Iron and Steel

In the 19th century, Walsall had several ironworks, which must have been a spectacular sight.

Birchills Furnace

The earliest known blast furnace in the town, which opened in 1803 was built in Birchills, and known as ‘Old Birchills’.

It is listed in Thomas Pearce’s History and Directory of Walsall, published in 1813. At the time it was owned by Stubbs & James, and stood just to the north of Reedswood Park.

The business is listed in David Mushet's 'Papers of Iron & Steel, Practical and Experimental' published in 1840 which states that in 1839 the company was run by E. Tyler.

There was one blast furnace in use, with a hot blast, producing around 45 tons of iron per week.

The total production in 1839 was 2,340 tons. In 1872 the factory was run by J. Bissell and Son.

There were 16 puddling furnaces and 3 mills and forges.


An advert from1873.


An advert from 1873.


An advert from 1873.

It continued in use until the mid 1870s, by which time two new furnaces had been built near to the Wyrley & Essington Canal.

The first, known as ‘New Birchills’ opened around 1840, and was built on the northern side of the canal close to Green Lane, near to where the TK-Maxx warehouse is today.

The owner, George Jones, who lived in Shackerley, Donington, Shropshire, had several nearby coalmines, Birchills Field, Harden, and Forest.

The factory became known as Birchills Hall Ironworks, and later as Staffordshire Ironworks.

By the early 1850s there were five furnaces, and around 400 employees, producing around 20,000 tons of pig iron a year.

An advert from 1896.


An advert from1899.

 

In the mid 1850s George Jones’ son John took over the business, which he ran until 1867, when it was sold.

At the time there were 28 puddling furnaces, a foundry, and rolling mills.

It was taken over by J. Brayford, who had died by 1872. He had 4 blast furnaces, and operated 12 puddling furnaces, and 2 mills and forges.

The factory was soon divided into two separate concerns.

 In 1872 the rolling mills and finishing plant were sold to two companies, Bunch, Jones & Company (later Benjamin Bunch & Sons), and the Birchills Hall Iron Company Limited.

The blast-furnaces were acquired by the Birchills Estate Company, which sold them to the Castle Coal & Iron Company in the late 1870s.

 

The location of Birchills Hall Iron Works.
Another ironworks stood on the opposite side of Green Lane, between the road and the canal, just north of Birchills Junction where a landscaped open space is today. It was built in 1851, and owned by Frederick Parkes. The factory had two furnaces and became known as Green Lane Furnaces. In the 1860s it was acquired by the Walsall Iron Company, owned John Jones & Sons, and in 1894 was sold to John Russell & Company, wrought-iron and tube manufacturers.

Around 1907 the factory was taken over by Birchills Furnaces Limited, and continued in operation until around the end of the First World War. It closed in the mid 1920s and was demolished in the late 1930s.

There were two terrible accidents at ironworks in Birchills. The first took place on 15th October, 1875 at Birchills Iron Works, where a blast furnace exploded as it was being tapped. The explosion was caused by a burst tuyère, which resulted in furnace workers being covered with molten metal and red hot ashes. Three men died instantly, and twelve others, all with serious burns were rushed to the Cottage Hospital.

Sister Dora immediately took charge of the men and treated them alone, shutting herself up in their side ward, nursing them both day and night for several weeks. Despite all of her efforts, ten of them died from their terrible injuries.

The second explosion occurred on the 15th of May, 1880, when a Rastrick boiler exploded at Birchills Ironworks. Twenty five people were killed, and thirty injured, many of whom had very serious injuries.

         
Read about the explosion at
Birchills Hall Iron Works in 1880
  Read about the explosion at
Birchills Iron
Works in 1875
         

Pelsall Ironworks

Another large ironworks was built at Pelsall on the northern side of the Wyley & Essington Canal, to the east of the Cannock Extension.

Pelsall Ironworks opened in 1832 and was built by Mr. Richard Fryer, a Wolverhampton banker who became one of the first two members of parliament for Wolverhampton, and owned, and lived at the Wergs Estate.


Pelsall Ironworks.

After his death in 1846 the ironworks was sold to Davis and Bloomer. It is listed in William White’s 1851 History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Staffordshire as producing bar and sheet iron of the best quality.

After Mr. Davis’s retirement, the firm was run by Boaz Bloomer and his son who owned several nearby coal mines, which supplied the ironworks. They changed the name of the business to The Pelsall Coal and Iron Company. It grew into an extensive ironworks with two blast furnaces, forty puddling furnaces, seven mills and forges, a gashouse and gasometer, and an large tramway with locomotive and wagon sheds.

Several hundred people worked on the site, and iron was exported to many countries throughout the world including America, India, and China. Success continued until the recession in the iron trade in the latter quarter of the 19th century. In 1891 the firm lost £3,647.11s.7d. The company was forced into liquidation in 1892 when repayment was demanded for an overdraft of £20,000.

The coal mines were sold to the Walsall Wood Colliery Company, and the plant was sold-off cheaply to Alfred Hickman of Bilston Steelworks. It was a sad end to such an important local employer. Its demise led to a crisis in the village because of the large number of inhabitants who lost their jobs. Many of whom had previously moved to Pelsall after finding employment at the works.  The Bloomer family were strong Methodists and benefactors. They were greatly involved in the building of the Methodist Chapel in 1858, and the Wesleyan day school in 1866. In the 1860s Boaz Bloomer opened a room at the works where daily newspapers and periodicals were available for employees to read.

The ironworks had a Tommy shop in Wood Lane near the canal bridge, where the employees could exchange the tokens (that were given as part of their wages) for all kinds of goods. After the closure of the firm, the Bloomers moved away from the area, but left a lasting impression on the local community. The chimney stacks, the last remaining part of the factory, were demolished in the 1920s.

Hatherton Furnaces

In 1845 Richard Fryer who founded Pelsall Ironworks leased a piece of land from Lord Hatherton on which to build an ironworks, and mine coal. The land was on the northern side of Leamore Lane, alongside the canal. When Richard died in 1846 his son William took over the lease. The factory, which became known as Hatherton Furnaces, had two furnaces. Around 1870 it was leased to George and Richard Thomas of Bloxwich, whose company became G. & R. Thomas Limited. Richard Thomas died in 1920, and the firm survived until 1935, when it went into liquidation. Its assets were sold, and the furnaces continued in use until 1948. The site was later used as a foundry.

Ironworks at Pleck

In the latter half of the 19th century, Pleck became an important manufacturing centre when many heavy industries grew-up alongside the canal. It began in 1851 with the opening of Sinkinson & Lancaster in Pleck Road. The firm produced bar and sheet iron, and rolled sections. Within a few years it was taken over by Brayford & Lancaster.


An advert from 1953.

The largest ironworks in the area was Edward Russell's Cyclops Ironworks in Pleck Road which had 22 puddling furnaces and 3 rolling-mills.

The firm produced iron and steel tubes of all kinds.

   
Read about John Russell & Company
   

Another large factory on Pleck Road was the Staffordshire Galvanising and Iron Company which was in operation by 1875. The business was extremely successful and took over the adjacent Victoria Ironworks in about 1890.

In the late 1870s it became Walker Brothers, which in turn became part of the Benford Fabrications Group. Products included galvanising and sheet metal work, wire netting, sheep troughs, and iron roofs. Some of the products were exported to the Far East and South Africa. After the second World War galvanised sheet production ended and the company concentrated on galvanised steelwork.

Other factories in Pleck Road included Walsall Tube Works, Crescent Chain Works, James Iron Foundry, the Bridge and Roofing Works, and Junction Saw Mills. On the other side of the canal was Bradford Tube Works, Bradford Iron Works, and Globe Iron Works.

Another manufacturer based in Pleck Road was Hope Works Limited. The firm, which moved to Pleck Road from Selbourne Street, had been acquired by Walsall iron merchants Thomas Franks and Sons Limited, in Wolverhampton Street.

One of Thomas Franks' sons Alfred, became Chairman of Hope Works Limited, which subsequently opened a branch in Bloxwich.

The firm eventually became part of Laidlow & Thomson Limited, 60 Cannon Street, Manchester.

The image on the right is from the cover of the company's catalogue produced in the early 1940s. It contains all kinds of ornamental ironwork which were coated with "Corresista", a rust preventing zinc paint, and treated with Hopsall stove synthetic finish. At extra cost, all the company's products could be Sherardized, and were also available in solid brass, finished in an old-looking colour.

A few of the many products from the catalogue can be seen below:  


Door and window fittings.


Letterboxes with handles and knockers.


Door or gate handles.


Hinges.


Nameplates, grills, and hanging lamp.


An advert from 1976.

Until recently, a once well-known factory stood at the western end of Pleck beside the canal, on the site of the former James Bridge Brick Works. This was the James Bridge Copper Works which opened in 1919 as a subsidiary of the Wolverhampton Metal Company Limited.

In 1931 the factory was forced to close by Walsall Town Council after a series of complaints about the sulphurous fumes that came from the 100ft. high chimney. At the time around 150 manual workers who worked in the factory lost their jobs. Taller chimneys were built, and the factory reopened the following year.

It was forced to close again in World War 2 because of blackout problems, but reopened after the war to recover copper from war surplus items.

The firm became a Limited company in 1946, and in the early 1950s became one of the country’s leading copper reclamation companies. All kinds of waste materials including ash and foundry residues were transported to the factory to produce high quality copper.

In 1967 the plant was updated to increase production of high grade electrolytic copper from 15,000 to 50,000 tons a year. During the same year James Bridge Copper Works Limited became part of IMI Limited (Imperial Metal Industries Limited) and became known as IMI Refiners Limited. It was the last copper refining business in the country, but sadly closed on 31st December, 1999. The factory was demolished in 2000.

Other tube manufacturers

In the 19th century Walsall became an important centre for the production of the wrought iron tubes that were essential for the supply of town gas. The industry began in Walsall with the formation of Edward and William Dixon’s firm in 1829. The company started making gas tubes in Birmingham Street in 1830, and around four years later moved to the Alpha Tube Works on the western side of Ablewell Street.

By 1868 the firm changed its name to Lambert Brothers, and in the early 20th century moved to new premises beside the canal in Green Lane, also called Alpha Tube Works. Along with wrought iron and mild steel gas tubes, the company produced gas valves, lamp columns and manhole covers.

The largest tube manufacturer in the town was the Talbot-Stead Tube Company Limited, founded in 1906 by W. J. Talbot and Geoffrey Stead. They opened a factory in Green Lane for the production of seamless steel tubes. In the First World War the company supplied around a quarter of the boiler tubes used by the Royal Navy.

In 1931 the firm became part of Tube Investments Limited, and in 1962 became T.I. Stainless Tubes Limited. The factory closed in 1972, and in 1973 was acquired by T.I. Chesterfield Limited.


An advert from 1935.


An advert from 1896 for Hildick & Hildick, Walsall Tube Works, Pleck Road.

Other non-ferrous metal producers

McKechnie Metals Limited

In 1871 Duncan McKechnie established a factory at
St. Helens, Lancashire, for copper extraction, where he produced refined copper ingots, bar silver, pig lead and copper sulphate. In 1894 the firm became an early pioneer in the brass and copper alloys extrusion business, after opening a factory in Birmingham.

Over the years the demand for the company's products grew, which led to the construction of a new factory in Middlemore Lane, Aldridge in 1954. The factory was equipped with the most up-to-date equipment, and soon all of the company’s production was moved there. The firm specialises in the production of alloys to individual customer’s specifications, and the extrusion some of the more unusual materials. Products have also included large numbers of brass ingots, particularly in die-casting qualities, and billets to all standard and customers' specifications.

Branches of the company were established in South Africa and New Zealand.


An advert from 1976.

The firm became known as known as McKechnie Brass Limited and produced a wide range of alloys for many diverse applications. Brass products include billets, round rod, shaped rod, turned parts and stampings for the water, gas and electrical industries. Other products included, locks, handles, lift tracks, showers, electrical fittings, and copper trolley wire, which was used to supply electric power to high-speed trains, locomotives and trolley buses. Sadly the firm went out of business in 2013, having accrued debts of £3.8 million. Sixty people lost their jobs.

In 1902 another non-ferrous metal manufacturer, New Delaville Spelter Company Limited opened the Delaville Spelter Works in Willenhall Lane, Bloxwich. By 1918 the company had eight furnaces on the site for smelting zinc ash, and two others for recovering zinc from hard spelter. Products included zinc oxide, and zinc dust. In 1933 the firm was taken over by the Imperial Smelting Corporation. After the Second World War production was limited to zinc dust, Mazak zinc alloy for die-casting, and high purity zinc anodes.


An advert from 1896. Walker Brothers were based in Pleck Road.


An advert from 1958.


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