The life and times of the Michelin man from Stoke who set up a factory in Nigeria


It’s a story which predates the Second World War; one local lad done good – well better than good, pretty amazing actually.

James William Porter was born at his family home in Ernest Place, Fenton, and would go on to become the first English director of Michelin’s Stoke plant, a job which would see him travel the globe setting up new ventures and earning acclaim and recognition for his hard work.

James WIlliam Porter back row centre wearing a shirt flanked by the hockey team at Michelin Athletics Club

Taken on as a tyre maker in 1936, making inner tubes and coating the tyres themselves, James’s promising career was seemingly cut short when war broke out across Europe three years later.

He joined the Royal Artillery and rose to the rank of captain, during which time he earned the Military Cross.

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His daughter June Dimbleby recalls: “When he went to sign up he and his friend actually went to join the Navy but when they got there it apparently said on the door ‘back in half an hour.’ Well, they couldn’t wait half an hour so they went across the road and joined the Army.

“He was at Dunkirk in the early days of the war but it was when he was captain that he got the Military Cross. He and his men were crossing the Senor River and he should have sent them in to detonate some explosives, but instead of sending them he went in himself and did it.”

After the war ended, James returned to the UK and was demobbed in November 1945, returning to Michelin as a tyre fitter; the beginning of a long and successful journey which would see James become an important and respected member of the company.

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Rising through the ranks of the firm’s personnel department, James took on many different roles, as June recalls.

“He had one job where, if he saw a car without Michelin tyres on, he would have to put a sticker on the car advertising Michelin tyres,” she says.

Heavily involved in all aspects of life at ‘The Mitch’ including being the Vice-President of the Michelin Athletics Club, James even signed June up for a race once. “He said you’ve got to go in it,” she remembers. “After me he got my son into it as well. He was the sort of person who always liked to organise things.

“He was even involved with the local church, and I believe he managed to get some of the ground off the Michelin for a car park for the church because it hadn’t got one. People used to have to park on the road.”

Sentinel Comment a the time of his retirement

James’ hard work started to get him noticed, and in the early 80s he was asked to help set up a new factory in Nigeria, having established a good track record setting up operations in England and Northern Ireland. June recalls her father working long hours, going back and forth between sites even in the face of tensions in Northern Ireland.

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“As I can remember he set up the factory in Belfast first in the late 70s,” she says. “I can remember him phoning me from there during the ‘the troubles’ and talking about explosives and bombs going off.

“He used to fly over to Belfast and he was also involved with the Burnley factory too, But when Nigeria started in 1984 he did a lot over there.

“He stayed over there and I believe he was there when the first tyre came off the factory line.

“He got to be big friends with many of the Nigerian people, I remember we used to have a number of Nigerians come over here to stay with us.”

June says her father was ‘quite strict’ at home: “He’d give me time and say if I wasn’t in by 11 o’clock he would lock the door.”

Sadly James’ wife, June’s mother, died when she was just 19, leaving him to look after his daughter and involving himself further, not just in his work but in the local community too.

“Dad would do anything for anyone,” says June. “I mean the priest down the road would only have to ring him up saying that someone hadn’t got enough coal and my dad would go and fill the coal house for them.

“He was a generous man, who everyone seemed to know.

“If anything wanted doing or organising he would help people to do it. There was a strike once and he became involved with it, he went and talked to those involved and helped it all out.”

Remembering more of her time spent with her dad away from work, June recalls meeting her husband Richard on holiday.

“I went to Tenerife with Dad and my sister,” she said. “Richard was there on holiday with a cricket friend of his and he asked me out. Now I was in my 40s but my dad was so strict that he said ‘you’re not allowed to go with him for a meal’ but my sister told me to go. So I ended up going out for a meal with him but Dad told me off. Anyway, after that we ended up all staying together that holiday.

“He did love his holidays, and even then he would organise things like games, but he also loved to cook. There was one occasion we, Richard and I, went to Lanzarote with him. It was about 90 degrees and he asked Richard ‘would you like sausage and mash?’. I told him to say no but he couldn’t.

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“So my dad came walking around the swimming pool with this huge plate of sausage and mash and gave it to Richard, who said ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to eat all that’. To which I replied ‘you’re gonna have to now.’ But Dad did love cooking.”

Having achieved much at home and abroad James was recognised in the early 1990s for his continued services to industry when he was honoured with an OBE.

“He kept it quiet up until near the time,” says June. “But he took me and my sister down to London and we had a driver pick us up and take us to Buckingham Palace. He was a proud Englishman.”

Proud to live in Stoke-on-Trent, James and his family moved several times around the area, from Bailey Road, Blurton to Oakhill Avenue Oakhill, before settling at New Inn Lane, Trentham.

James shaking hands with Prince Philip while giving a tour of the Michelin factory

When he retired James was presented with a book entitled Your Michelin Life. He died at home in Trentham, aged 89, with his two daughters looking after him.

“When he died Francois Michelin and some of the staff flew over from France to attend his funeral. They were due to fly into Manchester but due to bad weather the plane was diverted into Birmingham so we had to hold the funeral up, I remember the vicar standing on the altar on his mobile phone saying that they had been in touch and they would ‘get there as soon as possible’.”

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Did you know or work for James William Porter or have memories of working at Michelin? Please get in touch with Adam Gratton at The Way We Were, Sentinel House, Bethesda Street, Hanley, ST1 3GN or call 01782 864255 or email: adam.gratton@reachplc.com





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