HEREFORD steel fabrication company Painter Brothers will be 100 years old in 2020.
The firm, which was founded by two Croydon businessmen, Ralph and Leslie Painter, and employed approaching 600 staff in its heyday of the 1970s, has been responsible for some huge contracts all over the world.
Among many other major deals, they provided the steelwork for a post-war bridge over the Maas estuary at Moerdijk in the Netherlands, they fabricated the steel construction on the overhead transmission for use in the electrification of Indian railways, they gained the order for a 128-metre single-span bridge over the River Omo in Ethiopia and helped to bring power to the Arabian Gulf towns of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
Closer to home, back in 1984 they landed the contract to provide the structural steelwork and cladding for Hereford Leisure Centre.
But despite all of this national and international prestige, the most iconic structure the firm have been involved with has to be the famous Skylon, emblem of the Festival of Britain, which stood proudly near the banks of the Thames back in 1951.
With the news that a repeat of the famous construction is to form a centrepiece in Rotherwas, memories have come flooding back of the impact that the original Skylon had 66 years ago.
Young architects Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell won a competition arranged by the Festival of Britain organisers in 1949 to design ‘a vertical feature’ which was ultimately given the name ‘Skylon’ in another competition won by Mrs Shepherd Fidler.
The architects had the princely sum of £14,000 as their budget, although the ultimate cost was £23,000 after Callendar Cables stumped up sponsorship.
The 290ft cigar-shaped structure was built at Painters’ Hereford premises by a 15-strong team of county craftsmen and ferried to London on two huge articulated transporters.
This caused a few problems even before leaving the city as roads had to be closed and fences removed from neighbouring gardens to ensure that the massive convoy could turn out of Mortimer Road and on to the A49.
Eric Heard, the chief puncher on the job, responsible for ensuring that the holes through which the cables would run were accurate to within one 57th of an inch, told the Hereford Times back in 2004, when he was 80, that the last he saw of Skylon was when, covered in tarpaulin, it disappeared through the factory gates.
Neither he, nor any of the rest of the team were invited to London to see Skylon in place and making a big hit with the massive festival crowds, especially when, with 416 electric bulbs inside, it was lit up at night.
“It was just another job to get on with,” he recalled.
“We knew what we were building was special but not how special.”
Sadly, their efforts proved ephemeral with the celebrated structure brought crashing down at the end of the Festival of Britain.
Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who made a film about Skylon for the BBC, told Jonathan Glancey of the Independent that little remained.
“All that’s left is the brass disc from the bottom of the sculpture, a brass ring engraved with the architects’ names and a rather unidentifiable clump of aluminium,” he said.
“Winston Churchill hated the whole idea of the Festival of Britain; he saw it as some sort of socialist conspiracy.
“When he returned to power at the end of the festival, he ensured that its pavilions, including Skylon, were squashed to pulp.”
At one time, there seemed a strong possibility that, half a century or so on from the original, a second Skylon would tower over London.
Plans were drawn up in 2004 to recreate the famous structure, now at a cost of £800,000, to stand alongside the London Eye on the banks of the Thames, near the Royal Festival Hall.
But despite the support of the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, the plans never reached fruition and it seems that, when the new version of one of London’s ‘great lost landmarks’ does eventually resurface, it will be rather nearer the site of its original construction - a couple of miles away in fact - in Rotherwas.
Let’s hope that the new version proves to be rather more enduring than the original.