Judy Middleton 2003 (revised 2016)
In 1902 the Ronuk factory at Portslade was established; it was previously at Providence Place, Brighton. Mr T. Horace Fowler was the founder and managing director and was popularly known as the Guv’nor; he was born 11 March 1869 and died 31 January 1944.
It was said to be his father who had formulated a special polish at Brighton that he called Fowler’s Wax Composition. In the 1920s Ronuk workers believed the legend that it was in fact Mr Fowler’s mother who invented the polish at her house near Holland Road Halt, Hove. Whoever the true inventor was, Ronuk changed over the years. Fowler’s Wax Polish was unscented and a nasty, putty colour but it evolved into a warm red polish with a distinctive smell.
It was not until 23 January 1896 that Ronuk was registered as a trademark (number 192585). The word ‘Ronuk’ was an Anglicised form of a word suggested by an ex-Indian Army officer signifying brilliance. The company also took the opportunity of registering the name spelt backwards – Kunor. It is amusing to note that the famous polish might have been called ‘Taisk’ because this was the runner-up in the list of suggested names.
When the Ronuk factory was built at Portslade on a site north of the railway line and south of Victoria Road, the surroundings were relatively rural and old-time workers remembered when pigs from a nearby field suddenly invaded the site. In fact in July 1907 Ronuk lodged a formal complaint with Portslade Council concerning the adjacent piggeries.
At Portslade Ronuk went from strength to strength. Additions were built in 1906 and 1909 and a 1913 extension included more space for the factory, new offices and a caretaker’s cottage. In fact the factory became such a hive of activity that special railway sidings were constructed in 1919 / 1920 for Ronuk and the Metal Box Factory also used the facility. In 1920 a canteen was created for the workers and more new offices were built in 1922. The crowning achievement was the construction of Ronuk Hall and Welfare Institute that opened in 1928. It is the only part of the Ronuk site still extant. Later it became Portslade Town Hall and in 2016 it is still host to Brighton & Hove City Council meetings while Hove Town Hall is being renovated.
Ronuk became so well known that misdirected letters usually found their way to Portslade. There was a famous example when an order for Ronuk polish was mistakenly despatched to Port Said instead of Portslade. But after a detour to Egypt it made its way back to Portslade.
At first Ronuk produced its own tins on site but later Barclay & Fry, Fishersgate, produced them and latterly the Metal Box Company, Portslade, made them.
Beeswax was imported from several sources, including Rhodesia, while benguellan wax came from the Congo and carnauba wax came from Brazil.
Royal warrants were awarded to Ronuk as follows:
1907 by King Edward VII
1910 by King George V
1912 by Queen Alexandra
1940 by King George VI
|copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries |
The Royal Warrant can be seen proudly displayed on this delivery van.
On 17 October 1924 the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) arrived in Portslade to visit Ronuk. At the time the Duke was president of the Industrial Welfare Society and it was the Duchess’s first visit to an industrial establishment since her marriage.
The prospect of a royal visit caused at flurry of activity at Ronuk. New paint was applied to the walls that the Duke and Duchess would pass but amusingly enough, the paint only extended halfway up. On the day itself gardeners arrived with armfuls of fresh-cut flowers, which they solemnly proceeded to push into the earth.
Waiting to greet the Duke and Duchess were 1,800 schoolchildren and a large crowd of residents. The Portslade & District branch of the Royal British Legion formed a guard of honour and the Duke shook hands with Private Vinter of the 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment who had lost a leg in the Great War but still managed to march on his crutches with his comrades. The band of Portslade Industrial School was also in attendance.
The Duchess wore a coat and skirt of rust red velour and a black cloche hat ‘caught up in front with a diamond arrow and finished with a long tassel at one side of rust ostrich feathers’.
Directors H.T. Fowler and P.W. Felton, and D.F. Sundius Smith, chairman of Portslade Council, greeted the royal couple while two of the younger Ronuk girls presented the Duchess with a bouquet of choice roses. These were not the only flowers the Duchess received because at the conclusion of their visit she was given a bouquet of crimson and bronze chrysanthemums with the message Loyal Greetings from St Nicolas’s Girls’ School. Young Miss Adams, whose father had been severely injured in the Great War, presented the flowers.
| copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries |
The Duke and Duchess of York visited Ronuk on 17 October 1924. T.H. Fowler, director, P.W. Felton, director and D.E. Sundius Smith were on hand to greet the royal couple.
During their tour of the factory the Duke screwed down one of the brushes in course of manufacture and the Duchess labelled two bottles. They were most interested in the canteen facilities and went through to the kitchen to watch lunch being prepared.
After the visit to Ronuk the Duke and Duchess had lunch in the Council Chamber at Hove Town Hall before moving on to Brighton where the Duke opened an exhibition. Then there was a visit to the Royal Pavilion.
A Report in the Sussex County Magazine
Lady Kate wrote an article about Ronuk in the 1930s and she was much impressed with everything she was shown. The speed of the girls who whipped the lids onto the tins of polish merited a special mention. They kept a nest of lids under one arm and had the operation down to a fine art. Lady Kate wrote ‘the dexterity … of the relays of girls who fit on the lids as tins … glide by, are amongst the sights of the factory. Really, it almost resembles a clever sleight of hand entertainment, in which the quickness of the hands deceives the eye.’
Ronuk Sanitary floor polish was sold in different sized tins to meet all requirements. There were large tins for commercial use (Ronuk was a great favourite to use in polishing hospital floors and in 1913 was awarded a gold medal at the 17th International Congress of Medicine at London); a standard tin cost 1/9d, a small tin cost 6d and there was even a tiny tin around the size of a two-penny piece for samples.
In the 1920s Dirsof was a new product sold in little blue jars containing non-scratch cream polish. Ronuk boot polish was sold in mauve tins.
By 1946 Ronuk was also producing
Ronuk Red Tile Polish
Ronuk Ballroom Powder
Later on the wood dye, boot polish and car polish were sold under the names ‘Colton’ and ‘Ronseal’.
|copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries |
This photograph depicts a busy scene at one of the Ronuk packing rooms in around 1926.
It is amusing to note that there were other uses for Ronuk besides the conventional domestic one.
It could be applied to the hulls of racing skiffs or to the fuselage of aeroplanes and the polish supposedly made a marked difference to speed performance.
It was even applied to the shells of giant tortoises at the zoo.
Ronuk was very good at publicity. There were many advertisements of course but they also organised popular puzzle competitions with cash prizes. When the first prize was advertised as £1,000 – a considerable sum in those days – there was an avalanche of entries and a great deal of publicity was garnered.
On the lids of boot polish was the slogan The Brightest Shine in the Shortest Time. The later owners of Ronuk invented the snappy it does what it says on the tin for their Colton products.
|copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries |
Ronuk products were widely advertised; this one dates from the 1930s.
During both world wars there was a chronic shortage of tin. Just in case the worse came to the worst, Ronuk experimented with different types of packaging. In the Great War emergency tests were carried out on the suitability of packing the polish into sausage skins.
In the Second World War staff working on alternative packaging favoured greaseproof paper bags.
In around 1920 Elsie Peirce started work at Ronuk and earned 14/6d a week. The girls clocked on at 7.50 a.m. and the boys followed suit ten minutes afterwards. Before the canteen was established, staff brought in their own food to eat at lunch-time in two little rooms, once again segregated by sex. There was no break for elevenses but you were allowed to eat something at your workbench; thus the saying at the factory ‘a mouthful of bread and a mouthful of Ronuk’.
Tins were laid out on a bench and filled manually from a jug full of molten red polish with the brass tap being turned on and off at each tin. At the end of the day the men responsible for this task were almost reeling from the inhaled effects of turpentine, beeswax and whatever else was in the polish. The girls soon acquired extraordinary dexterity in putting on the lids rapidly and in Elsie’s day Johnnie Page supervised this operation. If a girl missed her aim and the lid dented the polish, the tin was taken out of production, scrapped out and refilled.
Elsie was busily engaged at her workbench on 17 October 1924 when the Duke and Duchess of York came on a visit to Ronuk.
|copyright © E. Peirce |
Elsie Saunders is hard at work in the foreground with the Duke and Duchess of York in the background.
The factory closed down for a week at the beginning of August and everyone went on holiday. The management also provided an annual charabanc excursion for staff; this time the sexes were not separated and many a Ronuk romance began on these excursions. The charabanc visited such places as the Isle of Wight and in 1925 it was Hastings.
|copyright © E. Peirce |
In 1925 the Ronuk summer outing was to Hastings. Mr T. Horace Fowler stands at the right to see them off.
There was also a vibrant social life at Ronuk and there was something to do every night of the week. Miss Lawrence, who worked in the office during the day, taught girls ballet in the evenings; the girls also had the use of a gym. In the grounds there were tennis courts and beautifully kept grounds with lawns and plants. A ten-minute walk away there was a seven-acre sports ground where staff could play stoolball, football and cricket together with a pavilion and changing rooms.
There was a full-time Welfare Supervisor and a trained hospital nurse; there was a Thrift Club and a Staff Savings Fund to encourage them to save money for their old age.
Ronuk provided the girls who lived at Brighton with a quarterly season ticket that cost 13/-. The train drivers all knew the contingent from Ronuk and would hold up their trains until all were safely aboard.
During the General Strike of 1926 there were no trains and the company sent a van to Seven Dials to pick up the girls for work. However, they were not so obliging in making sure they got home afterwards and the girls had to shift for themselves. On one occasion some girls walked up to the Old Shoreham Road and hitched a lift on a passing hay-cart.
Edith Annie Ford
She was born at Hove in 1900 but a few years later, the family moved to Portslade. Edith was the eldest child and she had four siblings. Edith attended St Nicolas’s Girls’ School where she particularly enjoyed the sewing class; sewing was viewed as a serious accomplishment and indeed it became Edith’s favourite pastime. At school she and the other girls sewed surgeons’ gowns for use at Hove Hospital. Even after Edith left school, she never went anywhere without a piece of sewing or crochet work in her bag. She went to work at Ronuk and one day feeling in high spirits at lunch, she swung her bag around and somehow her crochet hook became embedded in another girl’s arm. Matron soon arrived to deal with the situation and insisted that from then on Edith must keep a cork on the end of her crochet hook.
Edith remembered the poignant occasion when she and the other girls at Ronuk leant out of the windows to wave goodbye to the line of soldiers marching along the road on their way to war.
Although working at Ronuk was considered as a feather in a girl’s cap, it seems that Mrs Ford did not think it was a ladylike enough occupation for her Edith. She saw an advertisement for a cashier at a greengrocer’s shop on the corner of Lansdowne Place, Hove, and thought it was just right for Edith. She lost no time in marching into the manager’s office at Ronuk and boldly announcing her daughter was leaving at once. When the manager remarked mildly that it was customary to give a week’s notice otherwise a week’s wages would be lost, Mrs Ford replied loftily ‘Then we’ll leave the money.’
He was only aged fifteen when he joined the Ronuk workforce as a junior clerk in May 1937; he earned 12/6d a week. He was put to work in the correspondence room where he dutifully stamped the mail and did some filing. His duties also included answering the telephone, which was not freestanding in the room but housed in a separate kiosk.
He enjoyed the social side, particularly the annual staff outing. On 3 June 1937 they went to Richmond and he also took part in the outings of 1938 and 1939. Another perk was that all refreshments during the day and lunch in the hall were free.
In October 1939 he moved to the order and ledger room where he helped to price incoming orders. It was quite a responsibility for such a youngster because there was no mechanical help in doing the sums – all calculations were done in his head. He also looked after the canteen accounts. On occasions he was obliged to relieve the gatekeeper and when necessary to sound the work’s air raid warning siren.
Many men had already left Ronuk to join the war effort and in November 1940 he joined their number by going to work on a farm in Derbyshire under the YMCA’s scheme ‘British Boys for British Farms’. Whilst he was there he received an unexpected gift from Ronuk; it contained a Swan fountain pen and a Morden pencil.
Shortly after his 14th birthday in July 1938 he left school and started work at Ronuk. When he arrived he was surprised to find the place practically deserted because the factory was closed for the annual holiday. But that did not matter as far as he was concerned because he was given a tin of paint and a brush and told to paint the wooden fence around the site.
When the factory returned to normal working, he was put in the transport office under the eye of Mr Cox, transport manager, although it was Wally Cooper who trained him. He did not remain in the office all the time and every Friday he was despatched to London aboard the 7.20 a.m. fast train from Hove to London Bridge. This was so that he could become familiar with the various London districts to which Ronuk sent their goods, such as hospitals and docks. Charles Poulter, a driver, had the task of imparting the necessary geography.
When the Second World War broke out, the composition of the workforce changed. This was because many of the male workers were members of the Territorial Army and were mobilised. It meant females far outnumbered the remaining male employees.
In 1941 Mr Cox, transport manager, had to go into hospital to have the cataracts removed from both eyes. In those days it was a major operation and it was three months before he was considered fit enough to return to work. Meanwhile, 16-year old Cosstick had to man the fort and run the rail and transport office all by himself. When Mr Cox returned, the management recognised Cosstick’s valiant efforts by awarding him the princely sum of £1.
Cosstick left Ronuk in 1941 and joined the RAF. He was demobbed in 1947 and returned to Ronuk for a couple of years. His sister Dulcie worked at Ronuk from 1934 to 1948. She did well there and ended up as a forewoman, a post that had been exclusively held by males before then.
He too went to work at Ronuk after leaving school in the late 1950s. At first he was in the wages office where things had progressed from mental calculations to a clumsy electro-mechanical adding machine and a manual ‘comptometer’. Invoice record keeping had also been updated to a punch-card system but the old system of manual records was kept up for a long time afterwards as a back-up system and it was needed quite often.
Old-fashioned methods were still employed for clocking-on. There was a ledger at the gatehouse and every member of staff had to sign in together with their time of arrival. Anybody who arrived late would find that the internal postman had spirited away the ledger. This internal postman was nicknamed ‘The Major’ because he was ex-military and his surname was Cottingham.
Later on Dobbie moved to the laboratory. This was more his cup of tea because he was also studying chemistry at night school. When tankers of solvents arrived at the railway sidings it was his job to take samples and test them.
It seems that by Dobbie’s time, Ronuk staff no longer had the use of the canteen in the hall. Instead, he remembered a rudimentary canteen for tea and somewhere to eat their sandwiches. The office staff found themselves in a more fortunate position because they were able to go across the road and use the canteen at the Fryco factory opposite. Dobbie also remembered that at least two editions of the popular radio programme Workers’ Playtime were transmitted from the Fryco Factory.
He met a charming young lady in the Ronuk office who later became Mrs Dobbie. He stayed on at Ronuk until shortly before the business moved up north.
Isabel was seventeen years old when she started work at Ronuk in 1956. It was quite a shock to the system because there did not seem to be any training or preparation to enable a newcomer to cope with factory conditions. It was more of a case of being thrown in at the deep end and having to sink or swim.
In Isabel’s case, it was straight to the conveyor belt where tins of red polish sailed past at what seemed like a dizzying rate. There was no way she could match the dexterity of girls who were well used to the work.
Isabel’s task was to place a circle of greaseproof paper on top of the polish before lids were clamped on further down the line. She found that most of the tins were well out of reach before she could cover the polish. As for the rest, she did manage to place some rounds of greaseproof paper but they were certainly not in a central position. In addition, many a tin of perfectly smooth red polish bore the marks of her fingerprints.
The girls spent their entire working day standing on a concrete floor that was both uneven and cold. They were not allowed to chat with one another. It seemed a pretty, grim place to Isabel.
But she did hear an interesting item about the girls who worked in the packing department. Apparently, they knew that many Ronuk products were sent to the Royal Navy and so they used to include letters in the boxes. It would be fascinating to know whether or not any sailor ever replied to the Ronuk girls.
Isabel went home after her first day at Ronuk looking forward to her tea. But when she sat down she found the table was acting in a peculiar fashion – it seemed to be moving just like the conveyor belt. It made her feel quite strange and she lost her appetite.
Needless to say, her spell at Ronuk was of short duration.
Like other employees, John Leigh started his working life at the age of fifteen and stayed at Ronuk from 1960 to 1965. At first he worked in the Post Room under the eagle eye of Major Cottingham. Later he joined the Post Room Department where he got to know two Ronuk stalwarts, namely Chris Holland and Archie Paris. These two spent their entire working life at Ronuk and indeed they are to be found in the group photograph taken in around 1916 and featured earlier in this article. Of course, by the time John Leigh knew them, they did not bear much resemblance to their younger selves. It is sad to record that when the factory closed they were made redundant and their long years of loyal service were rewarded with precisely three weeks’ extra wages.
John Leigh remembered his years at Ronuk as a happy time and he, like the rest of the staff, particularly enjoyed the annual staff outing. He remembers especially the outing they made to Battersea Fun Fair.
Perhaps Ronuk forgot to move with the times and John Leigh considers Newton Chambers took over the firm for virtually nothing. This was despite Ronuk’s successful Ronseal and Colron brands that, ironically, are still on sale.
John Leigh had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth Horne (1907-1969) who was a non-executive director of Ronuk in the 1960s. This fact may come as a surprise to many people because they remember him for his marvellous work on the radio such as Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne. In fact Kenneth Horne started his career as a businessman and became chairman and managing director of well-known Chad Valley, toy manufacturers. It was a happy accident during his wartime stint in the RAF that he came to the attention of the BBC. But he regarded his radio work as an enjoyable sideline.
John Leigh had further experience of show business after leaving Ronuk. During the 1960s and 1970s he became a leading concert promoter at the Dome, Brighton, booking such artists as Roy Orbison and Scott Walker as well as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
| copyright © G. Webb |
These two photographs capture the scene during the 1950s, the same decade in which Ronuk left Portslade.
By the 1950s the average age of the staff had changed. No longer was the workforce predominately made up of young girls but instead of part-time older females who were also wives and mothers. The number of workers had also fallen due to increasing automation. The management no longer insisted that women should keep their heads covered.
In the 1950s the Ronuk tanker, holding 3,500 gallons, came directly to its Portslade sidings from Esso in Southampton
Newton, Chambers & Co. acquired Ronuk in the late 1950s. The Portslade factory closed and production shifted up north to Sheffield.
On 28 July 1927 Miss Marion Elizabeth Chignell laid the foundation stone of the Ronuk Hall and Welfare Institute. Gilbert M. Simpson was the architect and the hall opened the following year.
Miss Chignall was the daughter of Robert Chignall, one of the first Ronuk directors, and she donated an organ for the hall in his memory. Michell & Thyne built the organ in 1885 and it was placed in the Great Hall above a shallow stage. The hall was also graced with galleries and balustrades on the north and the south sides.
The Misses Chignall provided a large sum of money to decorate the hall and the walls were adorned by a number of paintings donated by artists who were famous in their day. Amongst this number were Vicat Cole, Byam Shaw, Rex Padwick, Bertram Nicholls, Percy R. Craft and Robin Wallace, many of them being friends and acquaintances of one of the directors from the time when he sold them oil paints.
| copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries |
The workers dined in comfort in the Great Hall. Note the works of art on the walls.
The Great Hall had a variety of uses. During working hours it became a canteen. The girls sat at small separate tables (around four apiece) covered with fresh, white tablecloths. Mr Fowler frequently joined the workers to eat his lunch there too. The food was cooked in a large, modern kitchen.
In the evenings the stage was often used for amateur dramatics; one play put on by the employees was Trial by Jury. There was also a Ronuk minstrel group, which became a very popular turn. The participants blacked-up their faces just like other minstrel groups of the time. There was enough space in the hall for an audience of 250 people.
The hall was also used for dances and socials, billiards and badminton.
During the Second World War the hall was taken over and used as a British Restaurant. These were set up from 1940 onwards to enable people in need to have a decent meal that cost no more than a maximum of nine pennies. Originally, they were known by the dreadful title ‘Community Feeding Centres’. It was Winston Churchill who decided that they should be called British Restaurants.
In 1959 Portslade-by-Sea Urban District Council was able to purchase Ronuk Hall for £36,500 by disposing of their old offices. On 2 September 1959 Robert Shields, chairman of PUDC, officially opened Portslade Town Hall.
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Fifty Years of Ronuk 1896-1946. Souvenir booklet
Middleton, Judy Brighton & Hove in Old Photographs (1988)
Middleton, Judy Brighton & Hove in Old Photographs; Second Selection (1994)
Middleton, Judy Portslade and Hove Memories (2004)
Middleton, Judy Portslade : Britain in Old Photographs (1997)Sussex County Magazine
Sussex Daily News
Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp