I continued to make my way around the Mullard Blackburn Works site boundary along Whitebirk Drive (A6119). I walked past a tired looking Blackburn Council street sign announcing ‘Stand Out in Darwen – Together’ (a relatively recent campaign to encourage and inspire the young people of Blackburn). I can’t help but think how this pales in comparison with the the sweeping new horizons – much larger scale, longer-term opportunities – the Mullard works afforded the people of Blackburn in its heyday – engineering apprenticeships for school-leavers, skilled assembly work, work for chemists, metallurgists, acousticians and physicists, all kinds of trades for the highly skilled and lesser skilled. I left the sign behind and continued my search for something, anything that might afford me a small glimpse back to better times and reveal a little more about the tube works and the people who once worked there.
Then, as I passed yet another empty industrial unit to let, I saw a middle-aged man walking a black dog – it seemed to me he was actually within the perimeter on the site. I quickened my pace and soon came to a path that cut through to where I’d seen him. Here I found a road sign bearing the name ‘Challenge Way’. It turned out that Challenge Way was the one-and-only road that ran through and around the entire Mullard site. Here, behind overgrown shrubs and trees, I could make out two huge circular riveted steel tanks with several smaller gas tanks scattered between them. Judging by their rusting and peeling paintwork, these tanks were part of the original site equipment and hadn’t been used for many decades. What was their purpose? Surely they were utilised for some heavy industrial process relating to vacuum tube manufacture, however I could only guess as to their precise function.
This part of the site was geographically very close to the large glass and wire drawing workshops where, in it’s heyday, in the early 1950s, produced over 2500 miles of tungsten wire every week for the manufacture of tube heaters. Perhaps the tanks were utilised as ‘pickling’ tanks to temper the tungsten wire once it has been drawn. But there was very little here to fire the imagination, even of a die-hard Mullard tube ‘anorak’ such as myself. I was becoming weary of looking at the facades of dingy old industrial units and ruinous landscapes. My interest and enthusiasm were beginning to wane and I turned back onto the main road and continued walking. And then, after a just few hundred yards, found myself back at the chemical workshop and Ribble House. I had completed a full circuit of the site.
At the entrance gate to Ribble House I paused to take one final picture of a small red brick electricity substation. It seemed so unlikey that this chunky little building should still survive here. It was as if the ongoing decline of British manufacturing and recent recession had somehow shielded it and the other workshops from being swept away by the relentless and unforgiving tide of change – not progress, just change. But for how much longer would these remnants of Mullard’s history be permitted to stand? I wondered about the Mullard employees too. All those people employed in the workshops, the scientists, engineers, technicans and girls who assembled the tubes. How many were still around and what stories they might have to tell of the Mullard works in its ‘glory days’. I imagined the energetic buzz of over 6000 workers flooding on to the site everyday. The pride and excitement of being involved in this new high technology – one of the largest and most advanced vacuum tube manufacturing works in the world. All those people retired many years ago and many of them passed away taking their stories and secrets with them.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed my nostalgic little story. If you’re interested in what the Mullard Blackburn factory was like in its glory days then do take a look at the following article ‘Speed, Efficiency & Perfection – Aims That Have Built a Mammoth Factory in 16 Years’ originally published in 1954 in the ‘Blackburn Times’ not long after the factory opened.
A year or so after writing this article I was contacted by an engineer who worked on the Blackburn site from 1985 to 1987. Although the site was no longer manufacturing tubes it was still being utilised to make filament light bulbs. A little more supplemental information can be found on the powder blending facility which was situated next to the pickling tanks.