Document of the Month December 2018

This month's document has been chosen by Alison Roper who looks after the Lucas Collection.

With commemorations of one hundred years since the end of World War One still fresh in our minds, I have chosen a photograph of Oliver Lucas in military uniform, signed and dated February 1915. Born in 1891 – son of Harry and Kate Lucas and grandson of Joseph, the founder of the Lucas company – Oliver is said to have had an engineering instinct from a very early age. He always enjoyed a hands-on approach and would enthusiastically road test vehicle equipment, often at night. As a colleague recalled, he 'would proceed along the roughest roads at breakneck speed with the embryo car lighting set attached to his car, to test its efficiency and durability'.  Oliver joined the company straight from school, working in the experimental department on lamp design and his inventive genius came to the fore during the battle of the Somme.

Why this document?

Oliver was commissioned in the Royal Naval Air Service (fore-runner of the RAF) and this photograph was probably taken when he went to France with a section of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. He was later transferred to Mechanical Transport and was in the line when the first battle of the Somme took place. Peter Bennett, originally from Thomson-Bennett (Magnetos) and later joint managing director of Joseph Lucas Ltd, alongside Oliver, recalled:

General Gough was concerned at the difficulty of keeping in touch with the advance troops after the telephone wires would have been wrecked in the initial artillery barrage. He called for signal lamps, but the difficulty he had with those he had was that the enemy could read the signals as they were transmitted. One of his staff suggested calling in ‘young Lucas’, as he might be able to help.

As it happened, Oliver had already seen the Aldis signal lamp for the Navy, which the Lucas company was making, and immediately got to work. He went to Paris for parts, and in the army workshop back at the base he produced a number of lamps which were rushed to the Front with the paint hardly dry, and these were used with success in the advance. The messages from these could not be seen from the German lines as it was necessary to bend down almost to ground level to see their flashes. When he was asked to produce them in quantity, he suggested that it would be much better if he could go back and get them made at the Lucas Works in Birmingham. This was agreed and he was attached to the Munitions Inventions Board in London and spent the rest of the war years superintending the production of these lamps. Many thousands were made to his design. As a reward he was allowed to license the French authorities to use his patents. The popularity and usefulness of the OL signalling lamp didn't stop there; the Ministry of Supply placed an order for them in 1940 and over 100,000 of them were produced during World War Two.

It is said that the first batch of OL signalling lamps to be sent to France was very nearly late. The company's one and only lorry failed to turn up at the appointed time of one o'clock and the train was due to leave Hockley Station at twenty past four. After a frantic telephone call to Oliver at home, it was he himself who climbed in the cab and (possibly at 'breakneck speed') made the delivery on time.

During World War One, the Lucas company was made a controlled establishment by the Munitions of War Act and was given War Department contracts for cycle lamps, carriers and bells, and for acetylene lamps for Douglas motor cycles carrying machine guns. They were also involved in the development of magnetos and of the Aldis signalling lamp. The factory turned out shell fuse covers and rings, batteries and dynamos for lorries, armoured cars, ambulances, tanks, aeroplanes and airships, the Orford Ness landing light system for aircraft, and self-starters for the Sunbeam Seaplane engine and for tanks.

Working hours were long and conditions were hard so the feeling of relief when hostilities finally ended was as great at the Lucas factories as in every part of the country. Nellie Rowe started work at Lucas on 6 August 1915 on her 19th birthday and helped to produce OL lamps, working from eight in the morning until eight or nine o'clock at night. In a letter written in 1959 she remembered Oliver Lucas addressing them on that momentous day in November 1918:

...We had been warned that if peace came maroons would be sounded between half past ten and eleven. Everybody was in a state of expecting, and when we heard the maroons we stopped work and we went out onto the balcony and, waiting, all of a sudden Mr Oliver came from our side of the road to the Thomson Bennett side. You never heard such cheering that went up when we saw him. We started to sing. Then the Union Jack was shot up into position. We stood quietly while that happened ... then again another shout went up. After then we walked through all departments singing anything that came into our minds. After we had sung ourselves dry we were told to go home. Several of us went down Farm Street with Union Jacks on the end of our umbrellas, even the foremen became human beings.

Oliver Lucas went on to play an indispensable role in the Company founded by his grandfather. His outstanding flair, both for design and production, was instrumental to the growth of Lucas between the two World Wars. During the 25 years he was joint managing director with Peter Bennett, he did much to build it into a worldwide organisation. He died in 1948 at the early age of 56. His funeral took place at St George's, near Lucas headquarters in Great King Street. His memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London was packed with his friends from all parts of the motor and aircraft industries. Over the factory loudspeaker system Peter Bennett had given the sad news to the workpeople about his lifelong friend and colleague:

He possessed the clearest and most searching brain I personally have ever met, and in addition to his other qualities must be added an outstanding sense of urgency. His life's work is written on the very walls around us, because if he had been a lesser man our organisation would never have prospered and grown in the phenomenal way it has done over the last 30 years. Personally, he was a man of striking character, as were his forebears. He never stooped to take an unfair commercial advantage; he was essentially just and fair in all his dealings as between man and man; he lived for the well-being of the Lucas organisation and the many thousands who work in it...His memory is bright, his work will influence our future for years to come, and to those who follow him his character and achievement will remain a constant inspiration.

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