an advert for hudson railway material, for every railway requirement

For a long time in the industrial heritage sector we have been perhaps overly-concerned with impressing visitors than with understanding and communicating how our trade affected the wider world. Impressing, that is, with the sheer scale of many of our collections, the greatness of the various ‘fathers’ of our field and the ingenuity of the British industrial tribe. Leeds itself has more than its share of claims to fame, including the world’s first ‘proper’ steam locomotive, the industrial powerhouse that was the Hunslet district and an imposing array of inventive talents from John Smeaton to Samson Fox.

This is understandable, laudable even, but it’s half a job. As a sector we still seem to be far less keen to talk about the broader context in which trade developed and in which British industry matured through access to global markets. Where we do ‘follow the money’ the trail often goes bafflingly cold at the point where British engineering products are delivered. It’s not that we don’t know where Leeds exported to because this is very well documented. Transport and engineering historians and enthusiasts have painstakingly pored over order books and blueprints to compile as complete a picture as possible on what went where. The part of the story that seems to be overlooked – even today – is the how and why.

Recently I came across a listing for a 2017 exhibition (now ended) at a well-known industrial museum that celebrated the contribution to ‘Empire’ made by the industries that area specialised in. It rightly highlighted the ‘skills and ingenuity’ or workers but seemed to stop short of telling a fuller story about what ‘Empire’ – for good or ill – actually meant. This is part of a wider pattern of discourse still involving industrial museums and ‘Empire’. The current website for another industrial museum in a major English city invites us to ‘discover the (city’s) role in creating Victorian Britain and the Empire’ without raising any hint of a question of whether ‘Empire’ was anything other than a self-evidently good thing for all concerned.

a black and white image of black workers building a railway.

Workers in Angola building the Loanda Railway from a product catalogue by Robert Hudson & Sons Ltd.

I’ve been looking into the history of Leeds industrial exports for a couple of years now but I still have to admit to being shocked at discovering recently how closely involved a Leeds company was with modern slavery in the 20th century.

Curators taking an honest look at the colonial histories of their collections are sometimes accused of making sweeping statements. So I want to highlight what we know about one very specific story involving a Leeds firm Robert Hudson & Sons and their involvement with the modern slavery.

Hudsons specialised in supplying light railway solutions for British industry and export including pre-fabricated rail, wagons and sub-contracted locomotives. In 1924 Hudsons secured an enormous order to supply track, locomotives and wagons for the 400 mile long Loanda Railway running across the then colony of Portuguese West Africa (now Angola). The contract was worth £900,000 (over £55 million on today’s values) and used in the region of 80,000 tons of British steel.

A blue train car in a museum building.

Many of these Hudson Fordson locomotives were exported to colonial railways.

Hudson’s featured an image of local labourers building the line in their mid-1920s product catalogue and without further scrutiny, we might be encouraged to see this order as merely another ‘good news story’, the fruits of Hudson’s hugely successful ‘sell and service’ business model. However, even as the railway was being built, the League of Nations were conducting an investigation into labour conditions in the colony. Heading the investigation, U.S. sociologist Edward Ross reported his findings that the labour conditions in the territory were ‘virtually state serfdom’.

an advert for hudson railway material, for every railway requirement

Hudsons advert.

The U.S. and Portuguese governments rushed to distance themselves from the Ross report and discredit its authors. But its findings merely confirmed what was already known about the modern slavery system being operated in the Portuguese colony. In March 1924 U.S. Consul Cecil Cross described a common method of recruiting workers:

“Upon receipt of the requisition for labor, the administrator of the district sends native soldiers with an order to . . . furnish so many ‘boys’. This recruiting has become such an established feature of the native life that the ‘boys’ usually proceed docilely but some prove hard to manage, disobedient, and are marched with their hands tied together and connected with one another by ropes. In some cases they are tied neck to neck as in the old slave days. It is probably instances like these that give rise to many of the reports of slavery.”

It is highly unlikely that Hudsons as a company were unaware of labour conditions prevailing in Portuguese West Africa. Their publications boasted of their ability to maintain “a staff of trained engineers resident in different parts of the world to consult on the spot with intending customers”. At a senior management level Hudsons’ “Directors . . . also travelled all over the world to see their goods actually in operation and personally control and direct the business of the firm”.

A black and white printed advert for Robert Hudson & Sons Ltd, Johahnnesburg

Hudson’s catalogue page highlighting their African interests.

When I spent time looking at the Robert Hudson & Sons archive at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2018 I found ample evidence of how well-informed the company were on local conditions in the African territories where they were doing business. They had to be. The success or otherwise of their business was closely connected to the social and political events of the day. A case in point was the extensive correspondence exchanged between Hudson’s managers on the implications of the 1969 Lusaka Manifesto, a joint commitment by Southern African states to work towards the peaceful end of white minority-rule in South Africa and its client states of Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola.

Whilst the above events took place in a Portuguese colony, Leeds companies were especially favoured by access to Britain’s colonies. The colonial locations and the products supplied to them are far too numerous to delve into in this short blog post. A superb resource for tracing Leeds’ British Empire and other worldwide exports is the extensive database compiled by LeedsEngine.

We need to find ways of acknowledging the role of these companies in helping to build the city of Leeds we know today that co-exist with a fulsome and honest recognition of the less honourable aspects of their histories. In this blog post I have focussed on Robert Hudson & Sons. This company provided skilled and semi-skilled employment to local communities from 1865 to 1984 and generated considerable loyalty and pride amongst its workforce, their families and communities. ‘Following the money’ – exposing our industry’s colonial wrong-doings – should not lead us to disregard the experiences and struggles of the working class communities who helped them prosper.

Just as it took industrial museums many decades to acknowledge the value of workers’ voices, hopefully we are now entering a period where a wider and more representative range of voices are heard that take account of where and – crucially – how our industry flourished.


By John McGoldrick, Curator of Industrial History