Company Origins and History

TUFNOL laminated plastics are manufactured by Tufnol Composites Limited. Originally named 'Ellison Insulations Ltd', it was founded in 1929 by George Ellison, an entrepreneur who had built a highly successful business manufacturing electrical switchgear in Birmingham, England. Later, the business became TUFNOL Ltd, finally changing into Tufnol Composites Ltd in 2004.

The founder, Mr. George Ellison, (1873 - 1955) was born at Runcorn in Cheshire and educated at Manchester Grammar School. Following an engineering apprenticeship in Switzerland, he worked for a period in the USA for General Electric and Westinghouse Corporation, before returning to Europe at the age of 26. In 1898, he started a factory in Paris making high quality electrical switchgear. Although his designs were innovative and successful, he decided in 1906 to return to the United Kingdom. Attracted by the highly skilled labour available around Birmingham's 'Jewellery Quarter', he set up a new factory to make switchgear in Warstone Lane, Birmingham, initially employing 23 men.

With its top-notch switchgear selling well, the company grew dramatically and, by the autumn of 1913, there were 300 employees on the payroll. Although an additional factory had been opened in nearby Summerhill Street, they needed room for further expansion and it was decided that a new factory would be built. In 1916, the George Ellison Switchgear factory was opened in Wellhead Lane, Perry Barr, Birmingham. In subsequent years, Ellison's business grew into a group of companies, including a foundry, a hydraulics equipment manufacturer and a company which made hospital beds and fittings.

The start of TUFNOL.

In 1921, George Ellison set up a laboratory at the Perry Barr factory to develop new products. He gave his research chemists a brief to develop a reliable new electrical insulation material for use in their switchgear. By 1924, the new material, called 'SRP' (Synthetic Resin Paper) was launched. To make it, many layers of paper were bonded together with phenolic resin under heat and pressure, forming it into solid sheets, rods or tubes. This required the installation of large scale equipment to impregnate the rolls of paper, very large drying ovens and high pressure steam heated presses to form and 'cure' the material. In addition to the paper based material, this process was developed to include other grades made from cotton cloth of various weaves, and from asbestos cloth.

In 1926, after much thought, the new material was re-named 'TUFNOL' (after 'tough phenol'). It was much sought after by other companies and, in 1929 work started on building a new factory in Wellhead Lane, opposite the Ellison Switchgear plant, to manufacture sheets, rods and tubes of TUFNOL in larger quantities. This new factory would also include extensive machine shops to produce finished engineering components from TUFNOL for the company's customers.

Engineers around the world found TUFNOL useful and, by the end of the first decade, TUFNOL was being shipped as far afield as Shanghai, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires.

Towards the late 1930s, the use of TUFNOL for aircraft components and other military applications accelerated. During World War II, thousands of components were produced for the Allied war effort and the TUFNOL factory was placed under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

TUFNOL was so much an integral part of the war effort that, towards the end of 1944, an extraordinary exhibition of military equipment was held at an Ellison group factory at nearby Perry Bridge, to show the TUFNOL workforce and others the important role which had been played by the company's products. Tanks, field guns, searchlights, parachutists' motorcycles, even a Spitfire were put on display inside the factory, with TUFNOL parts highlighted.

The TUFNOL name became a byword for quality and was so well known that, in 1944, the company name was changed from 'Ellison Insulations Ltd.' to 'TUFNOL Ltd.'

The following two decades saw a period of great expansion for TUFNOL. The network of export agencies was extended to more than 50 countries, dealt with via the company's export office, set up at a prestigious address in London, complete with a very pleasant hospitality suite for export agents visiting from overseas. Sales offices were set up in most of the major cities around Britain, staffed by technical sales engineers, whose job was to advise customers on new applications.

In July 1955, the founder of the group, Mr. George Ellison died, aged 82 and his son, Mr. Thomas Ellison, became Chairman. Although the Ellison family retained control of the company, throughout the late 1950s and early 60s, they progressively stepped back and passed the day-to-day running of the company to the executive management. During this time, the chairmanship of the Board was also taken over by 'young' Mr. George Ellison, the grandson of the founder.

In the early part of the 1960s a major investment in research and development led to the introduction of a whole series of new types of TUFNOL laminate, based largely on cloth woven from glass fibres bonded into laminates with new types of resin such as epoxy and silicone. To process these, a completely new impregnation plant had to be installed, a major new investment.

In 1966, the Ellison Group acquired a plastics company in Kent, Insulating Components and Materials Ltd, (or ICM Ltd). Part of ICM's business was the distribution of other plastics, such as thermoplastics rod and sheet materials and TUFNOL Ltd also began to distribute these materials and machined components made from them.

In 1973, the Ellison Group board decided to sell off the original switchgear company, and several others, leaving TUFNOL Ltd as the largest company in the group. The name of the group was changed to Tufnol Industries Ltd, still under the chairmanship of George Ellison.

During the late 1960s and 70s many aspects of the business world underwent change. People altered the way they communicated in business, price competition hotted-up and customers expected a different style of service. To adapt to these changes, the TUFNOL sales network was re-organised, some of the branch offices were closed and small factory units called 'Machining Centres were set up at Aylesbury, East Kilbride and Cleveden, to provide a fast, local service for machined plastics components. The machining centre at East Kilbride near Glasgow is still in operation today.

In 1976/77, a new Managing Director, J. R. Trotman joined TUFNOL Ltd. This saw the start of renewed efforts to further expand in export markets and relationships with important customers in South Africa and Australasia were fostered and developed. Shortly after, a new impregnating tower was commissioned, providing additional production capacity. This was a time of significant change in the business and over the next few years TUFNOL was able to acquire the businesses of several important competitors.

Engineering and manufacturing industries evolved a great deal in Britain during the late 1970s and 80s. Applications changed, components were becoming more miniaturized and new alternative materials and production methods came on-stream. Competition also grew from overseas and this required significant changes to defend the company's markets, developing and consolidating the product range, constantly striving for greater productivity and cost efficiency. To build on its expertise in materials, the company diversified into other types of fibre reinforced composite processes, acquiring a special type of tube manufacturing business in 1987 and two years later, a complete production unit for making glass fibre profiles.

The aircraft industry, now called 'aerospace', has always been a major user of TUFNOL products. TUFNOL Ltd was one of the first engineering plastics companies in Britain to achieve Approvals to the new Quality Standards for manufacturing which were then being developed under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence - which have evolved into the standards now known as ISO 9000. Now, Tufnol Composites Ltd have accreditation to the new and more stringent Aerospace Quality Standard AS 9100.

In 1998, TUFNOL Ltd acquired a company called "Countrose Engineering Ltd', which specialised in the manufacture of rubber-lined, water lubricated bearings for marine applications and for water pumps. Countrose had been a long standing customer of TUFNOL Ltd and Countrose bearings are now shipped around the world from TUFNOL in Birmingham, for use in works boats and leisure craft.

Towards the end of 1999, the Ellison family who had owned TUFNOL since its beginnings decided that they wanted to sell the business and retire. The company was bought from them by two former directors. In October 2004, a major restructuring of the company took place and a management team headed by Chairman Peter Jackson formed a new company, Tufnol Composites Ltd, effectively acquiring the assets of the old company. Roy Thomason leads this new company, as Managing Director.

Go to The History of TUFNOL Laminates