Lawrence Gardner, son of Thomas and Jane Gardner was born in Liverpool in 1840. He was the second child in a family of three boys and two girls. In the 1841 census returns his father is listed as being a “labourer”, although other sources refer to him as a miller. Thomas died when Lawrence was still young in the late 1840’s. By the 1851 census, his widow and three of her children including Lawrence were living in lodgings, still in the Liverpool area, which by then had witnessed a huge influx of near destitute Irish refugees fleeing the effects of the Great Potato Famine. Nothing is recorded about the struggles of his early years, but we can imagine that they were instrumental in forming his character and drive for financial security through personal industry.
In 1861, Lawrence married Ann Kynaston, a miller’s daughter, also from Liverpool.
In 1868 he went into business on his own account when a brass plate proclaiming “L. Gardner, Machinist” was screwed to the wall of four cottages in Upper Duke Street, Manchester. His first workshop was situated in the communal cellar shared by the four properties. We can well imagine that installing equipment in this cellar-cum-workshop was problematical. Apparently a 10 ½ inch lathe and an 8 foot boiler had to be lowered through the trapdoor in the pavement by attaching ropes and pulleys to planks that were pushed out of a bedroom window above.
Lawrence and his wife and family lived in one of the four cottages and the other three were tenanted out in order to help meet the overall rental costs. When his tenants defaulted with their payments and the landlord threatened to sell off his workshop equipment to recover the money, Lawrence took out a building society loan to buy the properties – at a weekly repayment of 31/6 (£1 57.5p).
The infant business had to support a growing family of six sons and two daughters. All of the boys were later to take a share in its development. Lawrence was hard working and inventive and his business quickly developed into more than the repetitive work on other people’s castings that the label ‘machinist’ suggests. Machine parts, machines and machine tools were made: parts for sewing machines, a machine to score cardboard, another to cut dovetails in it and a small steam hammer to hammer them into place; milling and cutting machines; and another for cutting out cloth. The business had effectively become that of a general engineer with no particular speciality – although in the 1871 census Lawrence listed his occupation as a “maker of sewing and other light machinery”.
The business continued to develop, and eventually outgrew it’s the original premises. So a new workshop was built nearby on the other side of the Stretford Road, in Cornbrook Park Road. In contrast to the Duke Street basement it was a building of two stories, providing 1,300 sq. ft on each floor. Apart from Lawrence’s sons, who were growing up and beginning to learn their trade as engineers, there were twelve other employees. And as time went by the engineering became even more general. A coffee roaster was added to the list of products. This comprised an arrangement of four horizontal drums rotating above a gas flame, geared together and belt-driven from a hot air engine. This, like every other job, demanded invention and skill. There was no buying in of part finished components. Gears were cut out of brass and filed up by hand so accurately that they could serve as patterns for castings.
Sadly in 1890, at the comparatively early age of fifty, Lawrence Gardner died, leaving the business to his widow.
His eldest son, Thomas H Gardner, was then almost thirty and the two had not always seen eye-to-eye. Thomas’s drive, coupled with the education that his father lacked had widened the rift between the two. Indeed by the late 1880’s Thomas had been working away from home for a while. However when responsibility came, he was ready for it. (In the longer term it is pleasing to note that the respect which he and his four younger brothers, Edward, Lawrence, Ernest and Joseph had for their father was to be shown ten years later when a much altered business came to be incorporated as a limited liability company. They chose to keep the style “L. Gardner & Sons” and not change the title to “Gardner Bros”).
So Thomas and Edward managed the business in partnership with their mother and quickly started to make changes. In the year after Lawrence died, the business moved again, this time to larger premises close by in Lund Street. By this time it was employing eighty. More significant pieces of manufacturing were now being undertaken including a range of dynamos, the heaviest weighing 3 tons and driven from a mill engine via a 12 inch belt and a 14 inch pulley. The Dental Manufacturing Company also became an important customer. Dentists’ chairs, some raised hydraulically, and some by rack-and-pinion, were produced. 106 were made in the first 3 years at Lund Street. Indeed 2 such chairs were known to be in use locally until very recent times, an early example of longevity in a Gardner product! Next came a machine for cutting rivets out of platinum wire for use in making false teeth and this was followed by moulds for the dentures themselves.
Also in the same year as the move to Lund Street, on 21 November 1891, the Illustrated Magazine of Practice and Theory carried an article describing a patent hot air engine designed by A. E. & H. Robinson as a “useful and thoroughly good motor for driving small machinery”. Gardner’s quickly arranged to manufacture this. The Robinson hot air engine weighed 12 cwt and had a bore and stroke both of 10 inches and developed 5/8 hp when running at 170rpm. Heat was generated by burning coke in a fire box at the rate of 7 1/2 lb/hr which meant a thermal efficiency of between seven and ten percent. (Later Gardner compression ignition engines achieve forty percent!). It is interesting to note that a pre-1900 example recovered recently from a farm in Horsham, Sussex, had pumped water until damaged by frost in the severe winter of 1958 – another outstanding example of Gardner longevity.
And so the manufacture of ‘combustion’ engines by L. Garner & Sons had begun.