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DUDLEY DOCKER, SHACKLETON'S SPONSOR
MIDLANDS INDUSTRIAL DYNAMO AND ENTREPRENEUR, AFTER WHOM ONE OF SHACKLETON'S THREE BOATS WAS NAMED
Frank Dudley Docker (26 August 1862 – 8 July 1944) was one England's foremost industrialists - a business tycoon - at the start of the 20th Century (it was said he showed 'an acuity in financial affairs that was hard to surpass'); and he was one of the three most significant sponsors of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, together with Sir James Caird and Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills.
All three of these supporters gave Shackleton very substantial amounts of money: Dudley Docker (read about him below) gave £10,000 towards the purchase and refit of Endurance; and all three had a ship's lifeboat named after them by him. The 'christening' ceremony took place while the whole party was marooned on the ice. The James Caird of course travelled with Shackleton to South Georgia. The Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills remained at Elephant Island and together formed the 'hut' under which the men sheltered. Those who formed the crew of the Dudley Docker were: Worsley, Greenstreet, Cheetham, Kerr, Macklin, Marston, Orde-Lees, Holness and McLeod.
The Dudley Docker nearly came to grief during the escape from the ice. Skipper Frank Worsley gives an idea of the Docker's plight: "About midnight we lost sight of the James Caird, which had the Stancomb Wills in tow, but not long after saw the light of the James Caird's compass-lamp, which Sir Ernest was flashing on their sail as a guide to us...we were hauling from my little pocket-compass, the boat's compass being smashed... Our poor fellows lit their pipes, their only solace, as our raging thirst prevented us from eating anything. By this time we had got into a bad tide-rip, which, combined with the heavy, lumpy sea, made it almost impossible to keep the Dudley Docker from swamping. We shipped several bad seas over the stern as well as abeam and over the bows. Orde-Lees, a rotten oarsman, made good by strenuous baling, well seconded by Cheetham. Greenstreet, a splendid fellow, relieved me at the tiller and helped generally. Greenstreet and Macklin were my right and left as stroke-oars throughout. McLeod and Cheetham were two good sailors and oars.'
'While still among the ice-floes' Shackleton says, 'the Dudley Docker got jammed between two masses while attempting to create a short cut. (The old adage about a short cut being the longest way round is often as true in the Antarctic as it is in the peaceful countryside.) The James Caird got a line aboard the Dudley Docker, and after some hauling the boat was brought clear of the ice again.' Later on the way to Elephant Island the Docker, with its better sails, had to tow the Stancomb Wills. Wet snow showers soaked the men, and they were all miserably cold. Many suffered from frostbitten feet and diarrhoea. Killer whales amiably swam alongside. Worsley, one hand clutching the mast, juggled with the sextant to get accurate readings. 'We had now had one hundred and eight hours of toil, tumbling, freezing, and soaking, with little or no sleep. I think Sir Ernest, Wild, Greenstreet, and I could say that we had no sleep at all. Although it was sixteen months since we had been in a rough sea, only four men were actually seasick, but several others were off colour.' At the end of the ghastly voyage, very close to Elephant Island, the Dudley Docker lost touch with the other boats for some 6 hours, from 10 p.m. the previous night. Shackleton notes 'I looked back vainly for the Dudley Docker...and was very anxious about her; but within half an hour the missing boat appeared, labouring through the spume-white sea, and presently she reached the comparative calm of the bay. We watched her coming with that sense of relief that the mariner feels when he crosses the harbour-bar.'
While the James Caird survived, sadly the other two boats disintegrated and succumbed to the fierce elements in the Antarctic, and despite searches were never found again.
Frank Dudley Docker was born in Smethwick, now part of Birmingham. His father was a solicitor who was for many years coroner for East Worcestershire and clerk of Smethwick's board of health. In the late 19th century he established his first business, Docker Bros (with one and later a second of his brothers), in the civilian production of varnish (for blacking stoves) and then paint, mostly for railway carriages and train wagons at home and abroad (1881-1902).
Later Dudley Docker acquired a railway rolling stock company; and at the same time, through his close involvement (from 1906 as a director) with British Small Arms (BSA), Docker initiated an interest in firearms, cars (briefly), cycles and motor-cycles - for which the BSA name became legendary. As deputy chairman in 1909–12 he masterminded BSA's purchase of Daimler Motors in 1910; and from 1906-9 BSA were guaranteed a quarter of all government orders for Lee Enfield rifles; in 1911-13 up to 33% of all BSA's business was in arms.
Docker, however, very much the Birmingham industrial magnate, but also a character of unique vision, had ideas for a more considerable expansion. In fact even before the war his efforts and intrigues were largely directed to matching, overtaking and supplanting German industrial power. In April 1902 he formed a massive conglomerate, the Metropolitan Amalgamated Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, a merger of five rival companies, latterly the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company (MCWF), to which others were then added.
By 1911-4 this employed some 14,000 people and occupied 475 acres of factory space. Dudley Docker's MCWF emerged as one of the UK's key manufacturers of guns, armoured vehicles and finally tanks for the First World War effort. He was first chairman of the Birmingham Munitions Output Organization in 1915, and his rolling-stock company was the chief manufacturer of numerous tanks in the First World War.
When King George V visited Birmingham in July 1915 he toured the Saltley Works and lunched there with Docker and his co-directors. MCWF (as Docker's biographer points out) were originally selected to build some of the prototype landships which became known as tanks, though the first were actually constructed by a Lincolnshire firm dealing in agriculture machinery.
In 1916 MCWF resumed responsibility for spearheading tank production. Latterly Metropolitan was contracted as builder of all 400 of the initial Mark V's and 700 of the more advanced Mark V's during 1918, and ultimately made some 80 percent of all tanks deployed by the British during the war.
The striking picture below relates to a visit in 1923 by HRH the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) to the factory at Small Heath, Birmingham, which was the epicentre of Dudley Docker's feverish engineering activity.
In the picture, Dudley Docker is second from left, next to the mayor and (presumably) lady mayoress; to their right is H. R. H. the Prince of Wales, looking perhaps not over-enthralled at this celebration of Midland engineering genius. (If anyone can identify others from the photo, that would be most welcome).
Docker's stance in the picture is typical: alert, jovial, the face of a lively conspirator. Ironically it was in 1916, when he was at the very height of his power and influence, and when Shackleton and his lost Endurance expedition, which Docker had handsomely sponsored, returned safely, that Dudley Docker suffered most dramatically from the almost Churchillian gloom and despondency which occasionally seriously affected him.
Such was the Small Heath conglomerate's contribution to the war effort, and such was Dudley Docker's personal significance at the hub of British industry, that Winston Churchill himself visited the factory towards the end of the war: 'Would you care to come to Birmingham with me,' he asked his wife Clementine, 'and see tanks and munition workers...and Mr. Dudley Docker?' Churchill enjoyed the hospitality of Docker's comfortable home at Kenilworth, near Coventry. Relations remained cordial, for in 1919 Docker gave a dinner at the Grosvenor Hotel in honour of Churchill's achievements while Minister of Munitions, and presented him with a silver model of a tank.
In subsequent decades Docker held directorships of the Midland Bank, and of four major railway companies in the Midlands, London and the South East.
In 1918 his machinations were behind the formation of Wagon Repairs, Ltd., another successful conglomerate, dedicated, 'in the UK or elsewhere, to repairing, rebuilding, reconstruction, painting, altering, converting, equipping, adapting, making fit for traffic, supplying and dealing with railway and other wagons, trucks, corves, carriages, trolleys, trolleys, vans and vehicles, and repairing wheels, axles and components.'
In 1921 he formed the Electric and Railway Finance Corporation. Famed as a 'fixer' putting together mergers and business deals, Docker was a founder of the Midlands Employers Federation in 1913, and in 1914 bought a London evening newspaper, The Globe, to agitate for greater influence of industrialists in government policy towards business.
He was founder President in 1916 of the Federation of British Industries, which he intended to act as a ‘business parliament’ supplanting the responsibilities of the Westminster parliament in commercial, fiscal, and labour matters; indeed as a master of persuasion, Dudley Docker's unique energies were largely responsible for the subsequent creation of the future Confederation of British Industry, the CBI.
In the 1880s Docker played several games of county cricket for Midland counties. He served on the committee of newly founded Warwickshire County Cricket Club until 1892, having been the highest scoring batsman at the inaugural match of the Edgbaston ground in June 1886 (when he was voted man of the match); he also playing for his county against Australia the same summer, and against the 'Gentlemen of Canada' the following year.
He was a keen shot, and usually spent time in Scotland each year, where he enjoyed fast walking on the moors, and was a member of the Royal Thames Yacht Squadron.
He was made a Commander of the Bath in 1911, largely because of his energies in recruiting troops (many of them from the Saltley Works) for the Territorial Army. In 1929 he was offered a Barony; but regrettably the offer was withdrawn by the government due to resentment in the city, partly because of his role in the purchase by the International General Electric Company of a major interest in Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company, which attracted much criticism from some of his colleagues.
Docker's perceptive biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, to whom much of this article is indebted (see picture of his excellent book Dudley Docker: Life of a Trade Warrior, above), in the DNB interestingly sums up Dudley Docker's appearance, character and outlook thus:
'He was tall and well built, with a big nose. As a young man he seemed jovial and frank, although he could be intimidating: his small, intense, unblinking eyes quelled dissidence. He was always mercenary, and had an unbeatable understanding of other mercenary men. He disliked others being in authority over him, and resented politicians or officials whom he could not bribe or browbeat.
'In business he was always bold, flexible, persuasive, ruthless, and opportunistic; from 1918 onwards he might be judged unscrupulous. At committee meetings Docker was taciturn and even inarticulate, but he was so shrewd and calculating that he was often able to direct deliberations by informal pressure. Increasingly he liked to operate through nominees, and was usually a good delegator. He had a retentive memory, and an acuity in financial affairs that was hard to surpass.
'The least gullible of men, some of his political enthusiasms were nevertheless unrealistic. Apparently he suffered from nervous strains which made him increasingly pessimistic and aggressive; he may have developed claustrophobia, and about 1916 came to dislike crowded meetings or public attention. Latterly he was secretive.'
Dudley Docker died of angina and tonsillitis in July 1944, at his home, Coleshill House, near Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and was buried at Coleshill in north Warwickshire.
An Irish racehorse, a bay gelding owned by a Mr. Joshua Pearce, bears the name 'Dudley Docker'; and at the University of Birmingham a number of Dudley Docker research scholarships in Engineering and Engineering Science are awarded regularly.
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