Town built on coal and the skill of gunmakers

As if standing guard, a line of hills stretches across the south of the Black Country, dominating the landscape. Rising up just below Wolverhampton, they line up in a south-easterly fashion, beginning with Sedgley Beacon and moving on through Wren’s Nest and Dudley Castle Hill to the Rowley Hills.

The high ground then marches onward, although more narrowly and less pronounced, out of the Black Country and across Quinton and Frankley Beeches, going on to merge with the ridges of Clent and Lickey.

Important for their limestone and road metal, these hills were vital to the industrial development of the Black Country and they lie on the watershed of England. To the west, water drains to the River Severn via the Smestow and Stour system; while to the east the River Tame and its small tributaries flow away to the River Trent and the North Sea.

World renowned for their geology and fossils, these hills provide a magnificent vantage point for the South Staffordshire Plateau. Standing up on Kates Hill at night and looking north-eastwards, down at the valley of the River Tame, the darkness is picked out by a multitude of lights from countless homes and factories in an almost magical illumination.


In the daylight, it is clear that this low-lying ground is broken up by low hills formed in most cases by glacial drift and which have not been eroded by streams. From early times, these hills in the basin of the upper Tame attracted settlers, but the names that we call them today are those given them by the Angles who moved in to what is now the West Midlands in the late sixth and seventh centuries.

There's Bilston, mentioned in Lady Wulfrun's charter of 985 and a few years later in 996 when it was given as Bilsetnatun, meaning the farmstead or estate - tun - of the dwellers on the sharp ridge - bill saete.

Then there's Wednesbury, bringing to mind Woden, the greatest of the old pagan gods, who was the creator, the god of victory and of the dead and who is also remembered in Wednesday. Signifying the stronghold - burgh - of Woden, Wednesbury may not have been mentioned in documents until the Domesday Book of 1086 but its name indicates a much older origin.

Lying between these two is another hill settlement, that of Darlaston. Just over a mile north west of Wednesbury and three miles south west of Walsall, it is also unnamed in the unprecedented and massive gathering of information ordered by William the Conqueror - unlike the other Darlaston in Staffordshire near to Stone.

A mid 1960s view from the top of John Wootton House looking across Darlaston to Dudley and the distant hills. Courtesy of Bill Beddow.

Mind you, that is not to say that there was no Darlaston in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. It may have been included within a bigger manor, such as that of Sedgley, or a scribe may have missed it out by mistake. We don't know. What we can say is that Darlaston signifies the estate (tun) of Deorlaf.

The earliest document for the place named it as Derlaveston in 1262, although by 1316 its modern form had emerged when it was recorded as Derlaston. According to Sampson Erdeswicke, whose pioneering and unpublished survey of Staffordshire was carried out over the decade from 1593, a William of Darlaston was lord of the manor at about the time of Henry III, who reigned for much of the thirteenth century. In 1801, the Reverend Stebbing Shaw brought out an indispensable tome on the History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, drawing on the work of Erdeswicke and others. Fortunately he brought to light a little more information on the history of Darlaston.


The first deed that he mentioned related to Thomas lord of Darlaston transferring to Hugh son of John de Bylestone a messuage (a dwelling house and its surrounding property, including outbuildings) formerly held by Amice le Peynnereste. Shaw thought that this document also came from the reign of Henry III, and in another deed he noted that a wood belonging to a William de Darlaston had been destroyed of old. The direct line of the Darlastons later died out and for a time their old possession came into the hands of Henry VIII when it was valued at 13 pounds nine shillings and thruppence farthing.

Still, despite Shaw's researches, there is little hard information about Darlaston and its history. In Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire in 1686 it merited but a handful of references. One related to the local iron ore which could be made into nails, while another praised the generosity of a Dr. Thomas Pye. Born in Darlaston, he was educated at Oxford and became a vicar, teacher and writer in Sussex who was noted for his learning.

In 1606, Pye visited "some Relations at Darlaston near Wednesbury, upon occasion that some of his Servants going to ring in the old Steeple which was of wood and weak, had been in danger of their lives". Accordingly, Pye offered to pay for a tower of stone for the parish church of St. Lawrence so long as the people of the "town" paid for its transport. This they did and also put up an inscription to his good-heartedness and piety.

Such references to Darlaston are rare. Too often it was overlooked by commentators or else it was associated with Wednesbury and given no clear identity of its own. However, in 1698, good coal mines were pointed out at Darlaston. It is not surprising for it lies above the Middle Coal Measures of the South Staffordshire coalfield, where the Thick Coal is rarely more than 400 feet below the surface.

The Waggon and Horses in King Street, in the 1960s. Courtesy of the late Howard Madeley. Gunmakers and tradesmen had money to spend!
Shaw himself was alert to the importance of coal to Darlaston. He wrote that "there are several coal pits sunk lately, and probably will soon be more, as they have lately cut a canal through the parish to Walsall.

There is only one coal mine at which they work now in this parish, in which the coal is about seven yards thick. The ironstone is about three quarters of a yard thick, and is found in the parish under the coal.

The mines are very subject to damps. The miners are subject to asthmatic complaints, and very few of them live to be 70 years of age. The air is sharp and dry.


"There is great plenty of brick, tile and quarry clay; in some places not more than four feet, and in others a great deal more. There is a mine of clay now at work in which they have gone 13 or 14 feet deep, and it is then good. They are prevented going deeper by water." In addition to the miners and quarrymen, there were numerous gunlock makers and nailers in the locality.

By 1801, Darlaston had a population of about 3,000 people living in 600 houses. Its area was small, encompassing just over 1,500 acres and it ranged two miles east to west and one and a quarter miles north to south. Of this total there were about 800 acres of arable and pasture, upon which wheat, barley and oats were generally grown, and 30 acres of meadow. Among the chief buildings were the church, its schools opened in 1793, a meeting house for the "very numerous" Methodists dating back to 1762, and another place of worship for the Independents "who are very few".

In the succeeding years, Darlaston continued to be ignored by observers. The Strangers Guide to Modern Birmingham published in 1825 belied its title by including material on many Black Country towns, but its entry for Darlaston was brief.


The writer declared that the place was only one mile distant from Wednesbury and that "neither on the road or in the village could I perceive anything deserving of attention; the inhabitants being employed in the same pursuits as at Wednesbury". These included coal mining, the gun trade, the making of springs, steps and other articles for coach makers and the production of "wood screws, hinges, and of late, apparatus for the gas lights".

Nine years later, in his History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire of 1834, William White explained that "the manufacture of the place is gunlocks; and there are several steel furnaces and forges for the supply of steel for the locks and springs that are made".

The British gun trade was focused upon Birmingham and was marked out by its sub-divisions. One of these was the making of locks, most of which came from Darlaston and Wednesbury. Like most middle class writers, this person pandered to the predilection of middle class readers for shocking accounts of working class behaviour. He relished in reinforcing negative stereotypes of working class people, deploring the way that "these Darlaston gun lock makers used to live in the most luxurious and extravagant manner. Such was their demand for poultry, fish, and meat, that Darlaston became the most profitable market for these things in the neighbourhood."

Appalled that working class people should have the temerity to earn good money and to enjoy themselves, the writer fulminated that the workers "might have made fortunes in the days of prosperity, but they not only spent what they obtained extravagantly, but refused to work more than one or two days a week.

During this belligerent carnival the people sunk even lower than before in vice and immorality, and not one particle of what can be denominated personal or household comfort, was obtained. Bull baiting, dog and cockfighting, and all sorts of low and debased practices, were the amusements they indulged in, while swearing, cursing, and disgustingly foul language, seemed to grow with their prosperity."

It is noteworthy that the writer paid no attention to the drinking, gambling, carousing, cock fighting and fox hunting of the upper class. Be that as it may, he did acknowledge that "the workmen are incredibly ingenious, being able to forge almost anything on the anvil".

Workers at Bradley & Foster Limited at Darlaston Iron Works. Courtesy of Brian Groves.


So they could. Until the late 1850s, lock making was a hand trade and according to the 1866 account of John Goodman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, "the several parts of each lock were forged on the anvil by men whose wonderful skill became proverbial". These various parts were put together by filers and were finished by polishing and hardening.

During the long French Wars from 1791-1815, the gunlock makers of Darlaston prospered. In 1838, a short but interesting account of them was given in Osborne's Guide to the Grand Junction Railway, which line passed just to the east of the town and stopped at James's Bridge. The writer stressed that during the war:

"A good workman could get a pound note per day. Granting a considerable allowance for the depreciation of paper money, yet the profitable employment in making gun locks was such, that by working only two days a week, the men could obtain as much as would supply their wants, and find them the means of enjoying the only luxury they seemed to know - that of drinking four days a week - which they used to indulge, out of loyalty to their own country, and hatred to France."

The coming of peace in 1815 led to a depression generally in Britain. In particular, it brought a marked decline in the fortunes of the Darlaston gun lock makers. Despite this the trade remained an important one. By 1861 there were five or six main workshops in the town, each employing about 20 skilled men; and there were between 20 and 30 little masters. However, because of mechanisation and the emergence of gun production in other countries, the end was fast approaching for the trade.

In 1865, Jones's Mercantile Directory of the Iron District included 26 gun lock makers, forgers or filers – one of whom was a woman, Ellen Butler, a gun lock forger and stamper of Wolverhampton Lane. Several were also shopkeepers or publicans. Their need for an alternative income highlighted the adverse conditions for those involved in making gunlocks by hand. The final blow came in the depression which afflicted gun making after the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1876. Within 15 years the gun lock trade had disappeared from Darlaston.

Some of those who lost their jobs were taken on by the BSA in Birmingham, but understandably they found it hard to cast off their craft. Their foreman stated that they followed the practices of 100 years previously, bow and breast drilling instead of using power machinery, while they continued to buy their own tallow-dip candles instead of the best Russian tallow free supplied by the company. Furthermore they "would do no more tempering after ten o'clock in the morning, owing to their superstitious belief, that springs tempered after that hour would break.

The sad fate of these Darlaston men was that of all skilled workers whose craft was destroyed by mechanisation and it was shared by the nailers of the town whose trade became extinct in the same years. The harsh economic conditions were made worse by the closing of local mines and the collapse in the 1880s of two major employers: Bills and Mills, which embraced blast furnaces, foundries, metal processing, and coal mines; and Addenbrooke, Smith and Pidcock, coal and iron masters.

Battered by hard times, Darlaston's population fell from 14,739 in 1871 to 13,900 ten years later. Fortunately new jobs soon arose because of the adaptability of some of the town's gun lock makers, such as William Wilkes of Eldon Street. By 1865, he had also moved into the production of nuts and bolts, as had John Archer and Son of Great Croft Street and Pinfold Street. There were another 15 businesses involved in this trade. They laid the foundation for Darlaston to push itself to the fore as the nuts and bolts capital of the world.

Workers at Ward's clay pit in the 1930s. Courtesy of John & Christine Ashmore. The fine glacial sand and clay deposits in Darlaston were exploited for fine moulding sand for the foundries, and clay for bricks and clay pots. John Wilkinson was probably the first person to use moulding sand from Darlaston, as long ago as the late 18th century.


For many years, this industry was characterised by small scale operations. In 1851 Alexander Cotterill was the largest employer with just fourteen men. A decade later he had expanded to give work to 75, but within a few years such a number had been dwarfed by those employed in large factories. By 1911, around 6,000 people were engaged in making nuts and bolts in the Black Country, the great majority

of them in Darlaston. Perhaps half of them were employed by Guest Keen and Nettlefold's, which had taken over the Atlas Works at the turn of the 20th century.

Until 1890, places such as this had supplied nuts and bolts for railways in the British Empire. As this market dropped off, massive demand came first from the rapidly expanding electrical engineering and machine tool trades and second, after 1900, from the motor industry.

Another proud Darlaston company also pushed itself into the limelight in this period through its innovation, design and quality products. It was Rubery Owen. Back in 1834 a Jabez Rubery had been a gun lock filer, screw turner and gun lock maker. Fifty years earlier the brothers J. T. and T. W. Rubery had started a factory in Booth Street for making light steel roof work, fencing, gates and the occasional bridge. Later T. W. Rubery left the business, and in 1893 his brother went into partnership with Alfred Ernest Owen. A young engineer of talent, foresight and determination, Owen transformed the company. Alert to the rise of new industries and to the potential for supplying them with new products, he oversaw the making of an award winning chassis frame for a car made from rolled sections and solid round steel bars.


In 1910 Owen became sole owner and with his acute vision he added an aviation department, so allowing Rubery Owen to supply small aircraft components in the First World War. By that time, his company was also making car wheels and had taken over Chains Limited of Wednesbury and Nuts and Bolts Ltd of Darlaston as well as two Birmingham businesses.

Alfred Ernest Owen died in 1929. He was followed ably by his two sons, Sir Alfred and E. W. B. They led a highly skilled, motivated workforce that helped the people of Darlaston withstand the ravages of the Depression of the 1930s and which played a vital role in the Second World War. Rubery Owen's structural department at Darlaston was responsible for building shadow factories, aircraft hangers, Bailey bridges, tank landing craft and components for the Mulberry Harbours that were so essential to the success of the Normandy Landings.

During the same period, the motor frame department made gun carriages, projectiles, mines and bomb-trolleys; the motor wheel department produced instrument containers, bomb carriers, anti-submarine weapons, bomb tails and much more; while the aviation department turned out nuts and bolts for aircraft.

After the war Rubery Owen continued to expand, but like all Black Country manufacturers it suffered badly because of the economic problems of the 1970s and unhappily its main plant closed in 1980.

The year before the GKN factory had shut down. Just as a century earlier, Darlaston and its people were buffeted by a severe economic downturn. Unfortunately, unlike then, no new industry appeared to provide manufacturing employment. With the massive loss of jobs locally, the town centre also declined, but Darlaston and its folk are resilient and hardy, and are resolved to work for the best of their town.

In the fore of that movement is Darlaston Local History Society. They have striven to let younger generations know about the past of the town and have brought out a number of important publications.

Darlaston, like all the Black Country towns, punched well above its weight for over a century on the world stage and through the ingenuity, innovation, adaptability, prowess and hard graft of its people it made the world take notice of itself.

Let us hope that it can do so again.

The sun sets on Darlaston's industry. Bradley and Foster's furnace in the 1970s.

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