Export: Euro standards send firm whistling into the future: Tests after an EC directive have spurred an old Birmingham company

Chris Arnot
Saturday 14 May 1994 23:02

SIMON TOPMAN can quote the EC directive on safety whistles, EN394, by heart. A whistle should be unaffected by sub-zero temperature, work on the first blow after immersion in sea-water, and not shatter in a 10-metre fall on to concrete.

There is more, much more. Suffice it to say that when tests on whistles were carried out at a Danish laboratory earlier this year, the ones from Mr Topman's company were the only ones to pass. Since then the phone has rarely been still at the headquarters of J Hudson and Co in Birmingham

'I reckon we've sold 40,000 more whistles since March as a direct result of this directive - and had inquiries for 200,000 more,' said Mr Topman, a genial 40-year-old who has been managing director for 10 years. He seemed slightly bemused by the failure of his competitors.

'All we had to do was make a few modifications to our standard product. Now we're getting inquiries from all over Europe, particularly from manufacturers of life jackets and safety kits who need our whistle to get their EC marque.'

As he speaks, the phone rings for the umpteenth time. It is not a modern beeping phone but an old-fashioned ringer. Indeed there is something solidly Victorian about the red-brick premises. 'Please wipe your feet,' says white lettering on the rubber mat in the entrance hall. The doors are heavy and adorned with brass, the corridors lined in decorative tile.

A likeness of the founder, Joseph Hudson, peers out of a beard from a frame over a showcase of products. He was one of those inventive men of the Black Country, a toolmaker who moved to Birmingham and set up a shop in a wash-house next to his terraced home. There he designed the first police whistle - in 1870.

'The neighbours were probably quite glad when he left,' Mr Topman speculated. 'It must have been quite dirty as well as noisy.'

The Metropolitan Police were impressed. When tested on Hampstead Heath, the whistle could be heard more than a mile away. The traditional police rattle went into the dustbin of history and the Acme Metropolitan became standard issue for police throughout the English-speaking world. Hudson sold a million in 18 months.

Today the company's whistles are still used by police forces in Europe, America and, increasingly, in the Far East. Pitch can be varied to suit; police in Mediterranean countries, for example, prefer a higher pitch than Scandinavian police, and Mexican traffic police like a whistle with two or three tones that they can fashion into a warble.

The Acme Thunderer suits that requirement. Developed by Joseph Hudson in 1885 it differs from the Metropolitan by having a pea inside. It was the first mass-produced whistle able to sound more than 100 decibels at normal lung pressure. Today it remains the only one officially approved by the International Referees' Association. 'We've never had to pay them a penny in sponsorship,' said Mr Topman. 'They are above the commercial fray.'

In sound and appearance - nickel-plated brass in the shape of a snail - the Thunderer has changed little in a century, but production techniques have improved radically. The company has 53 employees and plans to take on two more to meet demand. Growth has increased by 15 per cent over the past three years, despite the recession, thanks largely to increased exports to the Far East.

Companies in Taiwan and Indonesia used to produce a whistle bearing a counterfeit Acme trade mark. 'We must have sued three companies a year since the 1960s,' Mr Topman said. 'Now the customers over there are becoming more affluent, and choosy. They want the real thing.' That has long been the case in Japan, the company's second-biggest export market after the US.

Some businessmen in this happy position might sit back and let the orders roll in. But Mr Topman was preparing to set off for New York and a week of hard selling. He hoped that the EC approval would provide a hook.

But, surely, Americans aren't bothered about the demands of the EC? 'No. But we've had to make adaptations to meet the standards. That's something new. And new is the great buzz-word in the US.'

(Photograph omitted)

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