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By Julian Nettlefold

16 Jul 08. A unique event in British Corporate history takes place next year, the 250th Anniversary of the founding of GKN. From small beginnings this great Company has been steered through many wars including two World Wars numerous recessions, partial nationalisation, profits warnings and lay offs and has survived as a thriving part of the British economy, producing billions of pounds a year in revenue and tax for the Exchequer. But, this didn’t happen over night and it has taken patience, foresight and good stewardship to take GKN to the position it is in today and for the next 250 years. It is worth looking back on the formation of GKN by Mr Guest, Mr Keen and Mr Nettlefold in 1759.

The world was a very different place in 1759, called ‘The Year of Victories,’ the fourth year of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Former British colonial army officer George Washington, now 26, married Virginia widow Martha Custis (née Dandridge), 27, January 6 at her estate in Kent County. Britain’s grain crop fails, raising prices and provoking demands that the government import grain. The British Museum opens January 15 at Montague House in London’s Bloomsbury section. County Kildare brewer Arthur Guinness, 34, acquires a neglected Dublin brewery at James’s Gate, signs a 9,000-year lease in September on an acre of property. John Harrison completes Number Four, the marine chronometer that will eventually win the British Board of Longitude’s prize for a practical way to find the longitude at sea.

Origins of GKN

GKN can trace its roots directly to the origins of the industrial revolution and the advent of powered flight.

The story of GKN began in 1759 when the Dowlais Iron Company was set up in the village of Dowlais in South Wales. The Guest family involvement began in 1767 when John Guest was appointed as manager of Dowlais. His grandson became sole owner in 1851. The Dowlais Iron Company was then the largest iron works in the world, operating 18 blast furnaces and employing 7,300 people. The business was the first licensee of the Bessemer process and in 1857 completed the construction of the world’s most powerful rolling mill.

In 1854 J. S. Nettlefold, a Birmingham screw manufacturer, had revolutionized his industry by introducing automated American machinery. Room was needed to house this; Nettlefold, joined by his brother-in-law Joseph Chamberlain, father of the statesman, established the Heath Street Works in Cranford Street, Smethwick. (fn. 38) The firm (until 1874 Nettlefold & Chamberlain and then Nettlefolds Ltd.) dominated the market by the mid 1860s. (fn. 39) Among those prominent in its development was the younger Joseph Chamberlain, who joined it in 1854 and soon afterwards took charge of the commercial side of the organization. He became a partner in 1869 and remained with the firm until 1874, when he retired to devote himself to politics. (fn. 40) The firm had by then begun to acquire additional premises. In 1869 it bought the Imperial Mills, which stood on the north side of Cranford Street, opposite the Heath Street Works.

By the outbreak of the First World War the new company produced over half the screws and about a quarter of the nuts and bolts made in the country.

The current company, GKN plc, was incorporated as Guest, Keen and Co Limited on 9th July 1900 on the merger of the Dowlais Iron Company with Arthur Keen’s Patent Nut and Bolt Company, a business which had been set up in 1856 in Smethwick, England. In 1902 the Company acquired Nettlefolds Limited, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of screws and fasteners, a business which had also been set up at Smethwick in 1854. Following the acquisition of Nettlefolds the Company changed its name to Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds Limited.

At that time Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds was one of the largest manufacturing businesses in the world, involved in every proce

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