Wilkins and Mitchell Limited became one of Darlaston's leading engineering companies, employing over 1,000 people. The family business in Richards Street produced machine tools and power presses, for either hot or cold pressing. They can be found in factories throughout the world.
It all started in 1904 when two friends, Walter Wilkins and Tom Mitchell from Yorkshire, set themselves up in business in a small factory in Bell Street, called Phoenix Works, owned by nut and bolt maker Charles Richards.

Walter, aged 29 had previously been the head designer at Samuel Platts in Darlaston Road, King's Hill, and Tom aged 35, had a strong passion for engineering, together with a great deal of technical expertise, and the willingness to work hard for long hours.

Walter and Tom started with a few machines including a borer, an eight foot planer, a milling machine, a slotting machine, a twelve inch gap lathe, and a vertical drilling machine.

Their first job was to repair the steam roller belonging to Darlaston Council.


Walter Wilkins in later life.

The map opposite shows the approximate location of Phoenix Works in Bell Street.

Walter Wilkins and Tom Mitchell rented the factory from Charles Richards.

They soon received their first order for a piece of machinery. It came from Rubery Owen and consisted of several drilling machines. Around the same time they received an order from Charles Richards for stripping machines and a bolt heading machine. The bolt heading machine was the most advanced machine of its kind, being considerably smaller than the competition and about half the price. The two friends soon formed a close relationship with both companies.
1907 proved to be a landmark year for the company, which began when they received their first order for machinery from a railway company. This would become a common occurrence in years to come, and provide the firm with a regular income. The order, from the Birmingham Carriage Company was for a slot milling machine.

The second milestone was an order from Rubery Owen for a blanking press. Walter designed the press to operate hydraulically, with all of the hydraulic components made in-house.

As a result Wilkins and Mitchell would go on to become one of the leading manufacturers of power presses. They soon produced a similar machine for Thompsons.

The following year Walter and Tom built the first British multi-head sole-bar drilling machine for the Birmingham Carriage Company, a product that would prove to be popular for the next 25 years.

By this time the workforce had grown to two fitters, and an apprentice; Tom’s son Joe.


An early Wilkins and Mitchell double action toggle press.


The Hollies, the Wilkins' family home.

1908 would be a memorable year in another way. Walter Wilkins had become a great friend of Charles Richards and his family, and had fallen in love with his youngest daughter Louisa. Before the year was out they were married, and the company’s employees were given an hour off to attend their boss’s wedding. Walter and his bride moved into their new home, The Hollies in Wednesbury.

Expansion

By 1910 business was booming. There were so many orders that they couldn’t cope in the cramped conditions at the Bell Street factory. Luckily the solution was at hand. Darlaston Green Works were available at the time and so Wilkins and Mitchell acquired the factory and renamed it “Phoenix Works”. At the time they were receiving a lot of orders for special machinery from railway carriage and wagon companies.

In 1911 Walter Wilkins and Alfred Owen senior 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. Walter’s design used a similar hydraulic system to the one that he developed in 1907 for the blanking press. The press, costing a mere £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 at the Black Country Living Museum.

Some earlier Wilkins and Mitchell’s machines including a mechanical shear were still in use at Rubery Owen’s factory until 1960, clearly demonstrating the reliability of the company’s products.

The company's first 1,500 ton "upstroking" press that was installed at Rubery Owen's Darlaston works in August 1913.

It ran until 1970 and cold pressed lorry chassis by raising steel blanks that were pressed into the correct shape.


The press at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley.

A Trip to America

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 them with 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.

The War Years

For the first two years or so of the First World War, the manufacture of special purpose machine tools and presses continued much as before, except that production had to be greatly increased to keep-up with the demands of the munitions industry.

At the beginning of the war Wilkins and Mitchell employed between 60 and 70 people who worked flat out to supply the needs of their customers. Unfortunately the constant pressure to keep up with the demand for the company’s products became too much for Tom Mitchell, who in 1916 broke down under the strain and retired to Blackpool. He sold his interest in the firm to Walter, who also came under a lot of pressure.

Apart from the day-to-day running of the company, he became involved in other work. He was asked to go to the War Office in London to assist in vital war work. As a result he became a consulting design engineer, assisting Dr. Frank Lanchester in the design of a compact transmission for tanks that would allow more room inside for the crew. As a result he built an experimental tank at the Birmingham Carriage Company.

He also carried out consultancy work for other companies, which resulted in him dashing all over the country. In 1916 his work load increased even more when Wilkins and Mitchell designed and built their largest press to-date. Walter was so hard pressed that he even had 3 or 4 draughtsmen working in his dining room at home, in order to complete the job on time. The hydraulically operated press was delivered to Rubery Owen in June.

By 1916 Wilkins and Mitchell were also producing other war work including drag lines for artillery, fuse caps, and gear trains for tanks. The company also machined cradles for 18lb. field guns and for naval 12lb. anti-aircraft guns for Wolsley Motors, at the time a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong. Walter revolutionised the production by making it far more efficient. At Vickers-Armstrong one man took 120 hours to machine a single gun cradle. Walter reduced this time to just 12 hours by using three men to operate machines and jigs of his own design. This meant that 10 of the much needed gun cradles could be machined in the time that it previously took to do just one.

Wilkins and Mitchell also began to produce the ‘Lightening’ car jack, which Walter had previously designed in about 1912. He originally set his brother George up in business to manufacture the jacks in a small factory at Moxley in partnership with John Richards. During the war production was transferred to Phoenix Works.


The Darlaston factory in 1917 with Walter's Saxon car in the foreground.

After the War

The company, like many others had greatly prospered thanks to the plentiful supply of wartime Government contracts. Walter Wilkins realised that the contracts would abruptly end when hostilities ceased, and that large quantities of cheap machine tools would be put-up for sale when they were no longer required for war work. Something had to be found to tide the company over until things returned to normal.

As a result he arranged to build mechanical stokers for Vickers-Spearing, a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong who had a good relationship with Wilkins and Mitchell thanks to their work on the gun cradles. The mechanical stokers consisted of wide endless belts that slowly revolved and transported coal from a hopper to the furnace at one end, then carried the burnt ash out at the other.

The contract nicely filled-in the gap at the end of the Government orders, and provided a smooth transition from war to peacetime work. There was an 18 month backlog of orders to get through. At the same time new orders were arriving, mainly for specialised drilling machines for Railway wagon and carriage companies.

Many of the orders were for sole-bar drilling machines, some of which were 50ft. machines. Other orders were for hydraulic presses, used in the production of heavy lorry chassis.

A photograph of some of the workers at Phoenix Works in Bell Street, in the late 1920s.

The second from the left in the middle row is John Gibbons.

Courtesy of Brian Groves.

Another photograph taken at Phoenix Works, possibly at the same time as the one above.

The first lady on the left in the middle row is Mary Gibbons.

Courtesy of Brian Groves.

New Products

Walter Wilkins was as prolific as ever. He had a small experimental workshop at home in which to develop new products, and even designed and made a special drawing board for use in bed, so that if an idea occurred to him during the night he could instantly put it on paper.

He began to develop a rotary valve V8 petrol engine, but unfortunately never completed the work because of lack of time. He also designed a multi-head group drill, an early form of automated machine tool. A number of them were sold to the Hotchkiss Motor Company, the manufacturer of engines for Morris.

It carried-out the complete machining of a Morris cylinder block, and consisted of a series of machines that were coupled together. The cylinder blocks travelled on a track between the machines, which quickly carried out the fifty five operations that were necessary. The installation was one hundred and eighty one feet long, eleven feet wide, and eleven feet high, and powered by eighty one electric motors. It cost around £13,500. Another of Walter's inventions was the under-drive press.

In 1928 Walter’s eldest son, John, joined the company as an apprentice pattern maker, earning two pounds a week. Within a few years his three brothers Henry, Edward, and Philip would also join the family business. Henry married Joyce Winn, daughter of factory owner, W. Martin Winn. Walter became interested in the Rotarian movement and along with a few friends founded the Rotary Centre in Wednesbury.

Around 1926 Walter turned his attention to washing machines, which he considered would be a good addition to Wilkins and Mitchell’s product range to ensure the future growth of the company. He founded Servis Limited in 1929 to manufacture them, and in the spring of 1930 took his family on a tour of the U.S.A. While there he visited several factories including a couple that made washing machines. When the family returned home the Wilkins boys attempted to perfect their prototype washing machine. They had initial problems with the drive, but once they had successfully tried a ‘V’ belt, they were on to a winner.

The new machine was launched at the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Preston Agricultural Show. By that time Walters’s sons Henry and Edward had joined the company and greatly assisted in selling the machines at exhibitions.

During the recession in the 1930s the washing machines helped the company to keep going. The demand for machine tools fell and so workers from that part of the business were temporarily used to tool-up for mass production of Servis washing machines. At the height of the recession the company made a small loss, but still managed to keep going.


An advert from 1934.


An advert from 1938.

The first Servis machines were built using the stock of unsold machine tools in the factory, and the Model ‘A’ soon appeared. It was quickly followed by the improved Model ‘B’ which sold extremely well.

The first cabinet machine, the forerunner of present day machines, was the Model ‘E’. Like its predecessors it sold well, and assured the future of the company.

A separate department was soon set-up where the machines were repaired by skilled mechanics who were specially trained to work on the whole range of Servis machines.

By the late nineteen thirties the depression had ended, and manufacturing flourished. Heavy presses and washing machines were produced in adjoining bays, and newly designed blanking and drawing presses were first tested on the Servis production line.


The Servis museum showing a display of early and later machines.


An advert from the mid 1950s. Courtesy of Christine and John Ashmore.

At the beginning of the Second World War washing machine production was turned-over to the manufacture of ammunition boxes, while the heavy tool division concentrated on building extrusion presses for armaments, and a variety of specially designed machines for ordnance factories.

At the end of hostilities when the war contracts were being wound-up, and the production of washing machines began again, Walter Wilkins was taken ill. He was in his seventieth year, and his doctor advised him to take things easy. Being a workaholic made this an impossibility. He had boundless energy and an active mind, and carried-on regardless, working tirelessly until his death in September 1946.

After his death, his widow Louisa Wilkins took over the running of the company. A position she held for many years until failing health forced her to retire.

The company was then managed by her four sons, John C. Wilkins who became Chairman, Henry R. Wilkins and Edward W. Wilkins who became joint Managing Directors, and Philip A. Wilkins, Works Director.

They were joined on the Board by two non-family members, A. F. Gadsby, Financial Director, and A. T. Thorley, Sales Director.


Louisa Wilkins.

 
Mr. Edward W. Wilkins.   Mr. Henry R. Wilkins.
 
Mr. John C. Wilkins.   Mr. Philip A. Wilkins.
 
Mr. A. F. Gadsby, F.C.A.   Mr. A. T. Thorley.
Under their control the business continued to grow. The machine tool division no longer took orders for special machinery, but was devoted to the design and production of power presses. New plant was installed for the purpose, and factory extensions were built. In 1947 the company’s products were exhibited for the first time at the British Industries Fair, and the following year at the Canadian Trade Fair. Many new orders came as a result of the exhibitions, and from then on Wilkins and Mitchell’s presses and washing machines would be seen on display at many trade fairs, both at home and abroad.


Presses under construction in the Machine Tool Assembly Bay.

In the late nineteen forties washing machine production suffered from the nationwide shortage of sheet steel. In order to meet the growing demand the company designed the Servis Model ‘R’, built from the available steel strip. Many thousands of Model ‘R’s were produced and sold at home and abroad. Sales were so good that the model remained in production for many years. In order to qualify for an increased allocation of sheet steel, the company extended its overseas market and designed a new machine with all the latest features, which would appeal to foreign dealers, and compete well in the highly competitive market.


The air conditioned spray plant at the Servis factory.

Because of the company’s growing sales, more staff were needed and new offices were built to accommodate them.

By the early nineteen fifties space in the factory was in short supply. Production had rapidly increased and so a new Servis factory was built at Darlaston Road, King’s Hill for the production of washing machine parts.

The Servis Sales Training wing and the Servis Development Department moved to a new building in the grounds of the Hollies, in Wednesbury, the former home of the Wilkins family.

The house itself was converted into offices for the Servis Sales Administrations staff.


Part of the Servis Press Shop.

Memories of Wilkins and Mitchell

Derek Thorley, who was born in October 1938 in Herberts Park Road, worked for the company. After leaving Slater Street School in the early 1950s, he joined Wilkins and Mitchell as an apprentice engineer, and attended Wednesbury Technical College as part of the company's day release scheme. He initially moved around the factory, and worked in several departments to gain experience.

When he joined the firm, there was no official apprenticeship scheme. Around two years later he joined the company's apprenticeship scheme when it was introduced. The scheme, run by training supervisor William E. Howells (Billy), was based in an old electricity sub-station building in Victoria Road, which is now occupied by the 4th Darlaston Scout Group. The building had previously been used by Wilkes the printers, and the Wilkins and Mitchell stationery stores. The firm installed a range of machinery in the building, on which to train the apprentices. William Howells arranged factory visits to many firms including Rubery Owen, Cadburys, and Chubbs.

During his final year as an apprentice, Derek worked in the Servis development department at the Hollies, which was managed by Derek's uncle, Vince Thorley, and consisted of an engineering workshop for building prototype machines, and a test lab for testing component parts. He also worked in the drawing office, run by Bob Peach, which was above the development department.

Derek left the company in 1961.

Derek Thorley's certificates that he obtained during his time as an apprentice at Wilkins and Mitchell..

The one on the left was awarded when he completed his apprenticeship as an engineering draughtsman in October 1959. He had trained in the development workshop, the tool room, the pattern shop, the machine tool machine shop, the machine tool fitting shop, the production machine shop, and the apprentice training centre.

The two certificates below are his City and Guilds final certificate in Machine Shop Engineering, and his Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering, both awarded after attending courses at Wednesbury County Technical College.

The bottom two certificates were presented at the beginning and end of his apprenticeship.

During his apprenticeship he also helped out on the production lines at the Kings Hill Servis factory, known as No. 2 factory.

Derek greatly enjoyed his time as an apprentice and has fond memories of his time there.

 
 


A group of Wilkins and Mitchell apprentices on a day out to Cheddar Gorge in about 1955. The names are as follows:
Back row left to right:  ?, Patrick Turley.
Front row left to right:  Brian Rutter, Brian Proffit, Brian Harrison, Graham Sheffield, Brian Jackson, Anthony Dean, Charles Dickens, and Keith Amos.
Photo and names courtesy of Derek Thorley and Anthony Dean.

Later Years

New extensions were built to the power press factory at Darlaston including an assembly shop with a crane capacity of one hundred tons. The giant power presses could for the first time be entirely built at the factory, rather than using sub-contractors for some of the work.

Wilkins and Mitchell presses became well known and respected throughout the world. Single and double action presses were produced for a wide range of industries including the motor industry, the forging industry, the aircraft industry, and the domestic appliance industry. The special machinery for the forging industry included billet shears, forging rolling machines, high speed forging presses, and clipping and setting presses. The company’s presses also revolutionised the hot brass stamping industry with a specially designed sub-press, capable of producing multi-cored components in a single operation at a much higher production rate than had previously been possible.


An advert from the mid 1950s. Courtesy of Christine and John Ashmore.

Presses from 100 tons to 6,000 tons were built at the Darlaston factory, where a team of highly skilled mobile service engineers were based to carry out all, except major overhauls on the company’s presses. Wilkins and Mitchell always ensured that “down-time” on their products was reduced to a minimum.

A modern London office was opened in Park Lane where a display of Servis washing machines could be seen. The premises also housed the Power Press Export Section. The overseas market was extremely important to the company. The Wilkins brothers regularly visited overseas agents and kept them informed of the latest developments. In the nineteen fifties an agreement was made with an Australian company for the manufacture of Wilkins and Mitchell power presses under license.


The new building in the grounds of The Hollies.

By the 1960s thousands of Servis washing machines were made each week. There were over 300 mobile mechanics, whose Servis vans became a common sight on British roads. They were supplied from twenty one regional depots throughout the country. The Servis personnel covered over three million miles annually to support the company’s claim that Servis washers were serviced wherever they were sold.

A subsidiary company called Wilkins Servis was set up to manufacture washing machines in Australia, and there were distribution companies in Switzerland and Belgium, and a network of agents covering fifty overseas markets.

The long standing apprenticeship scheme was reorganised with the opening of a fully equipped training school. A company newspaper with a circulation of 12,000 copies was published twice a month and sent to all employees, dealers, and power press customers. The company celebrated its golden jubilee in October 1954 and became a public company with about thirty percent of the ordinary share capital for sale. For the jubilee celebration, the company hired the Civic and Wulfrun halls in Wolverhampton, and laid-on coaches to get the employees there. There were staff from all over the country who enjoyed a dance with a live dance band, and entertainment featuring Tommy Cooper and a roller skating duo.

In the late 1950s a large piece of land was purchased at King’s Hill next to the existing factory, for an extension to the factory and the building of a new office block. At the same time development of what was to be another successful product, the Servis ‘Super Twin’ began. The Servis machines were at the expensive end of the market along with such names as Bosch, and gained a high reputation for reliability.


The front of the factory with the large press shop assembly bay in the background.

The 1960s were good years for the company, sales remained high, and new products were developed.

Unfortunately things started to go wrong in the recession during the late 1970s.

Orders were few and far between, which resulted in the business going into receivership in the early 1980s.

In 1982 the newly formed UK manufacturing group, Verson International run by American businessman Tim Kelleher acquired Wilkins and Mitchell from the receiver. The group’s main companies were Wilkins and Mitchell, and Bronx Engineering of Lye, who were acquired in 1986.

By the late 1980s group sales were approaching £40 million and a good future seemed ensured. In 1987 profits were £750,000, compared with £176,000 in 1986, and this steady growth continued for some time.

Tim Kelleher removed the barriers between the shop floor and the management team. He believed that the company’s main asset was the skilled workforce. Director’s dining rooms were closed, their privileges were removed, and all non-essential company cars were sold. A manager could loose his job if he didn’t know every employee by his or her first name.


A hot forging machine.


The bull gear and eccentric being fitted to a 1,500 ton press.

At Darlaston the group planned to build a new larger factory for Wilkins and Mitchell on a 15 acre site in Willenhall Road, formerly occupied by Wellman Cranes. The existing Richards Street works would house a new specialised fabrications company.

The new factory with a workforce of nearly 300, cost £6 million and was opened on 28th November, 1990 by John Major. The company’s Managing Director was George Paxton, who previously ran Verson AI in Inverness.

The company name changed to Verson Wilkins, and by the end of 1990 orders for power presses reached nearly £7 million. The orders included a huge 2,650 tonne trimming press for a forge in Lincoln, the largest power press built by the company at that time. Many of the orders that followed were for vehicle manufacturers, including Nissan at Tyne & Wear; A.C. Rochester who were part of General Motors; and a huge 3,000 tonne “try out” press for Toyota.

Unfortunately the fortunes of UK car manufacturers were on the wane and orders fell. By the middle of 1993 Verson International was £3.5 million in the red, not helped by a very significant loss at Verson Wilkins. As a result the group merged with Clearing UK and reduced its product range. The Darlaston subsidiary now became known as Clearing International. In November, 1994 about 70 jobs were shed at Darlaston and the future looked very uncertain. Quite a stir was caused in the works in December of that year when the factory became the location for the American film crew who were shooting a film about the Iraqi super gun entitled “The Doomsday Gun”.

In 1995 about half the employees lost their jobs at the Darlaston factory when the workforce was greatly reduced. At the time they were producing presses from 300 to 1,500 tonnes as standard, and up to 2,500 tonnes to special order. The company also refurbished their old products. By 1996 the deficit amounted to £5.8 million and the group decided to sell Darlaston based Clearing International. The Darlaston company then formed a partnership with Scarborough based Bootham Engineering, but the downturn in the motor manufacturing industry continued and the decision was taken to close the Darlaston factory.


A T.R. Series blanking and drawing press.


A 300 ton double sided power press.

As a result the factory closed, with the loss of 64 jobs, on 2nd April, 1999. Another nail in the coffin for Darlaston’s manufacturers, who were once known throughout the world for their quality products.

The story doesn't quite end there. After the closure of the Darlaston works, Bootham Engineering moved its offices to Bloxwich.

In 2003 the company was taken over by Muller Weingarten UK Limited, and in October 2005 the company moved to Quayside Drive in Walsall.

In March 2008, Muller Weingarten UK Ltd and Schuler UK merged to form the new company Schuler Presses UK Limited. The company services and supports Wilkins and Mitchell presses.

 

Courtesy of Mark Foster.

 

Courtesy of Mark Foster.

 

Courtesy of Mark Foster.


Assembling a gearbox for the Cable Belt Company in the 1980s.
 
A Wilkins and Mitchell large power press.
Wilkins and Mitchell's other factory, Servis at Darlaston Road, King's Hill had been extremely successful until the late 1980s.

In the early 1980s they produced the  first washing machines in the world to use microprocessor control, in the successful "Quartz" range.

The company got into difficulties during the recession in the late 1980s and went into liquidation in March 1989.

A new company, Servis UK was formed in November 1990 and purchased by Antonio Merloni  in 1991. Manufacturing ceased at the King's Hill factory, which became a spare parts centre, and dealt with repairs.

It closed in October 2008, by which time there were only 50 members of staff. Sadly, the factory was demolished in 2011, and by April of that year it had completely disappeared. It was a tragic end for a Darlaston company that was once a large local employer, producing high quality products that were well respected and well known, almost everywhere.


An advert from 1963.

The Servis Quartz 1000 Deluxe microprocessor controlled machine that's on display at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley.


The empty Servis factory in November 2008.


The Servis factory in the 1960s.


The same view in April 2011.


All that remained of the Servis factory in April 2011.
 

I would like to thank Mark Foster of Schuler Presses UK Limited for his help in telling this story. He kindly provided the information about the company up to the Second World War, and many of the illustrations. I would also like to thank Bill Rayson who worked at the company for 36 years, Derek Thorley who also worked there, and Peter Richards who supplied a lot of information.


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