The story of James Walker Group begins in the 1880s' smoke and grime of a railway arch warehouse close to the River Thames near where Tower Bridge stands today.
Our founder was a Scottish engineer named James Walker, who worked abroad for many years before establishing a business in London to sell oils and engineering accessories. His customers were the masters and chief engineers of the ships berthed in the frantically busy Port of London and its docklands.
He soon realised that the best way forward was to manufacture his own products that would enable machinery to work more reliably. Drawing on previous experience he set out to improve the sealing efficiency of stuffing boxes on steam engines and pumps. The result was his innovative and greatly admired Lion® Brand High Pressure Steam Packing.
This product proved vital to the success of a new generation of high-efficiency steam engines that powered mankind into the 20th Century. It also set his company on the path to a future in materials technology and fluid sealing products.
Prior to his development work, few other companies had applied engineering science to the design and manufacture of gland packings. Only a few decades earlier, oiled leather and greased hemp were the standard seals.
James Walker's success with the new product, plus business acumen, was his personal route to success and the start of a new technology - high performance fluid sealing.
Expansion at home and abroad
By the early 1890s, he had outgrown his cramped warehouse and moved to larger premises at Shadwell in the back streets of east London. As demand for products grew he bought a disused rope walk in 1898 and then a second factory in the same street at the heart of London Docklands. At this stage the name Lion Works was created.
With business rapidly increasing, he established depots in the UK's main industrial centres and principal ports where his innovative products, such as Lion® Patent Packing and Golden Walkerite® high-pressure jointing, found ready markets in the marine, railway and fledgling automotive industries.
James Walker's outstanding success attracted competitors thick and fast, especially when his original patents expired. But constant research, development and the resulting improvements to products - backed by hard hitting anti-piracy advertisements - kept him well ahead of the field.
He opened his first overseas depot in Antwerp, Belgium in 1910. Lion® Packings were marketed in the USA during the early 1900s, however it was not until 1912 that a James Walker depot was founded in New York.
James Walker died at the age of 73 in 1913. Although a major influence on the company's growth until his death, day-to-day responsibilities had for some years been in the capable hands of George Cook. George was an early member of James Walker's team who earned his spurs as a successful salesman working worldwide.
The 1914-18 War severely tested our abilities to meet production targets. Although sealing products were in great demand by every branch of the armed services, the company never faulted on deliveries. This kept us steadfastly independent as one of the few UK engineering companies that never came under direct government control during the Great War.
A place in the country
By 1925 we had a workforce of 350 and our London Docklands premises were bursting at the seams. On a weekend drive in Surrey, George Cook discovered a large disused factory next to a main railway line at Woking.
Its Victorian offices had been built as the Royal Dramatic College and retirement home for actors. It then became a centre for oriental learning. Assembly shops were added between 1910 and 1923 when it was used by Martinsyde for aircraft and motorcycle production, with a 2000-strong workforce.
We swiftly moved production to the Woking factory. Lion Works, Woking, Surrey was set to become an address known to industry across the world as the company grew in international stature. Today, Lion Works has gone, although the Lion House head office of James Walker Group still occupies a corner of the original site.
These were times of rapid overseas expansion, with production and demand well matched. A Paris office was formed as soon as business in France returned to normal after the Great War. Also, successful sales through agents in Holland during the 1920s led to the opening of a James Walker depot at Rotterdam in 1933.
On the other side of the world, an Australian company was founded in 1930 with offices at Sydney. Sales branches opened at Melbourne in 1933 and in Wellington, New Zealand a few years later. These proved so successful that manufacturing in Australia started in 1935.
The business scene was the same in the USA, where a James Walker manufacturing company was formed in 1933 to capitalise on the 21 year success of the New York sales depot.
When George Cook died in 1938, his sales, planning and management abilities had turned the company into a manufacturing success and a world leader in fluid sealing products. His place at the helm was taken by William Dixon, a junior clerk in 1900, who rose through the ranks as salesman, depot manager, PA to George Cook, director, managing director and chairman.
War came again in 1939, so our products and knowledge were in urgent demand - and so were new skills. Chemists, metallurgists, tribologists and materials scientists were all needed to help develop the fluid seals and other components that would match giant leaps in engine and plant technology - and lead to the jet and nuclear ages soon to follow.
Engineering plastics and polymers
In 1948, our reputation for materials technology made us one of the first companies outside America to work with an outstanding 'new' polymer called PTFE. At that time PTFE was classed as a strategic material available only on special licence from the USA.
Engineering work with polyamides started soon after. This led to our identification of new roles for thermoplastics and fluoropolymers in high integrity seals on rotary and linear action mechanisms operating in the harshest environments. Today, the development of high performance elastomers and engineering plastics is a key factor in our solution of fluid sealing problems.
The 1950s brought further expansion in international markets. A modern factory was built outside Sydney, Australia to meet regional demands, and the first compressed fibre jointing ever produced on that continent rolled from our mill in 1959. The USA operation moved its manufacturing and office site to Glenwood, Illinois - closer to America's industrial heartland than New York - and in Italy a James Walker company was founded in Milan for a similar reason. By the 1970s, there were group companies operating in nine countries, and sales activity in 80 countries.
However, the sealing industry was now facing a crisis of confidence in its most versatile raw material - asbestos. At the same time, the UK was pushing forward with North Sea gas and oil field development. New materials and products to meet these challenges were urgently needed.
Our scientists and engineers launched themselves into research and development programmes that were to set the seal on our company's success through to the next millennium.
Within just a few years, James Walker had totally new ranges of asbestos-free packings, jointings and expansion joints on the market. We developed new fluid sealing materials, designed and tested the products that used those materials, then taught customers how to select and apply them to greatest effect.
Our liaison with operators and equipment manufacturers in the oil and gas industry proved highly productive. This is characterised by our development and application of rapid gas decompression (RGD) resistant grades of elastomer - such as Elast-O-Lion® 101 and FR58/90 - that withstand the harshest of downhole and wellhead duties.
Other materials and products swiftly followed that provided sealing solutions to extend greatly the maintenance-free working life of oilfield equipment, and enable operators to work more efficiently in hostile environments.
Special sealing products to aid the manufacturing efficiency of computer components then made us part of the electronic revolution.
Further technological challenges followed in the 1990s when the control of VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions became an environmental and economic necessity. Our innovative work on this front resulted in the development of Supagraf® Premier, a world-beating valve stem packing that controls fugitive emissions from petrochemical plant. This was swiftly followed by other products, including Supagraf® Control that improves the sealing efficiency of control valves.
As we entered the 21st Century, we looked firmly to the future to seek out new challenges that would demand our particular blend of technological expertise, applications knowledge and manufacturing skills. But these were not to be purely fluid sealing based.
For many years the James Walker Group had contained member companies whose expertise included specialised anti-vibration products, railway trackbed systems, and tension control fasteners. In 2004 another specialist in trackbed systems joined the Group.
So two parallel routes were set for the Group. One looked to the success of the high-growth rail and light-rail networks of the world; the other to meeting the ever-increasing global demand for fluid seals that work reliably at higher speeds, greater pressures and more extreme temperatures - with improved environmental efficiency.
The common thread in two such diverse market areas is materials technology, the activity that boosted Mr James Walker to his initial success 120 years earlier.
In parallel with technical developments, we have been constantly investing in customer service improvements and new production facilities.
In 2004 we relocated the remainder of our Woking-based production and technology facilities to Cockermouth in Cumbria. A brand new Materials Technology Centre had been built in readiness on our existing site with well-proven logistics links worldwide.
Our flexible production techniques and automated warehouses ensure we meet the JIT demands of modern industry across the globe. World class manufacturing plants and strict QA regimes, backed by value-in-service arrangements, enable us to win longterm partnering deals with major customers - to everyone's advantage.
Our high-tech customer service centre at Crewe, UK, guarantees that the ten-million fluid sealing items we stock are constantly on the move to customers. In addition, our IT systems are networked worldwide - cutting across continents, oceans and time zones to give instant information on orders, stocks, production and delivery.
And our e-commerce systems enable major customers to order on-line from their offices and shopfloors for swift service and surety of supply.
125 years and going
Commenting in 2007 on the Group’s success over the past 125 years, chairman and chief executive Peter Needham said: “We have new products, markets and ideas that will keep us busy, profitable and expanding rapidly into the future.
”In this important anniversary year, we are more dependent than ever on the excellence of our staff at all levels. I must therefore congratulate our staff on their achievements, and thank our thousands of customers for their continued business. Without you all, we would not be celebrating 125 years of James Walker success.”
In 2016 we have over 50 production, engineering, distribution and customer support sites across the globe. With new products and services constantly being added to our ranges, we are exceptionally well placed to serve all industries efficiently worldwide.