Name: Joe Krawec
Title: “There’s more to business than making a profit”: The employee magazines of Rubery Owen and the Owen Organisation, 1946-1960.
Summary of Thesis:
This thesis is an exploration of the printed culture of the Owen Organisation, a group of companies which grew in the post-war period to become the largest, privately owned engineering firm in Great Britain. The engineering output of the company is well-known. Its achievements includes the revolutionary front subframe for the original Mini and the first all-British made Formula One motor car to win the championship. However, the employees of the Owen Organisation pursued interests other than engineering. They took photographs, wrote short stories and poems, played sport, painted pictures, acted in plays, sang, danced and caricatured their fellow workers in cartoons. And they presented these skills, made possible thanks to the vast sports and social facilities provided by the company, in their employee magazines.
This thesis is an analysis of that presentation: the printed culture of the Owen Organisation. It provides an alternative view of Britain’s industrial past to traditional economic and business histories by focusing on these magazines – Goodwill, The R.O. Newsand The Eaglet. The title is taken from a statement made by the chairman, Sir Alfred George Beech Owen OBE (AGBO) in 1951. In correspondence with his Finance Director, AGBO reiterated his belief that, ‘There’s more to business than making a profit’.This thesis explores that notion to understand what the Chairman meant and how the magazines of the Owen Organisation were used to convey this idea.
This work considers the wider context of industrial publishing to place Goodwill, the R.O. Newsand The Eagletwithin it. It sets out why the employee magazines of the Owen Organisation were created. It explains how they were produced and distributed and speculates on their circulation and reception amongst readers. It examines articles focused on social groups within the magazines: the Chairman; male workers, female workers, apprentices aged from 15 to 22 years old. It is thus a study into the tensions between these groups arising through their differing uses and perceptions of their employee magazines. For example, the Chairman, who saw the company organ as vehicle for his evangelical Christian philosophy and as a means to fight the evil of world communism; to male workers who perceived it as a way to keep informed about company news pertinent to their labour rights and trade union membership; to female workers who saw it as an outlet for their sportsmanship and artistry out of societal constraints placed upon them because of their gender, to youth apprentices who saw it as a way to parody their elders in an award-winning magazine thus, not only rebelling against 1950s authority figures, but also bettering them with their own version of an employs magazine.
All of this work is carried out to ask to what extent was the Chairman’s opinion that ‘There’s more to business than making a profit’ was reflected within the magazine and in the wider culture of the organisation? Was it an idea which could only be applied to the Chairman and his Christian beliefs? Beliefs which he then transmitted throughout his engineering group? Or was the tension between these different groups working within the Owen Organisation resolved so that everyone’s idea of business being about more than just profits came to be represented within the firm and its magazines? Moreover, did these ideas of managers and workers ever converge or were they always in opposition?
The Owen Organisation was a global engineering entity with eighteen overseas holdings located in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. In Britain, the company comprised sixty-six UK companies across the West Midlands, London, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Scotland and Wales. It made 16,000 product lines, chief of which were car components. Its headquarters were in Darlaston – a small town in the West Midlands in a region known as the Black Country. Its main customers were Austin Motors and Morris Motors, which had merged by 1968 to become British Leyland. The company’s biggest competitors were Dunlop and Pressed Steel. Its history is part of the British-owned car industry, therefore.
1946-1960 was an interesting time. The cessation of the Second World War did not herald the peace hoped for. Instead, Britain began to build its own atom bomb and entered into another kind of conflict, the Cold War. However the financial and physical tolls of war coupled with the ideological lessons learnt from it resulted in Britain divesting itself of its Empire and its international political role was much reduced as a result. Britain found itself the lesser partner to the United States against the USSR, both of which became established as the world’s superpowers. At the same time however, Britain began to look to the future and rebuild. In 1945 Labour was elected to govern the country in a landslide general election victory. It set about an ambitious project of economic and social planning including establishing universal healthcare. From 1950, the country experienced unprecedented levels of prosperity, the so-called economic ‘Golden Age’, a time of rapid economic growth across Europe, America and Japan. But although Britain’s wealth was increasing at a great rate, its economy was in fact declining relative to that of its other Golden Age counterparts. Britain’s industries lagged in terms of capital investment and relative output.
The magazines of the Owen Organisation were produced through this interesting time when government and industry leaders acknowledged that Britain was struggling to keep up with its competitors and yet the country felt as though ‘it never had it so good’.[i]The magazines could have been considered an anachronism in 1946 because almost every large organisation had developed their company magazine before the war. Moreover, by 1950 most organisations outsourced editorial and production of their employee magazines to professional magazine publishers. The Owen Organisation seemed out of step with its peers in this respect by keeping its magazine in-house. This anachronistic nature is reflected in the structure of the company which was still family-owned, and would remain so until the company folded in 1980, at a time when the vast majority of all large British firms were shareholder owned. This characteristic of the firm is something which the Chairman commented on in the magazines and forms, not only context for the thesis, but is a necessary part of the analysis to understand whether this was also a part of the culture of the organisation.
University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, The Rubery Owen Archive, MSS.338/RO MSS.338/RO/4/1/2/611/389, PUBLIC RELATIONS MEETING, PU.1A, 1951.
[i]BBC Website ‘On this Day’, quote from speech by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made 20 July 1957, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/20/newsid_3728000/3728225.stm, last accessed 19 Jan 2018.
PhD in Modern History, University of Birmingham, 2014 onwards.
MA in West Midlands History, University of Birmingham, 2011-2013
Mark Achieved: Distinction.
Other Awards: College of Arts & Law Postgraduate Essay Prize.
My current research centres on cultural history, encompassing themes such as history as narrative, postcolonialism, modernity and identity and how these are conveyed through print culture. I am a member of the steering committee for the Centre of Printing History and Culture, a multi-institution research think tank set up to bring together researchers and enthusiasts of printing history and culture http://www.cphc.org.uk. In addition I am also a comic book writer and artist. My first comic book - a supernatural tale based around a family mystery was launched in April 2016. In 2016 I plan to start producing a series of history and culture fanzines, based around my PhD and my experiences of growing up in the Black Country, a collection of towns north-west of Birmingham with a big industrial heritage.
Papers & Conferences
‘There and back again’: An Interdisciplinary Workshop on Travel, 22 June 2015, University of Nottingham.
Title of paper: Travels with ourselves and others: – Rubery Owen, Engineers 1946-1959.
Synopsis: This paper will explore the narration and representation of travel in Goodwill – the company magazine of Rubery Owen, Engineers between 1945 and 1959.946-1959.1945 to 1959d business travel n the company magazine of Rubery Owen Engineers .
Walsall Local History Day, 13 May 2014, Walsall Leather Museum.
Title of paper: Making planes and baking cakes: The women of Rubery Owen, 1945-1955.
Synopsis: A paper exploring the role played by women at Rubery Owen in progressing the firm during the post-war era of austerity.
Black Country History Day, 18 October 2014, University of Birmingham.
Title of paper: ‘A Family of Companies’: An Introduction to Rubery Owen Engineers, Darlaston.
Synopsis: A paper setting out the origins of Rubery Owen and its progression to becoming the largest, privately-owned engineering group in Great Britain.
West Midlands History Magazine, Winter 2015 Issue.
Title of article: Making planes and baking cakes: The women of Rubery Owen, Engineers, 1945 – 1955.
Synopsis: An article developing ideas on women’s roles in the post-war progression of Rubery Owen, as first explored in my Walsall History Day lecture given on 13 May, 2014.
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