The Early Years

Thomas Parker was born at the top of Lincoln Hill1, Coalbrookdale, in the parish of Madeley, Shropshire, on 22nd December, 1843. His father, like several previous generations, worked at the famous Coalbrookdale ironworks as a moulder. Lincoln Hill is an outcrop of Silurian limestone that forms the eastern side of Coalbrookdale. It has been extensively quarried and is the site of numerous limekilns.

Iron has been produced at Coalbrookdale for at least five hundred years. The ironworks were developed in the 17th century by Sir Basil Brooke, who established production using the cementation process.

In 1708 Abraham Darby leased the blast furnace in Coalbrookdale, and began a series of experiments that led to the successful smelting of iron, using coke as the fuel, rather than charcoal. 

The earlier processes relied upon the local woodlands, which were rapidly disappearing, whereas there was a plentiful supply of coal. The process was perfected in 1709 and this led to the birth of the Industrial Revolution at Coalbrookdale and around Ironbridge.

By Thomas Parker’s time the works had become famous for the production of decorative cast iron work.


The CoalbrookDale works, now part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.


The view looking down Lincoln Hill.

Thomas was the eldest child of Thomas Wheatley and Anne Parker.

They had eight children, but half of them died young, as was common in those days.

When only nine and a half years old he started work at his father’s foundry, lighting the fires and preparing for the foundry men, who began work at six o'clock.

At the beginning he earned just 4 pence a day, for a sixty hour week.


Thomas Wheatley and his wife Anne. The lady in the background is believed to be their daughter Mary. Courtesy of Reid Parker.

When interviewed in 1905, for the “Tit-Bits” magazine1, this is what he had say about those early years: “In those days lads had to go to the foundry at half-past five in the morning to light the fires, and so prepare for the men. Sixty hours and more was the week’s work; and so far as the youngsters were concerned, I can assure you their job was no sinecure!" Life was hard at the works. If a boy did not quickly do what was ordered, he would often receive a kicking from his superior. “I well remember working for a man at 5d. a day," Mr. Parker continued, “who would dig me in the ribs until they were black as coal, if my celerity did not keep pace with his requirements.”

He took every opportunity to improve his education, and during the week attended evening classes, went to a bible class at the local Quaker school and attended classes at the Fletcher Memorial Wesleyan Sunday School2. He soon became a moulder, like his father, and by 1862 his weekly wage had increased to a sovereign.


 
Thomas's original toolbox, containing his moulding tools. Courtesy of the library and archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, at Coalbrookdale.


Thomas Parker's family tree, beginning with his parents and ending with his children.

In his own notes, in the family’s archives, he mentions that in about 1857 he made a small steam engine and in 1859 made a violin, which he subsequently learned to play. In later years he kept the violin in his study. In 1862 he was one of four workmen that were chosen to represent the Coalbrookdale Iron Company, at the International Exhibition at South Kensington, on the company’s stand. He was selected for this task because he had helped to produce some of the exhibits. 

Later that year he left Coalbrookdale and one of his final duties at the works was the casting of the radiused beams for the Albert Edward bridge. The railway bridge, which is still in use today, was designed by John Fowler in 1859 and completed in 1863. It is the next bridge upstream from Darby's famous iron bridge.


The Albert Edward Bridge. From an old postcard.


The Albert Edward Bridge, as seen in 2017.


Thomas Parker at the age of 19. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.
Thomas moved to Birmingham, to gain more experience as a moulder. He lived near to, and attended the Church of the Saviour, where the celebrated George Dawson used to preach. His sermons were renowned as much for their Science as for their theology.

George Dawson was also a member of the Birmingham school board and lectured on English literature at the Midland Institute. Thomas was very keen on improving his education and used to attend lectures there.

His wife Jane was born in Birmingham, and it’s very likely that they met while he was staying there. 

By the Age of 22 Thomas was working in the Potteries as a moulder, at a salary of 35shillings a week.

Thomas took up scientific studies under Professor Roscoe, at Hulme Town Hall. His studies included chemistry, which was to stand him in good stead for the future.


Thomas and Jane's marriage certificate. Courtesy of Janet Doody.

On 4th March, 1866 he married Jane, in the Congregational Chapel, Stoke-on-Trent, and they set up home in Temple Street, Fenton.

Before the end of 1866 the couple were living at Dudley, where their first child Ellen was born. Sadly she only lived for just under nine months.

In 1866 Thomas wrote a letter to Abraham Darby expressing his wish to return to Coalbrookdale, and presumably because of the letter, he was offered the post of foreman, over the engineering section of the foundry, where he had started his career fifteen years earlier.

Thomas and Jane returned to Coalbrookdale in December 1867 and moved into Carpenter's Row, where Lilly, Edwin and Thomas Hugh were born.

Thomas was soon promoted to manager and his recently acquired knowledge of chemistry secured him the post of chemist in the bronzing and electroplating department.

By 1873 the family was living in Chune's Lane, where their third son Charles was born.


Jane at the age of 16. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

This is his application form  for membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Interestingly he was proposed by William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin.

I must thank Carol Morgan, the archivist at the institution for the copy, and permission to display it here.

The application form above includes details of where Thomas worked during his time away from Coalbrookdale. In Birmingham he worked in May & Mountain's foundry. The firm manufactured horizontal steam engines, boilers, rolling-mill machinery, flour-mill plant, coining presses and general work, also capstans and windlasses for the Admiralty.


An advert from 1876.

On the application form it states that Thomas worked for Messrs. Handcocks in Stoke-on-Trent. I have not been able to find any reference to Handcocks, which is an unusual name. It seems likely that this is a spelling error and should be Hancock's, in which case he probably worked for William Hancock & Son, iron founders, Fenton Foundry, Stoke-on-Trent. The firm were millwrights, and manufactured steam engines, steam pumps, and stove grates.

Thomas then worked for John Hetherington and Sons, Vulcan, Hope, and Ancoats Works, Pollard Street, Manchester, whose products included machinery for cleaning and preparing cotton, combing, and spinning, carding engines, drawing frames, slubbing frames, roving frames, self-acting mules, and machine tools including self-acting slide and screw-cutting lathes, drilling and boring machines.


An advert from 1887.

 

A fine photo of Carpenter's Row, Coalbrookdale. Courtesy of Andy Rose.

A letter from T. W. Parker that was sent to his grandson, Charles Parker. Courtesy of Peter Parker.
A transcript of the letter on the left, that was written by Thomas Wheatley Parker, and sent to his grandson Charles Parker, in June 1889. It describes Thomas Parker’s early career:

Your father left home when he was about 18, and after working and tramping about the country for several years, came to work by me on the 2nd December 1867. Went to the lower works on the 26th August 1868, left on the 10th October, 1874, went to Birmingham on the 13th and to the old Union Mills on the 14th. Left on the 21st April, 1875, began again at Coalbrookdale on 3rd May 1875, left on 7th October, 1882, went to Wolverhampton. Your father will be able to judge between the above dates, when he made the lathe and pump and grate. The driving wheel for the lathe was cast on the 4th August, 1868, the day on which Strethill Farm was burnt down. I went to see it, and it could not be cast ‘till I came back. It was cast in the cellar.

Signed T. W. Parker

By 1875 the family had moved to "The Laurels", which was nearer to the Coalbrookdale Company's offices and Alfred and Annie were born there.

At the time, the Coalbrookdale Company where producing elaborate stoves and fireplaces, domestic ironware and a rapidly increasing range of rainwater and soil goods, such as gutters, drainpipes and gratings.

The company also produced high pressure pumping engines, and in response to this, Thomas, in collaboration with Philip Weston, invented the Parker and Weston Patent Steam Pump in 1876.

This was Thomas's first major invention, which was manufactured exclusively by the Coalbrookdale Company and sold throughout the world. Philip Weston was a machinist at the works and he and Thomas took out two patents for the pump. 

Eight years later they were presented with a medal for the invention, at the Inventions Exhibition in London. This was the first of Thomas’s many inventions to receive any recognition and he attributed this presentation as his real start in life.


Thomas, on his return to Coalbrookdale. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.


Courtesy of the library and archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Coalbrookdale.

   
Read a detailed description of the
Parker and Weston steam pump
from 'Engineering' magazine
   
The valve arrangements in the Parker & Weston pump were used in all of the Coalbrookdale Company's pumps in 1878, as can be seen from the small section of an article that follows. This is part of a series of articles in 'The Engineer' describing some of the exhibits at the 1878 Paris Exhibition:

The Engineer, 19th July, 1878. The Paris Exhibition

Direct-acting steam pumps are exhibited by several makers, the Coalbrookdale Company making a good show of different sizes of ram and plunger pumps, some fitted with a condenser and others with an arrangement of adjustable cataract, by which the pump may be made to work exclusively through any desired range above half stroke….  ….The company exhibited some of their pumps in action pumping tar, and capable of pumping pottery slip or slurry; and a direct acting blowing engine for forges, cupolas, and for ventilating. This consists simply of the steam cylinder of the direct-acting steam pump with the pumping cylinder replaced by a blowing cylinder, surmounted by a large air vessel. This, like all the pumps exhibited, is fitted with Messrs. Parker and Weston's patent direct-acting pump valve arrangements.


Coalbrookdale in Thomas's time. From an old postcard.


The patent grant and the seal for the Parker Weston steam pump. Courtesy of the library and archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, at Coalbrookdale.

In about 1878 he designed and built a large dynamo for the firm's electro-plating department. The art casting department at the works used electro-deposition of bronze and copper finishes on a large scale.

The electricity previously came from huge battery cells, which would have needed a lot of maintenance and only supplied a limited amount of power.

This must have been one of the first dynamos in the country to be put to a practical use, and one the first to be used for this purpose in the world.

The Coalbrookdale Company turned its attention to smoke abatement and introduced the Iron Bridge series of grates.

Thomas also considered the problem and invented the "Kyrle" open grate, which was the first open grate in which anthracite coal could be burned. 


An advert for Thomas Parker's "Kyrle" grate. It was manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company. Courtesy of Peter Parker.
The "Kyrle" grate was probably named after John Kyrle, an English philanthropist who lived in Ross-on-Wye, and devoted his life, and his wealth, to the greater good of the community, and the local area. At the time when the grate was developed, the Kyrle Society, founded in 1876 was making a name for itself by bettering the life of working people, and encouraging the development of parks, and gardens.

The grate was added to the Coalbrookdale Company's list of products, and in 1881, after official testing by the Smoke Abatement Committee of the International Smoke Abatement Exhibition, at South Kensington, he was awarded the Exhibition's Silver Medal.

At about the same time he invented a gas engine, known as “Robinson’s”. It was made by Tangye Brothers of Birmingham.


Thomas at the age of 32.
Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

In 1859 the lead-acid cell was invented by the French scientist, Raimond Louis Gaston Planté. Thomas began to make his own accumulators, as the cells were called, and began to cooperate with Paul Bedford Elwell, who ran the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company in Wolverhampton.

This work led to a patent being taken out in 1882, by Thomas Parker, in conjunction with Paul Bedford Elwell, for an improvement to Planté’s original design, which greatly increased the capacity of the cell. In their process the lead plates for the battery were first put in a bath of dilute nitric acid and sulphuric acid, and left there for 24 hours. The effect of the bath was to minutely honeycomb the lead plates to form what was called "spongy lead".

This greatly increased the surface area of the plates and hence the capacity of the battery. A deposit of lead sulphate also formed on the surface, which was subsequently reduced to peroxide, and part of this was washed off before use.

Strangely enough, M. Planté, the original inventor, applied for a patent for the same process on the same day, and ultimately two separate patents were granted to the rival claimants, by the Solicitor-General. Elwell and Parker later purchased M. Planté's interest in the process.

Thomas took out several patents for improvements to alternators, and in 1881 was involved in the electric tramway at Portrush, in Northern Ireland. This was the first electric tramway in the world to be powered by hydro electricity.

Thomas was very interested in politics and became an enthusiastic supporter of the Liberal cause. This was possibly because of his upbringing in Coalbrookdale where the Darby family were staunch Liberals. Thomas joined the Liberal Party and became a member of the Executive Committee of the Borough of Wenlock Liberal Association.


The Coalbrookdale Institution as it is today.

He used to lecture at the Coalbrookdale Institution, and on Tuesday, 9th February, 1882,  gave the first successful demonstration of Swan and Edison’s incandescent lamps3. There were seven lamps, which were run from two Parker storage batteries. The lamps ran for fifteen minutes and provided 20 candlepower, and lit the room nearly as well as the 18 gas jets that were usually in action.

In June 1882, Paul Bedford Elwell and Thomas Parker jointly registered a patent for "Improvements in dynamo electric machines", and in August they took out another patent for "Improvements in electric lighting and apparatus associated herewith".

Thomas decided to join forces with Paul-Bedford Elwell, in Wolverhampton, to form the first company in the Midlands to manufacture electrical equipment. He left Coalbrookdale in October 1882 and moved to Wolverhampton.


Read about 
Thomas's farewell
to Coalbrookdale

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the beginning
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Elwell-Parker Ltd.