The Early Years

Alfred Owen was passionate about anything mechanical, and always kept an eye open for new possibilities and products, especially items that were not produced in any quantity elsewhere. In the late years of the nineteenth century, a revolution in transport in the form of the motor car was just starting.

Within a few years the early prototypes had evolved into useable and reliable machines. As more manufacturers appeared, it became certain that the new form of transport would soon dominate the roads.

Alfred Owen realised what the future had in store, and decided that the firm should get involved in the transport revolution as a parts supplier to the many up and coming vehicle builders. In the factory yard he made a prototype chassis framework from rolled channel and tubing, which greatly interested the growing motor trade.

The vehicle chassis began to sell, and the list of customers grew. Alfred could often be seen at the bench, with sleeves rolled-up, helping to put the finishing touches to urgently needed frame assemblies. He was delighted with the idea that his Darlaston-made chassis would be travelling up and down the country in all kinds of vehicles. He was an early motorist himself, and was the first man to drive a car into Aberdovey, North Wales.

Other than the early factory building and the partly covered yard, there was a small two-roomed office where the partners did their clerical work.


Alfred Ernest Owen. (1869 to 1929)


Mr. A. E. Owen (left) and Mr, J. T. Rubery in 1899. From the April 1947 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".
They were assisted in the office by three employees. The first, Charles Guy, the firm’s draughtsman, also produced the technical specifications. The second, John Jeavons, the cashier, also helped with the bookwork and general routine. The third member of the office staff, young George Buckley, was an eager office junior.

At the side of the factory was a large pool, said to be at least twenty five feet deep. It occasionally rose and fell as if it had a tidal system of its own. The extent of rising and falling was registered by an upright piece of tee-iron at the water's edge, with markers at every foot. In warm weather some of the employees would cool-off by taking a swim. There were many fish including perch, two fine preserved specimens of which, could be seen for many years in one of the firm’s offices in Booth Street.

Hard factory work, particularly in the summer, would bring-on a great thirst, so workers often flocked to one of the many public houses in the area. Sometimes workers would be late returning from their lunch break, so someone had to be sent out from the factory to order them back to work. This task was occasionally performed by Alfred Owen himself, who on discovering the culprits, simply took out his watch, and gave them a time limit to empty their tankards and get back to work.

The factory had its own guard dog in the form of Leo, Mr. Rubery’s mastiff. In work hours it resided in a large cage by the factory entrance, but at night it lay in a sheltered spot in the yard, ready to pounce at the faintest sound.

In 1899, Rubery and Co. were awarded a Gold Medal at the Richmond Exhibition for a chassis frame assembled from rolled sections and solid round steel bars.

On 27th June, 1900, Alfred Owen married Miss Florence Lucy Beech, and they moved into their first home at Bescot. In August the employees celebrated the event with a Saturday trip to Codsall Wood, travelling the eight or so miles on horse-brakes.

The celebration, including dinner, was held in a large tent. Mr. Rubery toasted the newlyweds, and the afternoon was spent in a series of games and races organised by the more athletic members of the party.


Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Owen. From the summer 1954 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Alfred Owen was an excellent salesman and company ambassador. He often visited manufacturers to offer them his company’s services, and gained an excellent reputation by scrupulously fulfilling their orders. He realised that motorcar production would become a national industry and so pursued his ideas on improving the manufacture of chassis frames. In 1902 he installed a hydraulic press to produce the first pressed steel chassis made in this country, and two years later new workshops were built to house the Motor Frame Department, under the management of Mr. Albert F. Wilkes. In the same year the Fencing Department opened.


An advert from 1905, just before the name change.


An advert from 1908.

Alfred Owen was far more active in the business than his partner. He clearly felt it was time to renegotiate the terms of the deed of partnership, and so talks between the two partners began on the matter in 1903. After two years an agreement was reached, and on 7th September, 1905 a new deed of partnership was signed, and the firm changed its name to Rubery, Owen & Company. In 1910, John Rubery, who was getting-on in years decided to retire. He had no son to follow him into the business, and so he resigned from the partnership and sold his interest in the company to his partner. It took Alfred Owen five years to pay what he owed.


Some employees in 1910. From the spring 1948 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

Alfred soon began to expand the business and extend the product range. Because he saw an increasing demand for bright bolts and nuts, and turned parts for vehicle manufacturers, he added new machinery and plant for their production, and employed both male and female workers in the new section.


The early factory. From a 1914 letterhead.

He also foresaw the development and growth of the aeroplane, and so opened an Aviation Department to supply manufacturers with parts. By 1911 the firm had issued a small catalogue of metal aircraft components.

In 1910 the product range included structural steelwork, motor car and aircraft components, pressings and fabrications, agricultural products, propane gas cylinders, and nuts and bolts.

Many of the larger machines at Victoria Ironworks were made by a local Darlaston firm, Wilkins and Mitchell. Alfred Owen was a friend of Walter Wilkins, the clever engineer who designed the Wilkins and Mitchell machines.
   
Read about slightly unusual Rubery Owen products from 1911, for water treatment.
   

In 1911 Walter and Alfred conceived the idea of a massive forming press to cold press vehicle chassis frames, so revolutionising production. Chassis frames were made from around 10 gauge steel, and until that time had been pressed hot. Although several similar presses were in use in the U.S.A. nothing on this scale had been attempted here. The 1,500 ton "upstroking" hydraulically operated press, costing £2,000, was installed at Rubery Owen’s Darlaston factory in August 1913 and became an immediate success. It worked so well that it continued in operation until 1970, and can be seen today in the car park at the Black Country Living Museum. Plant was also installed for the production of larger vehicle chassis, and for components such as brake drums and rear axle casings.

In 1912 the success of the huge press, and the close relationship between Walter Wilkins and Alfred Owen led them to go on a fact finding tour of the U.S.A. to explore the latest developments in machine tools. Walter had always been impressed with American engineering and their seven week tour would provide plentiful opportunities to examine the latest machines.

It nearly ended in disaster because they booked their passage on a brand new luxury ship, RMS Titanic, but luckily last minute business commitments forced them to delay their departure. Had they not done so, the history of manufacturing in Darlaston would have been very different, with the possible loss of two of the town’s most important manufacturers.

Thanks to the delay, they sailed on RMS Lusitania and after arriving safely, visited many of the leading American machine tool manufacturers. They also inspected some of the factories belonging to the largest vehicle manufacturers including Ford, General Motors, and Studebaker.

As a result of their successful tour, Alfred Owen conceived the idea of producing vehicle chassis and other motor components for British vehicle manufacturers at highly competitive prices. Similarly Wilkins and Mitchell would go on to build competitively priced, state of the art machines for the same manufacturers.


One of the works bowling teams in 1915 with the A. E. Owen Bowling Cup. From the spring 1950 edition of the staff magazine "Goodwill".

By 1912 there were five departments, each treated as a separate profit centre:

Aviation, which included the production of straining screws, eyebolts, clamps, bolts and nuts, and engine housings.
Engineering where excavating machinery, steam and electrically powered navvies, and conveyors were made.
Fencing, for fences, gates, railings, balustrades, signs, etc.
Motor Frames which produced chassis and pressed steel parts for motor cars.
Roofing where steel roofs, railway station buildings, railway bridges, aeroplane sheds, and buildings for all kinds of industrial uses were produced.

The business had greatly expanded since the early days, and so Alfred Owen now had to manage the business as a whole, rather than look after the day-to-day management of the individual departments. He also had his other business interests to consider, having invested in other companies. He set-up a staff council consisting of the various departmental heads, with himself as Chairman. The members were:

Charles Guy (Roofing),  Henry S. Price (Engineering), William Slater (Fencing),  William S. Stambridge appointed in October 1913 (Aviation), and Albert Wilkes (Motor Frames).


The new offices. From a 1914 letterhead.

Also in 1912, new offices were opened, with a canteen and Works Institute, and also a new factory entrance, complete with clock tower.

A recreation ground also opened on a nearby piece of land, with bowling greens and tennis courts to provide relaxation and enjoyment for the workers at midday or in the evening.

The institute included a billiards room, a reading room and a concert room, which were greatly appreciated by the employees.

By 1914 the firm's main products were:

Structural steelwork, bridges, buildings, roofs, tanks, girders, etc.
Excavating and conveying machinery, steam and electrically driven navvies.
Water purification plants, bacterial treatment for town supplies, filtration and softening for industrial purposes.
Electric steel castings.
Fencing and gates (ornamental and plain), tree guards, garden seats, etc.
Black washers and light presswork.
Motor car and wagon frames (hydraulically pressed and rolled channel), hydraulically pressed axle casings,
brake drums, clutch drums, etc.
Aeroplane framework, engine housings, cold drawn steel tubing, tighteners, eye bolts, and all accessories.

During the First World War manufacturers were required to concentrate on the war effort by fulfilling ministry contracts. Rubery Owen was in a unique position, being the only firm capable of producing large quantities of small aircraft parts for the Government.


The Rubery Owen office building in 2014.


A letterhead from 1914.

At the end of hostilities, the wartime ministry contracts were terminated and the factory returned to normality. In April 1919 the staff council, which was set up seven years earlier became the Committee of Management. In the same year the firm built a very large steam excavator, designed by A. R. Grossmith for J. B. Forder & Son's Pillange Brickworks, and the Engineering Department was sold to the Wellman, Smith, Owen Engineering Corporation. On Saturday 16th August, 1919 a new Canteen and Works Institute opened on part of the original recreation ground.

 
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