Richard Sutcliffe

In May 1972, Richard Sutcliffe Ltd. employed a total 1,110 people with 742 working at the Universal Works site off Benton Hill in Horbury and another 82 employed at Number 2 Works, at the old gasworks site at Healey in Ossett, with many more working at Sutcliffe Moulded Rubber in Church Street, Ossett. Many Horbury and Ossett people worked for Sutcliffe's and have fond memories of working there. The following is a history of Richard Sutcliffe, the founder of the company and how the business developed over 110 years in the district. Sadly, the Horbury Universal Works are long gone and in their place is a housing estate and public house.

Richard Sutcliffe (1849 - 1930) was an Irish-born mining engineer and inventor. He was born at the height of the Irish potato famine on a farm in Co. Tipperary, Ireland on the 26th January 1849, the son of Joseph Sutcliffe and his wife Rachel (nee Deeves), the descendant of a settler from England. Richard was the second of three sons and one daughter born to Joseph and Rachel Sutcliffe, who were both Protestants in what was very much a Catholic community. 

Richard Sutcliffe.

Horbury Civic Society Blue Plaque on Chestnut House

Advert for Richard Sutcliffe Limited.

Sutcliffe isn't an Irish surname and even though Richard was the descendant of several generations of Irish farmers, his earliest ancestors hailed from Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. The surname Sutcliffe is reputed to be a derivation of the Dutch surname Zutcliffe, and a number of Dutch settlers moved to Hebden Bridge and established cloth manufacturing businesses there in the 16th century. The Sutcliffes had been cloth manufacturers in Yorkshire from the time of Charles I, and the first Sutcliffe to move to Ireland was John Sutcliffe, whose will was proved in 1641. John Sutcliffe probably went to Ireland in 1633, as a servant to Sir George Wentworth (born 1609) who was loyal to Charles I. It is thought likely that John Sutcliffe held a post in the Irish Army and most likely lost his life in the fighting that took place in Ireland in 1641.(1)

Unusually for the time, the three Sutcliffe brothers were all big men. The oldest and youngest of the brothers were both well over six feet in height. Richard was the smallest of the three at 5ft 11", but he made up for his slight lack of height by comparison to his brothers with a chest measurement of 45".

In order to augment his earnings on the farm, Richard's father Joseph opened a coal yard in a town a few miles distant from the family farm. The Sutcliffe boys, in turn, after they left school had to work at the coal yard and this was Richard's first experience of business. One day, when Richard was 18 years of age, a mining engineer, Mr. Joseph McCarthy Meadows called at the farm to discuss a business matter with Richard's father. Meadows had been the managing partner of the Coal Mining Company of Ireland and had recently become the General Manager of Wolfhill Colliery in Queens County, Leinster. He mentioned during his visit to the Sutcliffe's farm that he was looking for a clerk to work at his colliery and he offered the post to young Richard Sutcliffe. And so, a future pioneer of the mining industry started his journey. In December 1867, Sutcliffe commenced work as a clerk in Wolfhill Colliery and very soon became a trusted employee. At the age of 20 years, he was given the responsible job of sinking a new shaft at the pit. This was a complex task involving the making of a new road and building houses for the staff working on the project.

Life was to change for Richard Sutcliffe for ever with the arrival in Ireland in 1871 of a pit sinking contractor called Richard Davis from County Durham in England, who was brought in to sink a new shaft near Wolfhill Colliery. Mr. Davis brought with him his wife and his 18 year-old daughter Grace Davis. Richard Sutcliffe and Grace were instantly attracted and both fell head over heels in love. When Richard Davis completed his work in Ireland and returned to County Durham with his wife and daughter in the Spring of 1883, Richard Sutcliffe followed very soon afterwards.

On the 16th May 1874, at Witton Gilbert, Co. Durham, Richard Sutcliffe and Grace Davis were married. They returned to live in the colliery house at Wolfhill Colliery in Ireland, which the colliery owners had fitted up and furnished for them, demonstrating the high regard they had for Richard Sutcliffe. After completing a difficult contract job at Wolfhill pit, Sutcliffe hurried over the Irish Sea to Langley Park, Durham where his first child Mary Elizabeth Sutcliffe was born on the 21st March 1875. Grace had crossed to England a week earlier to be with her parents for the birth of their first child.

Richard Sutcliffe had also, in the preceding years, studied for, and successfully passed, the examination for his Colliery Manager's Certificate of Competency, having travelled to Manchester to take the examination after studying at home. The number of candidates passing this difficult examination was only 33% of the total that entered. After taking on the duties of mine surveyor in addition to his existing duties in 1876, Sutcliffe was later promoted to become the manager of the coal mine. He gave notice to terminate his contract as colliery manager at Wolfhill on the 13th May 1876 after a disagreement with the owners who due to difficult trading circumstances required him to lay off all the miners in the colliery. By this time a second daughter, Rachel Davis Sutcliffe had been born in 1876.

In September 1876, immediately after the completion of his first contract for getting coal by early coal cutting machinery and turning down an offer to take over the colliery, Sutcliffe left for England and took up a post as surveyor at the Earl of Durham's Warraton Colliery, near Birtley and Chester-le-Street in County Durham. Sutcliffe only remained in Durham about nine months. In May 1878, he was asked by Messrs. Robson, Grace and Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne to become the manager of Clogh Colliery, Castlecomer, Ireland and Sutcliffe accepted the offer. The Sutcliffe family remained at Clogh until March 1884, living in a small colliery house. During this time, four more children were added to the Sutcliffe family and Grace had a live-in maid from England.

After a short, and somewhat unsuccessful venture at Kilcooley Colliery, near to where his father lived at Tipperary, Richard Sutcliffe and his family of wife and five small children moved to Barnsley in Yorkshire on the 4th August 1885. Two of the children were left in Ireland with Sutcliffe's parents in Ireland, but would join the rest of the family in Barnsley later. For want of better things, Sutcliffe started work as a coal miner at Oaks Colliery, Barnsley in 1885 to help support his large family. The work was hard, but he succeeded in winning the respect of the tough Yorkshire miners by matching them in effort and output.

The 1891 census records the Sutcliffe family living in modest accommodation at Hope Terrace, Barnsley with a family of eight children as follows:

Mary Elizabeth Sutcliffe (16) born Ireland

Rachael Davis Sutcliffe (14) born Ireland

Grace Margaret Sutcliffe (13) born Ireland

Richard Joseph Sutcliffe (12) born Ireland

Joseph Davis Sutcliffe (10) born Ireland

William Sutcliffe (9) born Ireland

James Thomas Sutcliffe (7) born Ireland

Alice Clark Sutcliffe (3) born Barnsley

Two of the boys subsequently died at a very young age: James Thomas Sutcliffe aged 12 in 1896, when the family were living in Horbury and Joseph Davis Sutcliffe aged 22 in Neath, Glamorgan in 1902, where it is likely he was then working.

Universal Works, Benton Hill, Horbury.

Sutcliffe's Moulded Rubber, Impact Works, Ossett.

Richard Joseph Sutcliffe, who was destined to become the Chairman and Managing Director of the Sutcliffe's business in the 1930s, trained as a solicitor and became a barrister at law practising in London. This clip from the "Leeds Mercury" from the 25th July 1903 has some information about his training:

"Successful Horbury Law Student - A Horbury Law student, Mr. R.J. Sutcliffe of Horbury, son of Mr. Richard Sutcliffe, mining engineer, has succeeded in bringing into Yorkshire a couple of prizes, which do not appear to have been taken by a Yorkshire student in many years. These are the Clement's Inn and Daniel Rearden prizes of the value of about £31, which are awarded by the Law Society to students obtaining first place in the first-class list of the solicitors' honours examination. Mr. Sutcliffe, who is 24 years of age, and who is articled to Mr. Harry Bastide, solicitor, of Halifax obtained this position at the honours examination held on the 18/19th June last, and has accordingly had the two prizes awarded to him."

In May 1887, Richard Sutcliffe made his first contract to get coal with coal cutting machines with Stringer and Son, the proprietors of Park Mill Colliery, Clayton West. Sutcliffe persuaded the Stringers to purchase two coal cutting machines that he had previously worked at Modubeagh, Ireland some ten years earlier. He worked the machines with great success and in June 1890, in a letter, Sutcliffe stated that about 30% more round coal was being got from the coal cutting machines than could be obtained by hand and that the pit's output was greatly increased. The two coal cutting machines from Ireland were christened "Alice" and "Jumbo" and Richard Sutcliffe himself also became known in the district as "The Iron Man."

By 1891, Sutcliffe was keen to try new things and to better himself by putting to use his proven mines engineering skills. He ended his contract with the Stringers at Clayton West and took rooms in the Public Hall in Barnsley, where he opened classes for mining students. Whilst doing his teaching work, he started on the design of several new mining machines, and in particular a pit sinking machine, which he patented. These machines were quite revolutionary at the time when many pits were sunk by hand.

In 1892, Sutcliffe took out a patent on a coal cutting machine, which was first used in Messrs. Pope and Pearson's collieries at Normanton. In 1895, Sutcliffe granted a licence for the manufacture of his coal cutting machine to Sir William Garforth and the machine became known as the Diamond Coal Cutter and was sold in large quantities by the Diamond Coal Cutter Co. based in Wakefield. After some disagreement about royalties, the licence arrangement was ceased. In 1892, Sutcliffe also took on a contract to sink a pit at Rylands Main, Barnsley where his new pit sinking machine proved a success. Also, in the same year he became the part-time manager at Hartley Bank Colliery, owned by the Flockton Coal Company at Horbury.

1893 was a very bad year for Richard Sutcliffe and despite being heavily occupied with his business affairs, he was to experience a huge setback with the death of his wife Grace on the 15th July 1893 from a short illness.. Grace Sutcliffe was just 41 years of age and they had been married for 19 years. To compensate, Sutcliffe immersed himself in his work, but the loss of his beloved wife was a huge blow. Richard Sutcliffe never married again, for no-one could replace his late wife Grace. As he lay in his bed on the 15th July 1930, eight days before his own death, he made a last entry in his diary in his shaky old writing: "My dear good wife died in 1893."

Further tragedy was to follow and in 1896, Sutcliffe lost his youngest son Jim, who was just into his teen years. In 1902, he lost a second son Joe, a promising young engineer who sadly died in a bicycle accident. In May 1919, a third son, William, who was also a promising engineer and working with his father in the family business, died in his 38th year after a long and harrowing illness. Sutcliffe himself also suffered a serious illness a few years before the loss of his son William. Near the end of Richard Sutcliffe's life he was dealt yet another blow with the death of his spinster daughter Grace Sutcliffe, at the age of 49, who had for many years been his housekeeper, cashier and private secretary.

In 1896, Sutcliffe filed a patent for a new and improved life-belt or apparatus for use on or about water, demonstrating his engineering design skills in other fields.(2)

Chestnut House, former home of Richard Sutcliffe.

Chestnut House (next to 148) on an OS map from 1893.

In 1905, Sutcliffe applied for patents on his coal belt conveyor that was revolutionary at the time. In the mines at the turn of the 20th century, coal was still being loaded into tubs at the coal face and then pushed or hauled by boys and ponies to the tram road or pit gate. From there, it was hauled by ropes to the pit bottom for lifting to the surface. The work was back-breaking and expensive. Sutcliffe believed the best method for getting the coal away from the miners working at the face was a belt conveyor to carry the coal out. The skilled part was making the machinery work in the hostile environment within the confined space of a coal mine.

When Richard Sutcliffe first moved to Horbury he lived on Northgate in a house next door to the vicarage, which was still, in 1901, occupied by the 90 year-old Rev. John Sharp and two other clergymen. Later, in 1905, the Sutcliffe family removed to live at Chestnut House, Daw Lane, Horbury, where the blue plaque shown above was erected in Sutcliffe's memory in 2009 by Horbury Civic Society.

A Liberal in politics, Sutcliffe believed in individual freedom with the highest possible standard of living for all. He had no belief in Socialism, which he viewed as a snare to working people and meant a return to primitive life, with merely a change of masters for working people and ultimately, poverty for all. He desired for everyone to have a fuller life, but he did not believe that this was possible under Socialism. He expressed his views freely, and became a frequent correspondent with the local newspapers on politics and other subjects, sometimes criticising the direction taken by his preferred Liberal Party under Asquith and Lloyd George during and after WW1. 

Sutcliffe selected a factory at Horbury to start the construction of his belt conveyors. He renamed the factory, which originally had been the old Dye Works Mill, which lay partly within the Horbury boundary, at the bottom of Benton Hill as "Universal Works"because he felt his conveyors were of universal application and were suitable for working above or below ground. Dye Works Mill had been built in the early 1800s and was destroyed by fire in 1873 with much valuable machinery lost. The loss at that time was £14,000, but in the event, the mill was rebuilt in 1874. Sutcliffe installed a gas engine with some necessary machine tools and in October 1905, started production of his conveyor inventions. 

In 1905, there were no belt conveyors in mines and the first six underground belt conveyors in the world were ordered by the Glass Houghton Colliery Company, where Mr. John Parkin was the manager. The conveyors were installed in 1906 at Glass Houghton pit. They were to work in a coal face which had been set out for 660 yards, with three gates, each 220 yards apart. Six 20 inch canvas belt conveyors, each 110 yards in length and working in a coal seam around 5 feet thick, fed on to a plate conveyor in each gateway. They ran at a speed of 200ft per minute and had a capacity of dealing with 500 tons of coal per day. This invention was to revolutionise mining in the next 20 years. The works at Horbury were much enlarged over the years and with the Healey Number 2 works at Ossett, which was opened in 1947, the two factories covered and area of 19 acres.

During WW1 Sutcliffes were given a contract to machine 200 18lb shrapnel shell cases per week from rough forgings. The shell cases were then sent to another company to be completed before they were sent out to the Western Front to be used by the newly invented tanks. Sutcliffe's adapted some of their existing machinery to produce more shells and very soon, the company was turning out 2,500 shell cases per week. As more and more of Sutcliffe's employees were called up for WW1 service, he employed women, young girls and boys as well as partially disabled men to produce the vital munitions. They were paid a fixed wage plus a small incentive bonus depending their individual output.(2)

During WW1, women workers were a huge success, despite initial doubts about their ability to do work previously done by men. A report published in 1915 showed that women workers in Britain's factories (like Richard Sutcliffe Ltd.) had increased their production by 250%. An amazing tribute to the war effort by Britain's women workers.

At the age of 81, Richard Sutcliffe died, on the 23rd July 1930, at his home, Chestnut House located in Daw Lane, Horbury. His obituary (3) is reproduced below:

"The death has occurred of Mr. Richard Sutcliffe, mining engineer, of Chestnut House, Horbury, in his 82nd year. He was for many years a member of the Mining Engineers Institution, the Colliery Managers' Association, the Manchester Geological Society, and the Barnsley Naturalists' Society.

Mr Sutcliffe was born in Southern Ireland, and his first connection with mining was in the Leinster coalfields. He came to England in 1895, and in 1888 brought from Ireland two coal cutting machines, which he introduced into Mr. Stringer's colliery at Clayton West.

He invented many machines for mining purposes. In 1892 he patented a coal cutting machine, which was conspicuously successful in use at Messrs. Pope and Pearson's collieries at Normanton and in 1895 Mr. Sutcliffe granted a licence of the patent to the late Sir William E. Garforth and with certain improvements it became known as the Diamond Coal Cutter and was sold in large numbers by the Diamond Coal Cutting Company of Wakefield.

In 1905 Mr. Sutcliffe invented and patented the first belt conveyor to be used at the coal face. He opened the Universal Works at Horbury to manufacture the conveyors, and these were sold in considerable numbers throughout the country.

He was for many years a member of the Horbury Urban District Council and at one time chairman, but had to forgo most of his activities some years ago owing to failing health. Mr. Sutcliffe's wife died in 1893, and of his eight children, one son (who is a member of the Bar practising in London), and two daughters survive him."

Shortly after Sutcliffe's death, his house on Daw Lane was put up for sale by his remaining family (4). The house was described as "a beautiful well-built house: 3 reception rooms, large kitchen, scullery, butler's pantry, cellars, six bedrooms, and box-room; stabling; coach house and garden, about 3/4 acre."

Richard Joseph Sutcliffe, became Chairman in 1930.

Some Horbury employees in 1955, the 50th anniversary of the Sutcliffe company.

Photo courtesy David Huggins & Anne-Marie Fawcett

After Sutcliffe's death, the family decided that rather than sell the business, which would have attracted a considerable number of buyers, to instead continue with the business and expand it. In Richard Sutcliffe's will, he had given his only remaining son Richard Joseph, by now a barrister, the option to buy the company. Instead of doing this and for family reasons, R.J. Sutcliffe agreed with his siblings and other members of the extended Sutcliffe family that a private company should be formed with him as the Chairman and the Managing Director.

At this critical time, British industry was suffering from the 1930s Depression and Sutcliffe's marked time the best they could until business picked up. R.J. Sutcliffe recruited his brother-in-law George Senior and John Sheppard, the Chief Engineer in an effort to improve and expand the company, which was losing orders to the larger and more established manufacturers. By increasing the amount of revenue spent on advertising in the trade magazines, sales for the financial year 1933/34 were double the sales of the previous years. 

Around this time, Universal Works was expanded considerably. Richard Sutcliffe had bought well and had bought a lot of extra land with Universal Works back in 1905. Some of the older buildings were removed and new purpose-built units were constructed to house the modern machine tools now needed for the rapidly expanding business. A new company, the "Sutcliffe Moulded Rubber Co." was formed to weld rubber on to the idlers of the conveyor belts.

John Sheppard, as Chief Engineer was responsible for many of the innovative conveyor machines produced at Horbury. The machines were given names such as "Goliath", "Super Goliath", "Little David", "Lion", "Lioness", and the largest machine, which was called "Monarch". 

In 1937, R.J. Sutcliffe's son, Thomas Desmond Sutcliffe (born 1914), a chartered accountant joined the company as joint managing director with his father. By 1938, sales and output showed an increase of 700% over those six years previously. More new buildings and more new machine tools were installed at Universal Works prior to the start of WW2 in September 1939, enabling output to increase even more.

The war didn't halt production and despite difficulties in recruiting staff due to the war effort and the pull on manpower, by 1947, profits and output were up by 900% over the 1938 figures. During WW2, there were many orders from the British Government, including an order for the supply and installation of 57 conveyors varying in length from 18ft to 2,400ft; the latter on a gradient of 1 in 8. The total length of all these conveyors was 14 miles.

Sutcliffe's also manufactured parts for the Rolls Royce Merlin engines used on the big Lancaster bombers and numerous other aircraft used by the RAF during WW2. They also made some high precision parts for the Spitfire fighter aircraft and Universal Works must have been a likely target for German WW2 bombing raids, although they luckily escaped that fate.

Even though Universal Works was enlarged over the years, the large influx of military work during WW2 meant that a second factory was needed to cope with the bulging order book. In 1947, a second factory "Number 2 Works" was established in the old Gas Works buildings at Healey, in nearby Ossett. The Richard Sutcliffe Number 2 Works at Healey, Ossett was still in production as late as the 1990s. A new factory, specialising in moulded rubber products, called "Impact Works", was built on Church Street, Ossett in the 1950s, and was known as "Sutcliffe Moulded Rubber." In the 1960s, and possibly earlier, there was another factory called "Sutcliffe Hydraulics" located in the old pit yard at Whitwood, Castleford, and for a while, the drawing office staff relocated there, before in moving back to Horbury in 1965.(5) 

In 1948 Wheldale Colliery had the longest single conveyor belt in the world at a length of one mile long. Sutcliffe mine engineers based at Universal Works, Horbury, installed an underground conveyor system using the popular Goliath driving gear. It was invented by Mr John Sheppard, Chief Engineer and Technical Director of Richard Sutcliffe Ltd. This machine made history in 1948, becoming the first driving gear to use rubber and canvas ply belting reaching in excess of 1 mile.

After the coal industry was nationalised shortly after the end of WW2 by the incoming Labour Government to become the National Coal Board (NCB), Richard Sutcliffe's continued to supply conveyor belt equipment to the mining industry. The business was expanded overseas into an associated company in South Africa called "Richard Sutcliffe South Africa (Proprietary) Ltd." and many orders were received not just from within the UK, but from overseas countries such as Canada, Borneo, Malaya, the Middle East and Spain. By now Sutcliffe's were supplying conveyor installations to steelworks, brick works, gas works, power stations, water works, sugar refineries, and paper mills. 

Three more of R.J. Sutcliffe's sons: Richard, Gerald and Dermod became directors in the business. Sadly, the company lost their inspirational Technical Director, John Sheppard, who died in 1947 after several years of ill health. He was followed by the death of Joint Managing Director, (Thomas) Desmond Sutcliffe in 1950 at the early age of 35 years. Desmond Sutcliffe had been a dynamic force at Sutcliffe's and had helped the business thrive during some difficult periods. He was also the Managing Director of Sutcliffe Moulded Rubber and Sutcliffe Machinery Ltd. Finally, the highly respected Works and Production Director, Thomas Milner died in 1953, aged 67 years. He had worked his way up the ladder at Sutcliffe's and worked there for 47 years after starting as a machinist in 1906.

When Desmond Sutcliffe died, his brother Gerald Sutcliffe took over as Joint Managing Director, and later he became the sole Managing Director.


1905 Company founded.

1914 Mechanical Engineer. Specialities: mining engineering works, coal cutters, conveyors etc.

1932 Private company.

1961 Mechanical handling plant (including hire and purchase facilities), conveyors and ancillary equipment. 700 employees.

1968 Coal handling plant for the CEGB at Ratcliffe-on-Soar.

1969 The mining machinery interests of Fletcher and Stewart of Derby were merged with those of Richard Sutcliffe and A. G. Wild and Co (owned by Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation) of Sheffield and Aycliffe into a new company named Fletcher Sutcliffe Wild, to supply self-advancing powered roof support systems and other mining machinery; it would be majority owned by Booker Group.(6) 

Taken in Horbury in the summer of 1925 showing Richard Sutcliffe with his daughter Mrs. Rachael Lisle (far left) and some of her children: Grace Alice Irene Lisle (with dog), Richard Lisle (wearing mortarboard) and far right Winifred Lisle. 

Storage sheds at Univeral Works, Horbury. Photo Wakefield Libraries Collection.


1. "Richard Sutcliffe - The Pioneer of Underground Belt Conveying" by R.J. and Edward D. Sutcliffe. Privately printed 3rd Edition 1955.
2. "Hull Daily Mail", 21st August 1896.
3. "Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer", 25th July 1930
4. "Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer", 9th August 1930
5. Shirley Woollin via "Ossett Through The Ages" Facebook page.
6. Grace's Guide to British Industrial History.
7. Steve Wul via "Ossett Through The Ages" Facebook page.
8. "Yorkshire Evening Post", 19th May 1949
9. Private correspondence with Brian Thompson, Ossett who worked at Richard Sutcliffe Ltd.

Stephen Wilson  April 2016