A Brief History of MillMead Business Centre
by Jimmy Mulvihill
16th January 2016
Whenever a band turns up to the studios we'll usually have a bit of a chat to them, and when it's the first time that we meet them there are a few topics that invariably come up - we usually ask them how they arrived, where they traveled from, and how long it took for them to get here - in case we can recommend a quicker route for them to take - and they usually ask how long we have been here, how many bands use us, how many rooms we have, and - most commonly - what the building we are based in was before. We'd say about 50% of people mention that it looks like a hospital or a school, and there was actually a time that we were told by others that it had been a car factory and - bizarrely - a submarine factory. (Just as a heads up, submarines are not usually built more than an hour away from the coast.......)
Over the years we started to wonder about the past of the building that we call home, so in 2014 we conducted quite a bit of research into it, (which was actually a bit more difficult than it sounds) and we have now compiled it's history.
The best way to discover the origins of Millmead Business Centre is to start with the company that the building was purpose built by in the 1930s: James Keith and Blackman Co Ltd
James Keith was born in Dundee 1800, and his family moved shortly afterwards to Arbroath, less than 20 miles away. In 1821 James had a son, named George Jnr, whom James named after his own father, and the following year he opened a shop on the High Street in Arbroath as a plumber, gas fitter and tinplate worker. Steady progress was made, and in the early 1830’s, a portrait showed James as a clean shaven, plump featured prosperous young gentleman, seemingly doing very well for himself.
James would soon start to expand his business ventures to great success. The company would produce many items associated with gas fitting and heating, employing many locals. But in 1842, at only 42, he had a heart attack whilst swimming, leaving the company to his young son George Jr, who was without a father at the age of only 21. Not only was he fatherless, but he would have to be thrown into running his father’s company. By 1850, George Jr had a son of his own, continuing the family tradition by naming him James Keith Jr after his own father. He continued to run the business, and soon he saw an opportunity to take full advantage of the increased use of gas both in the home, as well as the industrial world, and as a pang of ambition hit him he decided to expand the shop and add some workshops. A huge new shop was added in the same Arbroath High Street soon after. This was to be the mainstay of the firm for the next fifty years.
By 1870, George invited his son, James Jr, the grandson of the original founder, to help run the whole company, despite him being only 20 years old. James Jr took on the task with gusto, immediately expanded the company, opening another office at 120 George Street, in Edinburgh, which was the firms first venture outside Arbroath. Father George continued to run the production side of the business, with his son James Jr concentrating solely on expansion. The Edinburgh office was a great success, and soon James Jr took a further step of expansion, and at the age of 32, he moved himself to London, where in 1882, he opened a head office and showroom at 57 Holborn Viaduct.
Elsewhere, away from the Keith family, 1883 marked the founding of another company, the Blackman Air Propeller Ventilating Co. Ltd. This was the result of a partnership formed by James Morgan Blackman, Lucuis Fisher and Walter Burnham – all from Illinois USA and registered at 63 Fore Street, London, EC2, in 1884.
Back to the Keith’s, and James Jr ambitions for growth grew further as he submits a plan for an oil gas plant for Ailsa Craig Lighthouse, in Fyfe, Scotland, with it being accepted by the commissioner, Northern Lighthouses. It was a huge contract and was very profitable for the new company. At this time an American book titled: “Heating By Artificial Means”, gives mention of James Jr, such was the prestige he was gaining in the industry, and this year would also to see him rewarded with the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the International Health Exhibition in London.
In 1888, a factory was added in Holloway, North London, the first factory outside Arbroath, which was built to serve the sales office in Holborn. The demand for gas heated had surged in popularity, particularly in London, and James Jr was finding it hard to keep up with demand, hence the new factory in the industrial part of North London made great sense. Their original factory in Abroath was also expanded when a nearby brewery was purchased and converted to a factory.
By now, James Jr had set up home in Brondesbury, Kilburn, North London, but he did not turn his back on his native town. Quite the reverse, as he continued to use his influence for the benefit of his townsmen. In the year 1893, he was the first employer in the whole of Scotland to introduce the eight hour day for his workers, which was done without any reduction in wages. At the time many factories would work 10, 12 and even 14 hour days, so a 8 hour day was a marked improvement. His name became a household word in this part of Scotland, and James Keith Jr also published a book called “A New Chapter In The History Of Labour”. The book was in two parts – the first deals with his case for the need for shorter hours for workers, and carries a full page portrait of James Keith, along with other sketches which show various parts of the factory. The second part, no doubt with a bit of enterprise in mind, forms a comprehensive catalogue of his large boilers, heating stoves and radiators, to act as a promotional tool for the company.
In 1900, due of the close association between heating and ventilation, an idea was struck upon by James Keith Jr to merge his company with The Blackman Ventillating Co., coming together to form a limited company under the title of “James Keith and Blackman Co Ltd”. The merger was created, and James Jr was appointed as managing director, with additional offices opening at 27 Farringdon Avenue London. By 1906, the newly merged company was also making cooling fans, with James Keith giving advice to The Cunard Shipping Co who were having trouble with the difficulty they were experiencing in trying to control and maintain an even temperature and a flow of fresh air through out their ships. James Jr solved this problem, and as a result the company, and his standing within the industry, grew further. By this time he was undoubtedly a man of high standing and the real driving force of James Keith and Blackman Co Ltd . With over 300 patents to his name personally, his opinion on such matters was held in incredibly high regard.
He was invited to, and carried out to great success, a complete survey of the ventilation of The Houses of Parliament, which was badly needed. A similar undertaking was also done for many parts of the London Underground. He was one of the most important figures in ventilation and heating of his time. By this point, his own son, George Keith III, (the great grandson of the original founder) had followed his father into the business. Studying at the London Polytechnic, George Keith III made a special study of all branches of the gas industry. George III was by now starting to take over and become responsible for most of the development being carried out at this time. This included the use of “Keith Gas Lights” on many of the main streets and bridges of London. Another item that the company developed in this period was the “Liquid Elevator”, a form of beer pump used to lift the beer from the cellar up to the bar
By 1938, the demand for the business was now huge, and they had separate factories for different parts of production. Some factories in Holloway Rd, some in Arbroath, some offices were in Clerkenwell, some in Edinburgh. Factories were in one place, development offices in other locations, sales offices were elsewhere. For such a massive company their headquarters and employees were spread far and wide as a result of the company growing so fast that they just had to keep on adding offices and factories here and there, instead of having a dedicated office. George III, great grandson of the original founder, decided that the company needed a brand new base, one where everything, from clerical work, sales, manufacturing and advertising, could be under one roof. The original factories would stay open, but the hope was that bringing everyone together would make the company more united and efficient. Soon afterwards, The Keith Blackman factory opened up this new headquarters in Tottenham Hale, building the headquarters which today is known as MillMead Business Centre, the building where Bally Studios is based.