A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

Jim Evans

this gazetteer is copyright Jim Evans, 2002


John Harper & Company Limited, Walsall Road, and Clarke's Lane, Willenhall.
By Bev Parker.
 

The firm was founded in 1790 in a small factory in Walsall Road, on part of the site that was later to become Albion Works, which is believed to be one of Willenhall's oldest established factories. It began life as the lock-making business of William Brueton and William Harper, but little is known about the company at that time. William Harper's son John, succeeded his father who was described as a spring latch maker. The firm became known as John Harper & Company. The first record of the company is an indenture for John Harper junior, who began his apprenticeship at the factory in 1836 at the age of 15.

When he completed his apprenticeship in 1840, John became a clerk at the factory belonging to his uncle James Tildesley, an ironmaster, who ran Albion Works, Somerford, Willenhall. James was greatly interested in agriculture and financial speculation, and made a large amount of money from the railway mania that was sweeping the country at the time. By 1844 John was managing the factory which produced malleable and non-malleable iron. James Tildesley suffered financially when the railway bubble burst, and in order to settle a debt, the factory was transferred to John Harper and Matthew Tildesley. But he retained the freehold of the land and buildings.

John Harper Junior and Matthew Tildesely then built a new factory called New Albion Works, to distinguish it from the old Albion Works. The factory was on Walsall Road, adjacent to John Harper & Company's premises, on the corner of what was to become Albion Street, named after the factory. It is not known how it was financed, but it appears that John Harper Senior criticised his son for taking such a risk. The new business became known as John Harper Junior & Company, to distance it from his father's firm, John Harper & Company, and from 1846 included a foundry.


William Harper.


An advert from 1851.


New Albion Works, later called Albion Works.


John Harper junior.

Whilst all of this was happening, a revolution was taking place in the casting of lock cases. A Mr. Mason of Bilston was hard at work trying to perfect the casting of lock cases in malleable and non-malleable iron. He was followed by Richard Tildesley, who perfected the process, and began casting lock cases in Willenhall. By 1856 there were three ironfounders in the town producing lock cases. They were Tildesley, Knowles, and John Harper Junior.

In 1852, Thomas Brueton's firm (William Brueton's son) had amalgamated with John Harper & Company, Carpenter and Tildesley, John Fox and James Lockett. By 1856 the combine had been acquired by John Harper Junior & Company. The relationship between the various lock making firms is complex because there were many marriages between the different lock making families, such as the Tildesleys, the Harpers and the Bruetons. And John Harper Junior outlived three wives and had two families.

In an advert from that year, John Harper junior describes himself as successor to Mr. James Tildesley, Mr. John Fox, Mr. John Harper senior, Mr. J. Locket, and Mr. Thomas Brueton.

He began to produce a wide range of products including locks and latches, wood screws, plain and ornamental light castings, to any pattern, either in malleable or common iron, and even dog collars.

The firm began to produce general metalwork, and continued to do so for the remainder of its life.


An advert from 1861.

The firm was one of the first in the area to introduce and develop machinery, and as a result was able to mass produce all kinds of products, which became especially successful in export markets.


From Harrison, Harrod & Company's Directory & Gazetteer. 1861.

Its patented tumbler padlock did well in the Levant and East Indies, where it sold at a retail price equivalent to 1 penny.

A visitor reported that "orders varied from 5,000 to 10,000 dozens at a time" and he watched a consignment of 1 ton, which was equal to 40,000  iron clog sole nails being despatched.

George Price of Cleveland Safe Works, Wolverhampton, published "A Treatise on Fire and Thief-Proof Depositories and Locks and Keys" in 1856.This includes the following description of John Harper's activities at the time:
One of the largest concerns is that of Messrs. John Harper and Matthew Tildesley, and is called "Albion Works," where the various kinds of locks, . . . . together with bolts, wood screws, etc., are produced in vast quantities. We have inspected many different samples of locks, etc., including patterns of locks, handles, bolts, and bars used in the plantations of South America, which are made in large quantities, and are supplied at regular periods.

Messrs. Harper and Tildesley are also the sole manufacturers of a patent tumbler pad lock which is very saleable in the Levant and East India market, and for simplicity and cheapness is one of the wonders of the age. It is without exception the cheapest padlock in the world, and it can be sold retail from one penny each. They have been sold wholesale in quantities varying from five to ten thousand dozen at a time.

Harpers were expanding rapidly. In 1868 John Harper bought land behind the existing works in Walsall Street and then leased it to the company, who built factory extensions on it from time to time, extending Albion Street to provide access. The 1868 deeds describe the land as follows: "A piece of land bounded on the North East by a new street 10 yards wide, and diverging in a north westerly direction out of the turn pike road leading from Wolverhampton to Walsall, and on the west and north west by a brook course, on the south west by land belonging to Jeremiah Hartill and on the south east by the turn pike road leading from Wolverhampton to Walsall, or by the stream running by the side thereof".
The company hit hard times in the 1870s when Harper and Tildesley were unable to meet their debts.

To make matters worse, they quarrelled, which lead to a lawsuit about some land and a bankruptcy.

In 1874 a trustee was appointed, and the company's debts were fully discharged, but the partnership was dissolved. John Harper Junior became the sole proprietor.

 
Two adverts from 'Griffiths' Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain', published in 1873.

Another advert from  'Griffiths' Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain'.

The legal papers of that time describe Harpers as Malleable Ironfounders and Hardware Merchants, no mention of common or grey iron being made. Another deed of about the same date mentions "locks, bolts and other articles of metal" and also "Coal Masters" which is no surprise, because the area was extensively mined.

A wages record in 1874 reveals the working week as of six full days, but the hours are not stated. A good male wage was 2 shillings and six pence, with women, or more probably girls, at 4 to 6 shillings, and boys the same. Both the boys and girls worked the full factory hours.

In 1888 the company was re-incorporated as a private limited company under the name of John Harper & Company Limited. The directors were John Harper and his son, Fred. The company was, effectively, the property of John Harper who had become a Justice of the Peace, an alderman, a great Methodist, and a temperance campaigner.

They were joined on the board in 1894 by the successful local solicitor James Slater J.P. who had a business in Darlaston, and lived at Bescot Hall. He sat on the Willenhall Bench for many years, and in 1901 was succeeded on the board by his son Maurice, also a J.P. The Slater family maintained an association with the company until the 1960s. Slater Street in Willenhall is named after James Slater.


An advert from the early 1880s.

The company expanded significantly in the late 19th century. By the 1890s there were seven foundries, a sand blast, eleven fitting shops, two polishing rooms, three plating shops, three lacquering rooms, fifteen japanning shops, six warehouses, and five steam engines. In the offices was a No. 4 caligraph typewriter, a speaking tube, and three telephones.

The works were self contained. Bricks for extensions were made on site, and the gas to light the works came from the company's own gasometer.

Five hundred people were employed, including, from the 1870s onwards; women. In 1888 the finished product range had widened to include oil lamps, oil and gas stoves, and other hardware.  In 1899 the company first registered its trade mark, "Beatrice".

A description of Harper products at that time included locks, bolts, and latches; malleable castings from a latch key size upwards; novelties and stationery goods; light and fancy castings; lamp fittings; oil stoves; cycles and tricycles; "Beatrice" and "Cathedral" stoves. In 1900 some 50 tons per week of castings were being made in five more or less separate foundries, and the proportion of castings for outside sale was growing.


This advert is from Peck's 1896 trade directory. It includes a single lock.

 

Two adverts from the 1930s.


Part of Foundry No 1  in about 1900, where general work was produced.


Part of 'A' shop in about 1900, where pressing, stamping, cutting out, and fitting were carried out.
The following is from County Biographies 1901, Staffordshire:

County Magistrate Alderman John Harper, J.P.

John Harper, J.P., Brueton House, Bilston; second son of the late John Harper, hardware merchant, of Willenhall; born May 24th, 1821. Mr. Harper is a Justice of the Peace for the County of Stafford, and sits both at Bilston and Willenhall Petty Sessions. He served on the Willenhall School Board for the first six years of its life; was returned as County Councillor for North Bilston in 1888, and made Alderman on the same date, which position he still holds. In politics Mr. Harper is a staunch Liberal, and was for many years a great friend of the late Right Hon. C. P. Villiers, M.P.; he is a prominent Wesleyan and for sixty years has been a total abstainer; he is also a Fellow of the Imperial Institute. Mr. Harper's business record is a long one. He has been in harness now for 64 years, and still takes an active part in the works at Willenhall. This business was founded on a small scale in 1790 by Mr. William Harper, the grandfather of the present head of the firm; it was subsequently carried on until 1851 by the late Mr. John Harper, when several businesses were amalgamated under the title of John Harper Jun. and Co. In 1888, for family reasons, the business was converted into a private Joint Stock Company, of which Mr. Harper is principal shareholder, Chairman of Directors, and General Manager. In addition to this life-long connection with the Albion Works, Willenhall, Mr. Harper is proprietor of the Bilston Windmill Cement and Plaster Company. He was initiated into commercial life at an early period, and we find him, when 16 years of age, acting as buyer and making periodical visits into the Potteries and elsewhere on business matters. Mr. Harper has been an extensive traveller, and has visited Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Bavaria, Holland, The North Cape, Rhineland, and the Danube, in addition to nearly all parts of the British Isles. He was fortunate enough to be present at Kiel Harbour on the occasion of the opening of the Baltic Canal, which he has since travelled through on his way to St. Petersburg.

John Harper Junior died in 1903, after which the company remained in the hands of his descendants and those of other directors, the Slaters, Retallacks and Lewises. Catalogues from 1903 to 1924 show bolts, but very few locks. So lock making was probably not one of the major activities.

An inventory from 1908 includes a horizontal compound condensing engine, 36-in. stroke, by Victor Coates of Belfast, which seems to have replaced the earlier steam engines.

There were dynamos, powering electric lighting, enamel, tinning and plating shops, and a new sand grinding mill with elevators, in the foundry. There was also a coal-dust grinding mill and overhead travelling carriages for larger castings, and 27 moulding machines.

The stables contained six horses and eleven carts, two of which were rubber tyred.

A chemical laboratory opened in 1913.


A section of the hanging lamp and children's cycle wrapping room in about 1900.


Part of the stove erection shop in about 1900.

In 1914 the company is listed as general and malleable ironfounders, and manufacturers of finished hardware of all kinds, employing 764 people. In the First World War munitions were produced.

After the war things soon returned to normal. The product range included castings for typewriters, and electric cookers. In the 1920s, Harper's developed equipment, unique at the time, to measure the electromagnetic properties of iron castings, opening new markets for parts such as resistance grids and telephone exchange components.

The old steam engine, known as the "Big Engine" broke down and was replaced by electric power, and in 1925 Malleable iron production ended because demand had fallen. Production then concentrated on grey iron castings, which were in great demand. The old annealing ovens were dismantled to allow for further foundry extensions, and a night shift started in the foundry, which produced thousands of castings each week. Around this time a works canteen opened. It had been built on an adjoining piece of land.


One of the cupola furnaces in 1925.


Part of the light foundry in January 1925.

Although the factory had been modernised, the board decided that it was inadequate for the future needs of the company, and a new and larger factory was essential for future growth.

Sometime before 1897 the firm had purchased a large piece of land covering 14½ acres, which was bounded by Stringes Lane, Gough Street, Acorn Street and Clarke's Lane. It appears to have been acquired for possible future expansion.

The site contained large deposits of sand and gravel which were dug-out and sold, yielding an income of about £100 per year. By the 1920s the sand and gravel pits had been worked-out, and so the firm used the land for tipping about 20 loads of rubbish a day, which helped to fill-in the large holes.

In 1907 about an acre of the land, adjoining Albion Street was sold to the education authority for the building of Albion Street School, which opened on 4th October, 1909.

Nine years later at the end of the First World War, the firm purchased some adjoining land from the Earl of Lichfield, and sold the part of the land adjoining Stringes Lane and Clarke's Lane to the local authority.

After the board's decision in 1926 to build a new factory, the land was bought back. Because the land was so close to the existing factory, it was felt that the development of the site would not seriously break the continuity of either production or management.

Work on the new factory began in 1927 with the building of the foundry, where the first cast was made on 3rd December of that year. The new factory was extended over the next twenty years to fill the whole site. As new factory units appeared, production was gradually transferred from the old site. In 1930 capital was raised on the Stock Exchange to extend the 1927 foundry, which had won a lot of new business in supplying the electrical and business machine industries in particular. The new capital diluted the family holdings and progressively ended the family's control.


The new factory.

In order to develop new markets for castings, a 'Meehanite' licence was taken out in 1937. 'Meehanite' was a production process which produced a high quality iron product with 'semi-steel' qualities. Harper's set up a separate foundry and a separate company, John Harper (Meehanite) & Company Limited, which remained in existence until 1961 when it was re-integrated into the parent company.

By 1939 only the warehouse, and the office in the old factory were still in use. When war began in September 1939, production was turned over to the war effort, and the production of munitions. Parts of the old works were given a new lease of life, and were occupied by a variety of other manufacturers whose premises had been destroyed by the enemy.

After the war, building work started again on the new site. In 1949, a new office block was built which enabled the company to transfer everything to the new factory and to sell-off most of the old works, although a garage, carpenter's shop, social club and dining room were retained until the 1970s. Much of the old site was acquired by H. & J. Hill Limited, ironfounders. They had a foundry on the site until the 1980s when the business closed. The site is now occupied by housing.

In 1952 Harpers bought a foundry in Poole, largely to make high phosphorus content grey iron castings. It became extremely efficient, producing 600 to 700 tons of castings a year, mostly for Harper's own finished goods, but also for outside sale, including the complex water-cooled cylinder bodies for British Seagull outboard motors.

By 1960 the company had two divisions, Finished Goods Division and the Foundry Division.

The Finished Goods Division produced oil stoves and heaters under the 'Beatrice' brand, and domestic hardware under the 'Harper Housewares' brand.

The Foundry Division had 3 foundries working in cast iron, 'Meehanite', and ductile iron. They employed around 1,400 people.

The Finished Goods Division closed in 1970 after falling sales, despite a diversification into electric heaters.

The Foundry Division continued to grew, especially in the production of high strength special "S.G." iron engineering castings.

 

An advert for John Harper's Beatrice Belle paraffin heaters.


The melting plant for the high strength special "S.G." iron in 1972.


Some of the melting plant in 1965 showing a continuous tapping cupola spout, with tilting launder, filling porous plug ladles in which the metal is treated with calcium carbide and graphite, before being transferred to an electric furnace.

Oil heaters being loaded onto a British European Airways aircraft for transportation to Turkey. They are standard 'Beatrice' oil heaters that were sold in Turkey under the 'Supreme' name because 'Beatrice' is difficult to pronounce in Turkish.
In 1972 Newman Industries acquired interest in John Harper and Company, which was taken over by Duport, in 1974.

In 1982 Duport decided to combine several of its foundries into a single site at Tipton. 

As a result the Willenhall factory closed, and John Harper and Company Limited ceased to trade as a separate business.

A few years later Duport itself closed, but the business survived in Tipton as Duport-Harper.

It was taken over by the American Company Grede Foundries UK Limited, and still operates in Tipton as Duport Harper Foundries.


An advert from 1958.


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