THEY made the telephone cables used in the trenches of the First World War, played a vital role in D-Day and were at the forefront of establishing the National Grid.
Now Hampshire firm Prysmian Group UK, formerly known as Pirelli, is celebrating a century of manufacturing in the county.
It was on January 20, 1914 when Italian manufacturer Pirelli signed the contract to open a factory in the UK, choosing Southampton as its UK headquarters.
Not long after it opened it was put to work supplying cables for thousands of field telephones used in the trenches of the First World War while during the Second World War the firm supplied three-and-half-million miles of wire to the Royal Corps of Signals, provided special wiring rigs for the Lancaster bombers and designed and installed a submarine fuel pipeline to deliver fuel for the vehicles involved in the D-Day landings.
Now, with factories in Aberdare, Wrexham and Washington, a distribution facility in Aberdene and more than 700 members of staff based in their Bishopstoke headquarters, they are one of the region’s largest employers.
Last year they were visited by Prime Minister David Cameron who opened the firm’s new multi-millionpound testing laboratory for high voltage power transmission cable.
Today Prysmian cables supply power and telephone links to some of the country’s most iconic buildings including The Shard and parts of the Olympic village.
Yesterday a calendar of events to mark their 100th birthday was launched with a party at the Mayor’s Parlour at Southampton civic offices.
His Excellency the Italian Ambassador for the UK Pasquale Terracciano joined a guest list that also included council bosses, dignitaries and current and former employees, including the Mayor of Southampton Councillor Ivan White who worked there for 35 years until 2002.
He said: “I have fond memories of the company. I wouldn’t have stayed with them for that long otherwise.
“What is perhaps most important is that the company seems to be retaining its bases within the UK and locally.”
Paul Atkinston, CEO of Prysmian Group UK, from Winchester, has worked for the company for 15 years, starting in Melbourne, Australia. He moved to the UK three years ago to become CEO of the UK group.
He said: “In Australia, Pirelli at the time was a very strong industrial organisation.
It had an extremely good reputation and being given the opportunity to progress I could not say no.
“The company is very focused on its people.
“It’s all about people development and that’s probably why we have such long serving employees.
“There’s a large investment in our people globally.
“I think there’s an image problem here in the UK and there is also a skills shortage. We now work closely with universities and schools.
“We have 13 apprentices this year.
“I think that unless we do more to encourage children at a very young age to come into the industrial world we’ll all find it difficult in future years.”
One of the company’s oldest retirees Den Bray was invited to cut the company’s birthday cake at the event.
The 90-year-old joined the firm in 1946 aged 23 after flying Spitfires during the war, and stayed with them for 37 years.
He was trained on all of the machines in the company before going on to work in the installation division and working his way up to become assistant to the managing director.
He said: “When I was there it was really a big family. We all supported each other and it was great.”