The Horseley Company

The original factory was built on part of the old Horseley Estate, on an area known as ‘Finch’s Devisees’ which contained a windmill, a blade mill (known as Partridges Mill and later, Finches Mill), and a pool. In 1792 the estate was purchased for £10,000 by bankers Edward Dixon and Joseph Amphlett, who were partners in their banking business at Dudley, and William Bedford from Birmingham, a solicitor. They purchased the estate to mine some of the plentiful coal.

Joseph Amphlett became Chief Manager and Director with a salary of £200 per year and an allowance of £600 to spend on his home, Horseley House. Between 1780 and 1796 he had an ironmonger’s business in High Street, Dudley. He died on 14th January, 1801 and his one third share of the Horseley partnership was inherited by his son and daughter. Edward Dixon became High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1799. He died on 10th August, 1807 at the age of 66. William Bedford was a solicitor to the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations company). He died in 1832.

The BCN built a branch from the canal to the company’s mines with three locks. Because of the large amount of mining in the area, the locks soon began to suffer from subsidence and so the canal was rebuilt and extended to overcome the problem. Two Newcomen pumping engines were built to pump water out of the mines. It was used to fill the locks. By 1813 the firm had two blast furnaces in operation, with two Boulton and Watt blowing engines for the blast, as well as a puddling furnace, a finery, three cupolas and six mines. The business became the Horsley Coal and Iron Company (with an unusual spelling of Horseley).

Between 1815 and 1816 an engineering works was built alongside the ironworks, beside the canal. The partners in the venture were Joseph Smith, a local man, and his managing partner, Aaron Manby, who had been a banker on the Isle of Wight before becoming an ironmaster at Wolverhampton. In 1813 he took out a patent for making bricks from furnace slag and began development of a retort for the production of coal gas. He was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Horseley furnaces remained in use until 1842 when only one was in operation. In 1843 the furnaces ceased to be used and remained that way until the site was leased in 1852.

The original Iron Works and Factory. It stood to the east of Upper Church Lane, north of Tipton Brook, south of where Arthur Road is today.

Thanks to Aaron Manby, the engineering business quickly developed. Some of the earliest products were marine steam engines. On the 9th July, 1821, Manby took out a patent for an oscillating marine steam engine and for the use of oil to get-up steam. He also took out a French patent for the design and for an iron ship. He formed a company in France with Charles Napier to operate steam boats on the Seine between Rouen and Paris. Their first iron boat was built at Horseley and registered on the 30th April, 1822 as ‘Manby’, although it was generally known as the ‘Aaron Manby’. After successful trials, the ship crossed the channel and became the first iron ship to put to sea. It successfully operated on the Seine for about thirty years.

Aaron Manby left Horseley and moved to Paris where he opened a factory at Charenton. A second iron hull was built at Horseley, and completed at Charenton. Manby’s leaving had a bad effect on the Horseley business, resulting in a lack of orders. The problem was made worse because Manby offered jobs in France to many of the best men in the factory. The colliers’ strike in 1822 also had a great impact on the business, which shut-down for a time.

Read about Aaron Manby,
his paddle steamer and its commemoration in 2022

After Manby’s departure, the firm began to build steam locomotives. In 1832, several engines designed by Cornish engineer, Matthew Loam, were built for the St. Helens & Runcorn Gap Railway. The engines were unreliable and Loam left. He was replaced by Isaac Dodds who designed a locomotive for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1833. The engine worked well in trials, but was derailed and considerably damaged. The railway company decided not to purchase the engine, but did agree to pay damages. On the 2nd September, 1833, the locomotive was offered to the Dublin & Kingston Railway at a price of £700. The offer was declined, but the railway company sent an order for a locomotive called ‘Star’. After delivery in 1835 the pair of small wheels was found to be unsound, so Horseley provided a replacement. After the new wheels were fitted, the locomotive derailed and was damaged.

Horseley supplied a stationary engine to the Leicester & Swannington Railway in 1833. It was designed by Robert Stephenson. The engine was later modified and continued in operation until 1948. It is now in the collection at the National Railway Museum at York.

The firm is best known for its cast iron bridges. One of the first was a swing bridge built for the East India Docks in 1816. Many of the firm’s bridges can be seen on the BCN network, including the 'Old Turn' canal bridge built in 1827, (now beside the Malt House pub in Birmingham) and Galton Bridge at Smethwick, built in 1829. At the time it was the highest bridge in the world. Bridges were also built for many canals including the Oxford Canal, the Grand Union Canal, the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, and the Wyrley and Essington Canal.

In the 1840s Horseley Works ran into financial difficulties and in about 1846 went into liquidation. The business was put-up for sale and advertised on at least three occasions in the Wolverhampton Chronicle. The adverts include a detailed description of the site and so are of great interest. The site was eventually purchased by three local ironmasters, J. J. Bramah, Deeley, and Cochrane, who leased it to Broad and Tierney for 21 years in 1852.

Read a description of the original factory from the sale adverts in the Wolverhampton Chronicle

The New Works

In 1864, Robert Broad purchased two pieces of land on which to build a new foundry. The old factory was outdated and the blast furnaces were no longer required. Lack of rail access to the old site may also have been a factor. The new factory buildings were designed by William Dempsey of London and John Weller of Wolverhampton. They were built by David Murray.

There were pattern shops; a foundry, boiler shops, fitting shops and offices. All of the cast iron work for the new buildings was cast in the old factory.

Early orders included a water tank, sent to Berlin and a gas holder, sent to Vienna. Orders were also received from Bombay, Argentine, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Aberystwyth, Chester, Conway, Croydon, Crystal Palace Gas Works, the London & North Western Railway; and the London & South Western Railway. Most of the orders were for gas holders and gas plant.

The location of the new factory, as it was in 1913.

In January 1874 after eight years as a private company, the business went public under the name of The Horseley Company Limited. The Chairman was Tipton ironmaster, Robert Broad, with Frederick Ernest Muntz, of Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park, as Joint Chairman and John Cochrane, an ironmaster from Park Gate London, as Vice Chairman. The other Directors were: George Frederick Muntz, who was also Chairman of the Birmingham Stock Bank Limited; James Holcroft, a Stourbridge iron and coalmaster; Joseph Scrivens Keep, from Birmingham, who was also Director of the Midland Wagon Company; and Thomas Short, based at London and Birmingham, an East India merchant. John Spencer remained as Secretary and George Edward Jones remained as Works Manager.

On 2nd January, 1874, Robert Broad died. He was replaced as Chairman by John Cochrane. Thomas Short became Vice Chairman. A new steam riveting machine was installed in the boiler shop in 1876, and in 1877 John Cochrane resigned. He was replaced by Peter Duckworth Bennett, a West Bromwich ironfounder. The firm acquired his business and decided to sell his loss-making Spon Lane Foundry in 1880. James Holcroft resigned in April, 1877. Peter Duckworth Bennett died on 28th November 1885 at the age of 60, in a lunchtime accident in Birmingham. He went to a lunch at the Birmingham Council House during the Prince of Wales’ visit to the City. He climbed onto the portico to get a better view of the proceedings and fell to his death. He was replaced as Chairman by Joseph Scrivens Keep.

In 1878 the company’s products included ironwork for four gas holders at Manchester, Ryde Pier on the Isle of Wight, and a warehouse at Heaton Norris. In 1879 ironwork was produced for Harwich Pier, and in 1880 for a gas holder at Poplar, for two gas holders for Tipton Gas, and three bridges for the London & South Western Railway Company. In 1882 iron work was produced for a large jetty at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a bridge over the River Itchen near Southampton, and a bridge over the River Aire for the Hull, Barnsley & West Riding Junction Railway.

In 1883 orders included ironwork for two gas holders for the Gas Light & Coal Company, Westminster, one gas holder for the Bilston Gas Light & Coal Company, and a warehouse at Huddersfield for the London & North Western Railway. In 1884, ironwork was produced for the widening of Charing Cross Bridge, London, and Medway Bridge, Rochester. In the following year, ironwork was produced for Rugby Railway Station extension, Monument Lane Station, Liverpool, Brunswick Dock, also at Liverpool, and Birkenhead Gas Works. Other orders for bridges in the 1880s included Osney Bridge over the River Isis at Oxford, a swing bridge over the River Dee, two jetties for Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, a pier for Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and a bridge for Japan.

Working in an ironworks could be a dangerous business. In October 1878 two men lost an arm when a girder slipped, and two men were seriously injured at the Ryde Pier site. In May 1879 a man was killed in the works when a bar of iron fell from a wagon, a man was also killed on the Manchester Gas Works site, and another man was killed at the Commercial Gas Works site at Poplar, Tower Hamlets, London, followed by a second fatality in 1881. Between 1877 and 1881 there were 23 accidents at the factory. There were also fatal accidents at the Liverpool Alexandra Dock Warehouse and Dudley Gas Works.

In 1890 an order was received from the Admiralty for 133 cylinders, with diameters of 7, 8, and 10 feet. Columns and guides for Montevideo Water Works at Rio de Janeiro were also ordered, along with ironwork for Beckton Gas Works, the Great Eastern Railway, Daventry & Leamington Railway, Colombo Harbour Jetty, and Liverpool Street Station roof, in London. In 1892 the company had a staff of 730, along with 171 outworkers. A new planning machine was purchased for the boiler shop in 1900 along with a 50hp. gas engine. The company continued to purchase extra land adjacent to the factory, something that had been going on since the 1870s. The land had previously been used for coal mining.

Much of the girder work had always been done in the factory yard, in an area known as the races. In 1904 two large workshops, 150 feet long and 40 feet wide were built so that the girder work could now be carried out under cover. Joseph Scrivens Keep who had been Chairman since 1877, died on 13th April, 1907. He was replaced by Frederick Ernest Muntz. In February 1910 Rowland Hill, of The Firs, Kidderminster became a Director. He remained as such until January 1915 when he died. Another Director, Charles Holcroft, died on 11th March, 1917 and was replaced by his nephew, S. H. H. Henn.

In 1916 the firm became The Horseley Bridge & Engineering Company Limited, a name which was thought to be more appropriate. During the First World War the company produced mines, mine sinkers, steel barriers for Scapa Flow, sheds, steel buildings, buoys for the Channel barrage, and booms and paravanes that were used by ships to clear mines.

In 1919 J. W. Baillie became Secretary (he would eventually become Managing Director). The boiler shops were extended, new machines and a new weighbridge were installed and alterations were made to the offices. In November, the following year, the Chairman, Frederick Ernest Muntz died. He was replaced by J. T. Daly in January, 1921.

In the early 1920s, a shortage of orders led to a recession, which lasted for many years. In 1925, orders included six bridges for the Southern Railway, and in 1926 lift bridges for Nechells Power Station and steelwork for the LMS. The final profit for the year was only £6,000 so no dividend was paid. The General Strike in 1926 and the continuing miners’ strike led to the closure of the factory from May until the end of December. During this time a lot of maintenance work was carried out on the site.

The orders for 1927 included swing bridges for the Port of London Authority, crane runways for Derby Locomotive Works, a bridge for the Southern Railway and a rolling lift for Tilbury Docks. A rolling lift bridge was ordered for the docks at Manchester Road, Millwall in 1928, along with a purifier for Stourbridge Council and cast iron troughs for Bradford Council.

J. T. Daly retired as Chairman in June 1928 after 42 years on the Board. The Horseley Company had decided to amalgamate with Thomas Piggott & Company Limited, Spring Hill, Birmingham, at a time when both companies were short of work. The amalgamation took place in June 1928 and office staff from both companies were moved to a new company office at 28 Lionel Street, Birmingham. Sir Sydney Henn became Chairman and the following new Directors were appointed: T. P. Barker, A. Dyson, T. W. Horton, Henry Bewlay, T. O. Lloyd, and J. W. Baillie.

The foundry at Tipton took over the work of Piggott’s foundry at Spring Hill. The foundry foreman at Tipton was dismissed and replaced with the foreman from Piggott’s Foundry. Many orders arrived for steelwork for the National Grid which was being extended. This resulted in the opening of a transmission tower steelwork facility at Tipton. Orders were also received for structural steelwork for cinemas, which were becoming very popular at the time. Other orders were for gas lamp columns for Belfast and Liverpool, a landing stage at Neyland, Wales, and Ammonia stills for Belfast.

From 'Structural Steelwork'.

In 1929 Sir George Holcroft resigned from the Board, and in 1931 the light construction shop was extended.

In 1931 there were orders for the Bute West Dock lock swing bridge at Cardiff, a bridge for the LMS, and the reconstruction of Meadow Hall, Sheffield, for the LNER.

The recession continued; staff reductions were made and there was a three day working week. The situation became desperate. The only orders in February 1932 were for electricity transmission towers and so there were further reductions in staff. The bank refused to honour Piggott’s cheques and so it was decided that an amalgamation of the sites was essential. Piggotts went into voluntary liquidation and the office staff were moved from Birmingham to Horseley Works where the office was redecorated.

In May 1933 an order was received for the 900 feet high radio mast at Droitwich and another for the repair of Colwyn Bay pier. By the end of the financial year the company had made a loss of £530.

On 1st January, 1934 the business became The Horseley Bridge & Thomas Piggott Limited. It was decided that a replacement factory for Piggott’s foundry at Spring Hill should be built at Tipton, on the site of the works’ sports ground on the Great Bridge side of the railway line, where there would be rail access. The factory was known as Pipe Works. In 1934 Spring Hill works were closed and work was well underway at the new site. Spring Hill factory was demolished in 1935 and Pipe Works was completed and in full production by June 1936.

In 1935 an order was received for a swing bridge at Exeter and trade began to increase. In 1936 an order was received for a 2 million cubic foot Klonne gas holder, from the Ford Motor Company, along with an order for a one million gallon water tank for a hydroelectric scheme in Devon. By the end of the 1936 financial year, a small profit had been made.

A letterhead from 1936.

On 13th October, 1936, Sir Sydney Henn died after he broke his thigh in a fall. On 11th March, 1937, the Earl of Dudley was elected as a Director and Chairman of the company. Orders in 1937 included 1,000 tons of steel for Imperial Airways, London, steel for steel-framed buildings for Cadburys, and 5,000 tons of steel for aircraft hangars for the Air Ministry. During the year, further improvements were made at the factory including a reorganisation of the girder shop, and the building of new offices, which had been completed by February 1939. While building work was in progress, a temporary drawing office was set up in a wooden building in Horseley Road. This then became the canteen.

In January 1938, T. W. Horton, one of the Directors, died and orders included a Scherzer lift bridge for London County Council, and large amounts of dovetail sheeting for air raid shelters. In July 1938 a week’s paid holiday for all employees was introduced, and air raid shelters were built at the factory for the employees. Business was improving, more orders were received and a good profit had been made by the end of the 1939 financial year.

Galton Bridge, Smethwick, built in 1829.

World War 2

At the beginning of the war, the London office closed and some of the staff were transferred to Tipton, where the company purchased Lansdowne House in Horseley Road, for their occupation. 500 mines were produced each week in the factory for the Admiralty, and new machinery was installed for their production. In July 1940 pipe contracts at Pipe Works came to an end, because of the war, so new contracts were sought in order to keep the factory in operation.

The Horseley Platoon of the Home Guard had 160 men who mounted nightly fire watches at the works. The company purchased 1,000 steel helmets for them to wear during air raids. Enemy bombs badly damaged gas holders at Coventry, Smethwick, and Cardiff. The company received orders for repairs to the damage. A new dressing shop was built at the works and in May 1941 the company was included in the Ministry of Labour's Protected List under essential work.

By October 1941, there were 45 female factory workers on the site, many of whom were trained as welders. New toilets and cloakrooms were built for them. In August 1941 an order was received for 300 small armoured plate bodies for ‘Beaverette’ tanks, and in November of that year an order was received for 4,000lb. bombs.

On 14th April, 1942 the Duke of Kent inspected parts of the factory and on the 1st July, a new canteen was officially opened by the Earl of Dudley. New chemical and metallurgical laboratories were built, complete with x-ray machines. In May 1942 the factory completed an order for six stern ends for tank landing craft, more of which were built in 1943. In December 1944 an order was received for 2,900 tons of steel for the new Ocker Hill power station.

The 'Old Turn' Horseley canal bridge in Birmingham.

A close-up view of the bridge in the above photo, built in 1827.

The Post-War Years

In 1945 an order was received for 700 tons of Calendar-Hamilton bridge units for Dutch railways and in May 1946 an order was received for 7,000 tons of steel for Walsall Power Station. Another order was for a number of steel frames for houses.

In January 1947 the 5 day working week was introduced, at which time the factory was having problems due to a shortage of steel. In February 1947, Thompson Brothers of Bilston ordered a steel portal framed building and in March an order was received for two bridges at New Street Station requiring 800 tons of steel. They were the last bridges built at the works using riveted construction.

Sutton Coldfield television mast.

In June 1948, J. W. Baillie became Managing Director and on 20th December, 1948, the Earl of Dudley officially opened the new foundry.

In April 1949 the company’s largest built-up girder was made for the Sutton Coldfield television mast. It was 785 feet high and weighed 80 tons.

The company received an order for the base supports for the ‘Dome of Discovery’ at the Festival of Britain in November 1949. It required 232 tons on aluminium and 133 tons of steel. In October 1949 the company took over George M. Carter (Erectors) Limited and renamed the company Carter-Horseley (Engineers) Limited.

At the end of 1949 an order was received from Port Talbot for a gas holder of one million cubic feet, and in May 1950 J. S. Christie became Company Secretary. The company purchased a new sports ground from Triplex Foundry Limited, in 1952, having shared it with them for five years.

In 1953 the company constructed Ince Power Station. At the end of the year J. W. Baillie retired, but had a short retirement. He died in July 1954. On his retirement James Christie and Vincent Senior became joint Managing Directors. Orders received in 1954 included the building of a portal bridge over the Walsall canal and a fatigue testing tank for aircraft built at Farnborough.

The company acquired Mechans Limited, on the Clyde, in 1957. The firm only survived for six years after take-over because of the decline in Scottish shipbuilding. The factory closed in 1963 and some of the products including water-tight doors for ships were transferred to Tipton. The 100th Powermaster boiler was produced at Tipton in 1957 for G.W.B. Limited of Dudley, and during the year, Concrete and Structural Products Limited was acquired as a subsidiary of Carter-Horseley.

The first all-welded high strength steel bridge was built at Maidenhead over the River Thames in 1960, along with the head and tail sluice gates for the flood control scheme at Dover and Kings Lynn. The company acquired G. H. Whitehouse & Son Limited in 1961. Their plant was moved to the Horseley factory to become the company’s new machine shop. During the year, orders were received for two major power-line crossings, one over the River Severn and another over the River Thames.

A letterhead from 1936.

In 1964 three radio telescopes with a diameter of 60 feet where built for Cambridge University, and a significant investment in new plant was made at Tipton, including a 2,000 ton press for the hydraulic shop, an updating of ‘A’ bay into a Class 1 welding shop, the building of an x-ray shed, shielded with lead sheets, new welding sets and a hydro test pump. The Dixons Canal Branch was removed in order to increase the tower storage area and a Merlin gas cutting machine was purchased for the Pipe Works. Investment continued in 1965 with the purchase of large lathes, radial drills, a rail crane, 600 amp welding sets, a large hole cutting machine and a new layout for the hydraulic shop.

A large contract was received in 1965 for work on Rugeley ‘B’ Power Station. The firm’s main products were now pressure vessels, heat exchangers, and process vessels in many materials, including stainless steel. Some of the vessels and heat exchangers had tubes with sides that were twelve inches thick. Further investment in 1966 included a Merlin gas cutting machine for stainless steel, Wadkin tape drills, argon arc and MIG welding sets, grinding machines, and a plasma arc torch for the Pipe Works. The welding shop became the special products shop, a Unionmelt vessel welding machine was acquired for ‘A’ bay and the old coke braziers in the factory were replaced with gas heaters.

Two moving footbridges were built for the Madras Port Trust and work was completed on the replacement Marlow Bridge, over the River Thames. Horseley-Piggott (Coatings) Limited was set up to use a new system of pipe coating and on the 29th March, 1966 a holding company, Horseley Bridge Limited was set up. The last issue of the firm’s magazine, Horseley Group News was produced at Christmas, 1967 and a training school opened at the Carter-Horseley offices.

Another Horseley footbridge over the BCN in Birmingham.

The latter Years

In September 1968, Horseley merged with the John Thompson organisation at Ettingshall, Wolverhampton. The organisation agreed to acquire the whole of the issued capital of Horseley Bridge Limited. Many orders were received at that time, including one for Class 1 pressure vessels and another for the reconstruction of Marlow and Hammersmith suspension bridges. Other orders were for complex pipe work for a wind tunnel at RAF Bedford, the pipe bridge and road crossing over the River Severn at Hampton Loade and a high level box girder bridge at Milford Haven.

The pipe industry began to decline due to lack of investment because of the proposals for nationalisation. As a result the Pipe Works closed and the site was sold. Horseley then concentrated on structures, cranes and bridges, but times were difficult due to a shrinking market. The light construction shop was demolished, but attempts to sell the land failed. The land across the road, where the canteen and garage stood was sold.

Because of the deepening industrial depression in the country, the order books contained many loss-making contracts. At the time, the industry as a whole, had been quoting ever-low prices which resulted in the closure of 190 fabrication companies in the 15 months prior to April 1992. The Horseley factory was put-up for sale and demolition contractors were appointed, while the factory was still in operation. The business formally closed on the 15th May, 1992 with a loss of 350 jobs, which must have been heartbreaking for many of the ex-employees, because jobs were in short supply due to the industrial depression. This was a sad end and a bitter blow to a company that had achieved so much during a lifetime of 200 years.

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