British Electric Traction

British Electric Traction Company plc, renamed BET plc in 1985, was a large British industrial conglomerate. It was acquired by Rentokil in 1996, and the merged company is now known as Rentokil Initial.

Early history

The company was founded as in 1895 as British Electric Traction Co. Ltd, with Sir Charles Rivers Wilson as chairman and Emile Garcke as managing director. It was involved in the electrification of tramways in British towns and cities. From operating trams, BET moved on to manufacturing them with the purchase of Brush Electrical Engineering in 1901. In 1905 a subsidiary was formed to operate motor buses, which became increasingly important to the group as many municipalities were compulsorily acquiring company-owned tram networks in their areas. The last BET tram ran on August 4, 1951, when the Gateshead and District Tramways Company replaced its trams with buses. [Stewart J Brown, "NBC Antecedents and Formation", Shepperton, 1983]

Electricity generation and distribution was also an important part of the company's early activities, but those operations were nationalised in 1947.

Post war

Following nationalisation BET was left with its portfolio of bus companies, a number of miscellaneous investments, and a cash pile. The company embarked on a programme of acquisitions, with particular emphases on transport, leisure and entertainment, printing and publishing, construction and plant hire, textile maintenance and waste management.


From 1949 until 1967 BET continued to be one of the two major bus groups in the UK, alongside the state-owned Tilling Group (owned by the British Transport Commission and from 1963 by the Transport Holding Company). The BTC (and later the THC) held minority interests in many of BET's UK bus subsidiaries, and in late 1967 BET sold its UK bus interests to the Transport Holding Company, to become part of the National Bus Company.

In 1956 BET acquired a 20% interest in United Transport Company, the rump of the old Red & White company, increased to 100% in 1971. United Transport continued with its freight road haulage business (Bulwark Transport Ltd), and also moved into shipping, particularly containers and tank containers.

United Transport had passenger transport and freight interests in southern Africa. BET owned and operated Jamaica Omnibus Services, a 600-bus operation in Kingston, Jamaica, until it was nationalised by the Jamaican Government in 1974.

Leisure and entertainment

In 1947 BET acquired a substantial minority interest in Broadcast Relay Service Ltd, trading as Rediffusion, which distributed radio and television signals though wired relay networks. BET acquired a controlling interest in 1967, and the remaining 36% in 1983.

When ITV commercial television started in the UK in 1955, Rediffusion formed Associated-Rediffusion with Associated Newspapers with BET's financial backing, and won the London weekday broadcast franchise.

In the beginning, Associated Rediffusion lost money. By the end of 1956 Associated Newspapers sold 80% of its stake back to BET and Rediffusion at a severe loss. Around that same time, Associated Rediffusion struck a very favorable deal with Granada Television, the franchise holder for weekday broadcasts in the North of England. Granada was also losing money, and lacked the financial resources of BET; the deal guaranteed Granada a certain level of financial security, at the cost of Associated-Rediffusion receiving the vast majority of future profits from their arrangement.

By 1964, when Associated Rediffusion changed its name to Rediffusion London, its efforts had left it sitting on a mountain of cash. But in 1967 the Independent Television Authority ordered Rediffusion London to enter into a joint arrangement with Associated British Corporation, the holder of the weekend Midlands and North of England franchises, to form Thames Television. ABC had a controlling 51% interest in Thames Television, although the profits were split 50/50 with Rediffusion. Thames Television was given the new weekday London franchise. BET sold its interest in Thames Television in 1985.

Between 1955 and 1968 BET made other acquisitions in the leisure sector, including a controlling interest in Wembley Stadium Ltd, which was sold in 1985.

Printing and publishing

BET acquired the Argus Press group in 1966.

Construction and plant hire

BET acquired Eddison Plant Ltd in 1949, and expanded into construction after the sale of its bus interests in 1968. It acquired Boulton & Paul Ltd and Grayston Ltd.

In 1985 BET acquired the crane company G W Sparrow & Sons plc, and combined its craneage interests into a new subsidiary, Grayston White and Sparrow.

Laundry and linen rental

BET entered the laundry business in 1934, and in 1935 acquired an interest in Advance Linen Services, which became a subsidiary in 1955.

In 1950 BET took a 10% interest in Initial. The stake was gradually increased until 1985, when BET took over Initial.

Waste management

In 1971 BET acquired Biffa, and also acquired Re-Chem International, which specialised in toxic industrial waste processing.

Divestment and sale

In the 1980s conglomerates such as BET fell out of favour, and BET extracted itself from some business sectors. Its interests in Thames Television were sold in 1985, and the rest of Rediffusion soon followed. Rediffusion Simulation was sold in 1988 to Hughes Aircraft. In 1991 Biffa was sold to Severn Trent Water plc. BET also sold its construction interests.

BET retained the profitable laundry and linen rental businesses, and also the shipping businesses of United Transport.

In 1996 BET was acquired by the much smaller Rentokil, after a hostile take-over bid. The merged company was named Rentokil Initial, including the name of one of BET's subsidiaries.


* [ Competition Commission report, 1985]
* [ Competition Commission report, 1986]

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