The Patent Shaft & Axletree Company - The Early Years

In the early 19th century, coach axles were made by welding together a bundle of wrought iron strips. Such axles would often fail because some of the strips were not as strong as others. The Patent Shaft took its name from an improved axle which overcame the problem, and was founded by the inventor to manufacture the new axle.

Around 1830, James Hardy, a minister at the Independent Chapel in Holyhead Road, and an enthusiast about anything mechanical, developed the new axle. According to F. W. Hackwood in his “Wednesbury Workshops” Hardy got the idea from the cross section of an orange when cut in two horizontally. The new axle consisted of a central bar surrounded by smaller bars to form a circle. The outer bars were round instead of flat to avoid cross graining the iron, when they were heated and welded under the hammer. This produced an axle of equal strength throughout its whole length.

The Patent Shaft axle that is on display in Hall 1, in the Rolfe Street Baths building, at the Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley. It is opened-out to show the bars that were welded together to form the axle.

The other end of the axle in the previous photo, which has been machined into its final form.

The maker's name stamped into the axle above.

A Bessemer Converter.

Hardy decided to patent the idea, and with financial help from Samual Hodgetts, a grocer from Toll End, he took out a patent in 1834. Hardy and Hodgetts decided to set themselves up in business to produce the new axles.

They purchased a forge at Leabrook for £1200 from Joseph Rollason. At the forge were 2 puddling furnaces, a scrap furnace, and an engine.

Although work was undertaken to improve the facilities on the site, no axles had been produced by 1836. As a result Hodgetts became disappointed with the project and withdrew.

Hardy soon found four other partners and began to devote his whole life to the project, but production still didn’t get underway and the business got into more and more debt with the Birmingham and Midland Bank. The bank’s manager Charles Geach realised that the axles would be ideal for use on the rapidly growing railway network, and that large numbers of reliable axles would be required. Geach didn’t waste any time, and along with 12 men, including Hardy, he purchased the works and the patent, and formed the Patent Shaft & Axletree Company in 1838.

An advert from 1870.

Within 2 years Hardy left and took Anglican orders. He was replaced as manager by his ex-clerk Thomas Walker.

In 1844 thanks to Walker’s efforts, the London & North Western Railway adopted the patent axle, and the company’s future was secured. In 1852 the company purchased the adjoining Victoria Iron Works from Fletcher, Rose & Company.

Blast furnaces at night.

Geach died in 1854 and the company was purchased by Thomas walker. At the time they had a railway steel works, 5 forges, 4 mills, 12 hammers, more than 100 puddling furnaces, and employed over 800 men.

In 1864 the business became a limited company with a capital of £300,000. Thomas Walker became Chairman, and his assistant manager Richard Williams became General Manager. The works now covered over 12 acres and employed 1,500 men working around the clock. They produced large numbers of products including axles, wheels, tyres, rails and boiler plate.

In December 1866 the Patent Shaft purchased the loss-making Monway Works and Old Park Works from Joseph Foster Lloyd & Company after their disastrous Blackfriars Bridge project. The works and collieries were bought for £400,000. The company could now produce wrought iron, Bessemer steel, and constructional ironwork, all made from their own raw materials.

At the time the company had 86 puddling furnaces, 3 blast furnaces and became one of the most prosperous factories in the country.

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Old Park Works