He is perhaps Birmingham’s forgotten industrial pioneer – and he met his end during the most infamous maritime disaster in history.
His contribution to industry in Birmingham was as significant and compelling as the likes of Matthew Boulton and George Cadbury, yet few are familiar with the name William Hipkins.
As managing director, William Edward Hipkins transformed W&T Avery Limited from a burgeoning maker of scales into the world’s largest manufacturer of weighing machines.
In 1895 he bought the Soho Foundry, allowing him to lay claim to being the last managing director of James Watt and Co, but he also revolutionised the way British businesses were structured.
It was Mr Hipkins who introduced American business practices to the UK such as developing customer service, specific contracts of employment and incentivised training schemes where apprentices were paid to stay on in further education.
Mr Hipkins – who grew up in Nechells, attended King Edwards School in New Street, and lived in Augustus Road, Edgbaston – secured a huge contract to supply the US Army with Avery weighing devices and needed to travel to the States to finalise the deal.
But the trip that he made alone as a 54-year-old widower proved his undoing, for he was one of the 1,517 people who died on RMS Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage in April 1912.
Mr Hipkins’ remarkable life and times have now been charted in a biography called Life in the Balance, by Great Barr writer Andrew Lound.
“It’s the biography of Birmingham’s forgotten son – the man who changed industry,” he said. It’s all here, personal triumph and tragedy, industrial espionage, sabotage and a glimpse of a lost era.
“It’s sad that so few people know about him because he was such an influential figure. Hopefully the book will change that.”
Mr Lound, curator of the Avery Museum at the Soho Foundry in Smethwick, spent 30 years carrying out research for the book.
It all started with an interest in Titanic passed down to him by Harry Seaborne, his boss when he worked as a clerk at Birmingham City Council.
Trawling through records of those who perished on the vessel, Mr Lound discovered William Hipkins, listed as a representative of the Avery company, had been aboard, and the more he investigated the more unravelled about the man himself.
Mr Lound said: “He was an extraordinary man who turned Avery’s into a global power and developed the recommended retail price index breaking the monopoly of ironmongers.
"He opened up Avery depots across the country and the world and was one of the first British businessmen to service customers for more than just one product and to keep hold of them.”
Mr Lound, 44, claims fate conspired to shroud Hopkins’ life in mystery.
“It was almost like he was never meant to leave a legacy. His wife Lavinia Allen died five years after they married and there are no records that exist of her other than birth, marriage and death.
“They did not have children and he never remarried. He only had one sibling, Bertha, who, interestingly, devoted her life to him.
“All of the financial records of Avery’s American businesses were lost when the RMS Lusitania sank during the First World War and the house in Edgbaston where he lived was knocked down.
“Hipkins never sought publicity and he would be livid about this biography, but his story is one that has to be told.”
Janet Pickard, a distant cousin and the only known surviving relative of Hipkins, and Mr Seabourne will be present at the official launch of the book at the Avery Museum on Monday, November 7.