George Macbeth Menzies

Steel-foundry owner of old-fashioned virtues

Thursday 20 February 2003 01:00
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George Macbeth Menzies, industrialist and metallurgist: born Bathgate, West Lothian 12 January 1911; managing director, North British Steel Foundry, Bathgate 1931-81; OBE 1978; married 1940 Agnes Watt (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 6 February 2003.

George Macbeth Menzies was one of the last survivors of a remarkable breed of men now virtually extinct – steel-foundry owners who appeared for work before 8am every morning, knew all their employees by name, and had the skills of metal casting in their blood.

Personally, he was familiar with the highest standards of metal casting and patternmaking. Few employees knew their craft better than the boss. The products of Menzies's, later the North British Steel Foundry, went all over the globe, hugely to the advantage of the British Balance of Payments. They made castings for the engines of the liner QE2, for the Forth Road Bridge and for the North Sea oil industry. Menzies – Macbeth to his friends and business associates – was extremely proud that he was appointed OBE in 1978 for services to export.

When I was chosen as Labour candidate in the West Lothian by-election in 1962, one of the first invitations I received was to address the workforce at the North British Steel Foundry in the absence of the owners and management, to be followed by lunch with the directors. The convenor of shop stewards, after the meeting, took me to the Directors' Dining Room (served by the same kitchen as the canteen and with the same menu) and said:

Mr Macbeth and his younger brother Mr Ian will tell you that they are the highest of Tories – actually they are the most caring and sensible of employers in the foundry industry in central Scotland. They are straight as a die, even when we disagree.

Macbeth Menzies's first words to me were:

I am a high Tory. Ian is an even higher Tory. But we respect and work with trade unions, Bisakta [the British Iron and Steel and Kindred Trades Association] and the General and Municipal Workers and the AEU, and the Labour Council for the good of our employees and the community.

And so they did.

George Macbeth Menzies was born in Bathgate in 1911. Among his distant forebears were the Macbeths of Fochabers, allegedly descended from the great Shakespearian king. More certainly, his maternal grandfather was a shale miner in the Champfleurie pit, the site being famous as the place where Mary, Queen of Scots used to take picnics, two miles from Linlithgow Palace.

Brittle shale was a dangerous material causing many injuries. The Menzies family were among the first to take the health and safety of their workforce as a priority, as a consequence of their own misfortune with industrial accident. Macbeth Menzies's paternal grandfather was a railway driver, and this inspired Menzies's father to start a profitable foundry in Bathgate as a supplier to the railway companies.

Macbeth Menzies was sent to Edinburgh Academy, then one of the most rigorous schools in Britain. He acquired a lifelong interest in the academy, served as a governor and was a stalwart of Edinburgh Academical Rugby Club. Going not to university but to the Heriot-Watt Technical College, he was not able to complete his metallurgy degree because his father suddenly died and at the age of 20 he was urgently needed as managing director of the family firm – in 1931 suffering from the worldwide slump.

While only 23, he sacked the chairman and took over the job himself. In order to save money for the firm, when he travelled to London, it would be overnight at the cheap rate, sitting up in a third-class carriage. In spite of volunteering for military service, Menzies was required to continue his work in Bathgate as a highly important reserved occupation and to allow his two younger brothers to go to the war.

After the Second World War, the Scottish foundries flourished for a time, but then suffered, as their old plant could not compete in staple products with the new plant that was being erected in Germany from scratch. Most foundries collapsed. Not so Menzies, who had developed with considerable foresight a number of specialist lines with a high technological content. However, the position was further endangered, ironically, by the arrival in Bathgate in 1960 of the British Motor Corporation, brought there by the Macmillan government to give unemployed shale miners and coalminers a job. The assembly line at Bathgate offered higher wages than those given to skilled patternmakers and other highly skilled workers in the foundry industry, who drifted away, making the competitive position of the foundries even more dire.

It was hugely to Macbeth Menzies's credit that he was prepared to take over the Atlas Steel Foundry in the neighbouring town of Armadale. The Atlas made heavy castings and had supplied the armour for most of the British Dreadnoughts which had fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Following a bid which they could not refuse from Cook's of Sheffield, Menzies sold the Atlas and eventually the North British Steel Foundry to an Australian concern.

Macbeth Menzies is remembered fondly as one of the best employers ever in West Lothian and not least because of his continuing interest in the Menzies's works choir, which gives concerts even to this day.

His great hobby was the Clan Menzies Society, of which he was President for two decades and which was instrumental in buying the ruined Castle Menzies near Aberfeldy and restoring it. He was the driving force in get-togethers of the clan, part of the Scottish diaspora which included his friend Sir Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister.

Tam Dalyell

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