Joseph Sankey & Sons Ltd.
Albion Works, Bilston
A short company history
Sankey's were big. They started off by being big in Bilston, then they got to being big nationally and internationally. They ended up as part of the GKN Group. It seems that if it was made out of metal, they made it. They were popularly known for domestic hollowware, for Sankey-Sheldon steel office furniture, and for Sankey vending machines but their range of products was much wider than that.
This history of the firm has been constructed mainly from George T. Lawley, History of Bilston, John Price and Sons, Bilston, 1893; and from a history of the firm, doubtless provided by the firm, in the Wolverhampton Official handbook for 1953.
According the firm's own history Joseph Sankey was born in 1826 and became a workman in a blankshop in Bilston making and japanning tea trays. A blankshop was a factory, usually a small one, which made items, usually of domestic ware, taking them up to the point where a finish was to be applied. These blanks were then sold on to other factories where a finish, such as lacquer or enamel, and any decoration, was applied. Blankshops often made only one sort of blank and there seems to have been a tremendous demand for tea trays. In view of Sankey's later history it seems most likely that this blankshop made tin trays, stamping them out of sheet iron. The alternative would have been papier mache.
In 1861 this partnership was dissolved and Sankey took over sole control with Jackson as his foreman. The firm's history says "the business prospered and the range of products increased from the original tea trays to embrace many kinds of hollow-ware such as frying pans, bake pans, shovels, kettles, etc.".
Lawley continues the story: "In 1878, Mr. Sankey took into partnership his eldest son, Mr. John William Sankey, who had for some years previously taken an active part in the management, and who on the death of Mr. Joseph Sankey, in 1886, took over the entire control of the business. In this year, the old-established business of the late Mr. J. P. Whitehead, blank tray manufacturer, of Bow Street, was bought by Messrs. Sankey, and ceased to exist as a separate concern". By 1874 the firm employed 65 people.
The company history records that "About 1886 it was becoming evident that armatures for dynamos would in future be made from charcoal sheet iron instead of solid wound cores and early in 1887 Sankey's booked their first order for stampings of this nature for Siemens through a merchant firm in London, Harold and Jenkins. It is believed that their first stampings were made form the scrap centres of rims of the new bicycles which were coming into vogue at that time.... That was the beginning of the Electrical Laminations business. In February 1899 Sankeys bought this business outright from Harold and Jenkins, who subsequently acted as their agents".
In his 1893 book Lawley describes the company as follows:
The company history says: "Early in 1900 a large proportion of the Albert Street factory was engaged in the manufacture of brass and copper jugs, hot water cans, fern pots, trays, etc., decorated with embossed artistic designs. Later this department was turned over to the manufacture of oil cookers and heaters".
In 1902 the firm was turned into a limited company with J.W. Sankey as chairman.
In 1904 the Manor Iron works were purchased from Stephen Tompson & Co. Ltd. in order to acquire production facilities for the silicon steel sheets which were needed for the electrical laminations business. These works were two miles away from the Bankfiel works but had a direct canal connection. Here the company later produced Sankey Silicon Steel Sheet, under the brand names Lohys, Stalloy and Crystalloy, which were sold throughout the world.
The company's later history seems to have been one of expansion and diversification. In 1909 they started stamping steel body panels for Arrol-Johnston cars. They produced the first pressed steel artillery wheel, which replaced the wooden wheels which vehicles had used up to that time. In 1910 they acquired the Castle Works, Hadley, Telford and switched all automotive related production to that site. It was there that the company also developed Sankey-Sheldon office furniture and produced agricultural implements.
The advert below dates from some time in the early part of the 20th century.
In 1929 the company was taken over by, and became a subsidiary of, John Lysaght Ltd., which was shortly afterwards acquired by G. K. N.. But Sankeys maintained its original name.
In 1929 the company acquired the Bath Street Works in Bilston. The company's history claims "much of the pioneer work in connection with the fabrication of jet engine combustion chambers was carried out at Albert Street many years before jet aircraft flew". But the components for jet engines were actually made at the Bath Street works.
The inter-wars years were kind to Sankeys. As the VCH says: "the development of the national electricity-grid scheme created a large demand for laminations for dynamos and transformers, whilst the advent of broadcasting and the subsequent demand for wireless receiving-sets called for large quantities of small electrical stampings".
The company also seems to have continued its attempt to have "a cordial relationship subsisting between the firm and its employees" for on 6th June 1936 a new sports ground was opened:
Sankeys had always been into export in a big way. In 1943 they set up Sankey Electrical Stampings Ltd. in Bombay (Mumbai) to produce electrical laminations. In 1950 another factory for electrical laminations was set up in Calcutta (Kolkata). In the same year an electrical laminations factory was started in Newcastle, Australia, and steel furniture factory was opened in Johannesburg. In 1952 a factory for both electrical laminations and steel furniture was opened in Canada.
Mary Mills and Tracey Lewis (in "Bilston, Tettenhall and Wednesfield", Tempus, 1998, record that "by the 1950s Bankfield Works was described as the largest and best equipped in Europe for the production of laminations for the electrical and allied industries".
Mills and Lewis also record that "following the closure of the Bilston Steel works, was Bilston's largest employer. However, hundreds of workers at the Albert Street brewery products, engineering works, vending machines and electrical laminations plants at Bankfields were made redundant during the 1980s in an effort to survive huge financial losses".
Sankeys no longer exist in Bilston. Their local demise was a part of the collapse of manufacturing industry in the 1980s. The Morrisons superstore now stands on part of the old Sankey site.