The chronicle of a Consulting Engineer’s practice in post-war London, and of its founder, Charles MacKechnie Jarvis
Guest blog by Jonathan MacKechnie Jarvis
My late father was an inveterate hoarder, who seldom discarded anything of possible future interest. He died in 2009 at the age of 101, leaving a huge legacy of books and papers. Among these was a black tin chest crammed full of the key records of the consulting engineering practice which he founded in 1949. The practice flourished during the busy post-war decades, for many years in a succession of offices along Victoria Street: a pre-computer world long since vanished.
Much important and sensitive documentation of the practice was in the form of large quarto hardback notebooks, well-thumbed and quite neatly maintained, in my father’s curiously untidy handwriting. For example, the first one I opened was entitled “Intelligence” and included highly confidential notes about fellow-professionals and contractors. Others covered staff records, fees, financial forecasts, and the Project List, part typed and part MS: a vital index of some fifty years of engineering work and legal cases.
Here was a remarkably complete survival from a time of rapid change, which surely deserved a secure, accessible home. Records of this sort left in family hands all too often end up on the tip. I was therefore delighted when the IET Archive agreed to accept the papers, and I set about preparing a short biography of my father, to help any who may study the papers in the future. In the process I learned more than I had ever guessed about his professional development, and about the functioning of “the office”, around which our household revolved.
Charles MacKechnie Jarvis CEng, FIEE, AIMarE, MConsE, FLS, was born on 29th August 1907 at Saint Paul’s Road, Canonbury, London. He was brought up by his mother and aunt at Claylands Road, Kennington. He received a basic education at the Church Street School, very nearby. By his own account, he greatly augmented his education at the Durning Library in Kennington Lane (where initially he was told that he was too young to handle the books). He was an extremely bright child, and with the encouragement of others, he developed an interest in a wide range of subjects including world history, chemistry, geology, coins and entomology, to name a few.
As an example of this, Mr Peck, who kept the nearby chemist’s shop, would allow Charles to make up the prescriptions (today’s pharmacists would be horrified!) and gave him instructions and, no doubt, materials, for simple chemical experiments.
Another important influence was his friendship with Major Hubert Willingham Hart, of Woodbridge, who had a wide range of cultural interests including music, drawing and astronomy. Charles had relations in Woodbridge with whom he used to stay, including a lengthy period of recovery from a very serious attack of diphtheria. He remained in contact until Major Hart’s death in 1944.
About 1920, he won as a school prize a newly-published book entitled “Our Good Slave Electricity”, by Charles R Gibson. This book had a great influence on him and encouraged him to pursue his chosen career in the rapidly developing sphere of electricity.
Charles left school at the age of fourteen, and sought employment at the Electrical Apparatus Company in South Lambeth Road, Vauxhall. After much persistence he was taken on as a junior workshop trainee, earning 3½d (less than 2p) per hour, or about fourteen shillings (70p) for a 47½ hour week. He was soon studying at the Battersea Polytechnic, and by the age of 25 he had joined their staff as a part-time lecturer in electrical engineering.
Meanwhile, he had moved into the drawing and design office at the Electrical Apparatus Co, and in 1932 became their Chief Technical Officer, later moving to Sheffield from 1934 to 1937 as Branch Manager for Yorkshire and the East Midlands, dealing especially with mining equipment.
In I 937 he joined W H Allen & Co Ltd as Electrical Assistant to the Marine Manager, at Queen’s Engineering Works in Bedford. Allen’s were then emerging from a difficult period of recession, and rearmament orders were coming in from the Admiralty. Charles’s work involved development and design of a wide range of products including deck machinery.
By the early years of the war, Charles had become quite disenchanted with what he referred to as the “morass” of Allen’s. In a private notebook he described the company’s complacent corporate culture, “basking in the sunshine of past achievements”, dogged by poor output and bad management. To make matters worse, the head of the electrical department, to whom he reported directly, was a man intensely prone to professional jealousy and very difficult to work with.
During the Second World War he tried to join the armed forces and in 1943 was offered a commission in REME, as a Lieutenant. Allen’s would not release him, however, due to the importance of his work for the war effort. He had to make do with the Home Guard, where he was promoted to Lieutenant in a platoon specialising in Signalling.
Towards the end of the war Charles started applying for work elsewhere. In 1944 he was offered a post at Crompton Parkinson’s, but again Allen’s blocked the move. This pattern continued even after war ended, and Charles began to consider setting up his own business.
In this he was encouraged by a new friend, Edward Brisch. Brisch was a Polish engineer who managed to reach Britain in 1942, after an extraordinary and hazardous journey via Moscow and Rangoon. After the war, Brisch, with his close friend Jozef Gombinski, built up a consultancy firm based on his system of industrial classification. The general idea was to enable client companies to classify and then rationalise their range of components, thus achieving savings in production and stockholding.
Brisch evidently saw Charles’s skills and range of engineering contacts as a valuable asset and offered him a partnership and a salary of £1000 per annum, to join him as office manager. It was perhaps characteristic of Brisch that the partnership never materialised and that Gombinski was already installed as office manager, but it was the opportunity which Charles needed to get away from Allen’s and to start on his own in London.
Not only this, but Brisch and Gombinski helped Charles establish his own partnership in the spring of 1949, and some of Charles’s first clients, such as Smith’s Industries at Cricklewood, came to him through Brisch.
At first they worked together in an office at Craven Road, Paddington, but in 1951 moved to separate offices in Victoria Street, in those days the home of numerous engineering firms. Charles wrote a little celebratory verse on a scrap of paper, a quotation from which forms the title of this blog. To him, as an engineer, an address in SW1 meant a lot. As for Brisch, his focus moved to America, where he died in 1960, aged 59.
The story of Charles’s engineering practice can be pieced together from the papers which are now in the care of the IET. With these papers is included an excellent summary of the development of the firm, written in 2020 by Ronald Barker, who was Charles’s right-hand man for many years, and who succeeded him as Senior Partner.
The first jobs of C MacKechnie Jarvis & Partners were tariff investigations which achieved worthwhile savings for corporate clients. For a while Charles toyed with the idea of describing the firm as Factory Consulting Engineers, and seeking an associate with heating, ventilation and steam experience. In reality, the firm was built very largely on his own electrical background, and mechanical work was never a major element.
The work soon settled into a pattern of large electrical specifications for public contracts (hospitals, schools, universities etc), together with a plethora of smaller projects, very diverse in nature. As examples of the latter, there were swimming baths, convents, dry docks, a cliff lift at Shanklin, and sugar factory schemes in Jamaica and St Kitts. The larger projects were purely electrical, but mechanical services such as heating and ventilation were included on smaller jobs.
There were some high-profile appointments such as Chatsworth House, Waddesdon Manor and the new Commonwealth Institute in the late 1950s, and expert witness in the Ronan Point tower block disaster inquiry in 1968. The latter case added considerably to Charles’s standing as an expert witness, and a wide variety of legal casework became a significant part of the business.
As to premises, Charles had to be a brisk operator, firstly to seize a competitively-priced tail end of a lease, and secondly to keep ahead of the demolition of the traditional Victorian office buildings in Victoria Street. These disappeared over a period of about twenty years from the late 1950s. The firm was based successively at numbers 26, 53, 34, 32 and 39 Victoria Street. In one case the staff were being moved out even as the demolition gang was starting work!
In 1963-64 the firm had a short stay in an undersized office at Spring Gardens, Trafalgar Square, and then from 1964 – 69 at 22a Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster. This was a handsome property of 1768, which Charles loved, but hopelessly impractical as an office.
The firm eventually moved to Newbury Park in Essex in 1978, forced out by the massive rise in office rents in Central London. In his account, Ronald Barker describes the merger in 1980 with Colin Graham’s mechanical engineering practice at Brentwood, and the eventual demise of the MacKechnie Jarvis and Graham Partnership in 2001. By then the traditional small consulting practice was a less attractive proposition. The Thatcher government had set about increasing competition by deregulating a wide range of professions, while in other areas of business life things were being made more complex, for example in data protection and employment legislation.
There is no doubt however that the firm had prospered from its inception, despite numerous difficulties. Of these the worst was cash flow and the cost of the bank overdraft. There were tight periods due very largely to late payments on public contracts. The relief when some large overdue cheque finally arrived was palpable, and impacted accordingly on our home life.
Speaking of which, some additional biographical material may complete the picture. In 1945, Charles married Brenda Williams whose father he had met in the course of his study of entomology. They had four children. Charles and Brenda lived successively in Bedford, Harpenden, Wimbledon, Chelsea and then from 1973, and for the remainder of their lives, in Salisbury.
Charles was always interested in the history of technology, and wrote a number of papers on the development of electrical engineering for the IEE Journal, between 1955 and 1958. For many years he was a member of the Newcomen Society. Apart from natural history, his other interests included oriental ceramics, fine wines, coins, organ music, antiquarian books, genealogy and gardening. With failing eyesight his huge collection of coleoptera (some 40,000 specimens) was passed to Liverpool University in 1990, where it now forms a very significant resource. His contribution to the study of coleoptera led to his being elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society.
He was a keen member of many London organisations including the Worshipful Company of Horners, and the Royal Institution, of which he had been elected a Visitor. He was also a freemason, being a loyal member of several ancient lodges, and a considerable historian of masonic matters. Although much involved at Salisbury Cathedral he was also a Wandsman (ie a volunteer steward) at St Paul’s Cathedral, a role which he continued into his nineties.
He travelled extensively within the British Isles and Europe, and later in life to Russia and Latvia. He was always seeking to add to his knowledge: one of his last major purchases, at the age of ninety-seven, was the much-enlarged Dictionary of National Biography, which in hard copy was a formidable proposition at sixty volumes. He never became a computer user, and in later years he was increasingly isolated by deafness and declining mobility. None of those factors, however, prevented him from taking the keenest interest in whatever the day brought, until his health failed during the last ten days of his life. He died at Salisbury on 22nd March 2009.
Charles was a remarkable person, decisive in nature and able to grasp the essence of any given situation, instantly and without recourse to calculators or mobile phones. In this he was helped by his grounding in the widest range of subjects, and by his prodigious memory.
From his start at Vauxhall in 1922, at 3½d an hour, he had come a long way. And the prize book he had won, a couple of years earlier, had proved a powerful source of inspiration.
The book that inspired Charles to become an electrical engineer.
The papers relating to the consulting engineering practice run by Charles MacKechnie Jarvis have been kindly donated to the IET Archives by his son and author of this blog, Jonathan MacKechnie Jarvis.
W H Allen’s of Bedford archive:
Unless otherwise stated the images are from Jonathan’s private collection.
Featured image: bronze nameplate commissioned by Charles for the office at Queen Anne’s Gate.
February 1, 2023 at 4:41 pm
A fascinating article about a great engineer who had a big impact on so many people.
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February 4, 2023 at 4:09 pm
A most fascinating and brilliant article. Clearly inspired by the book he won as a teenager, Charles became an electrical engineer at a time, as the author notes, was a rapidly developing and changing time in electrical technology. A great insight in to a very interesting man as well as providing historical context of post war London and the challenges of being a successful entrepreneur. Great photographs which added a lovely visual and personal dimension to the article.
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February 4, 2023 at 4:36 pm
Loved this article and it is particularly interesting to see it illustrated with evocative photographs. The one of the design room gives a real insight into where work was done.
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February 4, 2023 at 7:25 pm
This is an excellent account of my father’s long life in engineering. ‘The Office’ dominated the lives of my brothers and myself, growingup in the fifties and sixties. I now appreciate his love of learning, and his determination to succeed, despite the hardships of his early life. Thank you, Jonathan, for this clear record, a fascinating read for our children and grandchildren.
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February 5, 2023 at 5:46 pm
A remarkable life told in remarkably fine prose – in style and with zest suited to the subject.
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February 7, 2023 at 4:42 pm
What an interesting account of Charles’ working life.
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February 19, 2023 at 7:40 pm
A deftly sketched pen portrait of the most remarkable of lives. It must be rare for one tin chest to contain such scope for ongoing research. It would be wonderful to see any further insights generated by the academic treatment of the present trove.
In presenting the above résumé it must have been tempting to flesh out every facet of Charles’ diverse interests — Yet how difficult for any living soul to fathom the fractal-like intricacies of knowledge that are marshalled by that mighty mind.
March 4, 2023 at 9:03 am
He appears to be a self educated man who was successful in many things. His collection of insects is in Liverpool Museum along with his father-in-law’s.