Alexander Grafton 1845-1907

Alexander Grafton 1845-1907

Alexander Grafton was a Member of the Institution of Civil and Mechanical Engineers who developed and manufactured steam cranes. His firm, Grafton & Co., also known as the “Vulcan Works”, Bedford, exported cranes throughout the world. These cranes were put to a variety of uses including heavy industry, docks, wharfs and railways.

The early years
Alexander Grafton was one of the eight children of Henry Grafton and Janet, nee Melville Clark. He was born on the 24th May 1845 at St. Andrews, Middlesex. His father was a well-known inventor and civil engineer.
Alexander’s career began at the age of 17 years when he joined Samuel William Worssam & Co., as their trainee engineer. They were a small firm who manufactured machinery for sawmills in Kings Road, Chelsea. In 1865, he moved to Paris where he was the assistant engineer with Messrs Perin & Co., and Joshua & Co. He returned to England two years later and joined the firm of Charles and Thomas Appleby, of Emerson Street, Southwark, and Greenwich, London. They manufactured steam cranes, dredgers, brick making machinery and pile drivers. For part of the time, he was the manager of their Greenwich works. In 1871, the firm sent him to manage the construction of the six-mile narrow gauge railway in the grounds of the Buscot Park Estate, near the town of Farringdon in Oxfordshire. The Appleby brothers built three steam engines for the owner of the estate, Robert Tertius Campbell, to collect the sugar beet and other farm produce from the farms around the estate. In 1874, the Appleby Brothers entered into a contract with the Egyptian Government to supply the materials and rolling stock for the construction and equipment of the first Sudan Railway. In 1875, Alexander went to Egypt as the firm’s representative. He spent much of the time with the Sudan Railway. In 1880, he moved to Halle in Belgium, where he was made a partner in the engineering firm of, J. L. Lecocq & Co.

Alexander establishes his own crane business
In 1883, Alexander returned to England and set up his business, Grafton & Co. He manufactured steam cranes, at 113 Cannon Street, London. In 1886, he formed a partnership with Cecil Quixano Henriques. They moved to Bedford, and established their firm, Grafton & Co., also known as the “Vulcan Works”. Alexander designed the Vulcan Works, and had it built in Elstow Road, next to the Hitchin railway line. He chose this site because there was a section of track called a siding where the cranes could be hauled by wagon to and from a goods station. During the first six years, the firm made over 150 cranes. In 1893, Alexander and Cecil Henriques dissolved their partnership by mutual consent. Alexander continued to run the firm on his own. He spent much of his time improving the design of the locomotive steam-crane, built on the horizontal turntable. Among his improvements was the loose roller path, which was widely used on the steam-cranes. The first crane that he designed was crude but much in advance of any that had been made before. At first, he took single orders for cranes, and then the orders came in twos and threes, until his reputation as an engineer was established. The business soon went from strength to strength and it was necessary for him to employ men to work the night shifts. From his designs, the Vulcan Works had built over 1,000 cranes. It exported Grafton rail cranes all over the world for use on the railways, docks, harbours, and power stations. An important time for the firm was when specially made Grafton cranes were used at the Tilbury docks. The firm also produced one of the earliest electric cranes in the country for use at Dover harbour. It was the forerunner of many.

In 1885, Grafton Cranes won a Silver Medal at the Inventions Exhibition, at South Kensington, London. They also won the Gold Medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. In 1908, they won the Grand Prix and Gold Medal at the Franco-British Exhibition held in London.

Alexander’s marriage to Marian Maud McWilliam
In 1887, Alexander (aged 45) and Marian (aged 32) were married at Reigate, Surrey. Neither of them had been married before. It appears they adopted their three children. Records of the children’s births in the name of Grafton, were not with the General Registrar Office. Their children were, Alexander (born in 1874), Beatrice Louise (1880), and Constance Maud (1882). The children were all born in London. Alexander Junior became the chief engineer at Gabbary dry dock, Alexandria, Egypt. Beatrice and Constance were dressmakers. For many years Marian was a member of the Board of Guardians, representing the St. Mary’s parish. She organised teas for the aged poor at the Town Hall every New Year.

Electric light comes to parts of Bedford Town
On 6th December 1894, an historical event took place in Bedford when electric lighting illuminated parts of the town. These areas were at St. Peter’s Street, St. Cuthbert’s Street, High Street, Mill Street, Lime Street, Prebend Street, St. Paul’s Square, and parts of Dame Alice Street. The generating station was built at Prebend Street. It was 17 metres by 9 meters, with a high ceiling and a dado of white enamelled bricks. The upper part of the building housed a powerful travelling crane, made by Grafton & Co. It could lift six tons to almost any part of the generating works. The cost of the crane in 1894 was £85. In 2017, this would be worth approximately £6,974.19

Alexander’s Speech on Hostile Tariffs
In 1903, Alexander gave a speech at the Conservative meeting in Bedford. In his speech, he gave an example of what foreign tariffs had done for Bedford.

“Sixteen or seventeen years ago, I received an order for a number of steam cranes for America. I rubbed my hands heartedly and thought. “Here’s a jolly good time.” Nothing pleased me more than dumping English manufactured goods into foreign countries. They had those cranes; they paid my price; they took them to pieces and copied them, and I have never sold a single crane in the United States for 17 years. Now I will tell you the reason of it. Three months ago, I received a long telegram asking for the price of a steam crane. I spent about 15 shillings in replying by telegram, and thought I was going at last to get an order. I sent over full particulars and got a very polite letter back by return mail. They said they liked my cranes very much and wanted to have one, but they found they would have to pay 45 per cent, to allow it to go into the country. £1,000, FOB (free on board) at Liverpool, and the purchaser would have to pay £450.00 just for the privilege of allowing our goods to go into the country. In round figures, there was a loss of £500.00 in wages to the engineers in Bedford. I am telling you facts. In Germany, it was very much the same. I found that we were doing a decent trade with the Baltic ports and some ports on the Elbe, and I made inquiries how it was. I discovered that the German Emperor withdrew all customs duties on machinery that went for the construction of warships. We were allowed to send in steam cranes to shipyards where they manufacture ships to compete with us, but directly I tried to get out of the shipyard to the inner part of the country – 50 per cent duty at once. That is how we are treated. If we cannot dump into other people’s countries, I do not want them to dump things here. In one port alone they are dumping motor cars at the rate of twenty a day. These motor cars cost from £300 to £500, and French workers receive wages, which might go into the pockets of Englishmen. Perhaps that gentleman there will say “So much the better,” The motor car is not a working man’s plaything. Working men can do very well without motor cars. They are much a luxury as champagne, and should be treated in the same manner as champagne.”

Alexander’s death and memorial
On August 18th, 1907, Alexander died aged 62 years, at his home, 14 Cardington Road, Bedford. He had suffered ill health for several years, and, during the winter months, he had gone abroad to restore his health. The funeral service took place in the Cemetery Chapel. He was buried in Section F3 Grave 30.

As with most middle-class Victorians, Marian spent as much as she could afford on a memorial suitable to Alexander’s social status. Many of the memorials in Foster Hill Road Cemetery have a story to tell of those who are buried in this beautiful garden of rest. Some of the memorials in the cemetery do not use Christian symbolism. Alexander’s memorial is a broken column with a broken chain wrapped around it. The column is, by design, broken. This symbolises that his life was cut short too soon. The broken chain symbolises the links of love with the family broken in death.

Marian’s final years
Marian, and the Vulcan Works manager, William Trunchion, carried on the firm. In 1924, Marian married her second husband, John Keiller. She moved to 235 Goldhurst Terrace, Hampstead in London. She died on the 16th September 1935, aged 80 years. Following the cremation three days later on the 19th September at Golders Green Crematorium, her remains were placed in the same grave with Alexander.

On the death of Marian, the residuary legatees, ten in number, formed the company and the title changed from Grafton and Co. to Grafton Cranes Ltd.

Robot Cranes for Railway Work
In 1938, the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) placed contracts with Grafton Cranes Ltd for eight cranes for use in erecting supports for overhead cables during the electrification of the lines between Manchester and Sheffield. The cranes were self-propelling and designed so that they would work on one set of rails without damaging the adjacent track. A total of 400 miles of track was equipped with overhead cables. It took less than three years to complete the work.

World War 2
Grafton Cranes Ltd. took part in an event, which was not just of local engineering significance, but also of national importance. During the Second World War, the port of Tobruk was one of the most valuable deep-water ports in North Africa. The British, Indian, and Australian troops defended the port. Rommel’s troops surrounded the port and destroyed everything apart from just one Grafton crane. When the British naval salvage men arrived to re-open the harbour, so that vital supplies for British troops could land there, they found the harbour filled with sunken wrecks – left behind by the Germans. They found the Grafton crane, and with it were able to clear a passage through the wrecks to let in supply ships. The Grafton crane meant that Tobruk harbour was re-opened much quicker and with less hard work than had been expected.

The Closure of Grafton Cranes
On 12th March 1963, the premises, land, and machinery of Grafton Cranes Ltd., Vulcan Works were sold off at auction. The goodwill of the patterns and drawings and the spare parts business transferred to the crane-making firm of Taylor and Hubbard Ltd., of Kent Street, Leicester.

The Bedfordshire Advertiser, 18th December 1903
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 11th November 1910
The Bedfordshire Mercury Saturday December 8th 1894
Bedfordshire Times and Independent Friday 20th September 1935
The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette Monday 18th April 1938
Bedfordshire Times and Standard 9th February 1951
Bedfordshire Times 12th March 1963
Graces Guide
Photograph of crane at Rushden Transport Museum by kind permission of Malcolm Ayres.