DUCKHAM, Sir Arthur McDougall
8th July 1879 to 14th February 1932
Duckham was a gas engineer who developed a new process of carbonisation which was used widely in British gasworks. During the First World War he served with the Ministry of Munitions. Subsequently he did much to help expand the profession of chemical engineering. He was also an advocate of higher pay and believed workers should have more say in the running of industries.
Arthur Duckham, known to friends and family as ‘Bob, was born in Blackheath, London on 8 July 1879, the son of a civil engineer. He was educated at Blackheath proprietary school (a form of private school), and then at age seventeen became an articled pupil at the South Metropolitan Gas Company. He also studied engineering, taking evening classes at King’s College London. Duckham rose quickly in the organisation, and in 1899 was appointed deputy superintendent of the Old Kent Road gas works. Two years later he was recruited to join the management of the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company, where he worked with general manager Harold Woodall, one of the country’s most experienced gas engineers. In 1903 Duckham married Maud Peppercorn, daughter of a prominent artist.
Encouraged by Woodall, Duckham began to experiment with processes of carbonisation, an essential part of the gas production process. He developed a system of gas extraction through vertical retorts which proved to be highly efficient. In 1903 Woodall and Duckham set up their own company to exploit this invention, initially serving as consulting engineers but later setting up their own gas production facilities.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Duckham was asked to join the Ministry of Munitions. He served first in the munitions invention department where his technical expertise was much in demand (some of the by-products of coal gas extraction were also components of explosives). By 1915 Duckham was deputy controller of munitions supply. It was here that he probably first met Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and others of his circle who would also go on to become speakers at the Rowntree conferences. Duckham went on to become a member of the Munitions Council, an advisor to the minister of munitions and eventually director-general of aircraft production. In 1919 he joined the Air Council. For his wartime work, Duckham was knighted KCB in 1917, and also received the Légion d’honeur from the government of France.
After the war Duckham resumed his partnership with Woodall, who had spent the duration of the war in the army. Duckham also continued in public service. In 1919 he served on the Coal Industry Commission led by Sir John Sankey, seeking ways of making the coal industry more efficient and profitable. Sidney Webb and former prime minister Arthur Balfour were also members. Duckham opposed the proposal, supported by Sankey himself, to nationalise the industry, producing instead a minority report in which he argued for more efficient mining methods, better pay for workers including a minimum wage, and a stronger voice for workers in the running of the industry.
Duckham was also involved in attempts to professionalise the profession of chemical engineering, establishing the Institute of Chemical Engineers in 1922 and serving as its first president. He also served as president of the Society of British Gas Engineers. In 1928 Duckham led a major trade delegation to Australia, for which he received a second knighthood, the GBE. He became deputy president of the Federation of British Industries, and in 1932 was elected president of the FBI, but died suddenly at his home in Ashtead, Surrey, before he could take up office.
Duckham’s lecture, ‘A parliament of industry’, is based on an idea he had put forward to a meeting of the Society of British Gas Industries in 1920, two years earlier. Commenting on the cycles of boom and bust, and the consequent problem of alternating rising wages and high unemployment, Duckham believes that much instability could be removed through greater cooperation between workers and employers. He believes also that the multiplicity of trade federations and trades unions, often highly localised, was part of the problem, leading to asymmetries in wages and working conditions. Duckham advocates instead a much more advanced system of collective bargaining through a tripartite system of works councils, regional representation and, at the top, a national parliament of industry.
Commenting on a previous lecture on works councils by William Wallace, Duckham urges his listeners to make good use of these:
In my own considerable experience of such committees, I would say that 99 per cent of the advice given [by works committees to management] has been acted upon. That, after all, is practically executive authority, and I can assure you that I go forward with my own executive work tremendously reinforced and reassured when I am backed by the advice of the workpeople I am controlling. Any of you who are at present without such a committee will find that its establishment in the works will be of the greatest benefit.
Above the works councils, replacing the old structures of local unions and trade federations would be regional or area councils, composed of an equal number of workers’ representatives and businesspeople from all trades and all industries, elected by equal ballot. These would be responsible for settling and arbitrating any and all disputes that might arise. The national parliament of industry would be chosen from members of these regional councils, and not directly elected. It too would represent all industries and trades equally.
Duckham’s intentions is to do away with factionalism and create a body which would genuinely serve the mutual interests of both employers and workers. He is quite aware, however, that human behaviour being what it is, such a system would be open to manipulation and might not bring about the end of political or class factionalism that he desired. He closes his lecture with a plea to his audience to remember their true purpose, the ‘aristocracy of service’. ‘The men we think highly of, the men we revere and honour as true aristocrats, are those who serve… The man who grudges his service, who tries to get more than he earns, is just the opposite of an aristocrat. To whatever grade of society he belongs, by birth or circumstance, he is only an outsider.’
‘Arthur McDougall Duckham’, Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Arthur_McDougall_Duckham
Goodall, F., ‘Duckham, Sir Arthur McDougall’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
‘Obituary: Sir Arthur Duckham, GBE, KCB’, Nature 120, p. 338, 5 March 1932.