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.
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.