Old Park Works and The Patent Shaft & Axletree Company

Old Park Works

In 1818 Lloyds, Fosters & Company opened a coal mine near Hob’s Hole. They were heirs of Richard Parkes, who in 1708 had acquired a lease on the coal mines in the area. The coal mine, like many others in the area suffered from flooding, and so Samuel Lloyd installed a steam engine to pump out the water. The site also contained large quantities of iron ore, and also clay, which was used to produce bricks and tiles.

The company built an iron works and a foundry on the site, so that the iron ore could be used to produce pig iron and malleable iron for the foundry. All kinds of items were cast including ironwork for buildings and bridges, parts for steam engines, and wheels and axles for the railways. Even complete locomotives were built. In 1849 Old Park Works became the first factory in Staffordshire to use the hot blast in their furnaces, which produced high quality iron for the foundry.


A cross section through a 19th century blast furnace.

Blast furnaces originally used a cold blast, from air at normal temperature. The cold blast cooled the furnace and so large amounts of fuel were required to maintain the temperature.

In the hot blast furnace the air was pre-heated using the waste gases from the furnace which greatly reduced the cooling effect and saved the company around 10,000 tons of coal a year.

In 1854 the company opened The Monway Axle and Tyre Works at Monway Field. The new works produced axles, tyres, and iron plate for boilers and bridges.

Samuel Lloyd was known as "Quaker Lloyd" because of his religious beliefs. He was a good employer whose kindness could be seen from the help that he gave to widows and orphans of employees who lost their lives in the company's collieries. He also built a school where the orphans could be educated.

The company had a large truck shop that sold only the best quality goods. Prices were low, often lower than in the town centre shops. Samuel Lloyd took great pride in buying the chief articles himself, particularly tea, bullocks and sheep. The shop sold the best butcher's meat in the town. Samuel Lloyd died in 1862. Just before his death he signed an agreement with Henry Bessemer for the use of the Bessemer process, which the company began to use in 1865.

This was the first factory in the Black Country to make mild steel, at a time when Old Park Works were the largest steel works in the area, employing over 3,000 people by 1866. There were 3 blast furnaces, large machine shops, and foundries.

 

The company obtained a large order to supply the ironwork for Blackfriars Bridge in London. Unfortunately the building contractor was unable to pay for the ironwork. As a large sum of money was at stake, Lloyds and Fosters decided to finance the contractor until the bridge could be completed. This soon led to the company’s downfall because of unforeseen circumstances.

When work started on the bridge piers it took a long time to find a suitable solid foundation, which greatly increased the overall cost. As a result the company lost £250,000 and in 1867 the works had to be sold to cover the loss. The company was purchased by The Patent Shaft & Axletree Company and became part of the largest steel works in the area.


Henry Bessemer.

The Patent Shaft & Axletree Company

In the early 19th century coach axles were made by welding together a bundle of wrought iron strips. Such axles would often fail because some of the strips were not as strong as others. The Patent Shaft took its name from an improved axle which overcame the problem, and was founded by the inventor to manufacture the new axle.

Around 1830 James Hardy, a minister at the Independent Chapel in Holyhead Road, and an enthusiast about anything mechanical, developed the new axle. According to F.W. Hackwood in his “Wednesbury Workshops” Hardy got the idea from the cross section of an orange when cut in two horizontally. The new axle consisted of a central bar surrounded by smaller bars to form a circle. The outer bars were round instead of flat to avoid cross graining the iron, when they were heated and welded under the hammer. This produced an axle of equal strength throughout its whole length.


A Bessemer Converter.

Hardy decided to patent the idea, and with financial help from Samual Hodgetts, a grocer from Toll End, he took out a patent in 1834. Hardy and Hodgetts decided to set themselves up in business to produce the new axles.

They purchased a forge at Leabrook for £1200 from Joseph Rollason. At the forge were 2 puddling furnaces, a scrap furnace, and an engine.

Although work was undertaken to improve the facilities on the site, no axles had been produced by 1836. As a result Hodgetts became disappointed with the project and withdrew.

Hardy soon found four other partners and began to devote his whole life to the project, but production still didn’t get underway and the business got into more and more debt with the Birmingham and Midland Bank. The bank’s manager Charles Geach realised that the axles would be ideal for use on the rapidly growing railway network, and that large numbers of reliable axles would be required. Geach didn’t waste any time, and along with 12 men, including Hardy, he purchased the works and the patent, and formed the Patent Shaft & Axletree Company in 1838.


An advert from 1870.

Within 2 years Hardy left and took Anglican orders. He was replaced as manager by his ex-clerk Thomas Walker.

In 1844 thanks to Walker’s efforts, the London & North Western Railway adopted the patent axle, and the company’s future was secured. In 1852 the company purchased the adjoining Victoria Iron Works from Fletcher, Rose & Company.


Blast furnaces at night.


An advert from 1909.

Geach died in 1854 and the company was purchased by Thomas walker. At the time they had a railway steel works, 5 forges, 4 mills, 12 hammers, more than 100 puddling furnaces, and employed over 800 men.

In 1864 the business became a limited company with a capital of £300,000. Thomas Walker became Chairman, and his assistant manager Richard Williams became General Manager. The works now covered over 12 acres and employed 1,500 men working around the clock. They produced large numbers of products including axles, wheels, tyres, rails and boiler plate.

In December 1866 the company purchased Old Park Works from Lloyds & Fosters after their large losses from the Blackfriars Bridge project. The works and collieries were bought for £400,000. The company could now produce wrought iron, Bessemer steel, and constructional ironwork, all made from their own raw materials.

At the time the company had 86 puddling furnaces, 3 blast furnaces and became one of the most prosperous factories in the country.

The local iron ore contained too high a percentage of phosphorus, for reliable use with traditional smelters. This problem was overcome in 1879 with the invention of the Gilchrist-Thomas process, in which the converter had a lining of dolomite brick. The dolomite combined with the phosphorus to leave good quality steel.

The Patent Shaft acquired a furnace using this process in 1882, but difficulties led to its temporary abandonment. The company also used Siemens open-hearth regenerative furnaces, where the waste gases were used to heat the air for the blast. The furnaces were lined with refractory dolomite brick to allow them to efficiently use the local iron ore. They also had another advantage, they could use scrap.

At this time the company also had four 12 ton traditional Bessemer converters, and a 12 ton and an 8 ton Bessemer, both lined with dolomite brick. The slag from the furnaces was sold to Germany for use in agriculture.


An advert from 1902.


A letterhead from 1929.

In 1885 the company built the world's first steel bridge at Benares on the Ganges, which used 6,500 tons of steel, and in 1900 built a 7 span bridge at Natal in just 2 months.

In 1902 The Patent Shaft & Axletree Company became part of a new conglomerate, the Metropolitan Railway, Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company.

The new business prospered and the Patent Shaft spent over £300,000 on new plant, including electrically driven machinery, new buildings, and greatly increased its workforce. Many of the double-decked trailers that were pulled by the local steam trams were built at the works during the early years of the 20th century.

The business continued to thrive, even during the severe depression in 1907 when the annual profit was over £300,000. In 1911 the company received an order from the Great Central Railway for 6,500 wagons, the frames for which were made at the Patent Shaft.


An advert from 1949.


The Patent Shaft offices.

At the time the Patent Shaft produced a wide range of products including:

railway wheels, axles, patent weldless steel spoked wheels, rolled iron plates, steel plates, steel bridges, wrought iron and cast iron girders, constructional iron and steel work, wagon under frames, plant for gas works and water works, and every kind of pressed work

Railway bridges had been built for all of the railway companies in the UK, and the company also built some of the largest bridges in Egypt, India, Japan, South Africa, and South America.


The old Patent Shaft turntable that is in the town of Realicó, in the province of La Pampa, Argentina. Courtesy of Arch. Néstor D. Dalmasso.


The makers plate that is on the turntable above. Courtesy of Arch. Néstor D. Dalmasso.


An aerial view of Patent Shaft's Brunswick Works.

During the First World War the company concentrated on war work, and as a result made record profits. Some of the first tanks were built at Old Park Works, which at the time had between 1,300 and 1,500 employees. At the end of the war part of Old Park Works was used by Vickers Limited of Sheffield, who in 1919 purchased the Metropolitan Railway, Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company.

In 1929 Vickers Limited and Cammell Laird & Company of Birkenhead amalgamated their steel making and carriage building businesses. This resulted in the formation of the Metropolitan Cammell Railway Carriage and Wagon Company who took over the assets of the Metropolitan Railway, Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company. The take over had one immediate effect at Wednesbury, the separation of Old Park Works and the Patent Shaft. Vickers, who had already been using part of Old Park Works took over the remainder.


The blooming and slabbing mill at the Patent Shaft Steel Works Limited.
In 1938, war work began with a batch of forty five A10 cruiser tanks. By 1942 Metropolitan Cammell was producing 82 Valentine tanks a month, with production equally divided between Old Park Works and the firm's Midland Works. Over three and a half years, the firm built 2,135 Valentines. During the war, 435 Churchill tanks were built at Old Park Works, along with 75 Cromwell tanks, fitted with a 77mm high velocity gun. Other war work included the production of armoured cars, artillery trailers, pre-fabricated hulls for tugs and light tankers, and a small quantity of railway rolling stock.

Old Park Works were purchased from the Patent Shaft in 1949 by Metro-Cammell and it became part of the Metropolitan Cammell Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited who also had factories at Elmdon, Saltley, and Washwood Heath.


A wagon plate from 1947.

The works now concentrated on the production of railway coach bodies, railway wagons, and pressings of all kinds for the other factories in the group. Old Park Works also produced electric locomotives, and so a 65ft. turntable and a test track was installed for the purpose. In 1960 a total of 35 locomotives were sold to South Africa.

In 1964 Old Park Works was acquired by the Owen Organisation, but sadly closed as a result of the recession of the 1970s and 1980s.


Old Park Works from Old Park Road.

The Patent Shaft decided to concentrate on steel production and so axle building ceased in 1949. The business was Nationalised in 1951 and returned to private ownership in 1956.

75% of its shares were purchased by Cammell Laird, and the remaining 25% by Metropolitan Cammell. In 1959 its name was changed to the Patent Shaft Steel Works Limited, and by 1961 the company had 1,500 employees.

In the late 1950s a development scheme costing £8.75 million was undertaken, during which the 4 existing open hearth furnaces were converted to oil firing, and two 75ton oil fired furnaces were added.

The company also had a 15inch section rolling mill and produced over 300,000 tons of steel a year.

Sadly the works were also a victim of the 1970s depression and closed in 1980. The buildings were demolished in 1986.


An advert from the early 1960s.


The last cast at Patent Shaft Steelworks on 17th April, 1980, from G Furnace. Courtesy of Peter Carter, who was Steel Plant Manager at the time. It was an extremely sad event for all the steel plant workforce.


An advert from 1954.

A group of Patent Shaft employees, possibly at a presentation of long service awards. Sidney Rickards is on the far right of the third row from the front, the one looking down. Some of them signed their names on the back of the photograph, they are Vick Hill, T. Burton, J. Powner, A, Adams, E. Davies, G. Knowles, L. Jones, J. E. Wright, G. Richards, G. Hewitt, C. W. Boden, W. R. Watson, and five others which are indistinct. I think they are G. Collins, A. A. Finsby, E. Hewitt, P. Kelly, and one other which I cannot read. The photo was kindly sent-in by Janice Cox, daughter of Sidney Rickards.

The "Wednesbury Alps". The spoils heaps from open cast coal mining on the former Patent Shaft site in the early 1990s.

Courtesy of Brian Groves and John Hellend.

 

The old Patent Shaft gates in the early 1990s.

Courtesy of Brian Groves and John Hellend.


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