Women making munitions shells, 1918

Munitions and motor cars

The first half of the 20th century saw GKN heavily involved in wartime production – while also seeing the company make its first move into the emerging motor industry.

During the First World War, GKN’s plants became Controlled Establishments under the direction of the UK Ministry of Munitions. They produced steel for a range of military uses, especially shells, but with so many volunteers having joined the armed forces there were severe labour shortages. Women filled the gap, as they did again in the Second World War. At Dowlais, they worked in the brickyards as machine hands, moulders and clay grinders. Nettlefolds had always employed women, but during the war numbers soared.

RAF establishes undisputed air superiority

After WW1, a new leader emerged from an unexpected source to give GKN fresh direction. H. Seymour Berry (later Lord Buckland) had built up a profitable coal-mining business with his business partner David Llewellyn. In 1919, they bought a controlling interest in the steel-making group John Lysaght Ltd and then acquired Joseph Sankey & Sons, which was established as a supplier of wheels, chassis frames and bodies to Britain’s new motor industry.

Three months later, they proposed a merger to the GKN board. Lysaght was merged into the larger GKN, but Berry and Llewellyn became the group’s driving forces.

This new GKN contained most of the elements that would sustain it through the Great Depression and propel it through the next half-century: heavy steel-making; steel-processing; fasteners and other steel products; and motor components. But it did suffer one historic casualty: in 1936, the Dowlais works closed, bringing an end to 170 years of iron and steel-making.

When war broke out in 1939, GKN again made a full contribution. The Hadley Works produced Spitfires, Lysaghts assembled a specialised tank for the D-Day landings and the company produced steel, forgings and fasteners for tanks and aircraft, as well as millions of steel helmets.

Model success

Model T Ford

Around the turn of the 20th century, a new industry appeared that was to transform the way people lived. The automobile industry spluttered into life in numerous countries, inspired by some now famous names: Benz, Peugeot, Citroën, Oldsmobile... But one car came to symbolise the dawn of the motor age – the Model T Ford. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford made more than 15 million Model Ts. Most were black, a result of the strict assembly line production process that saw each car made in just 93 minutes. The Model T was so successful that Ford did not need to advertise between 1917 and 1923.


1927 First solo transatlantic flight

1931 Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue completed

1938 First VW Beetle

Louis Armstrong
Music: 1926
Louis Armstrong first popularised jazz scat singing with Heebie Jeebies
Other sources of information
Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum Duxford
Model T Ford (Design Museum)
Ford Heritage (Ford Motor Company)
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