Henry James Cole's was born on 24 June 1847, in the Parish of St. George's, Hanover Square, London, the second of a family of some ten children born to Lewis and Helen Maria Coles (née Penny). Lewis Coles was a tailor, like his father and brother, and two of his sons, Lewis junior and Edward, followed him into the business.No records can be found relating to Henry Coles' childhood until he left school at the age of 13, to be articled to S.Worssam and Co. (later called A. Ransome and Co.), who were manufacturers of sawmill equipment with premises on the King's Road, Chelsea. He was with them for ten years, the first five in the drawing office, the remainder in tile company's workshops.
In 1870 he joined Maudslay, Sons and Field. He spent two years there as a marine engineer, erecting equipment on a Number of fighting ships including HMS Triumph and Swiftsure. Then, in 1872, he joined Appleby Bros, and in doing so made tile move which changed his life.
The Appleby family were old established ironworkers, and the business
which Coles joined had been started in tile middle of the 19th century by Charles James Appleby and his brother. They were very much the general engineering firm their 1869 catalogue offers an enormous variety of equipment and material but they did much pioneering work with steam.
Early machines which they showed in Paris in 1867, and at tile Vienna Exhibition of 1873, were the first permanent way or railway break- down cranes to be available to the rail companies.
To a very large extent, Appleby Bros was the organisation which fathered the modern crane industry. Henry Coles became their Assistant Manager in 1875, succeeding Alexander Grafton, who was appointed Appleby's permanent engineer in Egypt, and who later started his own crane making business in London. Other Appleby protégés did the same thing, although only Henry Coles' company remains to this day.
Appleby Bros were based at Emerson Street, Southwark, with a smaller workshop in Summer Street. In tile latter part of 1878 it was decided to move to a new factory at East Greenwich, and Henry Coles took the opportunity to take over the Stunner Street workshop to start his own business the following year. Three of his brothers, Frederick, Walter and Ernest, who were also working for Appleby Bros, left to join him in his new vulture.
It was a brave step to take. Henry Coles was just 32, with a wife (he had married Amy Elizabeth Burks in 1875) and a two year old son, Henry James junior. However, he was by 110W a very experienced engineer, and, like C. J. Appleby, he was not afraid to try out new ideas. Within a couple of years he was taking out the first of a dozen or so patents which he obtained during the next twenty years. His abilities as an engineer rapidly paid dividends, and the company soon established itself.
Coles became a leading light of both tile Institution of Mechanical Engineers and tile Institution of Civil Engineers, giving learned papers to each society. One incident, recounted ill tile proceedings of the institution of Mechanical Engineers, is amusing to note now, although it clearly irritated Coles at the time. The Institution held a competition for rock drills ill 1891 and Coles entered one of his patented type, of which he was obviously quite proud. On tile day of tile test, Coles was away on business and the thrill was operated by a labourer from his factory; the result was that the equipment failed to perform to specification, this fact being recorded in the Institution's proceedings. When Coles heard of this he had the whole adjudicating committee visit his works to see the machine operated by a mining engineer, and insisted that its performance be adequately noted. This was done to everyone's satisfaction in a subsequent issue of the Institution's proceedings, and Coles went on to sell large quantities of his drills.
During the late 1880s and early 18905, Henry Coles became involved in local political and charitable work, largely through his association with the Cathedral Church of St. Saviour's, Southwark. He took a leading part in the work of restoring the Cathedral, and he devised a scholarship scheme for the Cathedral's Newcomen School. He also successfully promoted a parliamentary Bill which allowed the trustees of the Borough Market to raise money for improvements to the Market, and he devised a system for re-distributing the unallocated funds of St. Saviour's parish as old-age pensions.
He was appointed a Justice of the Peace and, in 1889, became a member of the Corporation of Wardens of St. Saviour's as Newcomen Warden. In this role he became involved with the campaign for the incorporation of the northern part of Southwark known historically as Bridge Ward Without into the City of London. Coles' involvement in this campaign, which had been under discussion throughout the latter part of the 19th century, was prompted initially by historical precedent there was evidence that the Ward should have been incorporated in the 10th century but as the campaign progressed, self interest became a more tangible motive. Bridge Ward Without was the richer, commercial sector of Southwark, and amalgamation with the City would reduce the burden on the rates which Coles and his fellow businessmen paid to support their poorer neighbours.
When the City Council decided to give their passive support to the parliamentary Bill for incorporation, the job of drafting the measure was left to Henry Coles. Unfortunately, in his drafting, he over emphasised the financial advantages to the inhabitants of Bridge Ward Without, with the result that opposition to the measure came from all sides. City parishes could see losses for themselves (after all, Bridge Ward Without's gain had to be someone's loss); the rest of Southwark guessed that their own rates would go through the roof; and the recently formed London County Council could foresee other rich areas banding together against them in similar fashion.
Despite this wholesale opposition, Coles' Bill was only narrowly defeated when it had its second reading in Parliament, by 187 to 169 votes. It also had the effect of spurring the Government into action on the reorganisation of local government in London, and in 1899 an act was passed which dismembered Southwark into Bermondsey and Southwark boroughs, and split the ancient Ward of Bridge Without into two.
By that time, Coles had moved, his business having outgrown the Summer Street factory. In 1898 it was decided to move to Derby, the centre of the railway industry and close to the industrial heartland of the country.
On 20 February that year, a dinner was held in Henry Coles' honour, and Richard Causton MP presented him with three pieces of silver plate as a mark of the appreciation of the people of Southwark.
Coles took with him to Derby the whole of his workforce quite a tribute to his pull as an employer including his brothers Walter and Ernest (Frederick Coles having left the business in 1880). By now Henry James junior (known as Harry) was also working for the firm.
Coles slotted quickly into the local Derby community, becoming an active member of the Chamber of Commerce and a trustee of various local charities. He became a leading light of the Bible Society and of the All Saints Union, attached to his local church (which became Derby Cathedral in the 1940s).
With the move to Derby completed, he continued with the inventing which had occupied him for more than twenty years. His last patent, taken out in 1900, was for an automatic brake to control the descent of a rail crane down an incline `without any action on the part of the crane driver or attendant'.
By now Coles was in his early fifties. Oddly enough, despite his world- wide sales and the level of investment which must have been required to run his business (including the new Derby factory), he operated as a sole trader; that is to say, he had as much legal protection as a corner shopkeeper.
Whether he had intended to make his business into a limited company is uncertain. Whatever his intentions, events overtook him and his business.
By 1905, the upheavals of the move to Derby had been overcome, and the outlook seemed to be set fair. Sadly, Henry Coles was not to see the outlook become actuality. On Easter Sunday, he attended the evening service at All Saints Church in the company of his brother Walter. Walking home, he complained of feeling ill and collapsed. He was taken home where he died, without regaining consciousness, the following Friday, 28 April 1905.
He was 57, and could reasonably have looked forward to a good many more years of running the business and improving his beloved cranes. As the Derby Express said at the time of his death, he was `a man of wide sympathies, a strong educationalist and a liberal employer'. He left a widow, five children and the basis of the company which has made his name world famous.