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Memories of when factory Spembley Technical Products left Sittingbourne in 1970s

It's been 50 years since dozens of jobs were moved out of Sittingbourne as government defence supplier, Spembley Technical Products, relocated to Hampshire.

A former worker, David Manuel, tells Memories writer Christine Rayner about what happened after the shock news was announced.

A newspaper cutting about the relocation of Sittingbourne's Spembley factory
A newspaper cutting about the relocation of Sittingbourne's Spembley factory

David Manuel’s working life in Sittingbourne in the 1960s and early 70s was twice turned upside down by redundancy.

David got in touch after seeing an article on the 50th anniversary of when hundreds of jobs were axed at Kemsley Mill in Sittingbourne, which also mentioned the announcement that 50 years ago, Spembley Technical Products was leaving Sittingbourne to move to Andover.

He had joined the factory in 1967, having been made redundant from his previous job at Bowater’s, where he had been since leaving school in 1963. Although offered the chance to move with the firm to Hampshire in March, 1971, David declined and took the small redundancy payment offered.

He writes: “The company was involved in the manufacture of medical equipment, such as ear, nose and throat thermocouples. They also manufactured cryogenic vessels, which I think held liquid nitrogen.”

David said some of Spembley’s orders were for the Ministry of Defence, which involved considerable work for the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.

The factory supplied the HMS Ark Royal, among its high profile clients
The factory supplied the HMS Ark Royal, among its high profile clients

His role as cost and financial assistant involved “analysing time sheets for the payroll department and keeping job costing records for charging to clients, along with relevant time and materials and overheads”.

He also was responsible for credit control, which he found “soul destroying” - involving making telephone calls to try to persuade customers to pay outstanding invoices.

He still wonders at the “ingenious excuses” some customers made for late, or non-payment of invoices, adding that the MoD “could hold up payment of a large invoice for, say, £10,000 in a dispute regarding an amount no more than £200 - peanuts to a government department, but which would affect the cashflow of manufacturing companies such as Spembley”.

The business was founded by Anthony Thorne, and the name came from the contraction of speedy assembly.

It moved from its base in New Road, Chatham -now redeveloped into flats - to the Trinity Trading Estate in Sittingbourne, in 1966 and had around 90 employees.

Spembley's other Kent base, in New Road, Chatham, is now luxury flats
Spembley's other Kent base, in New Road, Chatham, is now luxury flats

Harold Jones was cost accountant, but later left to work for Britannia Lifts in Sheerness.

The company secretary was also called Harold, but David cannot remember his surname. In the offices were Ann Beer, Sarah (or Susan) Cunningham, Wendy and Glenda. Some of the staff took the chance to move to Hampshire when offered.

For a month or so before Spembley left Sittingbourne, David used to travel to the Andover office in the company secretary’s car on a Monday morning and return by train on Wednesday or Thursday. While in Andover, he prepared documents for the payroll and collected the cash from a Sittingbourne bank to put in the employees’ wage packets to pay out on Friday.

David ends his memories with two incidents at the Sittingbourne factory which stick in his mind, for good reason.

“I can recall the company had manufactured a large piece of equipment which I think was worth £16,000. The day it was to be shipped out it was being lifted on to a truck by crane when it slipped. The bottom hit the concrete floor and oil began to pour out. The company secretary was not best pleased, because he had just been on the telephone insuring the item.

“Another time, a gas cylinder being used by a welder caught alight and the whole factory had to be evacuated and await the fire brigade. Unfortunately, no one told me and I was in an office on my own. I can only think the fire alarm did not work and the first I knew of it was when a member of staff tapped on the window and suggested I should get out!”

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