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        THE SCOTTISH STEEL SPECIALIST

Tel: 01382 869000

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A  BRIEF  HISTORY  OF  BROWN  &  TAWSE   DUNDEE
   
   

 

 

       On 4th April, 1881, Peter Saunders Brown and James Tawse commenced business at Exchange Street, Dundee.   Under an agreement dated 8th March, 1881, they had purchased the Scottish business of D. & W. Robertson, Iron Merchants, together with the premises and stock at Exchange Street.

 

 

       Peter Brown had been associated with the Iron Trade in Dundee for many years, having started at the age of 13 as an apprentice clerk at Tay Foundry.   As the years went by, he was to extend his interests into shipbuilding and other engineering trades.  But, for the first fifteen years, all his energies, and those of his partner, were devoted to the building up of a sound merchant business in Dundee.

 

 

 

 

       James Tawse was a first cousin of Peter Brown and had spent a number of years in India involved in the jute industry.

 

       From the beginning Brown & Tawse conducted a thriving merchant trade with the shipyards and engineering businesses on the East Coast of Scotland, and in other parts of the country.   They then turned their attention to export markets and quickly built up connections throughout Europe, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia.

 

 

 

       In the warehouse at Exchange Street, Dundee, a wide range of iron and steel sections, plates, etc. was stocked and supplies of iron and steel were delivered daily to customers throughout the East of Scotland.   Local deliveries were made by horse-drawn vehicles, and the books of the firm give details of many fine horses purchased in these early days.

 

       In the office at Exchange Street, the partners sat at a big double desk.   Behind Peter Brown was a window opening into the warehouse.   At intervals the window would be raised, and verbal instructions would be passed through to “Davie” Davidson who was in charge of the handling in the warehouse.   Freedom from paper work was the essence of the system at that time.

 

       One of the larger shipbuilding customers of Brown & Tawse was W.B. Thompson & Co. Ltd., whose yard lay on the bank of the Tay at Dundee.   W.B. Thompson, a Broughty Ferry engineer, had started business as a shipbuilder in 1874, his first vessel being a steam yacht for the fourth Earl of Caledon, of Caledon Castle, County Tyrone, Ireland.   Shipbuilding requires a great amount of capital, and, in order to put the Dundee shipyard on a sound footing, W.B. Thompson approached Peter Brown in 1895.   As a result, a new company was formed in the year 1896, and named “The Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd.”    Peter Brown was elected Chairman for life, W.B. Thompson became one of the managing Directors, and James Tawse was elected to the Board.   Although Brown & Tawse had no financial ties with the Caledon Company, there was a long tradition of friendly relations between the two companies, and several members of the Brown and the Tawse families were shareholders of the Caledon Company.

 

       Through an agent in London, Brown & Tawse supplied large tonnages of steel to engineers and other customers in the South of England.   The financial risk, among others, is one which a merchant must always undertake, sometimes for a very small reward.   Early in 1897, two of the firm’s largest customers in London became insolvent, but, though the bad debts incurred were serious, Peter Brown considered that the losses could be recovered if the businesses were reconstructed on sound lines.   The two companies concerned were Joseph Westwood & Co. Ltd. of Millwall, E.14, and Fraser & Fraser Ltd. of Bromley-by-Bow, E.3.

 

 

 

 

       By 1897, George Tawse, eldest son of James Tawse, had joined the business in the Dundee office.   As a new boy under the stern eye of Peter Brown he was paid 16.s. 8d. a month.   He would tie a piece of string to his big toe last thing at night at Homebank, Broughty Ferry, and throw the other end out of his bedroom window.   When the gardener arrived early in the morning he would give it a tug and wake him up.   His brother Ernest also joined the business in 1902 and Peter Brown’s nephew Edgar Brown joined in the following April.  

 

 

       A year or two previously, the offices of the firm had moved from Exchange Street, to 49, Meadowside, Dundee, but the Warehouse at Exchange Street was retained.

 

       In 1904, an interest was acquired in M. & C. Hill Ltd., jute spinners, Dundee, this firm having been previously owned by Miller Hill, an uncle of Mrs. P.S. Brown.   James Tawse became Chairman of the Company, and associated with him was his fifth son, Gordon Tawse, afterwards killed in action when serving as an artillery officer in the First World War.   The interest in M. & C. Hill Ltd. was sold in 1920.

 

       After six year’s grounding in the iron and steel business at the Brown & Tawse headquarters in Exchange Street, Dundee, during which time Brown & Tawse had continued to expand their steel stockholding business, George Tawse was selected at the age of 24 to open their first London Office.   The first Brown & Tawse office in London was opened at 65 London Wall, EC2 in February 1903.

 

       At first the London business consisted mainly of selling direct from works to customers.   In 1908, Ernest Tawse joined the London business from Dundee, and in 1911 P.M. Stork of the London office and Douglas Falconer from Dundee sailed to Sydney, Australia, to open an office there.   By this time, trade and staff had increased to the point where larger premises were needed, and the London business moved near by to 3 London Wall Buildings, EC2 in early 1912.   In the same year Ernest Tawse too sailed for Australia, to relieve P.M. Stork.   But it was a nautical event of a different nature which made that year a turning-point for the company.  The incident was the sinking in the English Channel of the steamer Bannockburn.   The cargo included round steel bars which were salvaged and put up for auction.   George Tawse attended the sale and bought the bars for stock, thus starting the steel stockholding business of Brown & Tawse in London.

 

       With a steady increase in business both in Dundee and London, Brown & Tawse were in a position by 1914 to take an important part in the distribution of steel during the First World War.   Thirty-five members of the staff joined the Forces between 1914 and 1918.

 

       In January, 1917, Brown & Tawse Ltd. was incorporated as a Private Limited Liability Company.   The first Directors were Peter Brown, James Tawse, and George A. Tawse.   Soon after his return from the Forces, Edgar P. Brown was appointed a director in December, 1920 and Ernest W. Tawse (the third son of James Tawse) was elected to the Board at the same time.    In January, 1927, in his ninetieth year, James Tawse died.

 

       In 1928, Miller H. Brown, only son of Peter Brown, joined the business in Dundee, after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant with local firm McIntyre & Rae.   Two years later, he was appointed a Director.

 

       The range of products handled in Dundee continually increased, and in May, 1932, the Head Office moved from 49, Meadowside, to 71, Meadowside, where more office accommodation was available.   In February, 1934, ground was leased at Victoria Dock, a new warehouse on that site being opened in June of the same year.   In this warehouse a great variety of plumbing and building materials was stocked.   The modern showrooms at Victoria Dock were enlarged in 1953.  

 

       When the Second World War broke out in September, 1939, the Company again played a vital part in the distribution of steel supplies to industry.

 

       In August, 1940, Peter Brown died at the age of 85.   A founder of the family business, he had from the beginning been Chairman of Brown & Tawse Ltd.   As Chairman of the Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering company since its formation in 1986, he had attended every launch until his health failed towards the end.   For nearly sixty years Peter Brown had presided over the growing fortunes of the Firm, and with his outstanding business capacity and high integrity he provided a notable example to those who have followed.

 

       In December 1946, the business of George Stephen & Son Ltd., 29, Castle Street, Dundee, was purchased.  As wholesale and retail Iron & Steel Merchants, and General Ironmongers, George Stephen & Son had been conducting business in Dundee since 1814.   On Brown & Tawse acquiring control in 1946, Miller H. Brown was appointed Chairman of the new subsidiary.   John S. Agnew was engaged as Manager, and was subsequently appointed Managing Director during 1951.   With the help of his experience and energy, the company made excellent progress.   His daughter-in-law still works for Brown & Tawse as Sales Manager.   In addition to the centrally situated Ironmonger’s shop, there were substantial warehouses in Exchange Street.   A Branch shop was opened at 5, St. Malcolm’s Wynd, Kirriemuir, Angus, in March, 1957.  The business and assets of George Stephen were sold to the Fyffe Douglas group in the late 1980s.

 

 

 

       With a view to future development, five acres of land were acquired in May, 1948, at West Kingsway, Dundee. Six years later, work commenced on the erection of a large warehouse, incorporating the most modern handling devices.   The new warehouse came into operation in the middle of 1955, and the property at Exchange Street was sold.  The West Kingsway site was initially shared with Taysteel, a business owned by the Caledon Shipbuilding group;  steelwork was often fabricated on the site before being transferred for final assembly at the shipyard.

 

 

       At West Kingsway, comprehensive stocks were carried of steel plates, sheets, joists, channels, bars and hoops.   Many other materials were also stocked, such as lead sheets and pipes, sheet zinc, zinc ridge, tinned steel sheets, tinplates, lead coated sheets, copper sheets, copper strip and rollcap, etc.   Steel tubes, malleable iron fittings, wrought iron and welding fittings, bronze and cast iron valves were also stocked.   The business had its own railway sidings, and facilities for distribution of all materials, whether by road or rail.

 

       In the warehouse at Victoria Dock, Dundee, extensive stocks were held of plumbers’ and builders’ materials, such as sanitary goods, copper and polythene tubes, copper fittings, cast iron goods, lead traps and bends, galvanised cisterns, copper cylinders, asbestos and aluminium goods, and various building materials.

 

       The immediate postwar years also brought consolidation and expansion in staff and management.   In Dundee, Edgar Brown was rejoined by Miller Brown who had served in the Army in North Africa and Italy.   A new recruit to Dundee was S. Douglas Rae, who had served during the war with the London Scottish and the Gordon Highlanders.   Douglas Rae was the third son of Stephen Rae, whose firm McIntyre & Rae were Brown & Tawse’s auditors, and was a close friend of the Tawse family.   He had trained as a banker with Morgan Grenfell, and in 1946 he joined the Brown & Tawse office at Dundee.

 

       The Dundee business was thriving.   As well as the export markets, Brown & Tawse had built up a big home merchant business, selling steel direct from the works to the Caledon Shipyard.   This was done at very low margins, but there were other canny advantages.   The steel mills knew Brown & Tawse were placing very large orders for shipbuilding, and that the company always paid promptly.   Brown & Tawse could always obtain steel for stock.

 

       In the post-war period the parent company increased the number of branches throughout the UK to around 30 at the peak, and by the late 1950s, when the Brown & Tawse Group became a public company, there were Brown & Tawse branches throughout the UK.  Products sold in most branches were primarily tubes, valves, fittings, plastics, stainless steel and air movement products.   Only in Dundee were the main products still sold: steel sections, plates and tubes, as it had been since the business was founded in 1881.

 

       In 1961 George Tawse retired after 64 years service; he died in 1965.  In 1969 Miller Brown retired and Douglas Rae, who had married George Tawse’s daughter Elizabeth in 1953, became Chairman of the Group.  He retired in 1987.

 

Ian Rae, a nephew of Douglas Rae, joined the Dundee business in 1971 and is today one of the directors and shareholders of Brown & Tawse.

 

       In the 1970s the oil boom in Aberdeen boosted demand for steel products and ever since then Brown & Tawse at Dundee has continued as a key supplier to oil service companies.

 

 

 

 

 

       Forfar has historically supplied most of the business’s lorry-drivers: men like Walter Black, who drove as part of Brown & Tawse’s Scottish fleet for ten years, all over Scotland, up to Wick and down to Basingstoke and London.   Many drivers later went to work in the warehouse, where their knowledge of the products and loading drills were well used; the Transport Manager has often been an ex-driver.   After Walter Black became Dundee Works manager, he would continue to recruit most drivers for the growing lorry fleet from the Forfar area.  The same is true today.

 

 

 

 

       In the great construction recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brown & Tawse’s parent group suffered badly financially and in 1992/3 was on the brink of receivership.   New group management was recruited and a recovery plan begun.   At that time only the Dundee steel business was making a profit, but despite this, it was starved of investment, both in monetary and human resource terms due to the precarious state of the group’s position.

 

       A number of attempts were made in 1993-6 to sell the Dundee business in order to improve the group’s position with its banks, but no prospective purchaser was willing to pay the true worth of such a distinguished and well-loved business.

 

 

 

       In late 1996 Wolesley Centers made a proposal to buy the whole of the UK Brown & Tawse business.   However, following their detailed due diligence, they concluded that the steel-only business in Dundee did not fit with their tubes, valves, fittings etc. network and opted to leave it behind.   The business was then put into a new company called Brown & Tawse Steelstock Ltd.

 

       In 1994 the parent company had signed an option with a local developer which would see the Kingsway West site sold for retail redevelopment, if planning permission could be obtained.   By the end of 1996 the planning permission was looking more likely to be obtained than not;  with the other Brown & Tawse branches sold to Wolesley, something needed to be done with the Dundee business.

 

 

 

       In the spring of 1997, the parent company’s Financial Director, Ian Harding, teamed up with the Dundee steels business’s three senior managers, Ian Rae, Alan Stewart and Douglas Lawrie, and put a proposal to the group board to buy the business.   The purchase was completed in July 1997;  the business continued to lease the land and premises at Kingsway West.

 

 

       In early 1998 planning permission for retail use at the Kingsway West site was granted and Brown & Tawse was given 12 months notice to vacate the site.   Immediately following the buyout, planning for a move of site had begun and a 13-acre plot on the West Pitkerro Industrial Estate had been identified.    A purpose-built steel stockholding and processing depot costing £3.6 m. was built on the site between July, 1998 and March, 1999.   A key part of the new premises was a revolutionary computerised storage racking facility for steel sections, the first of its kind in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

       Since 1997 Brown & Tawse has bought controlling interests in 3 other Scottish stockholding businesses, the largest of which was in 2000 when it bought the Scottish division of C Brown & Sons, a stockholder and processor of steel coils, plate and sheets;  now known as Brown & Wilson Steels, it is based in Forth, Lanarkshire.

 

 
 

       The total sales of the Brown & Tawse group of businesses is around £20 m. and it remains the largest independent steel stockholder in Scotland.  We deliver daily to our hundreds of customers throughout Scotland with our fleet of 16 special-purpose heavy goods vehicles. Group staff total over 90, of whom over 60 are based at West Pitkerro Industrial Estate in Dundee.

 

 

 

Brown & Tawse Steelstock Ltd     Tel:  01382 869000       Fax:  01382 869010      Email: sales@browntawse.com