Building on success – An Irishman’s Diary on 150 years of McAlpine & Co
Sir Robert McAlpine: pioneered the use of concrete in construction. It was 150 years ago that the 22-year-old bricklayer won his first contract – the repair of a mine chimney, for two pounds and nine shillings. Photograph: H Walter Barnett. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London
Catechism Class, west of Ireland, 1969:
Teacher: “Tell me, Sean, who made the world?” Schoolboy: “McAlpine, Sir, and my Daddy laid the bricks!”
This popular joke illustrates the ubiquity of Irish labour on British building sites in the last century. The British construction industry was then the largest single employer of Irish male migrant labour, estimated at 200,000 men in the mid-1960s.
Other British contractors such as George Wimpey, John Laing, Tarmac, and Taylor Woodrow also relied on the steady stream of manpower haemorrhaging from Ireland’s ailing economy, but the great Scottish firm of Sir Robert McAlpine was the pre-eminent employer. It was 150 years ago that the 22-year-old bricklayer won his first contract – the repair of a mine chimney, for two pounds and nine shillings. This was quickly followed by the rebuilding of a wall, for three pounds and 15 shillings.
In later life, Robert claimed that in his twenties he was able to lay 2,000 bricks a day, “fed” by two labourers. By 1883 he had progressed to building their first European factory, on a 43-acre site seven miles west of Glasgow, for the hugely successful American Singer Sewing Machine Company, for a fee of £300,000.
Two decades later, in addition to its Scottish contracts, the firm of Robert McAlpine & Sons were also building the Waterford-Rosslare Railway in Ireland. Robert’s third son, Malcolm, oversaw its construction. His motor car was registered in the Irish Motor Directory of 1904 at an address given as “Balloughton House, Bannow, Co Wexford” – the Wexford section of the directory for that year showing a grand total of 88 cars and 61 cycles!
A later Malcolm McAlpine, writing to me in 1997, stated that it was on the construction of the Waterford-Rosslare Line that, “we built on contacts made then to attract a lot of Irish labour between the wars, hence ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’. A number of them rose to foreman and manager status and this rightly encouraged further Irish recruitment at labourer and craftsman level”.
A substantial number became plant and machine operators.
Apparently, on one occasion, Welsh labourers on a McAlpine contract went on strike because they’d heard the Irish were receiving higher wages. Sir Malcolm called a mass meeting to address the strikers. With his Irish operators standing on the platform behind him, he told the strikers: “When you can operate the machinery, repair it, dismantle it, oversee its transport to the next site and erect it again, you’ll get more money. Until then, you can take it or leave it!”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Sir Robert McAlpine Limited, making it, by a very long way, Britain’s oldest tier-one construction company. Described by Building magazine as “the social and political apex of contracting”, the family-owned firm is widely regarded as the last of the traditional contractors.
The quality of their work is often attributed to their custom of directly employing their own woodwork, timberwork, and plastering specialists – a practice much at variance with modern industry norms.
Their enviable reputation rests on such iconic structures as Glenfinnan Viaduct, the first Wembley Stadium, the Shell Centre, the Millennium Dome, the Eden Project, the main 2012 Olympic Stadium, the Imperial War Museum North and the Emirates Stadium, among many others.
McAlpine famously pioneered the use of concrete in construction, one of his first triumphs being the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct, familiar to millions through the Harry Potter films. Standing more than 30 metres high, this magnificent 21-arch viaduct is part of the 64km Fort William to Mallaig extension of the West Highland Railway.
It was his innovative use of this new material which earned Sir Robert the soubriquet “Concrete Bob”. Interestingly, while SRM is currently the oldest privately owned construction company in Britain by far, the largest is actually Laing O’Rourke.
Mayo-born Ray O’Rourke also chose concrete as the material through which to develop equally innovative building techniques. These radical techniques, given their influence on modern construction methods, echo those pioneered a century before by Concrete Bob.
The firm are proud of their Irish associations. On one occasion, when I was consulting the archives at their HQ in Hemel Hempstead, the late Sir William McAlpine (‘Bill” to his friends) caused consternation in his office by inviting me to join him in a rendition of the classic Irish navvy song, McAlpine’s Fusiliers.
In fact, he knew it better than I did, correctly insisting that my standard Dubliners/Dominic Behan rendition was a reworked version of a much older song!
Later, in response to my request for an assessment of the significance of Irish labour, he wrote: “Since the 18th century the Irish have played a major part in the expansion of British industry and of the country’s canal, road, and rail networks. The success of the construction industry owes a great deal to the Irish; their contribution to the development of this industry has been immeasurable”.
That symbiotic relationship continues to this day, with fewer numbers, but at more advanced levels.
In terms of corporate longevity, the firm itself is still preeminent, and seems likely to remain so for many years to come.
Happy 150th anniversary, Sir Robert!