CVA and the Hollingbury Industrial Estate
An account of the development of the factories of CVA (later Kearney & Trecker) on the Hollingbury Industrial Estate, Brighton
The Hove based Machine Tool Company, known for much of the 20th Century as CVA, was founded at the end of World War I. Its headquarters for over 50 years was in Portland Road, Hove, near the bottom of what is now Olive Road.
Wide range of products
The Company produced a wide range of engineered products, and experienced steady growth and expansion during the 1920’s and 1930’s. In 1926, the Company first became involved in the manufacture of metal cutting machine tools. During World War II its manufacturing expertise was used extensively towards the war effort. Because of this the Company expanded to a number of other sites in the Brighton and Hove area. Following the war the Company was one of the largest manufacturing employers in the area, employing well over 1000 people.
Post war period
During the post-war period the size of machinery that the Company was producing increased in size. The CVA Dieing Press was one of these larger machines. Also for many years the Company had ties with the U.S. machine tool manufacturer Kearney & Trecker of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Machine tools produced by Kearney & Trecker were also very large, some weighing many tons. A number of these U.S. machines were to be produced by CVA, for the U.K. and European markets.
Beginnings of Hollingbury Industrial Estate
At this time Brighton Corporation had the forethought to consider the provision of employment. It proposed to build an Industrial Estate to ensure the prosperity and employment of local people. The proposed estate was to be built on the outskirts of the town, north of Patcham, below the junction of Carden Avenue and Ditchling Road.
Work started on access with the construction of Crowhurst Road in 1946. Figure 1 shows the proposed layout with some plots already let. The first of the new factories was completed in 1948 and from then on the new Hollingbury Industrial Estate really took off.
CVA’s first factory on the Hollingbury Industrial Estate
The CVA site in Portland Road, which was called No 1 Factory, was in the middle of a residential area. Because of the growth experienced by the Company during the war and post-war period, plus the increased size of the Company products, new facilities were required. The Hollingbury Industrial Estate had great potential and the Company decided on a purpose built factory with grand frontage onto Crowhurst Road. Wells Thorpe were the consultant architects and the building, now the headquarters of the Evening Argus, was completed in 1952. This was originally used for the assembly of Dieing Presses. Figure 2 shows the inside of the new CVA factory Die Shop. The unusual vaulted roof can be clearly seen. This was designated No 2 Factory.
With environmental forethought, Brighton Corporation had the industrial estate built into a natural fold in the South Downs, barely visible from all but the southern approach. The hills on three sides and uneven ground were to cause problems with future CVA developments on the estate, as we shall see later. Figure 3 is a rare view of the rear of the new factory. In 1952 the rear of the factory faced open playing fields and a children’s playground, Carden Park, which sloped away to the south.
A second new factory for an expanding business
Although the new No 2 factory was over 50,000 square feet in area, this was still not enough to meet the needs of the expanding business. Also the new Portland Road development, completed in 1953, was mainly office space and not suitable for assembly of very large machines. This new type of machine, for the automotive industry, was called a Transfer Machine and could produce engine blocks, or like components, economically. However it was massive in size, some up to 200 feet long and hundreds of tons in weight.
The Company decided on a further factory development on the Hollingbury Industrial Estate, 50 meters from the No 2 factory. London architects Townsend were used for this massive undertaking. Levels were set by the surveyors on the uneven ground and work was started in 1956. Figure 4 shows the steel skeleton viewed from the front of the No 2 factory in Crowhurst Road. In the background, on top of the hill, the footings for the flats at the end of Cuckmere Way can be seen. These flats were built at the same time. No sooner had the steelwork been erected, than the Company realised that the massive new building would not be big enough! The architects were quickly consulted and it was decide to increase the size of the building by extending in front. However the uneven ground was to cause a major problem, as the land in front was 3 meters lower. There were 2 alternatives; either build the level of the ground up, or have a 3 meter level difference inside the new factory. The latter was decided and construction of the new section was started, making the total area 85,000 square feet.
Figure 5 shows the steelwork of the new second section, with the rear part of the factory almost complete. The photograph has been taken from the roof of the No 2 factory, which is now the Evening Argus building. On top of the hill, work on the first of the new flats is also almost complete. Figure 6 shows the newly completed factory. This photograph seems to have been taken from high up on the opposite side of Crowhurst Road, currently the filling station end of the Asda car park. Figure 7 shows a view of the inside of the new No 6 Factory. Note the 30-ton overhead crane with the operator sitting up in the control cabinet. This was required to lift the very large components and machines.
Prosperous times: the 1950’s and 1960’s
The late 1950’s and 1960’s were to be the Company’s most prosperous times. In 1957 Kearney & Trecker Corporation invested 1.5 million dollars in the Company. A new manufacturing plant was built at Littlehampton in that year, and six of the most sophisticated computer controlled metal cutting machines (N.C.) were installed there. This was the second largest N.C. installation in the world, the largest being in the U.S. factory. Transfer machine sales to the automotive industry were doing very well. An example of this was an order from diesel engine manufactures, Perkins of Peterborough for a Â£900,000 transfer machine, to be built at the new Hollingbury factory. In today’s terms an equivalent order would be worth over Â£40 million. The manufacture of Kearney & Trecker N.C. machines in Brighton was planned. Record sales for 1965 were nearly Â£6 million. It was not unusual to have government ministers or executives from Fords or the like visit and the Company was involved in many major projects like the Anglo-French Concord. Prospects for the future looked bright! The area prospered as well, it was estimated that the Company put over Â£1 million into the local economy. Again, a huge amount of money by today’s terms.
Kearney & Trecker take over the company
1966 was to be a year of change for CVA. In June of that year, Eric Aron, who had been managing Director since 1934, sold the remaining family shares, amounting to 308,606 ordinary shares, to Kearney & Trecker Corporation. This brought the total number of ordinary shares held by Kearney & Trecker to 966,284 out of the 1,000,000 one pound shares issued. Mr Aron resigned as managing director and the company name was changed from CVA to Kearney & Trecker. A new managing director, Bill Neill (fig 8) was appointed by the parent company. Scottish born Mr Neill had been awarded the M.B.E. in 1946 for his services to the aircraft industry during the war. Following the war he had been Production Manager at de Havilland Propellers Ltd.
Building over Carden Park
It was perhaps with insight into the future that the Company decided to build a new factory and consolidate the numerous factories in the area onto one site, Hollingbury. The No 2 and No 6 factories were 50 meters apart, the Company’s plans were to build a massive new factory, linking the 2 existing buildings. This would house production and in particular assembly and a centralised stores, from the other factories in the Brighton area. However Carden Park occupied the site between the 2 existing factories! Figure 9 shows a view of Carden Park, taken from the area where the MFI building now stands, looking towards the massive end of No 6 Factory. The vaulted roof of the No 2 factory can just be seen in the top left hand corner.
Discussions were held with Brighton Council in the summer of 1966. Although the proposal was supported by many of the Planning Committee, the Parks Committee were strongly opposed to the release of the 5 acre park. This was widely reported by the Evening Argus at the time. Concerns were also raised in Littlehampton, if the proposal was approved there would be job losses at the Fort Road, Lineside factory. Kearney & Trecker were also one of the largest employers there! Brighton Council asked the government to intervene. The departments concerned, Ministry of Housing and Local Government, although wishing to help, were not able to as the procedures had to follow certain law. In the mean time Littlehampton Council were hopeful that the Hollingbury proposals would be refused and perhaps a move to centralise operations in Littlehampton would be possible. The Company played its trump card by producing a letter from East Kilbride Development Corporation. The letter was offering the Sussex company industrial development and housing land in Scotland. Brighton Council had many reasons for concern, apart from the Â£1 million the company put into the local economy and 1700 jobs. Also the factory buildings were leased from Brighton Council at a rent of Â£42,000 per year, plus Â£24,000 per year rates. The Council had borrowed the money to build the factories and the Company was repaying this at 2.5% above the borrowed rate. If the Company moved to East Kilbride would anyone else want the huge factories? This was the persuading factor, the Parks Committee relented and the proposal was approved. The building of No 8 assembly and stores factory was underway.
A technical challenge for a young engineer
The uneven ground, which sloped away lower than the No 6 factory, again caused the surveyors problems. This time they decided to build up the level to the same height as the lower floor of the No 6 factory. This was done using ashes from the Southwick Power Station, which were transported to the site by lorry. Many thousands of tons were deposited, and by damping down the ash as it was laid, it made a very suitable foundation for the heavy machinery. The new building was to be 70,000 square feet and connected to the 2 existing factories would make a total of over 200,000 square feet! The next decision was how to connect it to the No 6 factory. There were a number of alternatives, but by far the most technically complex was to demolish the massive end wall of No 6 factory seen in figure 9. Dave Gunn was the young Kearney & Trecker Project Engineer and the architects wanted to know which method the Company had decided on. It was a massive decision for the young engineer but he chose the most complex and expensive method, to demolish the massive end wall. This was to prove to be a sound decision, as it provided a good link between the existing and new buildings, where massive 20 and 30 ton cranes overlapped, enabling heavy machinery to be easily moved between the two. This was named the “Link Bay” and lorries could also drive right inside to be loaded within the bay. Also it made the two factories as one, running parallel the full length of Crowhurst Road. One could barely see from one end to the other, as it was over 800 feet long.
The new factory was completed in 1968 and is seen in figure 10. Land in front was used as a car park and the Company had options for further extensions out to the road. Gradually the other factories in the area were closed and production was moved into the new building. This started with the closure of the heavy machine shop, Lineside, at Littlehampton and the Cricket Ground assembly plant in Eaton Road, in 1969. Production at Portland Road and Coombe Road was gradually transferred to Hollingbury and they both closed in 1973.
Financial difficulties ending in receivership: the late 1970’s to 1994
The Company was never again as profitably as it had been in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and by the late 1970’s got into financial difficulties. The government intervened and the business amalgamated with Marwin Machine Tools of Leicester who were also in difficulty. The name was changed to Kearney & Trecker Marwin (KTM). By the early 1980’s, with the Company still rarely very profitable, control was transferred come under the guidance of Vickers, who put Michael Bright in charge as Managing Director. In the early 1990’s Mr Bright headed a management buyout, and the Company name changed yet again to Flexible Manufacturing Technology (FMT). However the land perhaps seemed more important than manufacturing. First the lease on the car park was sold and the MFI store was built on the land. Next the 1948 No 2 and 1968 No 8 factories were sold to the Evening Argus, who built the massive Print Room in the assembly factory. A new dividing wall was built and the Company consolidated into the No 6 factory.
For a short spell things looked promising, new products were developed and the Company was involved in many high tech projects for the likes of Jaguar, Rover, JCB and Shorts of Belfast. Additionally exports were doing well, with the Company working on projects in Belgium, China, the U.S.A, and with government approval, Iraq. However the management decided to increase the product range by acquisition and purchased 2 failing machine tool companies. Both Nobel & Lund of Newcastle, and Kearns Richards from Manchester were in receivership. The Company also purchased the derelict Jotun-Henry Clark building on Crowhurst Road, which had been empty for some years. It was perhaps these investments, along with a decline in sales, which was to be the downfall of the Company. In February 1994 FMT went into receivership. The employees were made redundant, with a few kept on to complete existing contracts and help clear the factory. All the plant was sold off by the receiver and shipped out to the Far East. Eventually the building was sold to Sussex Stationers, British Bookshops and is now, following a complete refurbishment, their headquarters.