The British Vacuum Cleaner and Engineering Company was founded in 1902 by consulting engineer Hubert Cecil Booth (1871-1955). Hubert Cecil Booth F.C.G.I., M.I.C.E., (1871-1955) was born in Gloucester, England. At the age of 18 he moved to London to study civil and mechanical engineering at the City and Guilds College and qualified as a construction engineer.
Booth started his career as a draughtsman helping to design the engines for Royal Navy battleships. Later he was commissioned to design, plan and control the erection of the great Ferris Wheels at Blackpool, Vienna and Paris. As a consulting engineer he designed factories and bridges, but in 1900 his life took an unexpected turn.
Booth witnessed a demonstration at St. Pancras Station of a new cleaning machine for railway carriages. Suction carpet sweepers with mechanically operated fans or bellows were introduced as early as 1850, but this machine had a bunch of high-pressure jets that blew air into carpets in the hope of getting the dust to fly from one side of the carriage into a dustbox on the other side.
Booth asked the American inventor why he did not use suction instead of blowing. The angry inventor said that sucking dust was impossible, but Booth could not let go of his idea. On returning home he decided to test his idea by placing a wetted cloth over a cushioned chair and sucking on it hard. When he turned over the cloth, it was filthy from the dust that had been trapped in it. In his own words, he had invented the ‘vacuum cleaner’.
Booth co-operated with other engineers on the development of the vacuum cleaner, notably F R Simms, whose contribution was to develop a six HP water cooled engine for Booth to apply to a vacuum pump. Simms had already been involved with the original automatic tea maker enthusiast – Rowbottom – and one wonders whether Simms communicated the tea maker concept to Booth during the period that they worked together.
In October 1900 the inventor and publicist Spark (see http://www.spark-inc.com) conspired with Hubert Cecil Booth and Johann Vaaler for them to announce their respective inventions of the vacuum cleaner (Booth) and the paper clip (Vaaler) on the same day. Spark created ad campaigns for both products and the three men become partners in a franchise of vacuum cleaner repair shops.
In 1901 Booth patented his vacuum cleaner and founded The Vacuum Cleaner Company Ltd to manufacture and market it. The Head Office was in Parsons Green Lane, in Fulham, South West London. The words ‘vacuum cleaner’ first appeared in print in the company’s new prospectus on 25th February 1902. The first cleaner was rather expensive at around £350. It was a bright red machine measuring 4’6″ x 4’10” x 3’6″. The large suction pump was driven by a five horsepower piston engine. The suction was very modest by today’s standards, and little more than surface dirt and dust were removed, but even so, it was great success.
The machine was pulled by a horse around the streets of London, with a team of of men in white drill suits. On finding a potential customer, the salesmen demonstrated their wares by throwing street dirt onto people’s carpets. The gasoline motor started, and long hoses were strung in through the windows attached to a hollow container where the dirt was collected. The machine made such a noise that it frightened passing horses and caused their owners sued the Company. Worse still the police took a very dim view of the activities of the Vacuum Cleaner Company and issued several summonses for obstruction. Eventually a test case was taken to appeal, and the Comany’s right to work in the streets was upheld by the Lord Chief Justice.
Booth married in 1903 and went on to have two sons. That same year he was invited to clean the carpet in Westminster Abbey in preparation for the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The Royal Household were impressed. On 20th Oct 1902 the Lord Chamberlain wrote to Booth:
Dear Sir, I have submitted the subject of the Vacuum Cleaning Company’s operations to The King, and I have His Majesty’s permission to ask you to give a demonstration of its actual working at Buckingham Palace on Thursday next the 23rd inst at 12 o’clock, when I hope His Majesty will have an opportunity of witnessing it.
The demonstration was successful and as a result vast vacuum-cleaning units were installed in both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The British Vacuum Cleaner Company earned the Royal Warrant of Appointment to His Majesty. Booth’s next successful demonstration of the mobile cleaner was held at the Royal Mint. On the way back to headquarters a Police van stopped them and insisted on escorting them back to the mint. They had inadvertently sucked a fair amount of gold dust into their dustbag.
In 1903 Booth was granted world patent rights for the vacuum cleaner. This started a long round of legal battles as would-be competitors attempted to cash in on his invention, and other inventors staked their claims.
The Company was now going all out for sales. In 1906 they commissioned John Hassall R.I., 1868-1948 a well known artist and cartoonist, to design a series of advertising posters. At that time servants were often afraid of vacuum cleaners because they were new and seen as a potential threat to their jobs. The posters showed both nervous servants and servants who had accepted the vacuum cleaner and recognised them as helpful friends. Other advertising gimmicks included transparent hoses to show how much dirt was being sucked up.
Cleaning demonstrations were held at London society tea parties. A team of uniformed men would arrive and clean the carpets and curtains in front of their delighted audience. Soon the Company had orders for fixed cleaning machines at The Houses of Parliament, the Savoy Hotel, the Empire, the Leicester Square, the Gaiety Theatre and many other important buildings in London and the provinces.
Constant efforts were made to reduce the size of the domestic machines and to improve their manoeverability. When the ‘very first’ electric vacuum was made is all a matter of opinion. Both Thurman and Booth electrified the gasoline-powered versions of their machines as a central vac using technology more like an air compressor, not a vacuum cleaner at all. Thurman never started his own vacuum cleaner company (unlike Booth, who founded the Goblin brand vacuum cleaner).
At this time almost all vacuum cleaners were built-in models, and they all used some sort of vacuum pump, like a diaphragm on a bicycle pump, but did not use a fan to move the airflow. Many inventors were working on portable models, but the first one that actually got the carpet clean was the Spangler in 1907. James Murray Spangler was inspired to developed his portable, electric model to combat his severe dust allergy. The Spangler introduced a brush to aid the cleaning of the carpet and a true suction fan. But even Spangler didn’t make his fortune because he sold the idea to William Henry Hoover in 1908. Hoover was a clever businessman and the first manufacturer to successfully mass-produce vacuum cleaners.
The health benefits of the vacuum cleaner were becoming ever more apparent. The British Vacuum Cleaner Company commissioned Professor Stanley Kent of the Clinical and Bacteriological Research Laboratory of Bristol University to analyse a dust sample from Marlborough House on behalf of the HRH the Princess of Wales. The results were overwhelming. He reported some 355,500,000 living organisms, including diphtheria, in just one gramme of house dust. A similar test was carried out on dust from the House of Commons. This evidence led to recognition of the company by the Royal Sanitary Institute and they were awarded the Rogers Field Gold Medal.
When a serious outbreak of spotted fever broke out among soldiers stationed at Crystal Palace, all conventional attempts to control the epidemic failed. Booth was called in, and 23 tons of dust were removed and buried. The health of the men improved immediately.
The company’s first upright bag model was produced in 1921. The first cylindrical model, the Turbinet, appeared a few years later. At last vacuum cleaners were light and manageable enough for a housewife to carry upstairs.
In 1926 it was decided to put the whole range of vacuum cleaners under the trade name of ‘Goblin’. Legend has it that Booth chose the name following the comment of the wife of one of the company’s managing directors who said that the cleaner “was goblin’ up the dirt”.
The company was expanding rapidly and increasingly novel marketing methods were being employed to promote the vacuum cleaner range. The song ‘Here Comes That Goblin’ was written in 1935 by John P Long, who wrote the original version of My Old Man’s a Dustman. The dollmaker Norah Wellings introduced 6 different ‘Pixies’ in 1936. They were all around 8-10 inches tall. I found a picture of a red pixie with Goblin printed on its chest, which does not appear in any Norah Wellings catalogue, and is believed to date from the same period. It seems likely that this was a special order for Goblin. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can help me to confirm or refute this theory.
In 1936 BVC developed their first automatic teamaker.
In 1937 in many regions they advertised that, “The Goblin Organisation has vacancies for ladies of personality to sell their famous Goblin Wizard Cleaner.”
In 1937 Goblin bought a former film processing studios in Ermyn Way, Leatherhead, once used by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They converted it into new works and offices and moved in during 1938.
On September 30th 1938 Goblin presented their annual accounts, which included the expenses incurred in their move to Leatherhead. Mr H Cecil Booth reported, “Our new works are well equipped and provide facilities for a considerably increased volume of production with ample area for expansion whilst providing ideal conditions of employment.” Teasmades are not specifically mentioned, but Mr Booth did remark that, “I mentioned to you in my last speech that the company are developing new lines of manufacture, and I am glad to say that substantial progress is being made.”
By now BVC were manufacturing about 400,000 vacuum cleaners a year. They employed a team of about 2000 sales reps travelling door to door, and there were sales and service depots all over Britain. Hire purchase was contributing to this growth. BVC also acquired the Magneta Time Company at this time and manufactured a range of Goblin clocks.
Then the second world war changed everything. In 1939 the Leatherhead factory was converted for war work. It made fuses and ignitors for shells, breech blocks, firing mechanisms, aircraft landing lamp motors, clocks for mines, recording instruments for testing torpedoes, radar equipment, and mine sinkers. BVC also set up plants for dust control in ordnance factories. In 1943 they set up a factory in Bangor, Northern Ireland, to manufacture incendiary bullets.
Production restarted when the war was over, and BVC seized the opportunity to relaunch its automatic teamaker. The trademark Teasmade was officially registered in 1947, although there was a near miss when the Chairman proposed changing it to Cheerywake, and the new Teasmade, the D20, went into production alongside a range of domestic electric clocks. In 1947 Goblin also made domestic irons.
In the meantime, teasmade production was getting off to a rocky start. Goblin faced a certain amount of difficulty persuading the salesmen in the electrical trade to demonstrate teasmades, unlike their well established vacuum cleaners. Much stock ended up on back shelves in store rooms. However, Goblin were experienced in marketing, and persistent too. They demonstrated the teasmade at every exhibition they could find, and sent a team of 250 demonstrators into department stores and electrical retailers around the country. In one store a bemused shopper was heard to comment, “Hey, isn’t that strange… a clock on a tray!”
In later years Booth wrote an autobiographical book: “The Origin of the Vacuum Cleaner”. In 1955 Hubert Cecil Booth died, followed that same year by his brother, Seymour Booth, who had been the company’s technical director.
In 1958 Graham Greene published Our Man in Havana – the misadventures of a Phastkleaners vacuum cleaner sales agent in Havana, Cuba. Perhaps he had BVC in mind!
In 1969 Goblin published a booklet, “The Goblin Story”, summarising its proud history. At that time the holding company Goblin (BVC) Ltd comprised the following factories and sales facilities:
- Leatherhead: Goblin Electrical Appliances Ltd, producing domestic vacuum cleaners and teasmades; BVC Engineering Ltd, producing non-domestic vacuum equipment; BVC Electronic Developments Ltd, producing high frequency and precision motors, and airborne electrical equipment.
- Fulham: Magneta BVC Ltd, producing bedside music systems, time recorders, master clock systems, public address systems, disco turntables, and electronic security systems.
- Castlereagh, Belfast: BVC Industries N I Ltd, producing teasmades, opened in 1967, replacing the earlier Bangor factory.
- Keighley: Goblin Keighley Ltd, at the former W & S Summerscales Works, producing washing machines. This site absorbed BVC’s earlier washing machine manufacturing at a former site at Broxburn, Scotland (1945-early 1960s).
- Germany: BVC Staubtechnik GMBH, sales and service of vacuum and pneumatic systems in Germany
- South Africa: BVC Vacuumation Pty Ltd, sales and service of vacuum and pneumatic systems in South Africa
In 1959 the company underwent a substantial reorganisation, and was renamed Goblin (BVC) Ltd. In 1965 Mr Muir Johnston, the managing director, retired, and was succeeded by David Johnstone.
The teasmade did not remain in obscurity for long. Quiz shows such as “Take Your Pick” were always on the look out for inexpensive novelty items to use as prizes. The Teasmade became one of their most popular, and thus the concept became increasingly familiar to shoppers. Even big companies got in on the act. Beechams offered teasmades as competition prizes. In 1969 British Rail ordered a thousand to use as presentation awards.
Early risers, such as doctors, soon cottoned on to the benefits of the teasmade. Hotels, too, became supportive customers, appreciating the fact that a teasmade in the bedroom was a touch of luxury greatly appreciated by guests, which also saved their staff from extra work in the mornings. Soon Goblin were claiming that over two million homes contained a teasmade. (The Teasmade Story brochure, probably published in the 1970s).
Goblin collected many positive testimonials to use in their advertising.
My husband is a devoted tea drinker, despite being a publican, so this year we gave him a teasmade for Christmas. It must be the most well-used teapot in the world, set for early-morning recovery tea, pre-opening-time tea, after-closing tea, pre-opening tea, and last-thing-at-night-in-bed tea. Thank you all at Goblin for a product which could be truly called the answer to a thirsty landlords prayer.
In 1948 my father in law purchased a teasmade from your firm. Such good workmanship had gone into this machine it is still in good working order. It has served three generatios, getting them up with a lovely cup of tea. This is even more significant when you are aware that we are all Salvation Army officers – packing our bags and moving on every few years. The machine has stood all the rigours of our life, and our parents, and now our son uses it. It has been a good ambassador for you.
Oaklands Crescent, Chelmsford, Essex
We have just bought a teasmade. This instrument is just perfect, beautifully made, and has already given us both much pleasure. The kettle and tea pot are the best ever. My wife has fallen in love with it.
Pratton Avenue, Lancing, Sussex
In 1967 Goblin built an extension to their factory in Castlereagh, Northern Ireland, and began to shift manufacture of teasmades from Leatherhead to Ireland. All the new models made in Ireland were prefixed with the number 8.
On June 2nd 1972 Goblin released a press announcement to the effect that they had captured 85% of the teamaker market, a 5% rise from the 1971 figure. (Statistics from Audits of Great Britain Ltd.)
By August 1972 Goblin were working with Interlink Advertising Ltd to market the teasmades and boost sales. Weekly sales were now in five figures.
In 1974 BSR (British Sound Recorders) acquired Goblin (BVC) Ltd. The models made in 1974 could be said to be the last true Goblin products.
When BSR moved on to computer power supplies in 1983, Goblin’s Leatherhead factory was closed. In 1984 BSR disposed of the Goblin, Swan and Judge operations and changed its name to Astec. Around 1999 Emerson Electric of the USA took Astec over completely. The remains of the Goblin operation were split in two. Part of the vacuum cleaner side was sold to the Shop-Vac Corporation of the US and now operates through Goblin Ireland at Clash Industrial Estate, Tralee, County Kerry.
The other part, including the Goblin Design team, became Goblin Ltd. Goblin Ltd own the Goblin trademark with respect to kettles, lamps and vacuum cleaners. The story doesn’t stop there. Goblin Ltd was bought by Morphy Richards and they went on to operate the Morphy Richards and Goblin Aftersales Helpline (for current products, not Goblin teasmades) from their base at New Yorkshire House, Don Pedro Ave, Normanton Industrial Estate, Normanton.
In 1985 Morphy Richards were themselves acquired by Glen-Dimplex, based in Northern Ireland. Glen-Dimplex operate a website for current Goblin products. In 1988 Glen Dimplex also acquired Sona Mellerware, a manufacturer of cookware. I have been told that Sona Mellerware branded teasmades were once available but I have no further details.
After the brand’s demise, neither Swan nor Moulinex maintained any historical records, but some Morphy Richards employees still hold the keys to the history of the Goblin Teasmade. Morphy Richards’ Goblin Sales Manager Bill Sutton (who was awarded an MBE) was with Goblin in the 20’s and until his death held all the company records. Since then the task of caretaker has fallen upon another Morphy Richards employee, but sadly these records are not being made available to the public. Some records are held in the Surrey History Centre archives in Woking.