Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd (SPRA)

“Lost ships can be replaced – but lives lost are gone forever”

William Schermuly sailed the seven seas during the age of sail and knew first hand the perils encountered by seamen. In May 1897 after ten years of experimental work he finally produced a practical and efficient ship’s line-throwing appliance.

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William Schermuly’s original line-thrower was a practical, seamanlike job comprising trough fired rockets with a range of 200 yards when carrying a half-inch circumference line flaked by a new method developed by the inventor (flaking was a system whereby a long line could be efficiently wound into a small space).

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It was not intil 1912 that the first worth-while orders started coming in from the major ship owners.  An early line-thrower was installed aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance. Both Shackleton and Scott were amongst the first to recognise the value of the apparatus and to equip their ships with it.

An early Schermuly line-thrower aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship "Endurance"
An early Schermuly line-thrower aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship “Endurance”

In 1920, William Schermuly along with his son, Capt. Conrad D. Schermuly, D.C.M., invented the Pistol Rocket Apparatus and their small factory in Cheam had to be enlarged and additional labour engaged. The picture on the left shows William Schermuly preparing to fire the original model for the first time and the second picture shows William with his sons, Capt. C.D. Schermuly, A.J. Schermuly and C. Shermuly.

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With the new apparatus fully developed it was now time to show the world and a series of demonstrations were arranged.

Demonstration at the Hook of Holland, July 1922 – Cordes Gun about to be fired (range 50 yards)

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Demonstration to Naval Attaches, 26th April 1926.

Demonstration at Marseilles to French Naval and Mercantile Authorities, August 1926.

Demonstration to Capt. Rashleigh, Chief Inspector of Coast Guards

Captain Crozier of the United States Shipping Board, 9th June 1927

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Demonstration to the Eagle Oil Co., the Australian Commonwealth Line and the Angl-Mex Oil Co. , 8th July 1927

Demonstration to Labour MPs, 28th July 1927

Demonstration at Charing Cross Fire Float, 9th August 1927

Demonstration at Gothenburg, 14th December 1927

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Demonstration to Messrs. Stelp & Leighton Ltd and others

William Schermuly firing a 1 lb rocket at Wembley Stadium

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Demonstrations on board the “T.S. Worcester”

Demonstrations for the Board of Trade, 25th April 1928

Nine years after the invention of the new apparatus, came an event that was to seal the success on William Schermuly’s work. This was the bringing into force on January 1st, 1929, of the Act of Parliament making compulsory the carrying of line-throwing appliances in British registered ships of over 500 tons. Nineteen days later, and thirty-two years after the invention of his first apparatus, William Schermuly died.

Within a few years the continued expansion of the business resulted in the company moving to Newdigate in 1937.

Up to the outbreak of war in 1939, the company continued to expand by reason of both development and production of a complete range of pyrotechnic distress equipment, and of contract work from the Government awarded by virtue of the company’s reputation for inventiveness and quality. As the war developed Conrad or “the Captain” as he was usually known, supported by two of his brothers, Alfred and Charles, directed the company’s attributes and resources to finding answers to some of the most pressing problems that beset the country’s armed services.

Prominent among the wartime products designed and made in the Newdigate factory were the P.A.C rocket which carried a steel cable to a height in excess of 500 feet as a defence against low flying aircraft; ‘Skymarker’ and target indicator bombs for the R.A.F’s Pathfinder force; ‘Snowflake’ illuminating flares for nocturnal U-boat hunting; and line-throwing grapnel rockets for assault troops.

Wartime expansion necessitated a corresponding increase in the size of the factory, which had already been extended into an 18 acre field to the north of the original 14 acre field. So in June 1940 the company acquired a further 109 acres of land on either side of the northern limb of Ewood Lane, including a number of houses. Some of this land together with Ewood Old Farmhouse was actually conveyed to Conrad, who farmed there, although subsequently the company acquired the title to the whole area A further portion of this parcel of 109 acres was used to exend the factory to about 60 acres in all. The remainder served as pasture and doubled up as proof fields in which equipment was tested. Similarly the labour force rose in numbers until at the stage of peak wartime production there were some 1,400 employees.

After the end of the war there was inevitably a massive reduction in the labour force and in the size of the factory and a lage number of buildings were removed. In 1963 the land to the east of Ewood Lane, 36 acres in all, wa sold to Judge Stock of Shellwood Manor. In return two fields n the west side of Ewood Lane, totalling 27 acres, were purchased by the company from the judge, thereby conferring the title of all the land west of Mill Lane and Ewood Lane to the company. Before this Conrad had given up farming and had retired from the company and shortly afterwards his brother Alfred also retired as technical director. Alfred’s mantle was taken up by his son, William, who was living in Ewood Old Farmhouse.

Ewood Farmhouse - 1936

Charles continued as works director for several more years until he too retired.

Schermuly employess

Some years prior to Conrad’s retirement the Charterhouse Group had invested venture capital in the company and when Conrad retired the company became a fully owned subsidiay of Charterhouse. Recent technological advances presaged a change to automated processes.

Some of the Schermuly products

At the time the family relinquished financial interest in the company over 350 people were still employed in the factory. By 1973, when ownership passed to the Wilkinson Sword group and the company was amalgamated with its chief U.K. competitor, Pains-Wessex, the number of employees was less than 250, although turnover was enhanced.

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Eight years afterwards the industrial slump of the time necessitated transfer of all activities of the amalgamated firms to the Salisbury factory of Pains-Wessex. So when redundancy struck in 1981 there were just 146 people left at the Newdigate site.

The factory was closed and in 1994 planning permission was granted allowing development of the site for housing. the estate is called Becket Wood.

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Information extracted from ‘Ship to Shore’ (see library section) and an article written by former employee, the late Alan Warman in 1988. For more information about Schermuly products go to: www.cyber-heritage.co.uk/schermuly/

In 2009 and 2010 the Society organised a Schermuly reunion and here are some of the pictures taken at the time.