The story of R.W.Bell - Part 1
Its 8.30am, six days a week, and the fleet of vans of electrical contractor R.W.Bell are already on the road after the morning briefing. Their crews are heading in every direction from the firm’s home base in the highland village of Pitlochry, Perthshire.
The electricians will spend the day working in private homes, hospitals, shops and factories, hotels, libraries and other local body-owned infrastructure, service stations – in any building, in fact, that needs electrical work. On a typical day R.W. Bell’s men will do everything from installing satellite television in private houses or extra plugs in the kitchen for a new stove to wiring up milking sheds, putting lights in a long a driveway or powering up equipment for a furniture-making plant.
This firm is nothing if not versatile. “We do 2000 jobs a year”, says managing director Stephen Carruthers. “And no two of them are the same.”
They certainly aren’t. Among R.W. Bells contracts over the recent years are the delivery of electricity and lighting to a private astronomy, a dam (six other exotic ones). There’s hardly a house or business, big or small, in the outlying area around Pitlochry that hasn’t at some time called in an electrician from R.W.Bell. Today the firm is the biggest electrical contractor in the area.
It all started 60 years ago when a distinguished, wartime flying ace and local boy, Robbie “Tinkle” Bell, came home from the war with a DFC and Bar. Having flown in the lead bomber with the legendary Pathfinders, Bell wanted a quieter life and he decided to open a business in the backroom on the high street to repair those new-fangled things called radios it was 1947, radios were one of the most exciting new technologies of the day, and Bell saw an opportunity. Before enlisting, he had been one of the first radio ham in Scotland. He had spent his leisure hours talking to fellow hams all over the world by virtue of signals delivered from towering masts erected in their backyards.
Before the war, Bell had worked in his father’s grocery shop but radio seemed much more interesting to him than bread and baked beans. There wasn’t much disposable income around after the war but the young entrepreneur decided to put his faith in the future of electronics, although the world was hardly known then. Before going off to war, Bell had fixed radios for his friends and he believed they were the first of following generations of power-orientated entertainment products.
The new business took off. Pitlochry folk had been introduced to the wonders of the medium through ‘utility sets’ – the plain-looking, box-like, government-designed radios from which they heard new of the war’s progress and, among other things, Prime Minister Churchill’s famous speeches. When more attractive and higher-powered radios began to appeal in the early fifties, local residents rushed to buy them. Objects of wonder, they were huge and ornate, usually made of highly polished wood, and they generally occupied pride of place in the living room.
And Robbie Bell made sure he stocked most of the popular, pioneering brands of the day such as Ecko, Philips and Murphy. Simple to set up and switch on, all it took to get the essential signal was a length of wire strung between chimneys and insulated at both ends. However power was in short supply for several years after the war and most home-owners got only a minimum of interior lighting, a few electrical sockets including one for the radio of you were lucky.
Radios provided a good start to the business. Being an early technology, they often broke down and there was a steady stream of radios coming to the workshop for repair. Also, because a few houses had electrical power at the time, many radios were battery-operated and the batteries had to be regularly plugged in and recharged. It cost around nine pence for a 40 hour recharge. It became a standing joke that the batteries invariably tan out just as the listener was tuning into the weeks most popular broadcast. Nor did the batteries last long – three months was an average run – and replacing one wasn’t cheap. An everyday battery cost around 15 shillings, just about a week’s wages for some people.
The new business also sold gramophones. Remember them? The first technology to deliver recorded music to the home, gramophones were worked by manually turning a handle. The first records which were made of a brittle shellac material, usually had a short life, sometimes of only one play.
Still, the village wanted them and one of the first gramophones on the market was the Cossar Melody Maker. Roughly the size of a small chest of drawers, it was so big and cumbersome that hapless sales reps, who had to bring them up on the train from Glasgow, often arrived perspiring profusely.
It wasn’t long before the firm moved into its own premises boasting a window full of dazzling new technology and Bell, a gifted salesman, often rigged up loudspeakers outside to play records of the hit music of the day. Jimmy Shand and his band was one of his biggest sellers.
By 1949, Bell was so busy he signed on a 15 year old apprentice radio engineer, local boy Ford Carruthers, to absorb some of the load. Like his new employer, the youngster had an affinity with radio which he acquired from childhood. His father had owned one of the very first models and it wasn’t long before Ford stated taking the radio apart and putting it together again.
Carruthers started a 5 year apprenticeship on 11/6 a week, standard rates for the day. “I thought I was rich”, he remembers. For this munificent salary he had among his duties to erect towering radio aerials on top of steeply-pitched roofs. A tricky and dangerous job, it required him to climb up a ladder and work his way up to the chimney where he had to drill holes for the screws with one hand while clutching the aerial with the other. He never fell off the roof but on windy days he sometimes came close. Today, 60 years later, some of those aerials are still standing.
The fifties saw the first wave of labour saving, domestic electrical appliances and they were hugely popular. Robbie Bell quickly expanded his showroom to accommodate these latest objects of wonder and put young Ford onto selling them. The first versions of washing machines, for instance, needed some astute salesmanship. “One of the great points of discussion among women buyers was whether they could take a double blanket through it”, he now recalls. To prove that they could, the young salesman used to climb onto the ringer and stay there until the double blanket had indeed gone through without springing it open.
The electric fire became another sought-after item of domestic technology, making the beginning of the end of coal and wood fires. Like the early radios, they were prone to failure, for example from burned out elements, and they often had to go back to the shop for repairs.
The arrival of black and white television marked another era in home electronics further justifying Robbie Bells earlier faith in the industry. Even though the television signal was often so weak that the image was practically indistinguishable from a blizzard, people still queued up for hours to watch the sets set up in the firms shop window.
But the first televisions were prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest. At £100 each including the aerial, they represented about 10 weeks of pre-tax wages for the average working man and few in the village owned one. So for the BBCs landmark broadcast of the Queens marriage in 1956, Robbie Bell installed sets and aerials in church halls all over the village. There was standing room only for the entire ceremony.
Although televisions were relatively reliable, they provided another stream of repair work for defective parts such as valves, resistors, coils and sometimes blown tubes at £20 each. “It was the weak signal that placed heavy demands on them”, explains Ford. “The sets had to work to the limit all the time.”
By now, the firm was in constant demand for anything electrical – local dance bands like the Atholl Airs used to hire out amplifiers at fifteen shillings a night and R.W.Bell quickly learned to stock everything it could, just in case. It was a strategy that came in handy when Billy Smarts Circus passed through the village one day in the summer of 1955.
Ford, who was looking after the shop was just about to close the doors when, to his amazement, the circus, complete with lions and elephants, wound its way up the road and stopped outside. Within a few minutes Billy Smart himself, chewing on a fat cigar, presented himself at the counter. “Have you got any bicycle lamps?” he asked.
“Bicycle lamps?” asked the stunned apprentice who couldn’t see ant bicycles outside. “What for?” “For my elephants”, Smart said. “For your elephants?” “That’s right, son”
Smart explained that his circus had come up to the Highlands after a successful season in Perth and was going on to the railway siding at Blair Atholl, seven miles up the road, and his elephants needed to be visible in the gathering gloom.
“They need front and rear lights/ I’ll buy all you’ve got” he added.
And so R.W.Bell made its most unusual sale – its entire stock of two dozen rear and front mounted bicycle lights, the deal done at a discount for the volume.
After the elephant’s keepers duly fitted them to their charges, Billy Smarts circus proceeded out of the town towards Blair Atholl, the elephants proudly bearing their flashing new accessories.
In the first few years of television, all the models stocked by R.W.Bell, as elsewhere in the UK, were British made. It wasn’t until the early sixties that a sales rep knocked on the door of the shop and tried to interest the owner in Japanese-made models. While admiring the man’s optimism, Robbie Bell politely informed the salesman that no-body in Britain would ever buy a television from a Japanese firm, especially so soon after the war.
“It won’t stand a chance against British-made products”, he said. Bell suggested that the sales rep take away this “toy”, as he put it.
The brand name of the spurned product? Sony, now one of the world’s greatest consumer electronics firms. And today there are no British-owned manufacturer of television sets.
As the fifties went on, people demanded more and more power. They wanted power for electric cookers, for lighting, for radios (now in bedrooms and kitchens as well as living rooms), for televisions, irons, the new storage heaters and other electrical appliances. After dark, Pitlochry has become a blaze of light.
The regions industries had priority in the queue for power off the national grid, much of it from the new hydro-electric stations in the lower highlands, and they needed as much as they could get. To keep up with demand, R.W.Bell established an electrical contracting division for the first time in direct competition with W.K Scott, another firm in the high street. The expansion brought new staff into the business – Norrie West, an electrician from Aberfeldy, Fords younger brother Arthur, and soon after Jimmy Kennedy, also from Aberfeldy.
They were sorely needed because “Mr Bell”, as the staff invariably called him, was bringing in even more work. The firm had the contract to erect and maintain the village’s street lighting. It did industrial work, for example for MacNaughtons tweed mills where any loss of electricity was costly and harassed mill managers often made emergency calls to “get power back on” after an overloaded grid had failed. The firm’s electricians already prided themselves on their versatility – one of Jimmy Kennedy’s jobs was the wiring up of an amusement park in Aviemore.
Right through to the sixties and early seventies, the domestic appliance side of the business prospered too as bigger, labour saving appliances such as vacuum cleaners became more affordable. Unlike today, it was the customer who was expected to foot the bills for repair and it all had to be done on the spot. “We repair everything we sell”. Became the R.W.Bell motto.
By the early seventies, after a quarter of a century in the business, Robbie Bell was ready to retire and he got in touch with his former apprentice. Ford Carruthers had left 17 years earlier, first to broaden his experience at the Atomic Energy Commissions plant in Cumbernauld, then at the Dundee firm of Lowden’s, the oldest electrical contractors in Scotland and a firm that had once worked with the great William Faraday. By 1973, he had been running Lowden’s retail branches in Arbroath for seven years, having found he preferred retailing to contracting. He was startled to hear, his old boss offer him the business.
R.W.Bell had got much busier during Ford’s absence. The firm’s television hiring business was booming. The electrical contracting arm of the business had blossomed as more power flower from the hydro-electric grid. As a result, electricians were often called out to by the mill and other local businesses, especially by the village’s increasingly busy hotel whose many rooms and huge kitchens consumed huge amounts of electricity. They were always in demand, even to tune radios. By now portable radios were on the market and it was a rare weekend when the firm wasn’t called out to find a station for a visitor anxious to follow the horse-racing, a football match of some other event down south.
The staff have also expanded. As well as Robbie Bell, Kennedy and West, there was at that time television engineer Ian Kemp and apprentice electrician Ronnie Black, one in a long line of apprentices who had come through the firm and would continue to do so right to the present day. And there were three capable women – Mary Hewitt and Joan Keir were involved in sales, and “Mrs Duncan”, as she was always known, ran the books.
After a few months of discussion, the deal was struck in typical Robbie Bell fashion, over a meal and a few beers at the nearly 300 year old Moulin Inn. Thus in 1973, R.W.Bell finally changed hands. The new owners were Carruthers, West and Kennedy who all became the founding directors of a fully incorporated company. At the same time they took the opportunity to separate the retail and contracting sides of the business, with Ford running the former, and Norrie and Jimmy heading up the latter. There was however never any question of changing the firm’s name. It might have changed hands but the business would always be the one started by flying ace and radio pioneers, Robbie Bell.
All three of the new owners would stay on for the rest of their working lives, only retiring in 1997 on the firm’s fiftieth anniversary. By then, they had served a combined 100 years.
Over that time they steadily built up the business on the back of the village and surrounding areas growing affluence. They had their setbacks. An expansion into Dundee did not work out and a collapse in the local economy in the early nineties left the firm with a serious level of bad debts. More profoundly, the rise in bulk buying chains undercut the much smaller, independently-owned electrical shops. Coupled with the downturn in the television rental business, it forced R.W.Bell to convert itself into a purely electrical contracting business.
But otherwise the firm had survived and prospered and was in good shape when Ford’s eldest son, Stephen, himself an electrician and a BA in Marketing and Administration took over the management of R.W.Bell in 1997.
And so R.W.Bell began its second half century in business.