Joseph Sankey & Sons Limited is well-remembered in Bilston, as one of the larger and most successful manufacturers in the town. The firm’s factories at Albert Street and Bankfield were once prominent landmarks, overlooking the town centre.

The Early Years

Joseph Sankey was born in Bilston in 1827. Unfortunately his father died in 1836 and so Joseph became a pupil at the Royal Orphanage School in Wolverhampton. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to John Duncalfe, a tray blank maker of Hall Street, Bilston, where he was taught design and mechanical drawing. After his apprenticeship he was employed by the Birch brothers, who made tinplate trays that were sold to japanners for finishing.

The business failed, and two of the senior employees, Charles Harthill and Samuel Jackson, set up their own firm in Middlefield Lane, where they employed Joseph Sankey. Charles Harthill died in 1854, at a time when the firm owed £800 to Jon Bates, a sheet iron merchant, who secured possession of the plant and tools of the firm as security for the debt. He recognised Sankey's skills and determination, and in 1854 persuaded Jackson to take him into partnership. The new firm, with premises in Dudley Street, Bilston, concentrated on the production of blank trays, stamped from tinplate, that were then sold to japanners. Jackson & Sankey produced trays of many different shapes and sizes, but struggled financially, having to repeatedly re-mortgage the firm's premises to finance expansion.

In 1861, Joseph Sankey began to run the business on his own, after buying-out Samuel Jackson, who continued to work for the firm as a foreman in the blank tray shop. In the early 1860s, Joseph went into partnership with Richard Chambers and John Page in order to acquire a rolling mill and ironworks at Stonefield, as a way of gaining control over the firm’s supplies of tinplate and sheet iron. The business became the Bilston Iron Company.


An advert from 1876.

Expansion

Until the early 1860s, Joseph Sankey appears to have lived on the Dudley Road site. In the early 1860s he had a new home built in Wolverhampton, which was called Goldthorn House. It stood on the southern side of Goldthorn Hill, next to where Coton Road stands today.

In 1867, Joseph Sankey acquired land in Albert Street, behind the Dudley Street premises, where a large workshop was built. Steam-powered stamping machines were installed so that heavier gauges of metal could be worked. New products included frying pans and kettles.

The firm began to concentrate on the manufacture of a wide range of hollowware including chocolate moulds, dish covers, lamps, lanterns, milk churns, tin boxes and stamped or pressed metal products such as bath tubs, fire shovels and metal life buoys. A significant export business also developed. Cassada pans that were used to dry coffee beans were exported to Brazil and bowls were exported to Ceylon, China and India.

In 1871, Joseph’s eldest son, John William Sankey, joined the firm and took over the accounting. In 1874 the firm had 65 employees. In 1878, John William Sankey became a partner in the business and in 1884 his younger brother George Herbert Sankey joined the firm. The company’s founder, Joseph Sankey, died in 1886.

In December of that year, the company started out in a new direction after being contacted by Robert Jenkins, an iron merchant from London. He had been researching into the possibility of making armatures for dynamos from charcoal sheet iron discs. He thought that Sankey’s existing stamping machines could be easily adapted for the manufacture of electrical laminations and in 1887, persuaded Siemens to place an order for laminations through an agency called Harold & Jenkins. By 1890, contracts had been signed and production of the laminations began. In the mid 1890s, Sankeys abandoned charcoal iron in favour of a metal steel sheet.

Further Expansion

In July 1891, John William Sankey, went into partnership with his two younger brothers, Frederick Ernest Sankey and George Herbert Sankey, and the business became Joseph Sankey & Sons. The firm acquired a number of smaller businesses including Edward Morris & Sons, manufacturers of sugar-making utensils; Huttons, manufacturers of nickel plated trays; the Sanitary Bath Company, manufacturers of copper-clad steel; and J. H. Hopkins & Sons of Granville Street, Birmingham, manufacturers of hollowware and japanned products that had the 'Sphinx' trademark, which was adopted by Sankeys. The japanning side of this business was sold, and stamping and pressing was concentrated at Albert Street Works.


Sankey's trademark.

In 1890, Sankeys patented a process called 'Neptune Ware' in which tinplate ran through colour rollers to undercoat both sides. After being embossed and painted, products, such as ash-trays, bread baskets, candlesticks, cups, children's money boxes, cake baskets, and waiters' trays, were blanked out to the final shape. The technique was a great success and part of Albert Street Works had to be expanded to cope with the growing demand. Also at this time, the firm produced more kettles than any other British company, thanks to the use of cheap steel that could easily be pressed into any shape.

A New Factory

In 1893 the firm erected a large and comfortable room for the use of the employees as a mess room and a recreation room. A library was also built for the use of the employees. Expansion continued in the early years of the new century. In 1900 the derelict iron and tinplate works at Bradley, established in 1833 by Thompson, Hatton & Company were acquired for expansion. Most of the existing buildings were demolished, and a new factory was built on the site for the manufacture of electrical laminations. Slotting machines and keyway cutters were acquired in order to transfer the manufacture of laminations from Albert Street Works to the new site, which was called Bankfield Works.

In September 1902, Joseph Sankey & Sons became a limited company with an authorised capital of £200,000 divided into 10,000 ordinary shares of £10 each and 10,000 preference shares of £10 each. J. W. Sankey became Chairman and George and Frederick Sankey were appointed as Directors, along with John Chambers, who after working for the firm for many years, had risen to Company Secretary.

To assist in the production of laminations at Bankfield Works, Manor Rolling Mills at Ettingshall were purchased from Stephen Thompson & Company Limited, in 1904. The factory provided production facilities for the silicon steel sheets that were needed for the electrical laminations.

Also in 1904, Sankeys began to manufacture pressed body panels and wood and coach ironwork for cars. Within two years, the firm was exporting body panels to Paris and New York.

In 1906, Sankeys were granted an exclusive licence from the Hadfield Steel Foundry of Sheffield for the manufacture of a special electrical steel, known as 'stalloy'. In 1909, Sankeys sub-licensed John Lysaght to roll sheets under the Hadfield patents at their Orb Works, in Newport, South Wales and also granted a licence to the Brymbo Steel Company, near Wrexham, to make steel bars and blooms under the Hadfield patent, which were to be sold to Lysaghts for rolling into sheet.


The Bilston factories.

More Automotive Parts

Sankeys extended production of automotive components at Albert Street after developing and patenting the first pressed and welded, detachable motor car wheel, the 'All Steel Wheel', in 1908. In the following year the company started stamping steel body panels for Arrol-Johnston cars. Production of automotive components increased again in 1910 when Sankeys acquired the former factory of the Castle Car Company, at Hadley Castle, near Wellington, which had produced tramcars. Some of the machinery had remained in the factory, so production of pressed steel car and charabanc body panels and the steel wheels soon got underway there. The factory was also used for the production of the range of Sankey-Sheldon office furniture and agricultural implements.

In 1911, the automotive body shop was transferred from Bankfield Works to Hadley Castle, along with the wheel shop from Albert Street Works. Production of automotive components was now concentrated at Hadley Castle. By 1914 the demand for laminations for dynamos, motors and transformers, as well as for small electrical stampings had significantly increased.


Hadley Castle Works in the 1930s.


An advert from 1908.


From the Autocar, 6th November, 1909.

In 1913, after the death of John William Sankey, his brother George became Chairman. At the outbreak of war in 1914, a large number of employees went into the armed forces, which greatly affected production. The firm received large orders for war work from the Ministry of Munitions and in November 1915, Albert Street Works became a Controlled Establishment.

Products produced both at Albert Street and Hadley Castle included aeroplane parts, bombs, field kitchens, mine hemispheres, mortar bombs, rifle grenades, steel helmets, anti-submarine bodies and shell bodies. A large number of female workers were employed to replace the male factory workers who had joined the armed forces. By the end of the war, 69 employees had been killed, including Sydney Sankey, the eldest son of John William Sankey.

Amalgamation

After the war, the company was still profitable, but George Sankey had no desire to remain in charge. There were few managers at board level and possibly some uncertainty about the company’s future in the post war era. The Sankey family decided to sell the business to one of their main suppliers, John Lysaght & Company with whom they had strong ties. In 1919, Lysaght’s Chairman, Henry Seymour Berry, also became Chairman of Sankeys and Joseph Sankey & Sons Limited became the sole subsidiary of John Lysaght Limited.

Henry Seymour Berry very much wanted to be associated with Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds and planned to takeover GKN. The two companies decided to amalgamate and so on the 1st January, 1920, John Lysaght Limited and Joseph Sankey & Sons Limited became subsidiaries of GKN. Sankeys retained its identity and the company’s Registered Office remained at Albert Street Works. Members of the Sankey family remained as managing directors, until 1954.

By the 1920s, sales for the firm’s hollowware had greatly declined. More goods than ever were imported and plastic items were becoming more commonplace. Sankeys decided to cease production of enamelled hollowware and sold the excess stampings to Macfarlane & Robinson. The market for 'Cassada' pans for Brazil remained buoyant, and large numbers of casings for petrol pumps were sold to W. & T. Avery.


An advert from 1921.

In the search for new products, an agreement was made with the Asiatic Petroleum Company and the Florence Stove Company, to make paraffin-burning heaters that were sold by the Florence Stove Company. In 1929, Sankeys purchased Bath Street Works, formerly occupied by Holcroft’s Steel Foundry Company, and later by the Staffordshire Stainless Iron Company. The buildings were next to the Albert Street Works, and were used for the production of steel wheelbarrows.

The recession in the late 1920s and early 1930s led to a period of short time working and some redundancies, which ended as the economy improved towards the mid 1930s. At this time both Albert Street and Bath Street Works were modernised. New presses and a new boiler house were added along with toolmaking and repair facilities.

Investment was also made at Bankfield Works due to the efforts of Mr. E. W. Richmond, who had been appointed as general manager there in 1922. He convinced existing customers to continue to purchase their electrical pressings from Sankeys and to invest in new machinery to improve production. By this time pressings were also being made for wireless manufacturers. Investment was also made at Hadley Castle Works where three new rim-making machines were installed. Production at the works included bath panels, metal trim, radiators, steel barrels for the palm oil trade in Africa, steel pulleys and steel roofing sheets.

By 1936 Sankey’s workforce had grown to nearly 1,500. In 1938, Sankeys acquired a one-third interest in the Florence Stove Company, which became the Florence Stove & Hardware Company. The production of paraffin heaters became a substantial part of production at Albert Street Works.

An advert from 1938.

George H. Sankey died in 1934. By this time his three sons, Harold B. Sankey, George Ronald Sankey and Geoffrey B. Sankey had been in the business for some time. Harold B. Sankey became Managing Director after his father's death. Between 1942 and 1944 he was appointed Regional Controller for the Midlands by the Ministry of Production. Ronald Sankey then took over as Managing Director.

In the late 1930s, in readiness for the outbreak of war, the government funded several new buildings at Albert Street that would be used for war work. Products included aeroplane spinners for De Havilland and Rotol, parts for jet engines for the De Havilland DH1, heavy wheels for army vehicles, ammunition boxes, bombs, depth charge cases, charges and throwers, mines, steel helmets, complete spitfires, and bridge sections and floats for the Admiralty. Other products included electrical stampings for wireless sets and radar, and steel furniture for the Royal Navy. By the end of 1940, 85 percent of the output was for war work. Orders eventually declined after the end of hostilities in Europe in May 1945.

In 1946 a new wheel shop was built at Hadley Castle Works that was further extended in 1955 and 1959. In 1947 a range of agricultural implements was introduced there including ploughs, seed drills, tractors, and trailers. Expansion continued at the works for some time.

In 1958 a new steel furniture factory was built, and in 1961 a new Commercial Cab Shop opened. New plant was also installed for the production of road wheels for buses, cars, tractors and trucks.

Hadley Castle Works also produced mobility vehicles, armoured vehicles including the 'Warrior' tank and automatic vending machines.

Sankeys acquired Universal Brewery Equipment Limited in 1954, and began production of the ‘Sankey System’, consisting of beer packaging, kegs, and combination units for kegs to be washed, sterilised and refilled.

Plastic mouldings for domestic appliances and office equipment became important products along with steel furniture for marine cabins and accommodation modules for oil rigs.

Partitioning was also produced for general office and factory use.


An advert from 1938.


An advert from 1951.

Albert Street and Bankfield Works were rebuilt in 1957 to 1958, along with a new head office. In 1968, Joseph Sankey & Sons Limited became GKN Sankey Limited, and by 1970, Hadley Castle Works became the main centre of operations, employing a much larger workforce than at Bilston.

In 1971, the company took over the production of heavy wheels for earth moving equipment etc. from Dunlop, who took over production of Sankey car wheels.

By the 1970s the company was divided into the following divisions: wheel; pressings; Bankfield; plastics; brewery; unistrut; Sankey Sheldon; and automatic vending.

The Sub-Group headquarters was at Hadley Castle Works.


Stainless steel hospital ware made at Albert Street in 1953.


Electrical laminations made at Bankfield in 1953.


Aircraft propeller components made at Albert Street in 1953.


Chassis, tractor wheels and trailers made at Hadley Castle in 1953.


A Senator domestic heater made at Albert Street in 1968.

An advert from 1953.
An advert from 1955.


An advert from 1947.

By the 1980s the company was suffering as a result of the general decline of UK manufacturing.

In 1980 and 1981 there were redundancies at Hadley Castle Works and Bilston, due to losses in the wheel and pressing divisions.

Albert Street Works closed in 1988 and buildings on the site were demolished. The brewery business was sold and presses were moved to the Hadley Castle Works in order to produce body pressings in a joint venture with Jaguar.

Hadley Castle Works was divided into four units consisting of light fabrications, making telephone kiosks; agricultural products, supplying tractor cabs for Ford and Massey Ferguson; engineering products, producing car components; and the wheel division, concentrating on tractor and off road wheels.

The venture with Jaguar failed after Jaguar was taken over.

Photos from 1988 and 1989, when Albert Street Works closed.

The lovely photos that follow, were kindly sent by David Clare. They were taken by Sam Skitt, before and during the closure of Albert Street Works and so must be some of the last photos taken there. It was a sad time, when Sankeys vacated Bilston after running the business for 134 years. During that time, the firm had grown and had previously been one of the town's largest employers.


The front of the offices.


Inside one of the offices.


A row of locally made Wilkins and Mitchell presses in one of the press shops.


Another view of the press shop.


A Cowlishaw Walker press, which is about to be dismantled.


Another press awaits its fate.


Another machine is dismantled.


A final view of the press shop.


Part of a Lake Erie hydraulic press.


The press in the previous photo, now stands in an almost empty shop.


A general view, as the factory is dismantled.


More machines are broken-up.


The overhead crane in another nearly empty shop.


Another view of the same shop.


The end of the shop with part of the crane on the right.


Some of the switchgear that once supplied power to the machines.


Another view of the shop and the switchgear, that would soon be gone.


One of the other empty shops.


Steel rolls awaiting transportation.


A pile of scrap awaits removal.


Another pile of scrap.


A final view of the almost derelict building.


The exterior of the factory in its last days.


A final view of the factory, which awaits demolition.

In 2001, Hadley Castle Works became GKN Auto Structures.

In 2002, Ford and Massey Ferguson ceased to produce tractors, so the main agricultural business came to an end and GKN cabs division closed.

A small celebration was held at Hadley Castle Works in 2004 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Sankeys.

At the time, around 1,600 people still worked on the site. The factory still survives (December 2019) and is now part of GKN Aerospace.

In 2005 Corus closed the laminations factory at Bilston with a loss of 190 jobs.


An advert from 1953.


An advert from 1970.

Social Activities

Sankeys had a good relationship with the local communities in both Bilston and Wellington. Annual outings were organised for employees and the staff canteen at Albert Street opened in 1893. The firm contributed £25 a year to a sick benefit club and a sports club was first founded in 1893. In 1935 land between Albert Street and Bankfield Works, that had been purchased in 1921, was levelled for a sports field with a pavilion for the Sankey Social and Sports Club, which opened on the 6th June 1936. Entry to the social club was not restricted to employees and so it became very popular with the local population. There were dances with live bands, bingo, and social groups including choirs, ballroom dancing groups, music groups, and clubs focused on hobbies and leisure interests. Sadly the Social and Sports Club closed in 1988 and the buildings were demolished. The company had its own St. Johns Ambulance section and a fire brigade.


 
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