Davis Derby was a family business established in Leeds in 1779 by Gabriel Davis as a manufacturer of optical, surveying and mathematical instruments. The business was founded during the reign of King George III and at a time when George Pitt was the Prime Minister of England. Capital tax has not been thought of and for the few people who paid income tax, the rate was one shilling in the pound.
Gabriel Davis’s nephew John was borne in the village of Thame in Oxfordshire in 1810, he became apprenticed to J Abrahams who styled himself as Mathematical Instrument Maker to the Duke of Wellington. On completion of his apprenticeship in his late teens John Davis moved to Leeds to join his uncle’s family business.
Prior to 1830 it was conventional for traders to open a shop in a town and then move on to another, covering perhaps ten towns in a circuit. John followed in this trend visiting Liverpool, Cheltenham and making his first visit to Derby in April of 1830, opening a temporary shop in Rotten Row to sell the Company’s products where he remained for six weeks.
At that time the population of Derby was 23,000 people and there was only one other optician in town owned by Mr J. Steer who was both an optician and toy maker with a shop also in Rotten Row.
In 1800 it would still have been appropriate to describe Derby in the words of Daniel Defoe of a century earlier – a town of gentry rather than trade.
Derby had seen some influence of the industrial revolution, the Derby Silk Mill was founded in 1717 by two brothers, John and Thomas Lombe using technology highjacked in dramatic style from Italy. In 1736 John Whitehurst moved to the town and established his business as a high class clock maker.
Jedidiah Strutt founded two mills in the town centre not far from the silk mill around 1750.
However it was the arrival of the railways in 1839 and 1840 which invigorated the town.
Andrew Handyside arrived in Derby from Glasgow in 1848, his factory was to be the largest in Derby for more than 50 years.
In the early 1830’s John Davis travelled regularly between Liverpool Cheltenham and Derby to sell his products.
For the next few years John visited Derby at regular intervals staying for a few months at a time he advertising his visits in the Derby Mercury. Typical of these advertisements was one placed in the Derby Mercury in October 1831.
In returning his most grateful thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Derby for the patronage he received on his former visit, he begs to inform them that he has taken for a short time a shop in Queen Street, opposite St Michael’s Church where he submits for inspection a rich and varied collection of instruments consisting of Microscopes, Telescopes from 1/-6d to £24, Camera Lucida’s, Air Pumps, Electrical Machines, Thermometers and Barometers, Drawing Instruments, Pantographs, Scales, Self Acting Blow Pipes, Dr F Fox’s Shadow Meters, Magic and Microscopic Lanterns and an abundance of slides.
By 1833 it was clear that John had broken away from the Leeds business of Gabriel Davis and was working for himself. John’s brother Edward continued to work for Gabriel Davis in Leeds and was destined to take over from him when he died.
John continued to visit Derby for the next decade, typical of his visits were those in 1835 and 1836 arriving in October and leaving to go to Cheltenham in February of the following year.
In 1843 perhaps attracted by the railways and the rapid transition taking place in Derby and the desire to settle down with his wife Amelia and their two young sons, he took up residence with his family.
John bought the free-hold of the sixteenth century Meynell town house, which is now the oldest surviving premises in Iron Gate and which in recent times has been an art gallery and a restaurant, at the rear of the premises he build a workshop to produce his products, the house was to be the family residence for around 20 years.
The company was by now manufacturing a variety of surveying instruments such as Theodolites, Surveying Dials and Miner’s dials, some very similar in design to the products of Gabriel’s business in Leeds.
Spiders webs were being used to replace the wires used for sites on these instruments, the practice of collecting spider’s webs was one of the tasks given to apprentices and continued well in to the twentieth century.
At this time coal production in the UK had risen to 55 million tonnes and 250,000 men women and children were employed underground and there were 1000 deaths in the mines each year.
Around 1840 John Davis began to manufacture mining equipment such as mine safety lamps based on the designs invented by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1815. Production of miners lamps continued for more than a 100 years, reaching 10,000 a year by the turn of the century.
The company soon attracted interest from a number of mining experts, in 1844 John was visited by Benjamin Biram, house steward to the Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse who owned a number of collieries in South Yorkshire.
Biram explained that he had invented an instrument to measure the amount of air or force of wind entering a mine, the instrument was called an Anemometer.
In an advertisement placed in the Derby Mercury in February of 1845 John announced that manufacture of Benjamin Biram’s first vane Anemometer would commence in a few weeks.
John quickly became famous in mining circles as a pioneer in the use of electricity in mines and for his mining products. In 1850 John Hedley, HM Inspector of Mines the Midland District approached John with a new type of Miner’s dial with a swinging limb, modified versions this instrument were widely used by mining surveyors and for the next century, the company continued to manufacture the Hedley dial until around 1960.
At this John was hoping his bread and butter would come from steam engine manufacturers and as a result he advertised a range of vacuum and pressure gauges.
Derby Guild hall was destroyed by fire in 1841 only 13 years after it was built, this event inspired John to write in the Derby Mercury about how buildings could be protected from the effects of lightening by the use of a copper tube of about ¾” in diameter coming from the roof and continuing into the moist earth below the foundations. Lightening conductors were by now a feature of the company’s catalogue!
John was very active in the town, around 1860 he began to press for the widening of Iron Gate, he was chairman of a committee of Iron Gate tradesmen and personally contributed the sum of £100, a sum exceeded by private individuals only by the Duke of Devonshire who contributed £250 to the fund which eventually provided £2350 to enable the work to be carried out.
The widening of Iron Gate commenced in 1865 and took five years to complete.
John moved from his Iron Gate address to live at 99 Friar Gate probably to escape the dust and noise created by widening Iron Gate, he made a further gesture to improving the streets of Derby by contributing the first Plane trees in Friar gate and London Road.
John became the father of ten children, including seven sons who were educated at the towns grammer school in St Peters Churchyard. Headmaster at the time was the Rev James Bligh, an idle and incompetent kinsman of the infamous Captain Bligh who captained the Bounty.
John withdrew his two elder sons Frederick and Alfred after only two terms their education was completed at a private school in Belper.
John Davis died in 1873 at the age of 63, his brother Edward, his elder son Frederick and his second son Alfred were appointed executors to run the business.
Frederick and Alfred were both trained as civil engineers and Edward was very much involved in running his own business in Leeds, consequently Henry Davis was soon appointed by his brothers to run the business.
When Henry took over the business the workshop was fitted out with four large lathes and four small lathes, fourteen pairs of vices, a new vice bench and eight sets of working men’s tools, suggesting that eight instrument makers were employed.
At this time Henry’s business must have included selling equipment to local medical practitioners since stethoscopes, enema bottles, water pillows, air cushions and chest expenders were all recorded in the companies sales ledger, listed under the heading of optical instruments!
Under the leadership of Henry Davis the business continued to expand moving to new premises in November 1875 at All Saints Works Amen Alley in Derby close to the Cathedral.
The earliest surviving Davis Derby catalogue is dated in 1877 and shows that products included turret clocks, weather vanes, surveying instruments, a wide range of miners lamps and electric bells for both mining and domestic use.
This catalogue also shows that the firm was actively involved in the generation of electricity for lighting.
The permanent record of Queen Victoria’s visit to Derby in 1891 states “Messrs John Davis and Son, of All Saints Works, had the opportunity for the first time in Derby of showing how pretty illuminations can be made to look with the use of electric light. They were responsible for the letters ‘V R’ very prettily outlined in small lamps, over Messrs. Pountain, Girardot and Forman’s premises and also for the 500 candle power lamp which brilliantly illuminated Messrs Bakewell and Wilson’s premises in the Market Place.
The company soon began to supply local shops and offices with electric power from generators in the Amen Alley works, this continued for four years until 1893 when Derby Corporation built its new power station in Full Street as close as possible to the Davis lighting station on the site of what is now the Industrial Museum.
It is interesting that electric lighting underground in mines was in use prior to acts of Parliament in 1882 and 1888 which permitted local authorities to authorise the use of electric street lighting.
One of the earliest lighting installations installed by Davis of Derby was in 1886 in the Star Mills Co flour mill in Newport, by 1893, John Davis & Son (Derby) Ltd had installed electric installations for lighting and other purposes such as pumping, at several mines including the Mill Close lead mine at Darley Dale which was lit by incandescent lamps of 16-250 candlepower.
Other installations were at Clydach Vale Colliery in South Wales and two pits owned by the Clay Cross Company, which were equipped with lighting and pumping installations. The Riddings Colliery of Messrs J Oakes and Co had its surface works and underground roadways lit by Davis Derby. The company also supplied and installed lighting systems at the nearby Swanwick and Bolsover collieries.
A complete installation for electric lighting plant at Bestwood Colliery and Ironworks was also installed which was powered by twin steam engines and dynamos.
It is interesting to note that in February 1893 the Federated Institution of Mining Engineers visited Davis Derby and reported the visit as ‘An Hour At All Saints Works’. This report describes a pioneer installation for the generation and supply of electrical power for supplying neighbouring hotels, shops and offices.
Institution members also reported on an improved Naval signalling system and in particular noted that an order had been executed for the German Navy. Mr Henry Davis commented ‘That the firm had received the gratifying intelligence that it is the intention of Prince Henry of Prussia to adopt the same throughout the whole German navy’.
At the time of the visit the company was capable of manufacturing 500 miners lamps each week, and these were despatched all round the world. It is worthy of mention that in 1886 the final report of the Royal Commission On Accidents in Mines was presented and under the heading ‘Safety Lamps’ three out of four of the lamps selected as the safest were made by Davis Derby. These were the Bonnetted Clanney, the Marsaut and the Bonnetted Mueseller.
Members also reported that a new form of ringing key and signalling bell were demonstrated. Various instruments were on show during the visit including Davis’s improved Hedley Dial, a self timing anemometer and a safety lamp cleaning machine invented by a Mr Wolstenholme of the Bestwood Coal and Iron Company.
Davis Derby manufactured many products which had been invented by prominent mining engineers and other inventors of the time, such as Biram’s anemometers, John Hedley’s Miner’s dial and Hoffmans patented tripod head from the USA.
The Company also had a close relationship with Mr A H Stokes, H M Inspector of Mines and patented a miners lamp shut off device originally invented by Mr Stokes.
During the visit, members of the Federation were given a demonstration of the patented Davis and Stokes electric safety motor. This motor had an enclosed commutator and brush set which could not be opened when the motor was running and which reduced the space available around the sparking brushes that could be filled with gas. Previous attempts at designing motors for use in fiery mines were based on the principle of completely enclosing the motor, resulting in them being blown apart when an explosion occurred within the motor enclosure.
The Davis family avoided publicity and advertising, sales promotion in this period was achieved mainly by attendance at exhibitions in Cardiff South Africa and in London.
In 1901 Davis took on the UK agency for coal cutters manufactured by the Jeffrey Diamond Company of Colombus, Ohio.
The Company of Davis Derby was held in high esteem, for in 1902 a committee was set up to report to His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department into questions related to the use of electricity in coal mines. Notably, Henry Davis was one of 56 witnesses called to give evidence.
Electricity was first introduced into UK coal mines in 1881 by David Graham at Earnock Colliery in Hamilton, Scotland. This installation was for a lighting system of 30 Swan Lamps. In the following year electricity was used for a pumping installation at Trafalgar Colliery in the Forest of Dean; four years later Davis Derby was asked to install its first underground lighting system, in Mill Close Lead Mine in Darley Dale.
It was concern about the increasing use of electrical equipment in coal mines that led to the formation of the Institution of Mining Engineers.
Records show that the company was extremely active in overseas markets with agents in Australia, Canada, China, Japan and South Africa. The company was also selling equipment to sugar refineries in Barbados probably as a result of initial sales through Fletchers of Derby.
In 1900 Henry’s brother Herbert was given a four year contract to sell the company’s products in the USA, subsequently he opened an office in Baltimore which was adopted as a branch office of John Davis and son.
Herbert achieved considerable success in America so much so that in 1912 he resigned and formed his own company Davis Instruments of Baltimore manufacturing many Davis Derby products including anemometers which are still manufactured by that company to-day!
Herbert Davis was succeeded by his son Alfred Davis, who died in the late 1960’s on his death Alfred’s widow Martha sold the company to the present owners of the business.
Davis Derby developed and patented its first magento exploder in 1907 which satisfied the requirements of the 1906 Explosives in Mines Order, although electric blasting apparatus had featured in the 1890 catalogue.
In 1909 Henry took eighteen weeks away from his desk to travel around the World. He visited the company’s agent Scott-Henderson in Australia and travelled on to New Zealand in search of an agent for that country.
During the trip he met and married a fellow passenger, Miss Marion Campbell Bowen, two months after his return to the UK Henry resigned his position as Managing Director at the age of 58 and his son Wilfred Henry was appointed in his place in April of 1910.
Britain’s industrial wealth was largely centred on coal fields, demand for coal peaked in 1913 at about 287 million tonnes, at that time exports of coal were about 94 million tonnes per annum. Mining products contributed significantly to company sales, but the company was also active in other markeets
Davis Derby had been involved in the manufacture and distribution of calculators and slide rules from as early as 1830 and the firm continued to supply them for over a century, which gives an example of the diverse range of products produced by the company. A new slide rule plant and a separate slide rule department were opened in 1914 one month after war broke out to replace slide rules previously imported from France and Germany. During the great War the Government introduced legislation banning the importation of slide rules which was subsequently reviewed in 1919.
The Great War caused sales to increase, four employees were transferred to important war work elsewhere, but all other employees were considered to be engaged on work of significant importance such as Admiralty contracts to be exempt from conscription when it was introduced in 1916.
Early in the 20th Century the Davis Derby product range also included many types of miners lamps, anemometers, air powered lamps, hand lamps, a range of shot firing exploders in addition to the traditional theodolites and miners dials.
Henry Davis who had achieved a high reputation as an engineer in the mining industry just like his father, died suddenly in 1917 at Castle Hill House in Duffield.
In 1923 the directors of John Davis and Son received a letter from Edward Davis’s successors stating that they intended to retire and inviting the Derby business to have first refusal.
The offer was refused and eventually the Leeds business was sold to Foundrometers Ltd and eventually relocated to Hunslett where the company manufactured tachometers, pressure gauges, thermometers and similar articles. The company remains in existence today producing high quality instrumentation including pressure and speed measuring equipment, some of which is sold to the mining industry!
An interesting comment taken from the Imperial Trade Journal of 1925 states ‘Great Britain has always been acknowledged to be one of the world’s pre-eminent engineering countries and in one class of engineering, it is admitted that she stands alone – that is in the production of mining equipment and apparatus’.
The Journal then reviewed the products manufactured by John Davis & Son (Derby) Ltd and indicated the scope of their activities as surveying instruments including Theodolites, Dials, Levels, Engineering and Meteorological Instruments such as Anemometers, Water Gauges, Hygrometers etc., Electric Blasting Apparatus ie. Exploders, Galvanometers etc., Signals including Winding Engine Signals, Haulage Plane Signals, Mining Bells, Relays and Switches in addition to Miners Safety Lamps both flame and electric.
During the recession in the 1920’s the company was fortunate to have a broad range of products and development of miners lamps continued at a considerable pace. The Edison Company in the USA patented a miners electric cap lamp and Davis succeeded in obtaining the agency for the United Kingdom. The broad range of products was to stand the company in good stead in future years too.
Wilfred was keen to expand the business and bought up surrounding property to the Amen Alley factory, in 1925 the company purchased the wine merchant Cox and Bowring’s premises, stock and goodwill to gain access to much needed space at the rear of Amen Alley with the intention of selling the wine business after obtaining the space required. In the event John Davis and Son became a wine merchant until 1929 when the business was eventually sold.
Work carried out by professors Thornton and Wheeler at Sheffield University in 1925 in the fields of protection methods for electrical equipment in the presence of gas, Government test stations were soon established at Sheffield and Buxton to carry out tests on manufacturer’s products and issue approval certificates. This situation involved John Davis and Son in liasing with various bodies on technical standards and in the design of many new products such as transformers, bells, relays, switches, telephones etc.
Around this time the company introduced a range of air powered lamps based on an air driven self contained generator, these lamps were widely used in the mining industry for many years. Improved versions of this lamp continued to be produced by Davis Derby until 1988 finding many applications on the surface as well as in mines.
World War 2 brought about several changes at Davis Derby. Many employees were to work overtime for the first time, hours were 8.00 am to 9.00 pm although many employees could remember previously working from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm during a normal working day without overtime.
Day to day business continued under the ‘Essential Work Order’, a night watchman was appointed and one employee was trained as an aircraft spotter.
The Company manufactured altimeters for the Avro Lancaster Bomber during the war and also produced anemometers for war use.
The range of mining and surveying products continued to be manufactured during the war years and development of new single shot and multishot exploders were carried out.
Sadly Wilfred’s eldest son John was killed in a traffic accident during the war and although he was 62 years old at the end of the war, Wilfrid carried on as Managing Director although he did retire his position as an inspector in the Special Constabulary. His younger son Bruce joined the business becoming a Director soon afterwards and bringing many new and forward thinking ideas to the business.
During the Second World War, the Government was to take control of the mining industry as had also happened in the First World War.
At the time of nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 coal production in the UK was 187 million tonnes mined from 1,400 collieries employing 711 thousand workers.
Davis Derby viewed Nationalisation of the mining industry with some concern since it was left with one major customer and the risks to any business in supplying a single customer were only too obvious.
In 1951 the new Conservative Government acknowledged that coal Nationalisation was here to stay. Geoffrey Lloyd, the new Conservative Minister of Fuel and Power readily gave reassurances to the House stating that once you have accepted a Nationalised Coal Industry you cannot sit around looking through neutral or semi-hostile eyes, much less mess around with it. How times change!
Davis Derby realised that its future would be better served by concentrating on electrical equipment for the mining industry and in 1951 an agreement was made with ICI Nobel to sell the exploder product designs.
Following Nationalisation, the UK coal industry made considerable progress in the introduction of mechanical mining machines to replace traditional pick and shovel methods, safety productivity and coal output all increased. By the mid 1950’s coal remained the most important source of fuel in the UK.
This situation created a need for electrical control systems for conveyors and other items of machinery.
Bruce Davis took over the business as Managing Director in 1953, reluctantly one of his main tasks was to cut out the precision instrument making activities due to increasing labour costs which made this type of product unprofitable. The traditional miner’s lamps and instruments were progressively discontinued during the next 15 years to be replaced by mining electrical equipment. The anemometer range of products was sold off to Negretti and Zambra.
Davis Derby was to remain in the Davis family until 1962, a total of 148 years, when the company was purchased by the Standard Industrial Group which was subsequently absorbed into the Pearson Group. Unfortunately however, in the last four or five years of family ownership, product development was given a low priority and consequently new competitors emerged.
In 1964 Charles Wallace a well known mining electrical engineer was to join the Company and during the next few years, many new products were developed as the Company moved into electronics. In 1966 the business was re-located into a purpose built factory in Alfreton Road on the outskirts of Derby and the pace of product development increased and consequently the business expanded considerably.
In the early 1960’s there was a requirement for remote control and monitoring systems in British mines and by 1964 the National Coal Board had over 20 suppliers of telemetry systems. At that time, Davis Derby developed a hard-wired remote control system was which installed at Whitwell Colliery in the mid 1960’s. However the company also supplied large quantities of signalling and control equipment as large scale automation systems were introduced into UK mines.
1972 saw the launch of the two products that were to be very significant to the future of Davis Derby. These were the DIS 4 loudspeaker Communication System and the Sivad MK II Coal Face Signalling and Communication System. The Company continued to expand during the next decade and by 1980 some 1200 Sivad MK II Systems had been sold world-wide.
During the 1970’s the Company launched many other products and the Company increased its penetration of industrial markets such as the steel industry, power stations and ports with modified versions of mining signalling systems. The Company successfully built up export business for its range of mining products. In the early 1970’s there was once again an upsurge of interest in remote control and monitoring systems in British Coal. Many of the original suppliers of systems installed in the 1960’s were no longer attracted to the mining market.
Davis Derby began to update its product range to meet the more demanding certification requirements caused by the discovery that hotter sparks more capable of igniting methane could be produced if the sparking surfaces contained cadmium. Several new and modified products were launched simultaneously in 1977, these included flameproof control and monitoring unit, a range of flameproof relays and power supplies and compressor protection equipment to monitor and control underground installations of compressors.
British Coal was in a phase of considerable investment throughout the late 1970’s. The company developed a new Telemetry Unit Type in 1978, which was destined to become one of the Company’s most successful products.
In 1979 the Company celebrated its bicentenary which coincided with a major expansion of the Alfreton Road factory from 75,000 square feet to 110,000 square feet which had been necessary to meet growing demand for the companies products.
In the mid 1970’s the Microprocessor became commercially available and Davis Derby had taken a strategic decision to become involved in this new technology and developed a new type of Mine Monitoring and Control System with several novel features which are not yet available in competing systems of today.
One such system was installed at Renishaw Park colliery in North Derbyshire, controlling over 35 conveyors, some of which were man-riding conveyors, also a number of pumps were controlled by the system until the closure of colliery in 1987 – 88.
During the 1980’s there was significant rationalisation of mining equipment companies and Davis Derby was active in acquiring other mining electrical companies, however in 1987 Davis Derby was acquired by the Senior Engineering Group who at that time owned Hayden Nylos Conflow based in Sheffield and Nottingham. The Sheffield factory was subsequently closed and production of conveyor belt fastening devices moved to the Davis Derby factory.
Significant and rapid contraction of the UK mining industry continued through the 1980’s and 1990’s.
In 1985 there were 78 collieries in the UK producing around 95 million tonnes of coal, to-day there are 22 collieries producing less than 30 million tonnes.
Davis Derby continued to develop new products for the mining industry but also set about to diversify into new markets.
Examples include inductive charging systems for electric vehicles, radio frequency identification systems to automatically track the position of personnel vehicles and other assets.
In December 1992 Senior Engineering Group sold Davis Derby to a smaller privately owned company Communication and Control Engineering Company which was based in Calverton Nottinghamshire.
The company name reverted back to Davis Derby Ltd and in August 1993 the business was relocated to a 41,000 square feet factory in Chequers Lane about 11/2 miles from the Alfreton Road factory. This was only the third move in 150 years of trading.
Since the acquisition by Communication and Control Engineering the company has continued its tradition of developing innovative new products and although mining is still considered as core business the company has significantly reduced its dependence on the mining industry.
Today Davis Derby specialises in electronic equipment for hazardous and demanding environments such as mines, quarries, power stations, ports, cement plants, oil and gas platforms and industrial applications on electric vehicles.
The company employs 126 people in Derby and at a small factory unit in Dinnington near Sheffield, sales turnover is around £7.5 million per annum, around 45% of which is mining equipment.
Products include intrinsically safe programmable controllers, mining communication systems, flameproof lighting, conveyor control systems, mine shaft monitoring and communication systems , data loggers for fork lift trucks and radio frequency identification systems.
We receive an average of one enquiry a month from the general public requesting information on nineteenth century and early twentieth century Davis Derby instruments which they have acquired. Many of these early instruments manufactured by John Davis and Son having outlived their original purpose are now highly collectable items a tribute indeed to the ingenuity of those who invented them and the craftsmanship that went into their manufacture.