Sir William James Larke

First director of the British Iron and Steel Federation and first president of the British Welding Research Association

Sir William James Larke (born on 26 April 1875 at Ladywell, Kent; died 29 April 1959 at his home at Sidcup, Kent) was a British engineer and industrial administrator.


Life and Career

William Larke was educated at Colfe's School, Lewisham, and at Regent Street Polytechnic. As an apprentice he received his engineering training at H. F. Joel & Co. In 1895, he joined Siemens Brothers & Co Ltd, in Woolwich and was in charge of their calibrating and instrument-testing department.

Around 1900, he worked in a technical function at the British Thomson-Houston Company Ltd, and became there manager of the power and mining department and executive engineer. In 1914 he joined the Ministry of Munitions, where he worked in several positions before he became director-general of raw materials. 

Sir William James Larke by Walter Stoneman, 2 April 1947, NPG x168839

© National Portrait Gallery, London,


His services during World War I were acknowledged by receiving the O.B.E. in 1917, the C.B.E. in 1920 and the K.B.E. in 1921. After World War I, he became Techncial Adviser to the Secretariat in connection with demobilisation and reconstruction, Chairman of the Committee on Utilisation of Surplus War Materials, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Disposal of Mechanical Transport, Chairman of Engineering Commission to inspect German factories in the occupied territories, as well as Member of the Co-ordinating (Supply and Demobilisation) Committee.


The National Federation of Iron and Steel Manufacturers, was set-up in 1922 to encourage co-operative research in the iron and steel industry, watch over its economic interests and initiate efforts to increase its technical efficiency. Sir William became first director of the Federation and held this office, even after the Federation by the British Iron and Steel Federation until he retired in 1945.


Ahead of his time, he led a delegation of British Industrialists to Germany in 1939 with the aim of ‘being made in readiness for individual negotiations between representatives of British and German industries with a view to settlement of their own difficulties’.

During World War II he fulfilled important roles regarding the war effort and tackled problems of reconstruction in the post war era. 


Societies and Institutions

He was a member of many learned societies and a president of several of them.


He promoted the recognition of welding as a specialized branch of technology and initiated the formation of the Institute of Welding, and was 1938/39 its president. Later he became the first president of the British Welding Research Association.


He joined the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as an Associate in 1897 and became a Member in 1906. He participated in the Birmingham Local Section Committee from 1910 to 1913. 


He served as president of the Institute of Fuel, the British Standards Institution, the Junior Institution of Engineers and the Institute of Engineers-in-Charge.


He was an honorary member and vice-president of the Iron and Steel Institute and received the Institute's highest award, the Bessemer Gold Medal, in 1947.


He was a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and an honorary doctor of sciences of the University of Durham and was awarded the Fox Gold Medal by the Institute of British Foundrymen in 1953.


Interview Oct. 1944: British Steel Costs and Prices

High coal prices as the main handicap - Further modernization planned

Sir William Larke commented on the British steel costs and prices in an interview from 1944, reproduced in German in the News for Foreign Trade (Nachrichten für Außenhandel, Berlin), No 251 of 26 October 1944. He saw high coal prices as the main handicap and reported that further modernization was planned:


Interview mit Sir William Larke von 1944: Die britischen Stahlkosten und Stahlpreise: Hohe Kohlenpreise als Haupt-Handicap - Weitere Modernisierung beabsichtigt. Nachrichten für Außenhandel (Berlin), Nr. 251, 26. Okt. 1944
Interview October 1944: British steel costs and prices - High coal prices as the main handicap - Further modernization planned © Nachrichten für Außenhandel (Berlin), No 251, 26 Oct 1944
According to Sir William Larke, no industry could hope to survive in the post-war period of fierce competition, unless it was embedded in a progressive industrial community. As a result, all industries that had become increasingly interdependent had to work together technically and economically to increase the efficiency of their overall efforts.
Sir William Larke wanted to create a basis for interaction between all industries belonging to or dependent on the iron and steel industry. Although British steel prices were slightly higher than American prices before World War II, it was difficult to make a precise comparison, because American prices were differentiated according to delivery zones and the overall price structure for special grades and qualities was different from that of Britain.
It had been claimed that the car industry was hampered by the fact that British steel prices were much higher than American steel prices before World War II. However, it should be considererd that steel represents only around 15% of a car's production costs and it is difficult to understand the claim of the UK car industry that it was hampered by high steel prices.
British car Prices were at least 40% higher than those of comparable American cars around 1944, but the price of British steel never showed a similar increase over American steel, even in those products where the conditions for Britain were still most unfavourable.
Before the Second World War, first-class sheet metal for motor vehicles was more expensive than American sheet metal, indeed. This was due to the fact that normal production in Great Britain took place in non-continuous sheet rolling mills, while in America the entire production was sourced from continuous mills.
Before the Second World War, the demand for sheet metal in the British car industry was only 10% of that in the Americas. This limited, of course, the speed with which the first-class sheet metal mills could develop, but some time before the war two continuous sheet metal mills had been put into operation in Great Britain. This was a means of reducing the prices of sheet metal for motor vehicles in Great Britain and bringing them a little closer to the American price level.
It had been claimed that between 1934 and 1939 the safeguard duty had been used to raise British steel prices unduly, but between 1934 and 1939 British steel prices had on average not been higher than American steel prices. In fact, steel prices in 1934 were slightly lower than in 1929, and in the five years to 1939 there had been an increase of about 20%. However, this was only part of the overall increase in costs and prices in Britain and abroad under the influence of global economic recovery.
During this period the main elements of steel costs increased by much more than 20%, although wages increased only as much as steel prices. At the same time the price of coal rose by 33⅓% and imported iron ore and scrap by more than 50%. Without the modernisation of the steel industry in these five years between 1934 and 1939, steel prices would undoubtedly have risen much more sharply.
In the period around 1944, the steel price problem in comparison to America was not caused by the pre-war price level, but the serious increase in British steel costs during World War II. Steel prices in Britain in 1944 were about 50% above pre-war levels. The Commerce Office index shows an increase of 43%. This increase was in line with the general increase in wholesale prices in Britain and would mean an increase of about 25% in its relationship with America through a fall in American prices, but only on the assumption that American prices would remain at pre-war levels.
Nominally, American prices have not been increased, but in many cases the government has allowed premiums which were not reflected in the generally quoted prices. It is possible that it will not be possible to avoid a substantial increase in American prices. It had already been announced that the conversion of American industry to the peace economy would also bring prices into line with the new costs. In any case there was a relative deterioration in the British cost situation during the war. Wages in all British industries had risen by about 50%.
In the post-war period, British steel costs were adversely affected above all by higher coal prices. The average price of coal for industry in 1944 was about 100% higher than before the war. Since coal is a more important raw material for the iron and steel industry than scrap, ore and all other raw materials combined, this exceptional cost increase would have proved to be the "main handicap" for the iron and steel industry. Since for every ton of steel 2 tons of coal were used, the increase of the coal price by 1 Shilling would have meant an increase of the steel costs by 2 Shilling. With special steels the increase would have been still higher. Coal prices were even 135% higher than before the war. The unduly high increase in coke prices in relation to coal is explained by the fact that the products resulting from the production of coke, such as gas, benzene, ammonia sulphate, etc., increased by less than 50%.
In the five years preceding the outbreak of the war, some £10 million were spent annually on modernising the steel industry. This was several times as much as the annual amount spent in each of the previous 10 years. Because of this modernisation, the increase in steel prices during the war had been kept within moderate limits. During the war it was not possible to maintain the modernisation of the steel industry to the same extent as in the pre-war period. The most important improvements made during the war would, of course, have been wartime. As a result, the development of five years would have to be made up for.
With reasonable industrial prospects in the future, one could expect further faster modernisation of the steel industry. On the other hand, an expenditure of £100 million had been talked about. In order to ensure the full benefit of the modernisation of efficient organisations, the industry had to organise itself collectively and exchange experiences and improvements. In this way, the results of the research can also be harnessed.
It had been claimed that steel prices are set by a monopoly or cartel, which has led to the development of a uniform cost system, the preparation of regular monthly cost statements by all firms and the review of prices in relation to these costs. During the war, it became apparent that the heavy steel and sheet metal industries generally earned less than 10% of their capital, taking into account taxes and the many other war burdens. Allegations against monopolies and cartels may be justified in some cases, but there is no evidence that this applied also to the steel industry. In the steel industry, collective action was openly developed and constantly monitored by the government. However, the steel industry did not in any way want to claim that great progress was not being made in the areas of modernisation and that costs were being reduced.


He was the eldest son of William James Larke, builder, and his wife, Rosa, née Barton. He was married to Louisa Jane Milton on the 11 April 1900 at St John the Evangelist in Blackheath, England, and they had a son and a daughter. His wife died before him in 1959.

Applied Technology Award

The Welding Institute, the professional membership arm of TWI, awards annually the Applied Technology Award in memory of Sir William Larke and Sir Charles Lillicrap to the individual or team who has had most influence or impact upon the practical application of novel welding or joining knowledge or technology. It combines, from 2009, the Sir William J Larke Medal and the Sir Charles Lillicrap Medal.


The subject may be presented in a published academic or research paper but the nomination will be assessed on its practical application value and impact on welding and joining in real-world engineering. Engineering project applications may well be used to support nominations but it is essential that the technical content has been published to the benefit of the welding and joining community.


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