Companies

Black Country History

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The Black Country was there at the dawn of the industrial revolution. When Britain was still the only fully industrial nation it had already made its mark. By the mid nineteenth century the area was already, with Birmingham and Sheffield, the home of metal manufacturing in England.

Even today, the factories and workshops of the Black Country still provide more of its population with work than any English Metropolitan County areas. In short, the Black Country is still the country’s manufacturing heartland. That said, the seventy years since 1945 have seen some important changes.

A period of demobilisation – away from the production of war materiel — was followed by an economic boom. In this expansion, the shortage of local labour led to the recruitment of workers from further afield – from South Asia and the Caribbean in particular. This trend established communities which are still a large part of the social fabric of the area in the twenty-first century.

We have also seen some iconic parts of the industrial landscape disappear. The domestic workshops of the nineteenth century became extinct and last of hundreds of blast furnaces in the area was demolished. The post-war boom had been followed by a painful period of contraction and restructuring: the 1970s and 80s in particular saw many large industrial employers close their Black Country operations.

When these closures came it also gave impetus to another trend – the rise of the industrial estates. Much of current manufacturing now takes place in a dense network of smaller units, often serving the motor or aerospace industries. There are more than forty industrial estates in Wolverhampton alone.

In all this, it is still the case that more than a third of manufacturing employment in the Black Country produces items such as metal products, machinery and vehicles. With one exception this is more than any comparable area in England.


Manufacturing Stories

The companies listed here, and the people who have worked for them are part of the tradition we want to celebrate.  We have been working with many of them to record, interpret and promote their histories. Some are represented in our museum collections or featured in exhibitions and events during our festival. Read an introduction to their history, or click on the name of each company to see its (present or former) in Google Maps.

 

EPW051894Avery Weigh-Tronix (1885 –Present) Smethwick (Sandwell)

William and Thomas Avery bought a scale making business in 1813 and renamed it W & T Avery. Expansion followed and by 1885 they owned three factories, including one in West Bromwich. The Soho Foundry in Smethwick was then acquired and converted to produce weighing machines. By 1914 Avery had three thousand employees and growth continued with a diverse range of products including machines for counting, testing, and packing. Following a takeover by GEC in 1979 the company completed the refocussing of its output towards electronic weighing products. Takeovers sine the 1990s have meant the firm now operates as Avery Weigh-Tronix.

(Image: Britain From Above, click image to go to web)

Thunderbolt3Bean Industries (1826–2005) Tipton (Sandwell)

Originating in Dudley in the 1820s, during WW1 it took over a factory at Hurst Lane, Tipton next to the canal. The company produced cars between 1919 and 1929 at Tipton and Dudley. It went on to have a long post-war history as a supplier of cast cylinder blocks and other parts to the automotive industry. In the 1950s for example the foundry could produce five hundred tons of iron castings a week. Production in Tipton ultimately ceased in 2005 and much of the site has since been developed as housing. Many of the street names in the modern neighbourhood commemorate the company’s existence.

p0008309Stewarts & Lloyds (1780-1980) Bilston

When it closed in the 1970s, Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks was the largest employer in the town and a key part of Black Country industry. There had been furnaces on the site since the 18th century, for a time owned by the Hickman family. In the 1950s a new £16 million investment saw the construction of a new blast furnace, ‘Elisabeth’, which could produce 275,000 tons of steel a year. Although a campaign was fought to keep the furnace and the works, restructuring in the British steel industry in the 1970s saw the it closed and Elisabeth ultimately demolished.

(Image: by Daren Kinsey provided by Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies)

BIRMAL_logoBirmid Industries (1920-1991) Smethwick (Sandwell)

Birmid was an industrial giant made up of several Smethwick foundries, originally created in 1920 when Birmingham Aluminium Castings (or ‘Birmal’) merged with the Midland Motor Cylinder Company (or ‘Midcyl’), already based in the town. Their success was such that, by the 1950s, Midcyl was the largest maker of motorcar engine cylinder blocks in Europe. In the mid 1970s the Birmal Group merged with the metal founders and manufacturers of lawnmowers, Qualcast and became Birmid Qualcast. Later still, the group was taken over by Blue Circle and, although the Smethwick operation continued in the short-term, it finally closed in 1991.

blue-bird-display-tin_2Blue Bird Toffee (1895-1998) Hunnington (Worcs.)

The surviving factory at Hunnington, south of Halesowen is a testament to more than a century of toffee making. Now closed, it was built in 1927 and made toffee under the name Blue Bird. The company were famous for their flamboyant packaging designs and many pictorial themes were represented on the front of their tins, now quite collectable. ‘Kiddies tins’ for example included images of such subjects as merry-go-rounds, children or dancing animals. Blue Bird left the site in October 1998, and the company moved to Hull as part of Needlers. The Blue Bird brand is still used by Ashbury Confectionery.

p0004569-BoultonPaulBoulton Paul Aircraft (1934 – 1991) Pendeford, Wolverhampton (South Staffs.)

In 1936, the Boulton Paul moved from Norwich to a new factory alongside the new municipal airport at Pendeford. That year the factory was extended to three times its original size. Perhaps their most famous aircraft was the Defiant turreted fighter, of which more than a thousand were built by 1945. The last aircraft to be built by Boulton Paul were delta wing jets in the 1950s and thereafter it became a component manufacturer. The factory site went through a number of transfers of ownership, including to Moog Inc in 2009, now based at the nearby i54 Business Park.

(Image: Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies)

Chance Factory DerelictChance Brothers(1824 – 1981) Smethwick (Sandwell)

Chance Brothers was one of the foremost producers of sheet and optical glass and lighthouse equipment – it glazed the famous Crystal Palace in 1851 and the clock faces of Big Ben, while lenses and apparatus produced by Chance were used by lighthouses all over the world. Established in Smethwick in 1824, it continued as a family business until the 1930s. Acquired by the glass manufacturer Pilkington in 1952, the importance of the Smethwick site eventually waned and was closed in 1981. But over more than 150 years Chance made a huge impact on the locality and pioneered many new technologies.

(Image: Edward Moss)

EAW048799aChubb (1818 – 2000s) Heath Town (Wolverhampton)

A household name as early as the 1840s, Chubb locks and safes were important Wolverhampton products for more than a century. The Chubb brothers from Hampshire opened a factory on Wolverhampton in 1818 and later moved to what became known as the Chubb Buildings (now hosting the Light House Media Centre). By 1938 the company had moved both its lock and safe works to Heath Town (pictured) and in the post-war period it expanded into an international network of companies operating in the wider security industry. The Swedish multinational Assa Abloy now owns Chubb’s Lock Security Group.

(Image: Britain From Above, click image to go to web)

Crabtree Electrical Industries (1919 – 1997) Walsall

One of Walsall’s most important manufacturers, Crabtree was based at the purpose-built Lincoln Works, opened in the 1920s after the business operated briefly from a disused leather factory. Very soon more than 600 were employed on the site and its growth was fed by the innovations such the first plastic moulded switch and the UK’s first circuit breaker in the 1960s. It produced vast numbers of plugs, sockets, and switches and ultimately employed several thousand people. Crabtree had become the largest private employer in Walsall but, after a succession of owners, Lincoln Works closed in 1997 and production was moved elsewhere.

p0003615-GuyMotorsGuy Motors (1914 -1982) Fallings Park (Wolverhampton)

The Guy Motors factory at Fallings Park, Wolverhampton opened in 1914. Originally making lorries, it also produced cars, buses and trolley buses. Its post-war history included the creation of a subsidiary, the Sunbeam Trolleybus Company, which became one of the largest manufacturers of trolley bus chassis in the world. Trolley bus production continued until the 1960s, when it fell out of favour as a mode of transport. In 1961, with falling sales, Guy was acquired by Jaguar Cars. Closing in 1982, Guy Motors was the Black Country’s longest surviving powered vehicle manufacturer. Their factory site is now an Industrial estate.

(Image: Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies)

WP_20140912_007Plowden & Thompson (1920-Present) Stourbridge (Wolverhampton)

The Dial Glass Works was built next to the canal in what became Stourbridge’s ‘Crystal Mile’ in 1788. Plowden and Thompson took over the works in 1920 and it represents the last working glass cone in the Stourbridge area – an important legacy of an internationally renowned local industry. In 1935 the top of the cone was removed and capped, producing its distinctive shape. It has a diverse product range, including glass used radiation detectors for the nuclear industry. The firm bought the rights to use the brand Tudor Crystal in March 2000 and crystal glass is now made and sold on site.

products-picThe Solid Swivel Company (1910-Present) Cradley Heath (Sandwell)

Solid Swivel grew out of the chain-making industries of Cradley Heath and the surrounding area. The firm was established in 1910 following a patent for a ‘solid bolt swivel’ for mooring ships, from which it took its name. Although it is still a family-run concern, it grew during the mid-twentieth century and, by the 1960s, was mass producing ships’ tackle and lifting gear for an international market. The firm continues to manufacture a range of metal products including anchoring and mooring chain.

ecomproducts-image-490aStuart Crystal (1853-2001) Stourbridge (Dudley)

Frederick Stuart learnt his craft as a glassmaker at the Red House Glass Cone in Stourbridge, on the town’s ‘Crystal Mile’, then the centre of the trade in England. In 1853 he helped form the company ‘Mills, Webb & Stuart’ operating out of an adjacent building. They supplied glassware to ocean liners and with this experience he later launched a new firm, Stuart & Sons. The name Stuart Crystal came into use in 1927 and production continued for the rest of the twentieth century until the factory was closed in 2001, the brand now being used by the Waterford Wedgwood group.

 

EAW000764aRubery Owen (1884-1981) Darlaston (Walsall)

The firm has its origins in Darlaston in 1884 and it built a reputation in a range of different engineering markets, including steel fabrications for the construction industry as well as chassis for cars and other vehicles. By 1929 the firm consisted of a number of specialist operations, producing chassis, wheels, structural steel, and aviation parts. The Rubery Owen group grew to as many as eighty-eight companies employing over 15,000 people on five continents. Following the general industrial contraction in the area in the 1970s the company closed its Darlaston factory, although the family connection continues through Rotech Laboratories and Rozone.

(Image: Britain From Above, click image to go to web)

p0003767aVilliers Engineering (1898-1976) Blakenhall (Wolverhampton)

The firm started as a spin-off from the Sunbeam bicycle and motorcycle company based on Villiers Street, later moving to a new facility on Marston Road. It produced components for Sunbeam and other manufacturers and, in 1902, patented the cycle freewheel used on almost all bikes. By the mid 20th century it was producing four million freewheels per year. The production of small engines, which had started in 1912, became another mainstay of the company. Villiers engines were used in a huge range of motorcycles and other machines. By the 1960s the company had become Norton Villers but production in Wolverhampton ended in 1976.

(Image: Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies)

Webb-CorbettWebb Corbett (1897-2000) Stourbridge (Dudley)

Webb Corbett is one of the great names in English lead crystal glass. Set up in 1897 by Herbert Webb, Thomas Webb and George Corbett, they took over the White House Glass works at Wordsley and, in the 1930s, adopted the name Webb Corbett Limited. Most Webb Corbett production was high quality tableware and vases, and cut and engraved lead crystal was their best known product. In 1969 the company was taken over by the Royal Doulton Company and later became known as Royal Doulton Crystal. The Ruskin Glass Centre now stands on its former works.

P1070288a-MetsecMetsec (1854 – present) Oldbury (Sandwell)

Metsec is now a specialist in making cold-rolled steel, owned by the Austrian steel company voestalpine. However its Broadwell Road site has a history going back to 1854 when it became the home of the Oldbury Carriage Works, a large produced of railway rolling stock. In the 1940s Metal Sections Ltd moved to the site and started making metal parts for post-war pre-fabs. In decades that followed, the firm also exported a kit of parts to make passenger vehicles, known as ‘bus-in-a-box’. The company expanded with the boom in construction and later changed its name to Metsec Plc.

 

Somers ForgeSomers Forge Ltd (1866 – present) Halesowen, Dudley

Somers Forge survives as a large representative of a characteristic Black Country industry – the shaping of hot metal. Somers Forge owes its origins to an engineer, Walter Somers who, in 1866 established the company on Mucklow Hill. Walter Somers Limited expanded to produce forgings for the British Admiralty during the First Wold War. Somers’ company also produced parts of the anchors used on the Titanic. In the 1980s Walter Somers Ltd became embroiled in the ‘Arms-for-Iraq’ scandal and no longer trades. However, its subsidiary Somers Forge Ltd remains as part of the legacy of family’s history in heavy engineering.

Frisky_Cropped resized

Frisky Cars (1957 – 1961) Fallings Park, Wolverhampton

Henry Meadows was an important Wolverhampton manufacturer, founded in 1919. It made engines and gear boxes for a large number of other firms, although the diminutive Frisky car is what it is often known for and celebrated today. Meadows’ involvement with the Frisky started with an approach from racing driver Raymond Flower to produce a car which was fuel efficient and affordable. The prototype was developed in 1956 and five models followed, including a family 3-wheeled version. But things didn’t go smoothly and production of the Frisky changed hands several times before it moved to Kent in the early 1960s and, in 1964, ended.

(Image: John Meadows)

Swallow DorettiSwallow Doretti (1954-1955) Walsall Airport

The Swallow Doretti was produced by Helliwells, a metalworking company founded in Dudley which relocated to Walsall Airport. In 1945 the firm acquired the Swallow Coachbuilding Company from the newly named Jaguar. They continuing to make stylish side cars like the original company, but also diversified into motor-scooters – hence the Swallow Gadabout. In 1950 Swallow Coachbuilding was acquired by Tube Investments and production of the Doretti car began in 1954. It lasted a year and fewer than three hundred Dorettis were ever made. They nevertheless are keenly collected today.

Kieft

Kieft Cars (1947-1956) Derry Street, Wolverhampton

Cyril Kieft was a successful industrialist with a keen interest in motorsport. He began his career in the Welsh steel industry and, in the 1940s, developed a racing car. The cars performed well and in 1950 Kieft and Company Ltd was founded with directors including Stirling Moss. It relocated to the Reliance Works on Derry Street, Wolverhampton. Kieft went on to be one of the most successful manufacturers of 500cc cars but also produced a Sports Car, a Formula 1 car, and a range of scooters. In 1956 Kieft cars moved to Birmingham, finally closing in 1961.

Jensen CarsJensen Cars (1934-1951) Lyng, West Bromwich

In 1934 Jensen Motors was founded in West Bromwich out of a previous company W. J. Smith and Sons. Originally making specialist car bodies for a variety of chassis Jensen soon began to develop its own range of cars and, in the post-war era, buses and lorries. Against the trend for small cost efficient vehicles, Jensen continued to develop large sporty models, pioneering both fibre-glass and anti-lock breaking technology. The company moved to Birmingham in 1951 and ceased production in 1976. There was a very short-lived revival in 2001.

(Image: Nic Cooper, Jensen Owners Club)

Turner CarsTurner Sports Cars (1954-1965) Pendeford, Wolverhampton

Turner Sports Cars was founded in 1954 by Jack Turner near Wolverhampton and in 1956 it moved to the Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The aim of the company was to make an affordable sports car which could be used on both the road and racetrack. The result was a car which performed very well in races compared to its better known competitors. The cars had a reputation for handling well and having a good weight-to-power ratio. In 1965 Jack Turner retired and the company went into liquidation. It is estimated that about 700 cars were produced in twelve years of operation.

(Image: Russell Filby, Turner Register)

Simon Engineering

Simon Engineering Dudley (1945-1995)

Simon Engineering is best known for the ‘Simon Snorkel’ fire and rescue vehicles – as many as 13,000 machines were made in its Dudley factories and sold in dozens of countries from the 1950s onwards. The idea of using a hydraulic platform for working at height has now spawned a global industry, but in the early post-war era it was an important and attractive innovation. Its origins lay in 1945 when Simon Engineering Group (Stockport) bought a foundry in Brierley Hill. From that point the firms Dudley operations to employ hundreds making hydraulic platforms – until it ceased production in the 1990s.