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John MacDonald Henderson

John MacDonald Henderson, Jr. (d.1924), was the son of John MacDonald Henderson, Sr founder of the Aberdeen Engineering Firm then known as John M. Henderson & Co. Ltd., Kings Engineering Works, 207 King Street, Aberdeen.

John M. Henderson, Sr, was the nephew of John Henderson, (d.1849)  Lithographer and Engraver, Aberdeen. (J H learned to draw from his uncle, Archibald Simpson, Architect, and studied oil painting under James Giles together with John Philip, a close friend.)  According to a note contained in the deposit file, J. Alan MacDonald Henderson's father's Great Aunt Ellen Campbell-Brown lived at Quarry Lodge in Aberdeenshire and was married to Professor James Campbell-Brown, DSC, LLD, (1843-1910) at one time Professor of Chemistry at the University of Liverpool. His mother, Margaret Sinclair Taggart, was the eldest daughter of Sir James Taggart, Granite Merchant, Great Western Road, Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Lord Lieutenant and Admiral of the North Sea during and after the 1st World War.


(John Macdonald and John Henderson, James Sinclair, 12th Earl of Caithness, 1766-1823).

The John M Henderson Co. Ltd  journey began in 1866, when John MacDonald Henderson founded an Engineering business in Jopp’s Lane in Aberdeen, taking up as a speciality the manufacture of Machinery and Appliances as required in the Granite, Stone, and allied Trades in the area at the time.  

In 1873 John M Henderson manufactured the 1st Aerial Cableway in the United Kingdom and went on to provide Aerial Cableway installations to all parts of the world for applications such as Quarrying, Open Pit Mining, Dam, Lock and Bridge construction.

In 1878, due to the company’s success and demand for their products, the King Street Engineering Works were built. The new factory was purpose built and covered an area of approx 7.5 acres.

C 1900 - some 8 black and white photographs, 2 of which are duplicates, of machinery were taken, undated.  They are all stamped on the reverse with the name John M. Henderson & Co. Ltd., Aberdeen, and are assumed to have been taken at the Engineering works on King Street. 

Blondins @ Pen yr Orsedd Slate Quarry
The Pen-yr-orsedd quarry opened c.1816 was one of the major slate producers of the Nantile Valley, supplying over 10,000 tons of product in 1864. It was also the last quarry in the vale that commercially produced slate, closing in 1979.
At the upper (Eureka) level of this quarry had all mechanical, pneumatic and electrical equipment of an historic nature still on site, with the recommendations as to the preservation of representative items. The major items surveyed comprised 6 “Blondins” with their associated winding houses, 1 former incline winding house, 2 air compressors and the main electrical sub-station. It is considered that both compressors are worthy of preservation, together with 1 or 2 of the winding units and 1 of the “Blondins,” with the additional preserving of 1 of the early electric motors and liquid starter unit as a separate working exhibit and of setting up a carriage from one of the “Blondins” at ground level to demonstrate how it functions.

The 6 ”Blondins” that survive on site are of the later pattern of overhead cableway used in the local quarries. They are correctly termed “Henderson Aerial Cableways,” being manufactured by John M. Henderson & Company, of the King’s Engineering Works, Aberdeen, in the early years of the 20th century. A search of the Patent Office Library shows that John M Henderson took out Patent No. 4196 of 1896 for “Lifting and Transmitting Heavy Bodies”, and as no earlier patent appears under his name it seams clear that this was the 1 covering the particular design features of the Pen yr Qrsedd cableways, which may, therefore, have been among the 1st of their type to be made. The present units were certainly in existence when the quarry was electrified in 1905/06. In a paper read to the Aberdeen Association of Civil Engineers on 1st March 1904, Henderson stated that the modern form of cableway, in which hoisting and traversing motions are independent of one another, originated at the Kemnay Quarry, near Aberdeen, and inferred that this was in about 1870.  

A catalogue produced by John M Henderson & Co. Ltd. illustrates some cableways of an obviously older design than those at Pen yr Orsedd which are presumably the original Kemnay type. These were known locally as “Blondins”, after the noted funambulist (real name ‘Jean-Francois Gravelet, 1824-1897). The earliest Henderson Patent cableways were officially called “Blondins”, as during the survey a works plate was discovered bearing the legend “J M Henderson Aberdeen Patent Blondin”. (As Blondin gave his farewell performance in Belfast in 1896 it is not clear whether the name was applied to the more modern type of cableway at the time of his greatest popularity in 1859/61, when be crossed Niagara Falls and appeared at the Crystal Palace, or whether the name was applied somewhat later in his career Henderson implies the former.)  All 6 cableways are of the same type with the later, 3-wheeled load carriage and are operated by duplex winders of identical basic design. These have a narrow drum on which is wound the continuous travelling rope and a wider one on which is wound the hoisting rope.  To traverse the carriage both ropes are wound in or paid out simultaneously, while to raise or lower the load the travelling rope drum is declutched and held by its brake. The winders have, in fact, provision for declutching both drums, either directly from a common shaft or by unclutching individual drive pinions. All winders are now powered by Bruce Peebles 3-phase asynchronous motors with liquid resistances, some of them dating from the electrification of the quarry, apparently as a demonstration and publicity exercise, by the North Wales Power & Traction Company in 1905-6

Shipbuilding Cableway at Jarrow 1906

In 1927 John M Henderson manufactured and installed a 550 ton Slipway at Fleetwood Harbour on the west coast of England. 

Other Slipway installations include Egypt, Nigeria, Malta, Gibraltar and many United Kingdom Ports.  In 1930 John M Henderson supplied Derrick Cranes for the heightening of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.  The company has supplied Cranes and other Mechanical Handling equipment for many other Dam projects worldwide. These include Dams in Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Hong Kong, Mexico, Sudan, India and the United Kingdom.

During the 2nd World War, Henderson's Factory was solely committed to manufacturing components for the war effort. Items manufactured include Howitzer Guns, Ammunition Hoists, Bailey Bridges, Mine Sweeping Equipment, Tank Components and Shells.   

In the early 1950s John M Henderson became involved in the manufacture of coke oven machines for the National Coal Board and British Steel Plants.  This was soon to become the company’s main product line for which we have become one of the leading manufacturers in the world

Henderson's were fundamentally Crane Engineers and Cableway Manufacturers and Erectors.  Some of the Blackpool Pleasure Rides were also built by them. My dad, his brother-in-law George Murdoch Henderson, (my uncle,) and one of my pals, Charlie England, met at at Gordon's College worked and served their time there, as Fitters and Turners. My father went to Blackpool to help erect and get their contracts finished down there in the early '30's. My dad's 'Henderson' grandfather was a blacksmith, so metal filings runs through the family blood, as well as farming genes.  I'm ashamed to say I never asked anyone about the breadth of their work. I was alas unable to ask my dad about his work there.  Charlie rebuilt a 30's Morgan Convertible and white metalled the 'big ends' for it, at J M  Henderson's, every week. His father was foreman. You can be sure that like all Engineering Works in Aberdeen,  they produced high quality work. Engines, cranes, gantries, motors, mine lifts, and anything that moved or snorted. Among  Engineering works it was highly regarded, and there would have been a variety of in house trades other than Fitters and Turners, such as moulders, welders, draughtsmen, sparkies, blacksmiths, painters, etc.

My uncle went back to his protected trade at JMH, from being a barman during the depression, as soon as the War broke out, whereas my dad had been a regular in the Royal Navy since 1936. Time served Fitters and Turners were particularly welcomed into the Navy, especially as my dad had knowledge of steam engines from JMH, and had a stint on trawlers fishing out of Peterhead, as Ships Engineer, which the Navy thought was pure gold.  However, my dad may have taken a demotion from Chief Petty Officer, ERA, on HMS "Newcastle," to get into submarines based in Malta, to get away and away from Steam and Naval bullshit, as he hated both of them. He wasn't too popular for leaving his surface ship for a "useless sub." Despite this experience he had never learned how to swim. 

So, J M Henderson's must have built many steam engines, and trained their apprentices well. If my father had stayed on the HMS Newcastle, he might have survived the war along with the same vessel. As it emerged he was lost on HMSub "Narwhal," just 120 miles east of Aberdeen, in 1940, while on a mine laying mission to Kristiansund, Norway, rather far away from the balmy Mediterranean Valletta he had earlier anticipated. A Luftwaffe bomb accounted for all hands and the sub, then the Navy's largest.  Thus JMH lost one of its better, time served journeymen. - Fraser

In 1959 John M Henderson supplied 32-Ton Climbing and Stage Derrick Cranes for the construction of the Forth Road Bridge.  The company has supplied Cranes and other Mechanical Handling equipment for many other bridge construction projects (Forth Rail, Severn and Rio-Niteroi Bridges, Bridges in Australia, South Africa, India, Rhodesia and Uganda

In  1971 John M Henderson manufactured and installed 2 Pusher Machines and 2 Charge Cars at the Hamilton Coke Ovens in Canada.  This was the company’s 1st major export order in Coke Oven Machinery

The company continued manufacturing at the King Street premises until 1985.  The manufacturing unit was re-located to Arbroath, Angus and all equipment moved to the new factory. The 6 acre site incorporated a 75,000 square feet factory area with the major administrative, design and contract functions being retained in the Aberdeen Office.  In 1990 a new 10,000 square foot workshop was built at the site due to the expansion work in the steel and oil related industries.  This new workshop includes overhead cranes up to 70 tonnes and a deep water inspection pit.  In 1991 the Aberdeen offices were sold and the Arbroath offices were extended to accommodate the transfer of personnel. 

The 1990s opened up new international horizons for John M Henderson, as the company’s cutting edge technology started to be recognized and adopted all over the world. Between 1990 and 2000 John M Henderson has successfully manufactured and installed more than 100 Coke Oven Machines in USA, France, Slovakia, Australia and UK.  The last 10 years brought a decade of unprecedented growth for John M Henderson. The excellent reputation and long proved expertise established John M Henderson as one of the worldwide leaders in Coke Oven Machinery. Since 2000 John M Henderson has successfully installed over 60 new coke oven machines in Korea, Argentina, Canada, Italy and Brazil.

The Oil and Gas projects have also experienced great expansion as John M Henderson engineering capabilities have been highly appreciated and valued within the UK Oil and Gas industry.  Today John M Henderson is a major supplier to the Steel, Oil and Mechanical Handling Industries Worldwide. With over 170 years experience in Design, Manufacture & Installation we can guarantee a 1st class service to all our customers.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013