The journey of E Poppleton and Son Ltd began in the early 1900’s. Edward Poppleton and his son, Arthur, came from a very modest background, living in a two-up two-down Victorian property in the Armley area of Leeds. Edward’s father worked in the Gaol (Armley Prison, Leeds) and Edward plied his trade as a tinplate worker at the Monkbridge Iron and Steel Company located in a street adjacent to the Gaol. Monkbridge manufactured locomotive boiler plates, cranks and other parts from its furnace, undertaking analysis of the steel produced from within its own chemical laboratory.
Born in 1902, Arthur was educated at West Leeds High School, following which he was retained as a laboratory assistant. At a time when those returning from the First World War were also seeking employment, he later took a position at Monksbridge, but sometime later at a Rotary Club talk he described his role as one of a “dogsbody”, collecting daily production figures and collating them within a sophisticated progress system. Nevertheless, Arthur still retained a keen interest in science, leaning towards the chemical industry and continued with his studies of iron and steel technologies at night school.
At this time it became obvious that Monksbridge were not prospering and Edward secured a job running the body panel and radiator repair department for a newly constructed Ford main agent in Leeds. Its General Manager had left a position with Braid Brothers in Colwyn Bay and suggested that there would be a golden opportunity for Edward to use his talents in North Wales.
Edward considered the advice carefully and in 1924 arranged a holiday in Colwyn Bay. In the July he rented a workshop, and commenced with the requisite tools in September. He created a business armed only with a letter of introduction to Mr Albert Braid and the courage to take on Arthur as an apprentice.
Their workshop, situated in a residential part of central Colwyn Bay, was of single brick construction with no internal office and with heating provided by a solitary coke stove. The building still remains today although it has been developed somewhat. That same year, on September the 29th they secured their first job to repair an oil stove for 5s 6d and then in October won work for Braid Brothers for repairs to a Morris Cowley for £1.2.6, Braids becoming their main client thereafter. The majority of their work involved soldering used 2 gallon fuel tins, charging 1d per leak, and motor radiator core replacement involving stripping the top and bottom tanks and replacing the honeycomb core.
The work saw their survival through the general strike and the ‘hungry thirties’ despite some unique challenges, such as soldering of the tanks which involved standing on one leg for most of the day whilst operating a leather bellows with the other foot to provide an air supply, with an associated piped gas supply to a torch operated by the right, with the left hand holding a stick of solder for application on the tank seam. Surplus droppings of solder would be retrieved, melted and re-cast for reuse. Equally, radiator tops and tank bottoms would be cleaned using acid which Arthur would siphon into a bath by sucking the acid through a transfer tube.
Despite their difficulties, in 1926 they opened an account with the Westminster Bank Ltd (later to become NatWest) in the name of Messrs Edward and Arthur Poppleton. Their first entry in the leather bound bank book was for the princely sum of £1.6.2.
1934 saw the arrival of the third generation of the Poppleton family as Edgar was born in Colwyn Bay. Sadly however, the same year brought sadness as Edward died on 14th October, aged 59. The following year saw the Poppletons’ first venture in to ventilation ductwork at the Majestic Cinema in Caernarfon. The work for Edgar Fitton, a firm of Manchester based heating engineers was secured at £40, on the condition that payment would be made when they were also paid.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out and having been too young to be able to serve in the First World War, Arthur was once again ineligible as he was too old. Nonetheless he volunteered for the Home Guard and regularly used the workshop to practice using his 0.22 rifle and sten gun in readiness. His role was made more important given that the Mulberry Harbours used in the Normandy landings were being constructed at Conwy, and the firm was also able to fabricate their metal buoyancy tanks without knowledge of the project due to its Top Secret nature.
At the end of the war, Arthur Poppleton began to trade as E Poppleton & Son and enrolled as a member of the National Association of Radiator Repairers. Alongside radiator refurbishment, business continued in general sheet metal work and ventilating ductwork fabrication. Many different forms of fabrication were undertaken including: inserts for tricycle ice cream vending; repairs to milk coolers; fabrication of gates; construction of charcoal burners; stainless steel worktops for the catering trade; repairs to milk churns; repair of motor vehicle petrol tanks; and generally anything that could be made in metal was attempted.
Galvanised steel ductwork was made comprising slip jointed socket and spigot formed straights with hand grooved seams, slip cross joints secured with solid rivets and sealed with the inevitable duct tape. All fittings were bespoke involving skilled sheet metal workers and their extensive knowledge of pattern development. Initially there were no specifications but this progressed over the years through Institute of Heating and Ventilating Engineers Table 10, then 17.5, followed by Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association (HVCA) DW121, DW141 and DW144.
At the age of 17, Edgar reached an employable age and was ready to consider all possibilities, but Arthur had other ideas and some clear words of advice:
“Go out into the world and learn something, if you fail, do not come back here looking for a job but if you succeed, come back here and I will consider if we can offer you a job”
As a result, Edgar obtained employment as an indentured engineering student apprentice with G. N. Haden & Sons Ltd in their Albert Square, Manchester Office. He also attended Newton Heath Technical College and achieved an Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering, followed by a diploma secured at the National College for Heating, Ventilating, Refrigeration and Fan Engineering at The Borough Polytechnic (now South Bank University). Edgar then went on to attain Fellow status of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers.
Meanwhile, at Poppleton the existing facility for manufacture had become outgrown as a result of a change to improve its offering by collecting and exchanging vehicle radiators through a delivery service serving the Lleyn Peninsula and the Isle of Anglesey. Likewise, Arthur saw a strain in the manner in which ductwork was being fabricated and installed and subsequently secured land to the west of Colwyn Bay and built a larger facility for the business. In 1959, battery manufacturer, Dagenite engaged with the company to sell their products, however the batteries did not come charged and required more space and storage for which the building was extended. Sadly however, the new venture did not succeed and was abandoned a few years later.
After proving himself at Haden & Sons, Edgar then had to persuade Arthur of the merits of engaging him. In February 1961 he was taken on by Poppleton at an ‘affordable’ rate. At that time, a large project had been secured to provide enclosures for heating/cooling coils for Pilkington Glass in St Helens, and Edgar began as a delivery driver in the firm’s Morris Oxford pickup truck. Soon after, on 20th February that same year, Arthur and Edgar Poppleton became joint shareholders in E Poppleton & Son Limited as the company became incorporated.
They both realised that if Poppleton was to continue to service and support some of its larger clients in the North West, this company based in the remote area of North Wales would have to build its technical capability and influence the industry. They therefore decided to apply for membership of the industry’s trade association and in 1965 became members of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association. The application was successful and they were assigned to the Lancashire and Cheshire branch of the HVCA with Edgar as the contact. This set the trajectory for Poppleton’s future development and recognition within the ventilation sector. Edgar’s passionate involvement with the Association lasted for over 51 years, rising through the ranks from regional chairman to the chair of a number of respected committees and groups, supporting technical development and becoming a Board director for a number of the HVCA’s subsidiary operations. He was later invested as the Association’s President and in 1999 was honoured with its Distinguished Service Award. He was recognised in the UK and in Europe as an expert in the field of ventilation. The business continued to prosper and whilst still undertaking work for Braid Brothers, Poppleton began to deliver more ventilation systems through larger mechanical contractors to well-known clients such as Pilkington, Ferodo and Everflex. Investment in the business and people was therefore vitally important and in the early 1970’s Gareth Vaughan and Nigel Edwards-Hughes both joined Poppleton, later to become instrumental in its progression. Gareth started as a ventilation ductwork installer and Nigel as a trainee draughtsman. Ian Poppleton, one of Edgar’s two sons, also joined the firm as a sheet metal worker, later to go on to manage the factory. Nigel supported Edgar’s work with the HVCA and helped to implement a radical change in its way forward through changeover from manual draughting methods to computer aider draughting (CAD) and 3D modelling. However, this was not the only pivotal moment in the company’s development. Through his association with the HVCA, Edgar had the opportunity to visit a fellow member who had recently invested in a new duct forming machine from Denmark. He saw that it would automate manufacture, reducing the time taken for one activity from over an hour to less than two minutes. To compete within the industry Edgar soon recognised that Poppleton had to have the same, and with the Government’s support, and much personal stake, the new Twin Seam machine was bought and proved to be a game changer for the business. Investment in both efficiencies and knowledge continued throughout the 1980’s with the installation of new computerised estimating software, and Edgar’s engagement with the Sheet Metal and Refrigeration Association of North America (SMACNA) and ASHRAE. In 1986 his second son, Andrew also joined the business but the family’s proudest moment came as Edgar was invested as President of the HVCA that same year. During this demanding time, Gareth and Nigel supported Edgar and took the reins at Poppleton. Sadly, Edgar’s momentous time in office was marred by the death of his father Arthur in March 1987.
For their support, in 1993 Edgar provided Gareth, Nigel and Ian with a shareholding in E Poppleton and Son Ltd and over the coming months they brought more financial structure to the business. However, despite their efforts, issues with programme delays caused significant pressure and the business began to suffer with cash flow difficulties. 1994 became the ‘anus horribilis’ for Poppleton. The bank placed significant pressure upon the company and brought in an external accountancy firm to oversee performance. HMRC also challenged the current position and reduction in corporation tax valuation.
Despite these challenges, Edgar, Gareth and Nigel prepared a robust business plan to take the company forward. In addition to financial control it included greater focus upon performance reporting, improved productivity, development of its products and people, and a target to reduce reliance upon the bank. Over time, the business began to strengthen and further support for investment in machinery was secured. Sadly however, in 1997 Edgar’s eldest son, Andrew, was tragically killed in a rallying accident. Andrew had been recognised as a future leader for Poppleton and the incident left an indelible mark both on the business and upon Edgar and his family. Shortly afterwards, Edgar handed greater control to Gareth and Nigel and the two prepared a three year strategic business plan for the business. As the business continued to build and Edgar saw stability, at the turn of the century he relinquished all but a minority holding. Gareth took the helm as Managing Director with Nigel as Sales Director and they soon recognised that their current facility was not suitable for the growing demands of the business. It was an opportune time as the Welsh Development Agency were encouraging inward investment and funding for new buildings became available. Quinton Hazell, a motor parts manufacturer in Mochdre, were looking to relinquish a part of their facility and an agreement was reached for Poppleton to acquire land and buildings to develop a purpose built fabrication and office facility. Edgar took the helm as project manager leaving Gareth and Nigel to continue with running the business, and in 2003 Poppleton’s new facility was opened by the Welsh Government’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. This was a significant milestone and a considerable achievement for the business which to this day still operates from this same facility. Soon afterwards, Ian left the business and in 2005 both Edgar and Barbara resigned as directors, leaving Gareth and Nigel to run the business. The business continued successfully and following in the footsteps of Edgar and encouraged by him, Gareth also took an active involvement in the HVCA and was also recognised through his investiture in the Association’s Presidency in 2008. He played an active role in many committees and groups and keenly supported its members and the industry. During his time he also established a friendship with Tim Hopkinson, the CEO of Hargreaves and a likeminded advocate of the Association and its services to the industry.
Tim had established Hargreaves as the largest ventilation ductwork contractor in the country, delivering specialist solutions to major projects in nuclear, throughout the UK and overseas. Under his stewardship they had delivered prestigious projects such as Crossrail, major projects at Sellafield and even the Chernobyl sarcophagus ventilation project. Gareth and Tim spent much time together, particularly in support of the Association.
In another turn of events, in 2015 Gareth contracted an aggressive form of cancer and sadly passed away in February 2016. For his services to the industry he was posthumously honoured with the Association’s Distinguished Service Award later that year. However, before his death and with the agreement of the remaining shareholders, he approached Tim to seek his interest in becoming involved with Poppleton. Whilst he felt it was an unlikely possibility, after some consideration Tim agreed.
Tim met with Nigel and soon recognised the importance of his knowledge and expertise, both of the industry and of the company. Discussions continued for some time after Gareth had passed away but eventually in March 2017, Tim left Hargreaves and joined Poppleton. The two shared ownership of the company and continue to develop the business to this day.
The story of the Poppleton family and the journey of this incredible business over many years has not only built strong foundations, it has delivered a priceless heritage for which all those involved can be extremely proud. The history of Poppleton not only provides its identity but serves as an inspiration to all those involved, both now and in the future. It underpins the firm’s longstanding reputation for quality and delivery, and combined with a determination to succeed will ensure that E Poppleton & Son continues to lead the ventilation industry for many, many years to come.