William Mills Limited

A once familiar sight in Friar Park Road, for over fifty years, was the factory of William Mills Limited, aluminium founders.

William Mills started the business in the 1890s at Sunderland, making ships’ gear of all kinds, including iron castings produced in the firm’s foundry. By 1898 an aluminium foundry had been added to the site, which must have been one of the first in the country. Amongst other things the foundry produced castings for the Mills putter, considered an essential buy for enthusiastic golfers.

The firm soon started to produce castings for the up and coming car industry, and had a stand at the 1903 Automobile Show at Crystal Palace. In the same year the firm became a limited company. At the time, the motor car industry in the West Midlands was rapidly developing, and possibly because of this, William Mills decided to relocate the business to the Midlands, and opened a foundry in Grove Street, on the border of Birmingham and Smethwick.

An advert from 1923.

The new foundry began turning out a large number of castings both in iron and aluminium alloy, mainly for the motor industry. The firm also made cooking utensils, and a popular type of roller skate which had aluminium wheels. By 1914 there were around three hundred employees.

In the First World War the foundry produced lightweight castings for the newly formed aircraft industry which rapidly grew as part of the war effort. At this time, William Mills invented a terrible weapon, the Mills hand grenade, which was not produced at the foundry, but by the Mills Munitions Factory in Birmingham and by a host of contractors. William Mills opened the munitions factory in 1915, and around 75,000,000 grenades were produced. Due to his contribution to the nation’s armoury, William Mills received a knighthood in 1922.

In the early 1920s, William Mills Limited was acquired by The British Aluminium Company Limited in order to extend their range of cast aluminium products. The production of iron castings ceased, and from then-on the firm concentrated on the production of aluminium castings.

Friar Park Works.

New laboratories and an up-to-date heat treatment plant were built and the firm became one of the leading producers of aluminium castings. Initially traditional sand casting continued to be used, in which a fresh sand mould had to be produced for every casting. In order to streamline production, die casting was introduced in which an accurately machined cast-iron mould could be used many thousands of times before replacement. It was one of the first die casting foundries in the country. Products included aluminium alloy wheels, and castings for internal combustion engines.

An advert from the mid 1950s.

An advert from 1968.

Sir William Mills also invented a patent instantaneous engaging and disengaging gear for ships, and a telescopic walking stick seat. He died in 1932 and the business continued to thrive. At the start of World War 2 the firm came under government control and was required to produce medium and large aero engine castings. A new foundry opened in Friar Park Road, Wednesbury which was designed and managed by the firm. Products included the aluminium blocks for the Merlin engine used in the Spitfire.

After the war the company took over Friar Park Foundry from the government and sold-off the old works in Grove Street. The new factory had been designed for the production of sand castings of a particular type, but changes had to be made to permit the production of a much wider range of castings of different types and sizes, and also die castings which would form a large proportion of the output.

As well as the traditional gravity die castings, high-pressure die castings were introduced, using new machines which could produce castings of up to 10lbs in weight, in great rapidity, with thinner sections and of great accuracy. Some of the castings were so accurate that the need for subsequent machining was eliminated.

The process was again improved so that precision castings of up to a hundredweight or more could be produced, including engine blocks, and even parts for guided missiles.

Sadly the factory closed some years ago, and all traces have now disappeared.

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