Smiths - A potted History

Acknowledgement to: S Smith & Sons Ltd - 'The Golden Years' " by Barry M Jones  (


Smiths Jacking Systems

While tyre companies made great efforts to develop ingenious, air-less 'puncture proof' cushioned tyres to avoid the all-too regular punctures caused by lost horse-shoe nails, or sharp flints on Britain's un-tarred roads, the pneumatic tyre won the day. Indeed, new legislation allowed vehicles fitted with pneumatic tyres to drive faster than those on solid tyres! Jacks, puncture repair kits and tyre-inflators were thus essential to pioneer motorists, although many a hapless or lazy driver would more likely stuff the punctured tyre with grass plucked from the verge to get him home or to a garage.


Before the Great War, Smiths had marketed a standard range of Sheffield-made 'Hattersley & Davidson' stirrup inflator pumps, a garage portable 'Sioco' CO2 compressed gas cylinder inflator and, later, scissor action foot pumps along with Maxfield's engine driven inflators. Then in 1925 Smiths acquired the Johnson Motor Co of Aston, Birmingham which made both Maxfield's pumps and the 'Thermet' ('Smithermet'?) in-line thermostat which they had long supplied to Morris Motors; though loyal to Lucas, William Morris duly gave approval to the take-over.

This was followed in March 1928 by the acquisition of Arthur Isaac Bernard Maxfield's business of Birmingham, which specialised in tyre inflators and jacks. He had developed and produced engine driven inlet ball-valve compressor pumps in 1907 - these were marketed by Smiths in their 1910 catalogue - among the new pumps was Maxfield's improved 'Auto' engine-driven compressor which "Will inflate a standard Morris Cowley or Morris Oxford tyre from flat to correct pressure in one minute". It remained on offer into the last war and was adapted as a PTO (power take off) driven compressor pump for site, agricultural and military vehicles. Its production at Smiths' Jackall Works, Cricklewood, ended in the late-1950s.

Maxfield also offered an improved air-line inflator which, fitted with a one-way inlet ball-valve, was screwed into any convenient spark plug hole allowing that piston to speedily inflate any tyre with the engine running - the potentially explosive fuel enriched inflated tyre was not considered a risk! These were available from before the Great War and, as with PTO inflators, proved of great benefit to farmers when reinflating water ballasted tyres on their new fangled tractors when ploughing and, during the last war, for motorists who were instructed to immobilise their vehicles to hinder the enemy, and in the desert when running on partially deflated tyres to assist traction. They were however of little help to the hapless army Despatch Rider on his single cylinder motorcycle! Schrader, the famous tyre-valve maker produced similar ball-valve air-lines well into the 1980s.


Jacks are essential in safe wheel changing. Smiths offered several pillar screw-jack designs in their 1910 catalogue from Tangye (the pioneers of hydraulic jacking in Isambard Brunel's steam-days) to the Lake & Elliot 'Millennium' screw and ratchet jacks. Reginald Aldin Smith also patented in 1918 an improved, mechanically more efficient, ratchet-jack mechanism allowing speedier operation. Smiths later offered heavy duty 1- to 3-ton 'Badger' ratchet action lorry jacks, but who made them is unclear.

In the late-1920s, Smiths combined the skills of two engineers: Donald Wilfred Sessions (Donald Sessions & Co Ltd of Finchley, later of Willesden, makers of 'DWS' scissor-jacks, screw-jacks and hydraulic pumps) and Walter Roy Bridgen of Manchester, and duly offered a standardised range of 'Minor', 'Major', 'Super Major' single- and 'Balloon' double-screw action jacks of up to 1-1/2 ton capacity and up to 20" reach costing from 10/6d, together with a new 'Easylift' 2-ton pump-action hydraulic bottle-jack at 25/0d.

Both these engineers had pioneered 3- or 4-point screw-jack systems which were permanently attached by bolts to the motor-car, reducing the risk of the jack slipping. Donald Sessions, for example, employed a single hand-cranked, bevel gear turned worm driven jack fitted to the front axle and a similar pair on the rear axle allowing from one to four wheels to be lifted at will and, being of 3-point location, was safe on any rough terrain. Roy Bridgen likewise had patented in 1927 a 4-point hydraulic jack system incorporating jack housings within the drop-forged axles; each or all the jacks could be operated as required; a later model operated the jacks in pairs, front and back. Such designs, operated by hand or by engine driven hydraulic pump, were developed by Sessions into Smiths' famous 'Jackall' in-car, 4-pillar hydraulic jacking system. First marketed in 1933, these in-built systems soon became standard fitting on certain Alvis, Aston-Martin, Austin, Brough-Superior, Daimler, SS Jaguar, Lagonda, MG, Morris, Triumph, Rover, Wolseley and the American Chrysler Airflow motorcars... and were still being fitted well into the 1990s on the famous Austin FX London taxi. However, the early hydraulic seals proved quite unreliable, although a combination of leather seals and castor oil worked well. It was primarily through Donald Sessions' work that Smiths developed a major hydraulics business and in later years led to industrial seals becoming a major contributor to Smiths Industries' growing global success.

Smiths also developed in 1935 an inverted 'Jackall' chassis-mounted four point hydraulic system for raising or lowering a platform body on a lorry or a work's truck to match it to a loading bay. These found a ready market in Britain's dock-lands and utility companies. Its origin more likely lies in one of Bridgen's patents of 1926. The principle remains in use today for demountable bodies and hydraulic tail-lifts, for which Smiths later produced thousands of hydraulic pumps and rams.

So successful did the 'Jackall' system become that production was relocated to a newly built 2-storey, Crittall-glazed 'Jackall Works' (GLAdstone 6671) on the Edgware Road, Cricklewood, just below Humber Road. From 1937, that business traded as S Smith Jacking Systems Ltd. Then in July 1937 Smiths acquired John Ferguson Stevenson's Stevenson Jacking Systems Ltd of Wolverhampton who jacks were manufactured for them by the British Tool Co of Wolverhampton. Stevenson, a Belfast engineer, had secured several jack-lift patents in the 1920s, including an in-built screw jack system with one jack being fitted to each side of the car at its centre of gravity. With access to the jack usually through the passenger foot well, it was manually operated directly or via a bevel gear, raising simultaneously both wheels on one side without fear of the jack slipping. The Wolverhampton built screw-jack, now marketed as the 'Smith-Stevenson', was fitted as standard on Morgan's first 4-wheeler, the 4/4 of 1936, and to certain SS Jaguar, Triumph and Rover models - Rover, for example, offered it on their 10hp and 12hp models, but the more expensive Sessions hydraulic 'Jackall' to their larger 14, 16 and 20hp cars.

Car heaters finally came under Smiths Jacking Systems Ltd after the war and production moved to Witney, to where the hydraulic and jack business had also been moved by 1958, at which the Jackall Works became home to Smiths' Roadcraft Press, and the adjacent Trio House, 391, Edgware Road as the Smiths' Group Public Relations and Publicity departments (see later).


The Hydraulics Company

Under the major Smiths Industries reorganisation of 1966, Smiths Jacking Systems became SI Hydraulics Company, more usually The Hydraulics Company (Witney 6401). One of their Purchasing Department clerks was a local girl, a former WRAF clerk, Pam Ayres - today's much loved writer of comedic poetry.

The Jackall car-jacking systems remained in production into the 1990s by which time the business was concentrating on industrial lifts, hydraulic rams (many for the commercial vehicle industry such as tail-lifts and tippers), hydraulic pumps (manual and powered), pedestrian controlled high-lift stackers and fluid flow control systems. The basic Jackall hand-pump was a two-element job but although it could be motorised, it was far from smooth in operation so in the 1930s, a balanced rotary pump was developed by Sydney Joseph Pickard and Dennis Ware; this remained in production until 2001 for most hydraulic operations. Their electric motor driven hydraulic pumps used a GEC or LDC (Lancashire Dynamo & Crypto Ltd) high starting torque motor.

Although Austin's new post-war saloons were deservedly a tremendous export success, their sporty American-inspired Atlantic of 1949, with its electro-hydraulic windows and lethargic convertible hood, was an embarrassing flop! Smiths however successfully supplied the electro-hydraulic car-hood equipment for the 1953 Ford Zodiac (Carbodies) convertible - optional on the Consul and Zodiac - and the 1960s Aston-Martin Volante convertible sports car. They even became involved in 1952 with development at Swindon hospital of adjustable hospital beds and bed-chairs for those suffering from spastic paralysis. They later made freezer storage control systems for commercial trawlers and found a niche market in hydraulically operated automatic half-barrier railway crossing gates. A casualty of all this was the original, prewar Maxfield ball-valve tyre inflator, driven from the engine by power take-off (belt or shaft), which had ceased production by 1960.

Railway work

In 1977, Smiths won major contracts from the Westinghouse Brake & Signal Company for hydraulic ram units to replace their elderly electro-mechanical railway points actuating systems on the British Rail network. Upgrading the railway infrastructure began in 1988 and in 1994 the manufacture of the improved 'Clamp-lock Mk.II' points actuation system was licensed to SI Hydraulics Company. Then in 1997, the Norwegian State Railways chose Smiths' electro-hydraulic 'Clamp-Lock' point systems, now built into concrete railways sleepers, which greatly enhanced operations in their harsher environment.

Smiths' hydraulic jacks were also used to support, and then raise, the vehicle deck during a major upgrade in the 1970s of Sealink's |IValecay|i cross-channel ferry for container traffic. The Hydraulics Company also became closely involved in driver operated, on-board box-van loaders and tail-lifts, winning major orders in 1979 from Eurolift in Sweden and from Peugeot in France, along with major export orders to Australia and America.

In 1979 came a major contract with Plessey for hydraulic cable jointing units in the Post Office's upgrade of the nation's telephone system. Then, in a surprise move, following a further major reshuffle in 1979, The Hydraulics Company became an autonomous company in 1982 concentrating on industrial and railway hydraulics and now employing 135 staff. As the Smiths Group rationalised further, The Hydraulics Company was sold in March 2001 to SPX Corporation of Michigan, USA allowing Smiths at Witney to concentrate on its air-movement and fluid control business. After SPX transferred the hydraulic operations and railway points work, as SPX Rail Systems, to their existing SPX Fluid Power Ltd factory at Romford, their Witney plant was closed in December 2001.

Smiths finally withdrew from the hydraulics industry in 2002. This included winding down their former Dowty aircraft landing gear and hydraulics operations (gained through the TI merger and better known as Actuation Systems) while Smiths' Witney based fluid control systems effectively resumed manufacture under the independent Fluidlink Hydraulics Ltd (a major Smiths distributor). Many former Witney staff joined Pro-E-Con Ltd, a production engineering consultancy, which now manufactures several former Smiths hydraulic components. Much of Smiths' flexible hydraulic hose business survives at Smiths' Flex-Tek Division, Cricklewood.