Birkby’s - how it all began

The Birkby factory around 1933 (picture from Birkby's Plastics)
The Birkby factory around 1933 (picture from Birkby's Plastics)

The firm was set up 145 years ago by brothers Arnold and Freddie Birkby.

It soon became the biggest employer in the district. At the start of the 20th century it was at the forefront of materials production for the tram industry.

During World War I the firm worked with Belgian Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite, and became the first British firm to manufacture moulded items.

In the automobile manufacturing boom in the 1920s, Birkby’s produced dashboards, light reflectors and brake linings. London Passenger Transport was its biggest customer.

In 1926 it began producing telephone handsets for General Post Office, and later, parts for wirelesses, including plastic casings, knobs, valve bases, coil bobbins and loudspeaker chassis.

The company was one of the founder members of The British Plastics Moulding Trade Association, formed in 1932.

During the 1950s the company started producing acrylic as well as thermoset plastics, and moulded the first acrylic telephone cases. In 1958 Freddie Birkby, the last family tie, retired from the company, and Birkby’s was sold to its biggest customer, AT&E, but kept its name.

In 1961 it was taken over by the Plessey Company, expanding into the defence, avionics and electronics industries, eventually increasing production tenfold. In February 1968, a huge fire caused damage costing £2.5m but within 48 hours, 10 presses were working.

During the 1970s the company was producing 1.8 million telephone sets every year.

In 1972 it merged with Viking Industrial Plastics to become Birkby’s Viking Limited and during the 1980s it strengthened its links with the Ford motor company.

In 1989 it was bought by GEC Siemens and sold on to the Marubeni Corporation a year later. In 2005 it joined up with global automotive parts supplier Kumi Kasei of Japan, and in 2008 it was bought by Verve.