Shrubbery Iron Works


George Benjamin Thorneycroft

The business was founded by George Benjamin Thorneycroft and his twin brother Edward. They were born in Tipton on 20th August, 1791 where their parents kept the Three Furnaces pub. They went to a local school, but George had little interest in class work, and only learned to read because his mother made him read the bible.

At night he would go into a nearby iron works and became fascinated with everything that he saw, learning many processes that would be useful to him in future years.

The family moved to Leeds where his father worked at Kirkstall Forge. Young George soon joined him and became a puddler, putting to good use many of the things that he had previously learned from his night-time visits to the iron works.

In 1809 at the age of 18, he returned to the Black Country and worked at Moorcroft Iron Works at Bradley, where he soon became superintendent of the works.

In 1817 he founded a small ironworks at Forge Yard, Waterglade Street, Willenhall, where he lived in a cottage that stood on the site of the HSBC bank on the corner of New Road and the Market Place. It was here that his son Thomas (later known as Colonel Tom Thorneycroft of Tettenhall Towers) was born. In his early years George was a staunch Wesleyan Methodist, who later joined the Church of England, and gave generously to Willenhall Chapel.

In 1850 he purchased the old Molineux estate in Willenhall, and in 1851 he gave the land for Wood Street Cemetery in Willenhall to the Methodist church. The cemetery soon filled and no further interments were allowed, except in existing graves, after 21st August, 1856. On 28th September, 1857 the cemetery was conveyed to the Burial Board of Willenhall to become a municipal cemetery. George was a generous benefactor who financially supported many local charities.

In 1824 he joined forces with his brother Edward to form the Shrubbery Iron Works in Lower Walsall Street, Wolverhampton, alongside the canal. The works were in two halves with Lower Walsall Street in the middle. All of the chimneys were confined to the northern half of the works between Lower Walsall Street and Horseley Fields, so the iron must have been produced and worked there.


George Benjamin Thorneycroft


The location of the works.

In the beginning the works were quite small, producing about 10 tons of iron each week, but thanks to George’s expertise the business soon grew.

In a short while the output increased to 700 tons a week and the iron works became well known as producers of high quality iron. The two brothers worked together for several years, but eventually they dissolved the partnership by mutual consent, and Edward departed. George continued to run Shrubbery Ironworks under his company, G.B. Thorneycroft & Company, and Shrubbery works went from strength to strength.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s railway mania swept through the country. As a result the demand rapidly grew for rails and railway ironwork. George Thorneycroft wrote to the newly formed railway companies suggesting that all rails should be tested, and that many manufacturers were supplying inferior materials. As a result the ironworks received many orders for the railways and became known as a supplier of high quality axles.


This photograph from the 1930s gives a good impression of the once busy canal. Lower Walsall Street bridge is in the background. The factory on the left is on the site of the northern half of Shrubbery works.

In 1848, George, a keen Conservative became Wolverhampton’s first mayor, and the company grew to become the largest employer in the eastern side of the town. George died in April 1851 as the result of injuries from a boiler explosion in 1845. Although George escaped with his life, he remained bedridden for sometime afterwards whilst he recovered from his injuries. He never completely recovered from the effects, and although he remained active for several years, he eventually weakened, leading to illness, and death. After his death around 1,000 Shrubbery workers subscribed to a bronzed cast-iron monument, erected in the cemetery to commemorate the life of a well-respected employer.
   
Read George Thorneycroft's life story
   

After George’s death, G.B. Thorneycroft & Company continued to be successful. It grew into a large enterprise, with many collieries, and two great ironworks, Shrubbery and Swan Garden. The business had grown to become the largest employer on the eastern side of Wolverhampton.

During the Crimean War the company made large profits from the production of shells and armour plate, and by 1873 had 74 puddling furnaces and 12 mills and forges at its two ironworks.


An advert from 1902.

A happy relationship existed between management and staff at both factories. The company paid higher wages than average, and was well respected for it.

In the mid 1870s things started to go wrong. The business began to run at a loss due to a recession, and the higher wages that were demanded by the unions. After several years of loss-making, the company closed in December 1877, the closure being blamed on the higher wages that were paid to the workforce. The management wanted to reduce the wages bill to cut costs, to help the company survive during the recession. Unfortunately the workers would not agree to it.

The southern half of the Shrubbery Works were taken over by the Corrugated Iron Company and remained in their hands until 1905 when Corrugated moved to Ellesmere Port on the Manchester Ship Canal to reduce transport costs. 2,000 employees moved with the company. The British Oxygen Company who supply industrial and medical gases purchased the site and are still there today.


An advert from 1892.

The Corrugated Iron Company was founded by two brothers, John and Joseph Jones, who both contributed much to life in Wolverhampton during their time as aldermen.
 

John Jones in his mayoral robes.

 

Joseph Jones in his mayoral robes.

The northern half of Shrubbery Works are marked as disused on the 1888 Ordnance Survey map. They seem to have remained in a derelict state until they were demolished some time before the Briton Car Company's factory was built on the site in 1912. The new buildings were later occupied and extended by A.J.S., and Ever Ready.


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