Tales from 1919: A Detroit Visitor to the Cork Ford Plant
In October 1919, American writer, Mr Jay G Hayden, contributed an engaging article for the Detroit News on the history and prospects of the Ford factory on the Marina in Cork. His story begins with a brief sketch of the Ford family in Ballinascarty. He then moves to write about Henry Ford who visited Ireland for the first time in 1913. He describes how Henry Ford introduced the Fordson tractor manufacturing and distributing plant to Cork to appeal to the European market. Cork, he deemed, was an ideal industrial location as every commodity needed in the manufacture of tractors could be procured in Europe and these could come through English ports.
Mr Hayden describes in his article that the experts whom Henry Ford sent to work out his plans in Cork found many obstacles in their way. The First World War was in progress and British war regulations imposed a ban against any new industries, which absorbed British materials and labour. Mr Ford’s team argued that the tractors manufactured would do much to support the relieving of the food shortage. There was also no labour force in Ireland skilled in the way of American manufacturing methods. Mr Ford placed against these shortcomings, the superiority of his manufacturing methods and the ability to train workers in Cork.
The Cork Park Racecourse, lying beside the River Lee, was selected as the development site, but the procedure for its acquisition was not straightforward. The property was owned by the Corporation of Cork but permission to sell the property had to be sanctioned by the Local Government Board – the British administrative body, which supervised Irish municipal and local affairs. An act of the British Parliament was required and this took many months before it was pushed through various technicalities. Construction of the plant was not begun until after the Armistice in November 1918. It was only on 1 July 1919 that the first Irish assembled tractor was ready to roll off the assembly line. By October 1919, the plant was turning out five tractors a day.
The manager of the Cork plant was Edward Grace, a young businessman from Detroit. He went into the Ford manufacturing business from high school and his industrial education was in the plants at Highland Park and Dearborn. He was sent to Cork with three other superintendents from the Dearborn plant. Every other employee was a Corkman, many of whom had been trained in rural industry but had to be retrained as mechanics.
Mr Grace on being interviewed by Mr Hayden denoted that the Cork labour pool had to be retrained in an American way of working so that productivity was higher than the Irish way of working; “The raw labour, we get here is highly superior to that which we are now getting in Detroit, and there is an unlimited number of men to choose from…our great aim is to get men to start with who haven’t anything to unlearn. We want to start with them from the ground up. The great trouble with the average Irish labourer in the beginning is that he works slowly with the first purpose of making his job last as long as possible”.
Mr Grace explained that there was a great difference between the Ford method of manufacturing and the British method. The British manufacturer depended on skilled trades and a great many special tradesmen in the plant. The American plan was to have “very few men who know how but to have a great body of common labour”. It was also fundamentally the difference between machine and hand production. As to machinery Mr Grace argued that the British manufacturer had a different idea, as to machinery; “The life of a machine is fixed to so many years, and hence machines are run at speeds, which will not wear it out before the appointed time. The Ford theory is that if a machine wears out in one month, so much the better. We get our money out of it just that much quicker and make way for a more modern machine, which may do the work faster and better”.
On trade unions, Mr Grace did not have an issue with them and in his interview, he presumed that every man in the Ford plant was a member of a labour union; “We have solved the labour question here just as we have solved it in Detroit, by paying more than the union scale of wages. You don’t have much trouble with workers when they are getting more than they can get anywhere else. Our present minimum wage is 40 cents an hour. We fixed the amount as best we could on the basis of the Irish cost of living and the wages paid elsewhere in Cork. We wanted to make the wages sufficient so the men would be contented while at the same time not disrupting the existing but industries in the city”.
In October 1919, the Cork Fordson plant was not yet manufacturing many tractor parts in Ireland due to the inability to secure raw materials. Mr Grace outlined that there were no ships to be had to haul supplies from England and even if it could be gotten over, British steel had increased to a prohibitive purchasing price. The British quotation for steel was approximately 115 dollars per ton, as against 58 dollars in America. It was found more economical to ship finished parts from America. Mr Grace highlighted that he hoped that the Cork plant would eventually manufacture no parts at Cork, but to ship raw steel from America, at lower prices than the British ones. The Ford plant had been compelled though to manufacture most of its working tools from raw steel in the Cork plant.
Kieran’s book The Little Book of Cork Harbour (2019) is published by The History Press and is available in Waterstones, Vibes and Scribes and Easons.
1020a. Lord Mayor William F O’Connor on the first Fordson tractor produced in the Cork Plant, 3 July 1919 (source: Cork City Library).
1020b. Jay GHayden, Detroit Newspaperman and Henry Ford at White House, Washington DC, USA 28 April 1938 (picture: Library of Congress, US).