The Rank Family

Founded by its namesake in 1937, the J. Arthur Rank Organisation rapidly grew to dominate the British film and photographic landscape. ‘Rank’ products encompassed projection screens, lenses, cameras, darkroom equipment, technical instruments and a diverse range of accessories previously designed and made by a roster of independent makers.

By 1968 Rank had completed a program of shoveling into its maw the cream of the British photographic industry, mashing together the tastiest ingredients in new combinations and spitting out the bits it didn’t like. It behaved imperially as a stabilising and preserving force. However, Rank’s reputation for nihilistic asset-stripping isn’t entirely deserved: the plan was financial, not cultural, assimilation. Brands such as Taylor Hobson and Kershaw passed through Rank’s digestive system relatively intact and had new lives post-ejection from the Rank corpus, and the names of Gaumont, Kalee and Aldis would have been forgotten far more quickly had Rank not propelled them in a new generation.

The cynical view of Rank as a voracious Hoover of British heritage must be tempered by cognisance of the economic backdrop: the post-war ascendancy of America and corresponding decline of the United Kingdom. It will aid our understanding of the mid-century British photographic industry to separate the blocks from which Rank’s foundation was built.

Gaumont-British / Kershaw Group / GB-Kalee (1941-1958)

An early acquisition was Gaumont-British – which had operated independently of its French parent group since its assets were bought out by the Broomhead brothers in 1922. Between 1937-1941 the Rank group gradually absorbed Gaumont-British and the Gaumont Picture Company, gaining a significant stake in the British cinema industry.

In 1947, a new private company within Rank appeared: British Optical & Precision Engineers (BOPE). A year later, this company took over the Kershaw Group (comprised of A. Kershaw & Sons, Kershaw-Soho (Sales) and Soundcraft) and shortly thereafter combined their operations into GB-Kalee Ltd. The primary part of the Kershaw Group was the Leeds-based optics manufacturer Abram Kershaw & Sons (founded in 1888), who had success with the 1911 launch of their Kalee projector, and operated a subsidiary company named Kalee Ltd – hence GB-Kalee. Between 1920-1929, A. Kershaw & Sons had been part of a short-lived conglomeration called APM (Allied Photographic Manufacturers) . . .

Gaumont-Kalee remained an important brand for Rank between 1947-1958 – there was even a ‘Gaumont-Kalee Division’ at Rank’s Wardour Street premises. Projectors in this period (such as the K250 (launched c.1950) and Daylight (debuted in 1954) models) were also branded ‘GB-Kershaw’ and shipped with Leeds-made Kershaw Series 250 lenses in focal lengths from 50-150mm. However, in 1958 GB-Kalee Ltd was folded away after another restructuring. The Kershaw name was granted independence, and A. Kershaw & Sons Ltd operated independently from 1958-1981.

Taylor Hobson (1946-1996)

In 1948, Rank’s ‘British Optical & Precision Engineers’ made another major acquisition: Taylor Hobson. In some respects this was a larger and more prestigious grab that ultimately eclipsed their first: Taylor, Taylor & Hobson began making lenses just two years earlier than Abram Kershaw, but the company distinguished itself with an outstanding contribution to Britain’s war effort, and was a considerably more innovative player.

In 1956, British Optical & Precision Engineers was rebranded to Rank Precision Industries to reflect its growth into microfilm recorders for Burroughs, dictation equipment, Replicta copying machines, and increasing collaboration with Bell & Howell.

The half-century success story of Rank Taylor-Hobson came to a conclusion in 1996 when the brand was sold to Schroder Ventures, which in turn sold it to Ametek in 2004. For a new timeline of serial numbers and more about the history of Cooke/Taylor Hobson, please see here >.

Pullin (1932-1969)

Another neglected name in the annals of lens makers, the Pullin Optical Company Ltd specialised in projectors, and were a considerable player in the post-war British photo market. The company commenced trading in 1939 as a subsidiary of R. B. Pullin & Co, a scientific instruments maker established in 1932 at Brentford, Middlesex. In 1939 Pullin expanded the manufacturing capability it had at Phoenix Works in Brentford with a new facility at Solar Works, High Wycombe under the control of S. A. Fane Ltd – previously cabinet makers. If lens markings are to be believed, it appears that all lenses were made here.

In 1945 we find the first trademarking of the Pulnar and Pulkinar (Pulkino) projector lenses, when Pullin’s administrative HQ was still based in Brentford. However, post-war success rapidly drove them to larger and larger premises: by 1953 they had moved onto the South Ealing Road in London W5, and in 1956 scaled up again to a more prestigious operational HQ at Electrin House, New Cavendish Street, London W1, from which they operated until 1960.

Success came not just from their projectors, which were commonly supplied to the War Department: they made and sold a range of enlargers and enlarger lenses in the late 1940s – announcing two new models in 1950 – Model A and Model B. By 1950, Pullin also made X-ray film projectors with interesting fast lenses. In 1957 they were manufacturing cine cameras. Revenue also flowed from many distribution deals the company struck with their freshly defeated German foes in the aftermath of World War II. Within a few years of the war’s end, a cavalcade of German hardware was once again winging its way across the North Sea: this time landing in (not on) the homes of open-walleted Brits.

Pullin Optical certainly played its part in helping to rebuild the devastated German economy. By 1955, Pullin was acting as the sole UK reseller for Alfred Gauthier GMBH, Karl Müller Jr and Novoflex, Schiansky Feinmechanik, A Schröder & Sohne, Apparate und Kamerabau GMBH, Feinmechanische Wekstatten, Niezoldi & Kråamer, Kurt Kuhn Apparatebau and Walter Witt. In 1957, Pullin took over Aldis Brothers. In 1958 Pullin became the UK distributor of Gevaert film. In 1959, they added Linhof, Grundig and the German-made Elektron tape recorders to the portfolio (while also taking over the business of Braun projector importers Neville Brown & Co and Milbo Photographic). Though Pullin adverts of the period shied away from the loaded ‘Braun’ brand, they busily promoted Paximat projectors. While the Nazi regime hadn’t accomplished its goal of converting England to its cause, a battle for minds and hearts had perhaps been won insofar as English respect for German engineering was concerned.

In 1960 the company moved to Ellis House on Aintree Road in Perivale, but this time the move signalled a change for the worse in the company’s fortunes, despite acquiring the prestigious distribution rights for Nikon cameras in the UK. Profits steadily fell between 1959-1963, unaffected by the rebrand of R.B Pullin & Co. Ltd to Pullin Group Ltd in March 1961. Having gobbled up so many little fish, Pullin had grown fat and became a prime target for being gobbled up in turn by a bigger fish – indeed, three years later Pullin Group was absorbed into Rank Precision Industries. In 1964, reflecting this change, Pullin Group Ltd was renamed Pullin Photographic.

Aldis

Rank Precision Industries amalgamated Aldis as part of the acquisition of the Pullin Group in 1964. Pullin had acquired the business of the Aldis Brothers in 1957. Rank saw mileage in a ‘Rank Aldis’ brand mash-up much as they got behind ‘Gaumont-Kalee’ in the 1940s, and it quickly became the vanguard of Rank’s consumer projector business.

Aldis’ history begins in Sparkhill, Birmingham, in 1901 when Hugh Lancelot Aldis left Dallmeyer to join his brother Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis in the launch of Aldis Brothers Ltd. To this day, Sparkhill is a thriving hub of the UK precision optics industry, with at least one opticians on the Stratford Road.

There was no more beaming post-war icon of Britishness than the Aldis Lamp – World War II standard issue to soldiers in foreign fields for the purpose of Morse signalling. It’s not hard to see why Rank wanted to retain Aldis as a projector brand.

Wray

1850. Became part of Hilger & Watts in 1962. Hilger & Watts amalgamated in 1968. In 1971 Rank closed Wray Optical Works and moved fabrication to Kershaw in Leeds. [To be continued…]

Timeline of Rank Organisation Acquisitions

Many esteemed optic makers of Britain’s 19th Century vanguard were destined for assimilation into the Rank Organisation between 1940-1970. Some of those companies had previously amalgamated or acquired offshoots of their own. The full picture is easier to show than tell . . .

Horace William Lee

Given the proximity of these companies, talent-sharing was inevitable. A fine example of this is Horace W. Lee – a relatively unsung designer whose best lenses are touched with genius. Lee was initially employed by Taylor, Taylor & Hobson in 1913 to work under Alfred Warmisham. While there, Lee patented the world’s first f2.0 asymmetric double-Gauss lens in 1920, which became the legendary Speed Panchro, and was therefore not only the foundational cornerstone of the Cooke cine lens dynasty, but also paved the way for subsequent Xenon, Biotar and Summar variants. In 1930, Lee invented the inverted telephoto lens whose flange distance made possible Technicolor film, and was developed by Pierre Angenieux into the retrofocus designs that went on to dominate taking lens construction. Lee was the quintessential Englishman: a world-leading authority who shunned the limelight – whose brilliance opened doors that may otherwise have remained closed. It’s not unreasonable to cite Lee as one of the most influential optics designers of the last century.

At some point during his 13-year tenure at Taylor Hobson – perhaps during a tea break – Lee evidently developed a novel ‘reversed Ernostar’ four-element dialyte four-inch lens. It’s not clear whether this matured into a commercial design by Taylor Hobson, but it was evidently still on the books when in 1947 the company’s assets were combined with those of the Kershaw Group, because that year it appeared as a new standard lens in the BOPE-made Kershaw K250 film-strip projector: the Kershaw 250 Series 102mm f2.8. By any standard this is an exceptional lens, with well-controlled aberrations and unusually high resolution, capable of taking beautiful images mounted on contemporary digital cameras.

When Lee left Taylor Hobson in 1936, he worked for a time for Scophony Ltd, and likely during this period undertook freelance consultancy for J. H. Dallmeyer. Apparently toward the end of WWII, he was head-hunted by the ambitious new Pullin Optical division of R. B. Pullin & Co. Ltd. Pullin’s projector range was a direct competitor to Rank’s GB-Kershaw and BOPE models, but by 1946 Lee was registering patents for lens improvements on behalf of Pullin: a master hand was at the tiller. Shortly after his arrival, it appears that Lee returned to his original scheme for a four-inch projector lens – now being made by Kershaw under the aegis of Rank – and refined it. The result was the Pulnar 100mm f2.8, launched in 1947. Just like the Kershaw 250’s, there were Pulnars in 50mm, 100mm and 150mm, fitted to workhorse slide and filmstrip projectors of similar specification. However the Pulnars are even better made, and even better performers. During the 1940s and 1950s, Pulnars were seen fitted to shutters for use as large-format taking lenses.

Although he retired before his employers were absorbed by Rank (the Pullin Group was independent until 1964), the story of this lens touches all the members of the Rank family: designed by Lee at Taylor-Hobson (pre-Rank), then co-developed by Pullin (also pre-rank) and Kershaw (under Rank).

Notable Lenses

For a fuller consideration of Taylor Hobson’s impressive highlight reel, please see the dedicated article here.

The Gaumont/Kershaw story is all about cine and projector lenses . . . [to be continued . . .]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *