The Bremner Machine Company

Historical Article: An 1897 account of the Bremner Machine Company — makers of letterpress machines — in Otley, Yorkshire

When writing of matters appertaining to Otley it is quite orthodox to bring in something about — now where’s our scrap-book? here you are — “the quaintly picturesque home of a sturdy race charmingly nestling (that is the home, not the race) in an embowered nook of the fearsome and wild Yorkshire hills, the dazzling rays from the golden orb of day shimmering o’er heather-capped purple mo’orland on to a centre of horrid commercialism so wofully at variance with its poetical environment,” and so on, and so on. Something of the kind is possible, first when the climate is in order, and next when Otley’s engineers manage to spare but a moment from the labours of fortune hunting to give us a nod or maybe a word — the shekels flowing in too quickly to waste any time. Under such desperate conditions of course the descriptive faculty is called upon, and one can freely “pad” with the beautiful scenery sort of thing.

On a late visit, however, we incautiously called on a typical March day, the real unadulterated article, a perfect hurricane of wind materially assisting to point out the beauties of the valley. Not that we would for a moment alarm the printer intending to take an order to the Otley machine shops, oh dear no, for all and sundry are solemnly assured the inhabitants invariably set the weather in perfect order for the man who arrives with a fat pocketful of orders.

Borne by the gentle breeze we traversed the length of the town devoted to printing machinery, and whilst all hands held on to top hamper, eventually reached the near outskirts of this boisterous corner of the West Riding, and finally arrived in “full blow” — literally — at the works of The Bremner Machine Co. Ltd.

Veritable “household names” in the realms of printing, “Harrild,” “Watkinson,” and “Bremner” indicate a make of machines and appliances to be found probably throughout British printerdom and in very many centres abroad. The business of manufacturing the machinery and plant variously known by these distinctive appellations is of no mushroom growth, but is long established, firmly set, and probably at the present time even more progressive than ever.

Believing that printers generally would be interested in knowing something concerning the methods of production, and incidentally of the management responsible for the class of machines just referred to, we approached the directors, and eventually succeeded in penetrating the reserve which right up to the present has absolutely forbidden this kind of publicity being given to the firm interested. We are thus enabled to give the result of our gleanings, gained by poking here and there like the Ingoldsby dog in a fair, not to mention using the mark of interrogation until we all but ran out of sorts.

In common with the majority of engineering establishments, The Wharfedale Iron Works, as the Company’s premises are called, consist of a series of single-storey structures, communicating one with another, only in this instance everything is on an extensive scale; enormous places — what are technically called “shells,” for they are scarcely rooms — lighted both from the roof and sides, and withal substantial convenient structures, house the various departments going to make up the many-sided business under notice.

The proprietors of the establishment evidently intended not only to have room enough for current requirements, but to allow for breathing space, light to any amount, and extension whenever necessary, with the result that even in a district where establishments are almost invariably situated away from closely populated residential centres, and light and air are plentiful, the various premises are noticeably excellently lighted and ventilated. The available ground for enlargement has also proved so useful as to amply justify the wisdom of the far-seeing pioneers who bought a whole orchard and set of fields and dumped down— so to speak — their buildings in the centre. Such a prospect is calculated to turn the employer in crowded-out populous centres positively green with envy. Distinction apart, this is merely mentioned as indicating the favourable conditions under which work is carried on — a consideration our friends will appreciate.

The present business was founded in 1863, and occupied premises in another part of Otley. In 1870 a removal was made, the present site being acquired, and the whole of the premises specially erected with a view to the production of printing machinery of the best class and plenty of it. A total area of one and a half acres of what is practically freehold land was purchased, and erection followed erection until the area of floorage now actually occupied amounts to the not inconsiderable total of some 3,000 square yards, whilst so far as such a business can be maintained in close compass, it is certainly remarkably compact, the floors being literally filled with plant, grouped with the skill only obtained by long experience.

A Personally Conducted Tour

Even if it were desirable it would be impossible in the space at our disposal to give full details of this fine establishment, so that we must perforce be content with a general descriptive reference to the facilities it possesses and which may be of most interest to printers. After a preliminary chat in the private office with two of the directors and the secretary of the company, we armed for a tour conducted by Mr. Musgrave, the youngest director, whose qualifications for his responsible position with the company not only include a regular apprenticeship and a thoroughly practical training at Otley, but a valuable experience acquired in American establishments. This latter information may interest printers noting the “American invasion” of new machinery into this country.

Brass Foundry

Electing to start at the beginning of things, the alpha of our progress was therefore the compact Brass Foundry where the brass bearings and fittings so noticeable in the finished products of the firm are primarily produced. Here is seen the sunk furnace with flames at white heat, into the warm embrace of which the earthenware crucibles containing the constituents of the mould are sunk, and around are the accessory appliances for casting and for treating the metal prepared. Leaving the brass foundry, a peep at the adjacent boiler house shews that a magnificent new boiler has evidently been recently acquired, the whole house with its piled up coal reserves and general Saturday afternoon appearance bespeaking the care one always appreciates in this primary source of the moving power of the works.

The Foundry

Iron Foundry
Iron Foundry

Near by is an entrance to that important part of the engineer’s establishment, The Foundry, a large, roomy, lofty building of considerable accommodation, lighted on three sides. All over the floorage are dotted “promiscuous like” mouldings of many kinds, with numerous doublefold “moulders” engaged in making up moulds, or carefully putting in the last half grain of dust to give a perfect surface to the casting. Only those who have had experience of a typical foundry can properly appreciate the charms of the dust to be found everywhere. The floor is thick with the dry mould — it shades on the walls, comes in clouds from the rafters at every opportunity, coats every tool in the place, and insidiously works its way in and about everything and everybody in the place. The scope of the foundry may be understood when it is learnt that it occupies a floorage of 5,880 square feet. No less than five powerful cranes are included in the complete equipment, and at various positions along the sides are placed the powerful and truly labour-saving moulding machines, the all-important furnace occupying a position near the centre of the building, as shewn in the illustration. The lofty furnace is built into the wall, fed of course from outside. As we were watching the various foundry operations, a casting of molten metal was run off, the rush of air giving quite a pyrotechnic display, sparks shooting out right across the building and falling in golden showers on all around. It is not every firm which gives a firework display in our honour!

Near the foundry is the well-equipped smiths’ shop, to reach which we pass through the engine-room, where a fine Robey horizontal is at work. The smiths are at work on various forgings, but especially is to be noted the use made of a powerful steam hammer, although here, as with all departments, the adoption of modern labour-saving plant and all manner of useful appliances is apparent to even the casual observer.

Gear Cutting

A feature of all the best classes of printing machines is the use of cut gearing as opposed to cast. Here we find all gearing cut — in fact, a special department is running regularly on this very important work. Before entering upon the fitting shops we were shewn into the room thus adapted — a particularly interesting department — and were soon keenly attentive to the working of a series of truly wonderful machines. The automatic rack-cutting machines cut the teeth out of the solid; tests amply demonstrating the extreme accuracy of the work. An automatic screw-cutting machine positively fascinated us in its almost human handling of the metal. It is odd to see cold metal grip, gauge, plane, cut, worm, and generally finish the necessary work of making a large screw wholly automatically and without any outside attention. These machines are here referred to as being tangible proofs of the care of the firm to have everything of value and importance in the way of plant.

Turning Department

Entering now upon the sections concerned with the fitting of the machines and their erection, we first cross the Turning Department, where an almost unlimited number of machines of various sizes worked by shafting carried from overhead, are ranged along the walls and in parallel rows down the stone-paved floor. Here the various parts of the coming machines are “turned” and otherwise prepared, as for instance in one section, fly-wheels, ink-rollers, and brake-wheels, and stepping amongst them, we find lathes of many kinds, with shaping, slotting, and surfacing machinery. It is opportune here to step into the fitters’ store-rooms communicating with the department we are in. Here is found generous accommodation in the form of lofty shelves furnished with lockers running in parallel alleys, each numbered, named, and filled with the nut, bolt, or other of the multifarious parts going to make up the well-equipped printing machine. This is eminently business-like in its arrangement, a commendation we find ourselves further endorsing on noting the check system applied to the giving out of tools, ensuring a safe check upon all tools in use. Other store accommodation contains the heavier parts, and as might be expected in an establishment of such dimensions, the wooden models or patterns claim considerable space, some 2,625 square feet being occupied. So great is the work of providing such that a joiner’s shop of large extent is included on the premises.

The Planing Department

Large Planing Machine with Portion of Forge
Large Planing Machine with Portion of Forge

Turning now to The Planing Department, or rather to the section where most of the planing machines are grouped, for we seemed to meet enormous planing machines in most parts of the works, here is found noteworthy evidence of the exactitude obtained in uniformity of surface in castings. These machines are the giants of the printing machine engineering plant, and have a special attraction of their own. You see the long heavy table slowly bear the metal against the short stubby planing tool, automatically stop at the end of its traverse, canter back, and again take up the slow grind, adjusting itself at each action. On some of these planing machines, the shape of which may be gathered from one of the cuts, single sides and rails were being planed, and on others the whole framework of side and end castings bolted together was being planed as a whole, thus ensuring perfectly true surfaces. Alongside the large planes are machines for boring and milling, and a series of the vertical roller-mould borers attract attention.

Planing Department
Planing Department

A detail noticed here is the particular care given to the grinding of the impression cylinders — a feature the printer can appreciate.


Portion of the Fitting Shop
Portion of the Fitting Shop

Coming now to the couple of large bays devoted to the Fitting, we find space allowed on the floor, between rows of benches bearing machines, for the final putting together or fitting of the printing machines, the whole commanded — as indeed are the rooms generally — by extensive crane power, enabling parts to be easily moved into position.

When one has already seen the parts of the machines take shape from crude iron and assume a more or less tangible form, it becomes doubly interesting to see these parts brought together and gradually made to form a homogeneous whole in perfect harmony the one with the other.

Most printers have seen a machine in pieces, and can thus obtain some idea of the wilderness of parts presented by a row of Wharfedales during process of erection. We were fortunate in seeing quite a variety of machines being built up preparatory to filling orders — various sizes of letterpress cylinders, several “Fleets,” guillotines, litho tin-printing machines, etc.


Discussing the methods adopted of sending machines out, more especially to quarters where fitters are not sent, we were interested in finding that besides the usual consecutive numbering of parts, blue prints of the machine from various points of view and in separate parts are also supplied. This led to the discovery that photography was largely in evidence on the premises, negatives being regularly taken as machines are erected before sending out. If this system were universally adopted we should hear less of the troubles of the printerman abroad who has received a machine and has to fit it up as best he may.

Amongst the chief lines of the Bremner Printing Machines may be mentioned first the “Fine Art” cylinder machine, constructed for producing high-class cut work at a high speed. The massive foundation frame is noticeable, and the machine has all the advantages of cut gearing and the acme of accurate planing. A novel cylindrical inking apparatus, movable for access to forme, is one of its most important features. Other Wharfedale types —single and two-colour — made by the firm are all classed as of “Bremner” make, amongst the features of which may be mentioned the strength of frame, cross rail under cylinder, three bowl rails in larger sizes, double-driving and traverse wheels, an automatic cylinder check stopping- feed-board, flyers, grippers, points, and push-bar at one and the same time. Everybody has of course heard of the “Fleet” machines, the “New Fleet” being a development of the deservedly popular high speed machine. This machine is built for a high rate of speed, 2,500 per hour, close register being guaranteed, with sloping board and automatic side lays, and possesses a popularity of its own. The “Fleet” has all the characteristics of the “Bremner” as regards strength and fitting. Another important “Bremner” is the chromo-lithographic machine, which is in all respects exceedingly well equipped for best work. In build these machines are massive, very strong, and mounted on a cast-iron bedplate, to which shafts, racks, runners, spur wheels, etc., are fitted, thereby securing strength and rigidity, whilst double-driving wheels, double-traverse wheels, double-inking motion, and arrangement for continuous or intermittent inking are amongst its further features.

This variety of machines indicates that the Bremner Company is not confined to a single specialty, but has a somewhat wide range of production. Other directions of the firm’s    industry are represented by the manufacture of a special line of guillotines, paper cutters, card cutters, rolling machines, presses, imposing surfaces, and large quantities of cast-iron chases.

In going; through one of the fitting shops we noticed a couple of fine tin-printing machines, which on enquiry turned out to be a repeat order for a well-known house. As they stood partly erected, the massive build, the “direct process” idea, and certain novel features of attachments were noticeable.  By the way, printers out of this class of work have in all probability very little idea of the extent to which tin-printing is becoming; popular. Chromo-lithographed tins are now adopted for all manner of trades,and some most excellent results are obtained.

The Management

It is perhaps an open secret, but the firm officially known as the “Bremner” Machine Co., Ltd., is a private company consisting practically of the two houses so well known in the trade — the Harrilds and the Watkinsons. The connection between the Bremner Co.. and Messrs. Harrild & Sons, of the “Fleet” Works, London, is as close now as before the incorporation of the Company, Messrs. Harrild & Sons being chiefly responsible for sales of the “Bremner” products. The Company is controlled by the four directors, Mr. Richard Watkinson, Mr. Horton Harrild, Mr. Fredk. Harrild, and Mr. Fredk. W. Musgrave, with Mr. W. Watkinson as secretary. All these gentlemen are practical in all senses of the word, and it is to their skill and industry that the business under notice owes its importance, growth and prosperity.