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Mr Lister - a gentleman employer

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Few people with any interest in local history or engineering can have failed to recognise the importance of the name of Lister in the manufacture of diesel engines. But how many of us, I wonder, are aware of how Robert Lister came to found his family business in Dursley, or have heard about the care he demonstrated towards his workforce who he saw almost as his family?

Mr Richard Buffery, himself a long-serving employee of Lister's, delighted us for the evening with his insight into the modern world at Lister and provided us with a brief history of the company. Robert Lister was apparently one of four sons. His father, George, ran a foundry at Uley manufacturing machinery for woolen mills. George recognised Robert's potential and sent him to study engineering in Germany. On his return in 1867 Robert established his own company, the forerunner of today's Lister-Petter, designing and repairing agricultural implements. However, Robert placed no limits on his potential for making money and embraced the new ideas of the time providing support to both his friend, Edward Budding, who developed the first lawn mower, and to Mr Piederson who was perfecting a particular design of bicycle. The company was also running at this time a successful garden furniture manufacturing division. This woodworking was later expanded to include the production of household objects such as candle sticks, napkin rings and ornamental barrels made from the wood of navy ships and all carefully catalogued for sale in a particularly interesting publication amongst the artifacts in Mr Buffery's collection.

From 1907 onwards Lister's diversified into the area of petrol-paraffin engines although the first diesel engine, for which they are now world-famous, did not come along until 1929. Lister's engines are used mainly for agricultural use, electricity generation or water pumping purposes and have a well earned reputation for being sturdy and long-lasting. These days, of course, they also need to meet stringent emission regulations and we were surprised to learn from Mr Buffery that India has some of the most rigorous legislation in this regard. We were treated to some insight into the technicalities of meeting these emissions regulations, and by some of Mr Buffery's interesting anecdotes of his adventures as a representative of Lister's all over the world.

To give us some idea of the scale of production at Lister's height, Mr Buffery quoted the factory production figures between 1929 and 1985 when 1,338,316 Lister diesel engines were produced and sold worldwide. Most recently, some of these were set to work pumping water after the Boxing Day Tsunami disaster.

In more recent times, Lister's history has been one of mergers and takeovers which have broadened the company's name to include that of Petter. Expanding competition from the far east, and Lister-Petter's failure to expand its own range, we were told by Mr Buffery, has seen the company's fortunes and number of employees dwindle from 10,000 in the 1960s to just over 200 today. However, it was clear that there remains a certain pride in being associated with the company. Mr Buffery was keen to enlighten us to the more philanthropic side of the company informing us of the building works undertaken by the founding Mr Lister to provide homes for his valued workers, and his belief that his employees should have a voice on the company's board. When hard times came, Mr Buffery told us how families would always receive a sack of coal, a food hamper and a chicken at Christmas time, and in times of necessary redundancy, the welfare of the entire family was a consideration in deciding who could afford to be lost. Fortunately the local interest and importance of the company was not lost on us and we were most fortunate to have enjoyed such an informative evening of broad interest in the company of Mr Buffery.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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