The Retreat Street Factory

Company history relating to Retreat Street Works

In 1909, the four Stevens brothers, Harry, George, Joe, and Jack acquired the Retreat Street premises to manufacture motorcycles. They had recently founded a new company called A. J. Stevens & Company Limited and began to manufacture motorcycles under the name of A.J.S. The machines were extremely successful and orders flooded in. By 1915 larger premises were essential and the brothers purchased Graiseley House and the surrounding land on which to build a new factory. 

Retreat Street Works in 1913. Courtesy of Ray Jones.

They left Retreat Street in 1917 and allowed the Stevens Screw Company to use their building for additional workshop space. The Stevens Screw Company Limited had been formed early in 1906, and was run by the brothers’ father, Joseph Stevens, and their sisters Lily and Daisy, from premises across the road in Retreat Street.

A.J.S. was very successful at Graiseley Hill until the late 1920s, when sales declined because of the recession, that lasted well into the 1930s. In 1931 the company went into voluntary liquidation, and the Graiseley Hill site was sold.

In 1932 the four Stevens brothers, and their younger brother Billie, formed a new company, Stevens Brothers (Wolverhampton) Limited. They moved back into their old premises in Retreat Street, and rented a building across the road. It was clear that the new company could not support all five directors, and so in 1934 Joe and Jack left and founded their own company, Wolverhampton Auto-Machinists Limited.

During the next few years Stevens Brothers manufactured a three-wheeled van, and Stevens motorcycles. Van production ended in 1936 and motorcycles were built from 1934 until 1938, when the company decided to concentrate on general engineering.

By the late 1930s age was catching up with the brother’s father, Joseph Stevens, and so his youngest son Billie took over the running of the Stevens Screw Company, which by the early 1950s employed over 70 staff. Production consisted of hundreds of different small parts including bolts, nuts and screws, in ferrous and non-ferrous metals made from the bar.

In 1938 Billie’s son Jim started work at Stevens Brothers. In 1956 he became a director of the Stevens Screw Company, following the death of his father Billie, and took over the running of the company. The decision was made to sell Stevens Brothers (Wolverhampton) Limited, his father and uncles having died, and to concentrate on the running of the screw company.

Stevens Brothers was acquired by Leo Davenport, a successful businessman, who had previously been a successful competition rider for A.J.S., both at home and abroad. His father Tom Davenport had also worked for A.J.S. at Graiseley Hill, where he held a managerial post.

In 1973 Leo offered to share the premises with the Stevens Screw Company after Wolverhampton Council served a Compulsory Purchase Order on their factory.

By the 1990s the screw company was experiencing difficulties, with several of their customers going into receivership. Jim and Joan decided to concentrate on a reduced customer base and work towards retirement. In 1991 Jim and Joan decided to retire and close the Retreat Street factory, which closed in 1992.

The buildings a few years ago, when occupied by W. Hopcraft & Son Ltd., monumental masons.

The old painted A.J.S. sign is still visible on the end wall.
The buildings were acquired by Engines Limited, and later by monumental masons W. Hopcraft & Son Limited.

They have now been empty for several years following Hopcraft’s move to Lord Street.

The ground floor plan of the buildings. As seen on 14th November, 2009.

The first floor plan of the buildings. As seen on 14th November, 2009.

The history of the buildings

On 14th November, 2009, Steve Corbett organised an open day at the works to celebrate the centenary of the founding of A.J.S. It is thanks to Steve that it was possible to gain access to the buildings to take photographs, and draw the plans that are shown above.

The old A.J.S., Stevens Brothers, and Stevens Screw Company factory on the corner of Retreat Street and Penn Street has an interesting past.

Although the office buildings in Retreat Street appear to be a similar age, the right-hand building, the smaller of the two, is much older than its next door neighbour.

The building can be seen on the 1889 Ordnance Survey map as part of the Cylindrical Bolt and Lock Works.

The buildings, as seen from Retreat Street on 14th November, 2009.

It appears to be a typical small lockmaker’s premises, with the family’s home at the front, and two small workshops at the back.

The buildings in 1889. At that time Penn Street did not exist.

The oldest known photograph of the building, taken in 1913, is from Ray Jones’ collection. It is the first photograph on this page, at the top. It appears to show a conventional Victorian house with a front door, and front room window on the ground floor, and the existing windows on the first floor. Such a house would have had a hall behind the front door with a set of stairs, two downstairs rooms, and a kitchen in the extension at the back. Upstairs would have been three bedrooms. The main bedroom would have been what is now the front office. Behind would have been a short landing at the top of the stairs, a second slightly smaller bedroom, and a tiny third bedroom on the first floor of the rear extension.

This hypothesis is born out by taking a look at the current first floor layout. Although the ground floor has changed beyond recognition, the first floor still has the original partition walls. The corridor behind the front office is unnecessarily wide, and was presumably the landing with the stairs on one side. The front office would have been the main bedroom, and the storeroom and toilet behind would have been the second bedroom. The storeroom has a blocked-up chimney breast, which makes no sense at all until you think of it as an ex-bedroom. There is a relatively modern partition between the storeroom and the toilet, which blocks off all natural daylight to the storeroom. The window in the toilet is much larger that would be expected for such a tiny room. But in reality it would have been a bedroom window. The first floor room in the extension at the back has been converted into a toilet and cloakroom. Again the partition forming the toilet wall is clearly an add-on. The window is strangely positioned between the toilet and the cloakroom, which only makes sense when you consider the room’s original purpose.

The site in 1903. The old lock works buildings are shown in orange and brown.

In 1889 Penn Street did not exist, but had been built by the time the 1903 Ordnance Survey map was published. The map shows an open area where the later office and factory were built. The map clearly shows the buildings next door, in Penn Street, that were occupied by the Screw & Rivet Company.

The original house and workshops of the Cylindrical Bolt and Lock Works are clearly shown, so the building occupied by A.J.S. in 1909 must have been built some time after 1902, when the 1903 map was updated.

By the mid 1930s the front room of the house had been converted into a tobacconist and grocers shop. Jim Stevens believes that it was Bartlett’s shop, and remembers buying tobacco there, after he started work at Stevens Brothers in 1938.

A Stevens 3-wheeled van outside the grocers shop, in 1936. Courtesy of
Jeff Booth who has a website dedicated to Stevens at

Another view outside the works, also from 1936. Courtesy of Jeff Booth.

The first photograph from 1936 shows a number of enamelled signs on the front of the shop, advertising various products. There are no such signs in the 1913 photograph, so at that time it may not have been a shop. Some time around the Second World War the building was acquired by Stevens Brothers, and used as an extension to their existing building.

On the right-hand side of the site in Retreat Street is a corrugated lean-to. This is a modern addition. Originally it was an open yard where materials were delivered. The second photograph from 1936 shows a single story workshop on the left-hand side of the yard. This may have been one of the workshops used by the original lock making company. It seems that this workshop was demolished, and the existing workshop on the right-hand side of the site was lengthened. There are three blocked-off windows in the lean-to that may be from the original workshop.

The other buildings, built between 1902 and 1909 form a purpose-built factory and offices. The larger office building originally had two offices, and an entrance hall on the ground floor, and two offices on the first floor. The partition wall between the smaller of the two ground floor offices and the entrance hall has been removed. The original floor tiles in the entrance hall are still in situ. In Stevens Brothers days the office next to the entrance hall was occupied by Harry Stevens and his younger brother Billie.

The machine shop with the mezzanine floor above, accessed from the stairs by the far wall.

The far office on the first floor was occupied by Bill Priest, the foreman, then George Stevens, followed by Leo Davenport, and finally Joan Stevens. The building has a cellar which housed the boiler for heating and hot water.

The first office at the top of the stairs was the general office, and the far end of the mezzanine floor was the canteen. The remaining rooms on the mezzanine floor were used for storage. The stores were run by Jack Bennett who also drove the company’s van.

All of the Stevens Brothers machinery was driven from overhead line shafting, powered by an electric motor that stood in the corner of the machine shop, by the eastern wall, on the far side to Penn Street.

Every Friday at 5 o’clock the machines were shut off, and thoroughly cleaned. Cleaning time ended at 5.30 when the foreman, Bill Priest made an inspection.

Between 30 and 40 people worked in the machine shop.

The eastern end of the machine shop.

The machine shop, as seen from Penn Street.

The other workshop on the northern side of the site.

It may be that this workshop was extended when the last surviving workshop from the old lock company was demolished, some time after 1936.
The photographs shows the entrance hall with the original floor tiles, and what was a separate office, before the two rooms were knocked into one.

In Stevens Brothers days the office was occupied by Harry and Billie Stevens.

The entrance hall and left-hand office.

Jim Stevens, the last surviving family member who worked for Stevens Brothers.

It’s hard to know who occupied which office in A.J.S. days, because this is now beyond human memory.

Some years ago Ray Jones was told that the first office at the top of the stairs was a drawing office, and that Harry Stevens had a drawing board in one of the rooms on the mezzanine floor.

The ground floor of the old grocers shop has changed beyond recognition. It has been opened out to form two rooms with a modern partition wall made of building blocks.

The front of the building in Retreat Street has two modern steel-framed windows, with a door in the middle, and a pull-down steel shutter. From photographic evidence this modification was made at least 30 years ago.

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