his letters written on business and technical matters with few replies preserved. We must therefore rely heavily on what was written about him, rather than by him, with the caveat that people, particularly those living in a more deferential age of cap doffing, do not always speak truth to power – even a power veiled by initial shyness and unfailing courtesy.
Frank was thrust into a role of economic power and social responsibility by his birth as the eldest son of a well-established family firm. His leadership role was not unavoidable given the large number of his siblings. However, his talents combined with his primary position in the family let him fulfil his destiny as a third-generation owner-manager. The business philosophy of entrepreneurship coupled with strong paternalism had been laid down by Frank’s grandfather William (1810-82), who gave his name to the Company, and was closely followed by his father Arthur (1841-1912); Frank thus grew up with a clear sense of the duties and responsibilities conferred by his position.
William Gilbertson’s family were merchants from Egham, Surrey. After public school at Shrewsbury, he became a solicitor near Lincoln’s Inn, London and married Eliza Bramah in 1835. (Her grandfather was the famous inventor Joseph Bramah , so Frank could boast a distinguished engineering ancestry.) In 1839, William [3, pp. 53, 54] undertook a radical career change to industrial management and moved his young family to the Afan Valley in South Wales. Here he became a partner and operational manager of the Cwmavon Copperworks, which prospered and diversified into coal, iron and tinplate. He was praised throughout the 1850s for his abilities as company chief and “for the care he has shown towards the inhabitants of this valley” and his “anxiety for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his workpeople” [4, pp. 4, 5]. His religious principles and paternalistic ethos would be closely adhered to by his descendants.
At this time, the rapid expansion of industry and growing population outpaced the meagre capacity of poorly organised local authorities to provide for the people’s needs: housing, drinking water, sanitation, transportation, education, places of worship and recreation. Maintaining the workforce was essential for business to prosper and so the obligation to provide these services fell upon the only agency capable of such provision – the company. This was a reciprocal relationship between masters and men seen throughout the developing communities of the South Wales Valleys where a locality was often dependent on one industry. It would be re-enacted in the coming decades by William’s son and grandsons at Pontardawe.
At the age of fifty William Gilbertson was a highly successful chief executive but was not in complete control of a company that was becoming more complex. Perhaps impending trading difficulties at Cwmafan encouraged him to venture out as his own boss by starting a firm from which his own family would directly benefit. The opportunity arose in 1861 when W. Gilbertson and Company began at Pontardawe by leasing the tinplate works from William Parsons [3, p. 33]. Although the works were dilapidated the village had some advantages, not least of which being the newly opened Swansea Vale Railway [5, p.42]. William Parsons’ enduring legacy to Pontardawe is St. Peter’s Church [6, pp. 25, 26], dominating the skyline since 1859 with a spire built higher than any factory chimney: God towering over Mammon [5, p. 58]. William Gilbertson now moved easily into his new role as a leading member of the congregation and his family engaged fully with the community as the modernised works prospered.
William and Eliza’s third son, Arthur [3, pp. 55, 56], showed great aptitude for the tinplate business from the age of 17. He had been educated at Cowbridge Grammar School and Christ College, Brecon. Aged just 33 he played a leading role on the masters’ side in negotiations with the emerging trade unions to establish “The 1874 List” [4, p. 411]. This standardized pay scales for piece-work in the mills and tinhouses of South West Wales after a period of disputes, and led to Arthur’s election as President of the South Wales Tinplate Association in 1877 [4, p. 14].
On William’s death in 1882, all his shares passed to Arthur, securing a tight grip on the family manufacturing assets. The Pontardawe works now comprised 12 iron puddling furnaces and 6 rolling mills [4, p. 12] and was well placed to reap the benefits of the tinplate boom of the 1880s, when rising prices and large profit margins guaranteed regular employment and steady wages. Arthur expanded further in 1883, buying another tinplate works of 3 mills just north of Pontardawe [3, p. 39]. In 1885 W. Gilbertson & Co. was registered as a limited company, the major portion of the shares being held by Arthur. (The company would remain in private – majority family – hands until the amalgamation of 1933: shares were never offered to the public on the stock market.)
The company gained an enviable reputation for quality: it was awarded the contract to supply roofing sheets for the West Wing of the White House in Washington D.C. [7, p. 61]. Terne-plates were rolled iron sheets coated with an alloy of lead and tin to prevent rusting and those made by Gilbertson’s Old Method were renowned for durability. The 1886 order for 135 boxes at $6-70 each was found by Peter Jackson [4, p. 56] . In 1891 Congressman William McKinley introduced a protectionist tariff on tinplate imported into the USA in order to stimulate American industry [9, p. 64]. Six years later he would sit under a Pontardawe-made roof in that White House as President. The loss of a major export market punished South West Wales heavily and many mills went bankrupt or at least laid off workers [9, p. 122], resulting in effigies of McKinley being burned in protest. However, Arthur was better placed than some competitors due to a farsighted new investment in steelmaking [10, p. 23], having built two Siemens open-hearth furnaces in 1890 [9, p. 38]. This guaranteed a supply of mild steel sheet which was superior to puddled wrought iron and more economic to produce [9, p. 60]. Basic steelmaking not only increased the competitiveness of the Pontardawe works in tinplate but allowed later diversification (1897) into galvanised sheeting and car body steel. Arthur had also built the Glynbeudy tinplate works at Brynaman in 1890 confident that it would profitably process his new steel output [4, p. 14].
Ten years before his father’s death, Arthur, a most eligible 31-year old bachelor, had married a local girl: Ellen Lloyd aged 22 [3, p. 56]. Although it was clearly a love-match, she was also a very good catch as a daughter of the major landowners of the district. The Lloyds resided at the grand Plâs Cilybebyll [3, p. 63], on the hill just to the east of Pontardawe. The wedding of 1872 was a perfect match where private passion cemented a business alliance of far-reaching strategic importance for the development of Pontardawe. As descendants of the Herberts, Earls of Pembroke [5, p. 121], the Lloyds were old-money – land-rich but cash-poor whereas the Gilbertsons were cash-rich but land-poor. The Lloyds retained ownership of their estates, benefitting greatly as landlords by granting leases as the works and village expanded. Arthur got on well with his brother-in-law, Herbert Lloyd (1838 – 1914) [3, p. 64], and had first call on any pieces of land required. Between them, Arthur and Herbert held sway over the community in just about every aspect of public life, from playing cricket together to sitting as magistrates on the same bench. Arthur was elected to the Glamorgan County Council in 1889 – describing himself as “not a Tory but a mild Conservative” [4, p. 14] – and became High Sheriff of Glamorganshire in 1892. Ellen and Arthur produced seven sons and seven daughters, a level of fecundity not to be seen again among their descendants. Between babies, Ellen herself gained a “high reputation for the good that she is doing to better the conditions of our female workers”, according to The Welsh Industrial Times in 1889 (newspaper of the Tinplate Union) [4, p. 16].
The first of those many babies, Francis William, was delivered on the 11th April 1873. There are no records of his childhood, save that from the age of 13 he spent two academic years at Charterhouse School in Godalming [4, p. 53], known for its sound Christian values. There seems to be a gap in formal schooling of about three years from 1888 until he went up to Oxford University in 1891 to read Natural Science at Magdalen College, with Chemistry as a specialism, graduating in 1894. In having a university degree in Chemistry, Frank was unique among pre-1914 directors of the steel and tinplate industry of South West Wales [11, p. 2]. Arthur was immensely proud of his eldest son’s scientific education and commitment to taking W. Gilbertson & Co. forward in technological developments under dynastic control [4, p. 19].
For Arthur, 1893 had ended well after he had prevailed in an industrial dispute and the coming year held the gratifying prospect of Frank joining him in the Company following his graduation. However, just at the apogee of Arthur’s success the family was plunged into trauma by the death of Ellen in March 1894, at the age of only 44. Arthur was devastated by this tragedy and, probably for the first time, truly needed support from his children, particularly Frank, whose Coming of Age was still celebrated belatedly after a period of mourning for his mother. Arthur never really recovered from losing Ellen, but there was a large family to look after and a business to run, and that business – in spite of the McKinley Tariff – was doing very well. With Frank’s technical knowledge the steelmaking was successful and plans were made for a galvanising plant to export roofing sheets “to our Colonies, instead of America” [4, p. 20].
As well as works expansion, in his grief Arthur threw himself into two simultaneous building projects: church improvements for Ellen’s memorial and a new house for Frank’s expected marriage. That he could afford both at once testifies to the Company’s profitability. All Saints Church [3, p. 96], with Ellen’s gravestone adjacent, was completed in 1896 [4, pp. 371 – 4].
By 1895 the family home at Glanrhyd was crowded with siblings and was no place for Frank to begin married life. Although Arthur had built his own home on land leased from the Lloyds, he subsequently purchased the freehold of an adjoining part of the Gelligron Estate : about 15 acres of scenic woodland [10, pp. 52 – 54] on the other side of the river in Cwmdu [4, p. 347]. Arthur planned to build a new residence here for Frank, to be called Glynteg [4, p. 344].
While his father berated builders, surveyors and solicitors, Frank had been out courting in Swansea, and was very much in love with Miss Isabel Thomas, 5 years his senior. Both Frank and Isabel would be the first of their siblings to marry. Their devotion and commitment to each other would be essential in sustaining them along the difficult path to their wedding day.
Isabel was the eldest daughter of the late Illtid Thomas of Hill House and later Glanmor House, Sketty. He had owned land (including mineral rights) in Gower, Swansea and the Swansea Valley, and some parts of this Glanmor Estate were left to his daughters. Isabel’s mother, Mrs. Dulcibella Thomas, now had to deal as a widow with the consequences for this inheritance of the impending marriage of her first born. Arthur Gilbertson, recently widowed, likewise had to deal with the implications for his business dynasty when his eldest wed. Two determined characters were set on a collision course which almost derailed the wedding. Arthur convinced himself that, if Frank should die, Dulcibella would take control of any Company shares that came to Isabel, and that the Thomases could grab the new Glynteg House and 15 acres of Cwmdu as well. Arthur ranted at Stephen Barlow, his London solicitor, that “The Old Lady . . . is at the bottom of this and you now see you have a cunning one to deal with” [4, p. 45].
Dulcibella would not risk the Gilbertsons getting direct control of land and mineral rights – and so the “prolonged and painful negotiations” [4, p. 46] over a contractual Marriage Settlement dragged on. Arthur would have nothing to do with the wedding plans. At the last moment, just one day before the wedding, a settlement was reached. Isabel’s property, including land at Bishopston, was reserved for her while she and Frank could live in but not directly inherit the new house he had helped design.
The feelings of the prospective bride and groom throughout this wrangling are not recorded, but it must have been an ordeal for them. Perhaps if Ellen had survived, she would have reached out with tea and understanding to Mrs. Thomas and Arthur would have been calmed by his “dear wife”. In the end, Arthur did not prevent the marriage because Frank and Isabel were “loyal and devoted to each other” [4, p. 46] as he and Ellen had been, and he could not bring himself to alienate his son. The wedding took place at St. Paul’s Church, Sketty on 24th April 1896 and was widely reported as a society occasion [13, p. 3] with a special train bringing workmen from Pontardawe to Swansea [11, p. 3]. It seems that afterwards Frank and Isabel bore no grudges against their respective in-laws for what had preceded their union and they happily socialised at Glanmor and Glanrhyd. Frank and Isabel’s daughter, Mary Dulcibel Frances Gilbertson (1898-1975) was born at Glynteg. She was their only child and was known as Molly by family and friends.
At this time, family firms with a few private shareholders, rather than publicly-listed companies, were the norm. In South Wales a newer metallocracy had partially supplanted the older aristocracy owning agricultural land. The social hierarchy was maintained by a web of family alliances created by intermarriages, with concerns over property inheritance and dynastic ambitions protected by legally-binding Marriage Settlements. Thus it had been when Arthur married into landed gentry and when Dulcibella married into coal and property interests: so it was the accepted practice in Frank and Isabel’s generation. Four of Frank’s siblings married into the Moore-Gwyn family of Neath with substantial land and coal interests, one married into the Dillwyn family, and in the next generation Frank’s daughter would become Mrs. Vivian – a family name at the top of everyone’s list.
Following the turn of the century, the works continued to prosper as a developing motor car industry required sheet steel, and tinplate was increasingly exported for canned food and petrol [9, p. 258]. In the works, Arthur was referred to by all as “Mr. Gilbertson”, but “Mr. Frank” was joined by “Mr. Cecil” and “Mr. Colin” taking increasing roles in management. There were profits to invest and in a bold and forward-looking move Arthur and sons set up the Port Talbot Iron and Steel Company in 1900 with the backing of Miss Emily Talbot, beneficiary of the Margam Estate [4, p. 22]. This venture, however, was a commercial disaster due largely to unpredictable technical difficulties with a novel, relatively untried, steelmaking process and the company was wound up in 1903. A few years later the Baldwins steel empire acquired the site and made radical alterations, forming the nucleus for large-scale integrated coastal steelmaking to develop at Port Talbot over the next half-century [4, p. 96]. With their fingers burnt, the Gilbertsons immediately refocused on established steel production at Pontardawe, commissioning new furnaces and rolling mills. Frank rose to prominence during the 1900s as a spokesman on the need for tariff protection against a flood of German, Belgian and American steel imports  and was active in the South Wales Siemens Steel Association and Galvanised Sheet Association formed to regulate production.
Life was not all work, and the prosperous family could afford to play. Frank’s younger brother Cecil shared his father’s musical talents, but there is no record of Frank enjoying music as anything other than a listener. Sports facilities were provided by the Company for cricket [15, p. 115], rugby and soccer [3, p. 125] and Arthur’s sons played in village teams with their workmen. There were equestrian pursuits, good tennis courts [3, pp. 57, 123] [15, p. 114] and a swimming pool at Glanrhyd, and the Pontardawe Golf Club was patronised. Unlike Cecil and Charles, Frank was less athletic and his real delight was painting watercolours, landscapes rather than people being favoured subjects. He would include stops for painting on the itinerary during adventurous motoring tours – his preferred form of vacation. Arthur grew orchids at Glanrhyd and Frank enjoyed his garden at Glynteg as Molly (Mary) was growing up.
In June 1905, there was a family motoring tour to North Wales: Colin drove his father Arthur and sister, while Isabel went in Frank’s car. Frank wrote to his sister-in-law: “The governor (Arthur) actually walked on the Esplanade after dinner (a thing I never knew him do before) till 9-30 when he retired to bed. . . . Col and I had a long jaw over motors. . . . Colin says he (Arthur) is going the way of all teetotallers and getting very greedy! He is neither smoking nor drinking on this tour, having a crazy idea of getting the utmost benefit to his health that he can. I am sure a glass of whisky is much more wholesome than gooseberry tart and a cigarette than Aberystwyth ozone, and I can honestly say I am doing very well on them all! . . .This led us up a very steep hill, quite as bad as Alltwen, in the little quarry village and to our intense fury, just on the worst spot when I was getting anxious as to whether the motor would take the heavy load, quite 10 boys hung on behind and aboard. We were both purple with fury and shouting and hitting with umbrellas. . . . The motor had started to make a most appalling noise, a couple of washers on the exhaust pipe had got dry and slack, and the exhaust gases were puffing out into the air instead of into the silencer. The effect was like a dozen motor bicycles, but it made the engine work very free, and we quite flew along. . . . So far the tour has been a great success. . . ”.
Ten months later Colin died aged 29, so his younger brother Charles was made a director in his final year at Oxford. Following this Arthur suffered a stroke, perhaps brought on by the shock of losing his son. Arthur never recovered sufficiently to take an active role in Company business again and remained managing director in name only from about 1907. Frank took on his father’s role, supported by Cecil and Charles, piloting W. Gilbertson & Co. through the ups and downs of the ferrous metals trade against competitors at home and overseas. As tinplate markets improved from 1908 onwards, Frank was able to expand this production capacity by reinvesting profits [4, p. 25]. By continually adjusting outputs between various steel, tinplate and galvanised products, the annual dividend was maintained in excess of 40 % right through to the brink of the Great War – never was there such a boom decade!
Company success enabled Frank to fulfil his father’s ambition of constructing a new Public Hall in Pontardawe [10, pp. 35 – 36]. Frank led the fund-raising efforts and W. Gilbertson & Co. were the lead subscribers, culminating in a grand opening in 1909 by Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919) [3, pp. 2, 78]. This was a busy year: Frank was a Secretary of the Congress of the Anglican Church which met in Swansea  and for his “responsible and anxious work” was warmly thanked personally by the Archbishop of Canterbury [4, pp. 26, 378]. Although staunch Anglicans themselves, the Gilbertsons were involved with supporting the wider religious community and encouraged employees’ attendance at (any) places of worship - rather than places of imbibition. Frank was a vice-president of the Young Men’s Christian Association and an active local secretary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [4, p. 26].
In March 1912 Arthur died of pneumonia and was laid to rest in the family vault behind All Saints Church with Ellen and Colin.
Arthur had been an authoritarian patriarch, autocratic, extrovert, bombastic, certain of what was best for people in the sight of his Anglican God, a teetotaller, the master of his men, game hunter, highly accomplished organist and choirmaster. Trades unions treating on equal terms with masters simply did not fit into Arthur’s world view; he saw no need for them coming between his direct dealing with his workmen. His behaviour could sometimes be unpredictable and contradictory – in 1893 he had supplied strikers with bread and food during a stoppage although he eventually won the dispute [18, p. 74] [5, p. 61].
Frank’s personality was the antithesis of his father’s and led to a more collaborative style of management with his brothers, Cecil and Charles. The eldest son was modest, shy, quietly diplomatic, a conciliatory negotiator and good persuader. He was not an abstainer, but was, like Arthur, deeply involved in church governance and Christian good works. He was the employer – rather than master – of his local employees, a keen motorist, talented watercolourist and occasional woodworker. Maybe growing up with many siblings – some quite young when their mother died, and the early death of his brother Colin – gave him an empathetic ability which shaped and softened the harder edges of his character. Frank’s approach to trades unions was to involve them in problem solving, setting up a works consultative committee from 1901, for which he was thanked “for allowing them to speak their minds freely without ill-feeling” [5, p. 67]. When Frank was vice-chairman of the South Wales Siemens Steel Association in 1913, a similar relationship was maintained with the Steel Smelters’ Union: “a very efficient, well-organised body, and on the whole maintains very good discipline, and we have every confidence in making arrangements with them” [4, p. 27]. The Gilbertson works was remarkably free of major disputes during the twentieth century – even during 1912 when many strikes erupted elsewhere – and the standard of workmanship at Pontardawe was considered very high [5, p. 63].
There were few aspects of life untouched by the Company’s pervasive paternalism. It was the supplier of the early twentieth century’s civic and domestic wonder of the age – electricity, running one generator for the village and one for the works. Arthur had railed against the failure of the authorities to control dysentery outbreaks [4, p. 318] and had set up new piped water supplies in some areas [4, p. 343] along with sanitation provision for the firm’s tenants. The Company’s role as a service provider to employees and their families encompassed basic health care with a Works Nurse, Works Doctor and ambulance service [15, p. 36], subscriptions being collected toward medical care locally and donations made to Swansea Hospital. Frank continued to encourage workmen to contribute to life insurance, works’ pension and savings schemes, and for trusted long-serving employees there were loans for mortgages [11, p. 3].
The Gilbertsons were by necessity hands-on owner-managers involved in the daily details of their business and walking a shop floor with over 1,600 employees by 1911 [4, p. 54] and 2,000 by 1920 [19, p. 2]. They could not afford to be arms-length owners like the second and third Lord Swansea, who delegated the running of Vivian and Sons Ltd. to cousins and long-serving managers as the once mighty Swansea copper industry declined [20, p. 60]. As the brother with technological interests, Frank took the main responsibility for machinery, patents and processes, and with his chemical education supervised the analytical laboratory he had set up [4, pp. 107, 278].
Technical matters were of critical importance as the firm adapted its output from 1914 to meet the specialised demands of the War Office and Admiralty, with an increase in steel production of 80 % by 1918 [4, p. 29]. For Frank personally the war years were very hard work: he took the night train to London as frequently as three times a week to liaise with government [4, p. 33]. In addition to other duties, he was Chairman of: the South Wales Steel Allocation Committee (which coordinated all wartime steel orders throughout South Wales), the Welsh Plate and Sheet Manufacturers’ Association, the Employers’ Advisory Council of the Federation of British Industries and was President of the Swansea Royal Metal Exchange.
In October 1918 the armistice was approaching and with it the end of government control of the steel industry via the Ministry of Munitions. Frank gave a statesmanlike speech warning of impending difficulties when the artificial business conditions of wartime ceased: in the transition to peace Capital and Labour would need to cooperate in the reconstruction of normal trade . The economic dislocation and resultant social deprivation after 1920 would turn out to be on a scale he had never experienced nor imagined.
Frank was no less of a local business and community leader than his ebullient father nor was he less earnest or determined. However, he operated in a different, calmer style and on a wider scale in South Wales, London and beyond. The economic record of W. Gilbertson & Co. was fairly representative of the sector, being one of a number of medium-sized steel and tinplate firms, such as Briton Ferry Steel or Llanelly Steel [11, p. 3]. Others carried more economic weight: the Grovesend Steel and Tinplate Co. at Gorseinon was about twice the size of Gilbertsons and all were dwarfed by the giant Richard Thomas & Co. [22, p. 2]. Yet Frank’s influence was out of all proportion to the size of his firm, due to his skills as a negotiator and respected position as a trusted conciliator with all the right personal connections in the upper echelons of society. His reputation was much enhanced by his leadership roles during the Great War when he had emerged as a natural spokesman for the ferrous metals industries [4, p. 29]. Frank’s wide experience and disproportionate influence would put him in command during the critical period for establishment of Swansea University.
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