Slander, Fraud and a Secret Room: William M’Kinnon & Co in the Great War

Guest blog by Textor

It began in 1916 as a telegram, became a whispering campaign, filled column inches in the local press and finished in 1920 in the Court of Session in Edinburgh. This was the scandal of William M’Kinnon & Co. manufacturing faulty shells for use on the Western Front.

Soldiers in WWI (McKinnon's arms)

Founded in 1798 William M’Kinnon & Co’s pedigree was a long and proud one of supplying foundry and engineering products locally but by mid 19th century the company had spread its industrial wings becoming part of the web of commerce which was the British Empire. Sugar, tea, coffee, rice and cacao all needed processing before being sold to customers across the globe.  This was the market that M’Kinnon entered and so they continued into the last years of the 20th century.[1]   Dryers, heaters, graders, sieves, elevators and steam engines were manufactured in the Spring Garden works. In 1914 just weeks before the outbreak of war the firm was awarded a Gold Medal for the excellence of its tropical agricultural equipment. 

Imperialist war demanded cannon fodder and cannons. Men left M’Kinnon’s to fight in Europe and in a mirror action, in 1915, the company decided it too would get involved, in munitions manufacturing. Patriotism would have played its part but an added incentive was a guaranteed market and the prospect that a new factory might be fitted-out at Government expense. Premises were purchased adjacent to the existing works at Spring Garden and David Graeme Robertson came back from the Malay States to run the factory. Robertson was part of the imperial commercial web which had benefitted M’Kinnon so well. Having served his time with them he travelled east, in about 1906, establishing his own engineering in Kuala Lumpur and was also involved in a tin mining scheme whose shareholders were mainly from Aberdeen. In 1913 this particular enterprise hit a rocky patch with David Graeme making accusations of “wicked and unscrupulous action” by one of the scheme’s members; this drew a libel action against him but the case was lost and Robertson left with his pocket and reputation intact. Possibly this court experience played a role in subsequent events.

Whatever his reasons for returning to Aberdeen the fact is that he was in overall charge of the factory when it first received an order for 4.5 inch shells and later 6 inch shells: by mid 1916 over 50,000 of the smaller ordnance had been dispatched to the battlefields along with 30,000 of the larger calibre. In this work “Girl operators” who “did not make a perfect job, but they did very good work” were on the machines, overseen by time-served male engineers given the task of ensuring output was maintained.   One of the gaffers was a Mr Hunter, a man who’d spent 20 years with the firm; he became a key figure in the ensuing shells scandal.  

At the end of 1916 Hunter approached manager Robertson and asked for a rise in wages on grounds of having improved workshop productivity. He was refused and the conversation must have been heated for the outcome was Hunter’s sacking. Unsurprisingly he appears to have left in high dudgeon and when later he met with a Robert Whitelaw, a surgical instrument maker and special constable, he let rip with venom, criticizing the manager in particular. He told Whitelaw that M’Kinnon’s was guilty of fraud, that the war effort was being undermined with their dud shell casings being shipped to the troops at the Front. And this deceit, he declared, was being carried out in a “secret room” in the attic not with “girl operators” but only “skilled” men. Whitelaw had lost a son in the war and the news hit him hard. Appalled at the thought of troops being left vulnerable he immediately drafted a telegram to the Ministry of Munitions informing them that there was a rumour of malpractice at Spring Garden.

mckinnon cocoa bean

This brought a swift response: two inspectors followed by Colonel Stansfield from the Ministry arrived at the works. The premises were searched and in a meeting behind closed doors it was decided the Government should assume control of the factory. The first Aberdonians knew of this was removal of M’Kinnon’s signboard and its replacement by the prosaic “National Shell Factory”.

And there the matter rested until the end of the war. From 1917 to 1918 the nationalised factory operated under the direction of Professor Horne of Robert Gordon’s Technical School but rumours continued to circulate. It was only with the cessation of hostilities that matters came to a head and full public disclosure, as we might now say, was made.

Robert Whitelaw was accused of slander. The company, D G Robertson and Lachlan M’Kinnon sued, seeking damages of £6000 to be apportioned equally between the three pursuers. Whether Robertson’s victory in Kuala Lumpur inspired confidence of a win in this case is unclear what is certain is that he led the trio and sought to vindicate his own reputation as a patriot and an engineer.  

Between July 1919 and May 1920 the public were treated to a case which exposed the running of the shell factory and the Government’s priorities during the war.

The court action began before a jury at the Court of Session in March 1920 with Lord Blackburn presiding. The pursuers initially focussed on Whitelaw’s allegation that the company had conspired to make a Government stamp with the intention of fooling local inspectors. However, Lord Blackburn ruled, before the jury sat, that this was a secondary issue and that the central case was the question of the quality of the shells manufactured and the actions of the company between 1915 and 1916.  

McKinnon of Aberdeen

Evidence was presented by the pursuers, the defendant, an ex-Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Government inspectors and a range of employees from M’Kinnon’s. During proceedings it emerged a secret meeting was held in the Palace Hotel on 14th February 1917, led by Director of Munitions in Scotland, Frederick Lobnitz, with Lord Provost Taggart present. In essence this meeting presented D G Robertson with a fait accompli. Robertson was informed that the evidence collected during the snap inspection in January 1917 meant the factory was to be taken out of the hands of M’Kinnon, that the claims made by Whitelaw “were proved to the hilt” and “that was a crime”. It was declared by the Director of Munitions that the criminal action had been carried out under the orders of Robertson. Lord Provost Taggart, a prominent figure in Aberdeen’s granite industry, agreed with Lobnitz. When Robertson protested and asked for a hearing of his side of the issue he was summarily refused and Lobnitz hit back with, “If this had been done in France you would have been stuck up against a wall and shot”. Even the pursuers’ council admitted that if Whitelaw’s allegations were true his clients would have been traitors, their actions treasonable and would have deserved to be shot.

McKinnon49factory

But David Graeme was not shot. Instead he was removed from the factory, which according to him meant M’Kinnon would lose 95% of its business. From the evidence given at the trial it became clear that the Government objective was to ensure the smooth production of deadly ordinance while at the same time suppressing any disclosures which might undermine morale on the Home Front; and prevent troops on the Front Lines learning that their lives were being placed at risk through “friendly” action of a once reputable engineering firm. Shooting one of the city’s leading businessmen was not really an option so state officials being what they are decided that a gentleman’s agreement of sorts should be adopted: if the company signed the factory over to the state it in turn would not shoot Robertson and further it would keep the whole affair hidden from the public. Frederick Lobnitz said they should “give up their contract, when the whole matter would remain private, and no stigma of blame would attach to the firm”. Sir James Taggart was happy to go along with this as it maintained the reputation of the city.

As the slander case progressed David Robertson’s and Lachlan M’Kinnon’s confidence must have waned. Government inspectors spoke of discovering a snibbed “secret room” in which men worked on some 150 to 200 shells, all in various states of disrepair. They testified to having to force entry to the room, literally a foot in the door. The Ministry’s Colonel Stansfield described the practice as a “deliberate attempt to cheat the Government gauges” (used by inspectors on the factory floor).

Robertson’s memory failed him; he told Lord Blackburn that he could not recall Stansfield accusing the company of fraud. Some of M’Kinnon’s employees claimed the snib on the door was there to keep management out so men could have a quiet smoke, something banned during dayshift. An alternative explanation offered was the room was a place men could dodge the gaffer. However the room contained a quantity of shells, new base plates waiting to be riveted, copper bands for attaching, the means of expanding the diameter of cases and so on; none of which was made known to the official inspectors, neither room nor operations. It was not until January 1917 that the secret room was revealed.     

Beyond the walls of the Palace Hotel where David Graeme was offered a deal, or rather an ultimatum, matters looked bleak for Robert Whitelaw. Not unusually for a whistleblower he found himself under threat. The gravity of the charge against M’Kinnon’s ensured the state took decisive action but this did not mean plaudits for Whitelaw; and certainly not any honour which his detractors hinted was the motivation for his action.[2] The problem the state had with him was that he would not shut up. He persisted in speaking to fellow special constables and others about the matter. A Government official contacted Chief Constable Anderson and told him that Whitelaw was making too much of a public fuss, that he should be told to keep his mouth closed. So the special constable found himself before his boss, being warned that there was “an immense amount of talk in Aberdeen” and it had to stop. DORA was the Chief Constable’s answer, no not a close female friend but Defence of The Realm Act, a draconian piece of legislation which was passed in 1914 and gave the Government wide-ranging powers of censorship and control over civilian activities. Whitelaw was warned that his gossip was “Prejudicial to the troops”. Given the prospect of a prison sentence the surgical instrument maker decided to adopt a lower profile and having lost confidence in his boss he resigned as a special constable.

In the end there was general vindication of Whitelaw’s claims. In his summing up Lord Blackburn said that irrespective of David Robertson’s engineering experience and his familiarity with boiler technology he lacked precise knowledge of munitions and explosives which meant that his views on manufacturing techniques were secondary to those of the appointed Government inspectors. Blackburn agreed with Stansfield and also cast doubt on the notion that the attic room was open to any who chose to visit. The jury retired to consider the case and after three hours deliberation returned its verdict. Of the four components of the action, including a counter action by Whitelaw, three were found in the defendant’s favour. The jury agreed that M’Kinnon had on occasion manufactured faulty shells and that these had been sent to a secret room to be rectified, without official permission and with the intention of having the modified shells passed as suitable for shipment to the Front. The only issue which was found in favour of the three pursuers was Robert Whitelaw’s claim that the company had forged a government stamp; this was a false claim (for the engineering minded this was confusion over a knurling tool although being a surgical instrument maker Whitelaw should have known the difference).

How important this single victory by M’Kinnon & Co. was can be judged from the fact that no damages were awarded for this slander. And, equally indicative, when Lord Blackburn came to apportion costs he ruled that the pursuers would pay their own expenses and 3/5 of the defendant’s.

mckinnon machine

In summing up Blackburn made clear that in his opinion the use of the secret room, repairing of faulty ordinance, and presumably the sidestepping of official inspectors, was an act of foolishness on the part of Robertson.   The manager had allowed his judgement as to what was and was not acceptable to override the regulations and the judgement of Government officials.   All had been done with the best of intentions. In mitigation Blackburn observed that no evidence had been brought forward which implicated any repaired shells in the deaths of British troops.   He concluded “Mr Robertson was not actuated by any personal motives in doing what he did, and that he honestly believed that the shells passed after treatment were in all respects as good shells as those which had not been treated”, and observed that the base motives attributed to Robertson and the company through public gossip were unjustified. Accordingly, he concluded that Robertson could leave the court knowing that this misrepresentation of his character had been dispelled.

And so with the end of the war this small skirmish in Aberdeen was settled. The National Shell Factory at Spring Garden ceased production on the 28th November 1918 with most of the workers being demobilised (presumably mostly girl operators) and on the 26th December machinery, tools and other equipment were auctioned off. As for William M’Kinnon & Co. the business turned again to its traditional market and in 1921 it won an award for the excellence of its machinery.   D. G. Robertson died in Montreal in 1926 and Robert Whitelaw died in 1932. Neither death notice in Aberdeen Press and Journal mentioned the scandal.

 

[1] Founder William M’Kinnon died in 1873 aged 96.   The name can still be found marketing plantation machinery but the business no longer has the local presence it once had.

[2] Throughout the war years Robert Whitelaw was prominent in fund raising concerts for British troops which probably gives a better sense of his motivations.

See photographs on Flickr – you may have to copy and paste the link to get the images up

https://www.flickr.com/photos/87708465@N04/sets/72157646826781278/

 

5 Comments to “Slander, Fraud and a Secret Room: William M’Kinnon & Co in the Great War”

  1. Thanks again for the interesting posts. I have always intended to vote Yes but it’s handy to have some arguments to back me up. In the Absolvitor blawg somebody mooted disarming Scotland’s share of the Trident arsensal – that would get my vote!

  2. That’s fascinating. Thank you. Social and economic networks are everywhere and I suppose Scotland being the size it is concentrates these.

    I’ll send this on to the Textor. I’m sure he’ll be interested.

    Cheers, L.

  3. The name Frederick Lobnitz rang a bell, so I had a search of I book I wrote on Alexander Reid (Glasgow art dealer painted by van Gogh), but which was never published. In writing it I learnt a great deal about Scotland at the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th centuries, and how the movers and shakers all knew one another, especially those in the central belt. The excerpt below (hope you don’t mind me posting it) referred to three letters from Reid’s brother who worked for a time in the Nagasaki shipyard in Japan with which James Glover was involved, and I’m almost certain they must have known one another. Reid, David Napier and NeilMunro are all associated with the part of Argyll where I lived for a time, hence my interest. My grandfather also worked for Weir’s engineering company in Glasgow.

    “Reference is made in the first letter to Harry Lobnitz, this was Henry Christian Lobnitz of the company bearing his name. Lobnitz was a Dane from Copenhagen whose family had connections with the Danish Royal Arsenals. He had worked for a spell in London to improve his engineering skills then was involved with the construction of the Great Eastern, possibly in David Napier’s yard at Milwall which played a part in building Great Western and Great Eastern for John Scott Russell and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Lobnitz then served as an engineer on a navel vessel during the Crimean War, before moving north and finding employment with Coulborn & Co, a yard which had begun as James Henderson & Son, in Renfrew. The firm was again renamed when Lobnitz took it over in 1874, becoming Lobnitz, Coulborn & Co. Although the yard built hulls for many types of vessels it specialised in dredgers and rock breakers which were bought by the Clyde Navigation Trust for the ongoing task of keeping the river navigable. Their dredgers were also bought by companies worldwide with the yard involved in the construction of both the Suez and the Panama Canals.

    The name of the firm altered once again as the partnership he had entered into with William Young became the limited company of Lobntz & Co Ltd, although Harry died two years later in 1896 leaving Young as Chairman of the board.

    During the first world war Harry’s son Frederick worked with the government in the Ministry of Munitions, becoming Director of Munitions in Scotland, where he served under William Weir who later became Lord Weir, someone who was well known to Neil Munro and who for many years leased Dunderave Castle on the shores of Loch Fyne. His efforts in promoting munitions production earned him a knighthood as well as the Legion of Honour, so he too had close connections with France. Hedmex Investments Ltd acquired Lobnitz & Co in 1957, with the company then being taken over by G & J Weir Ltd, who owned the neighbouring yard of William Simmons & Co. The two companies were merged, becoming Simmons-Lobnitz, a company which was in turn taken over by Alexander Stephen & Sons before its closure in 1964.”

    In Scotland there is little that happens in isolation, it remains the same today.

    • Thanks for the comment. As you say business and other connections spread like webs through Scotland. Like you I have come across networks of family, commercial, academic and local political ties which gives a sense (particularly before widespread enfranchisement) a areas being run by relatively small elites. No doubt when significant change such as the Disruption of 1843 occurred a reshaping took place but presumably settled to new lines.
      Blake Glover and the Japanese connection, spilled back to Aberdeen when, I think it was in the 1860s, an important contract for a ship for the Japanese Navy came to the city. Although Japan was not part of the British Empire it did with its “opening” give opportunities similar to those of the plantation managers/ engineers who went to Ceylon etc. All parts of the globe as you know were opened to British trade.

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