Tube Making

Crown Tube Works

The birth of one of Wednesbury’s most famous industries took place in 1811 when John Russell, gun barrel maker, and landlord of the Turk’s Head Inn began to make wrought iron tubes.

At the time there was a shortage of good quality tubing for use in steam engines, and more importantly for distribution of the gas supply, thanks to William Murdoch’s invention of gas lighting in 1792.

John Russell began to produce tapered tubes which pushed together, but were very difficult to make. As a result, John and his elder brother James developed a hand-forged wrought iron socket for joining parallel tubes together. Aaron Manby of Moxley decided to manufacture the new invention, and offered James employment at his new works.

In 1816 John decided to set up a tube works on the corner of Wellcroft Street, Church Hill, in partnership with James, who ran the business.

John Russell's Old Patent Tube Works at Wednesbury.

John Russell's trade mark.

The firm's factories in 1916.

An advert from 1862.

An advert from 1899.

John Russell & Company Limited's tubes and fittings on sale in 1899.

1. Tubes 2 to 14ft. long 16. Plain Socket
2. Pieces 12 to 23½ inches long. 17. Diminished Socket
3. Pieces 3 to 11½ inches long. 18. Union Bend
4. Long Screws 12 to 23½ inches long 19. Iron Main Cock
5. Long Screws 3 to 11½ inches long 20. Malleable Cast Elbow
6. Bends 21. Iron Main Cock with Brass Plug
7. Springs not socketed. 22. Cock Spanner
8. Springs not socketed. 23. Syphon Box
9. Springs not socketed. 24. Flange
10. Socket Union 25. Cap
11. Pipe Union 26. Plug
12. Square Elbow 27. Back Nut
13. Round Elbow 28. Nipple
14. Tee 29. Barrel Nipple
15. Cross    

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

An advert from 1916.

In 1823 James left and founded Crown Tube Works at the High Bullen, after securing a patent for butt welded tube. John subsequently founded John Russell & Company. After his death in 1853 much of the manufacturing moved to the new and larger Alma Tube Works in Walsall, but the company also continued to use the old Wellcroft Street works.

Tubes were originally formed from an iron strip, or skelp as it was known, which was heated in small sections, a few inches at a time, in a conventional blacksmith’s fire. Each section was hammered into shape, each side of the seam being overlapped and hammered to form a weld.

The whole process took a long time as many heatings and hammerings were required to form each length of tube. The process was expensive, and labour intensive. Many tube forgers were employed in the works, and the tubes were produced in lengths of around 4 feet.

As a result of the primitive manufacturing techniques then in use, the industry couldn’t keep up with the growing demand for tubes, and so something had to be done to both increase the supply and reduce the manufacturing costs.

An advert from 1918.

Cornelius Whitehouse.

The solution came in 1825 thanks to Cornelius Whitehouse who worked for Edward Elwell at Wednesbury Forge. He heated the whole strip in one go, in a hollow fire of the type used by the edge tool makers at the forge. He then shaped the strip and welded the edges of the seam in one operation by drawing it through a pair of semi-circular dies.

During the process the tube was butt welded so that the edges of the seam were joined without an overlap. The process produced an accurately shaped tube with smooth inside and outside surfaces. Whitehouse had no need for his invention, and on Elwell’s suggestion he took it to James Russell who agreed to help him take out a patent for the process.

Read about Cornelius Whitehouse

An advert from 1896.

After the patent had been granted, Russell purchased the rights from Cornelius on the understanding that he would pay him the sum of £50 annually for the life of the patent. The invention revolutionised the industry, because for the first time tubes could be made quickly, cheaply, and in longer lengths. Originally a man could produce around 25 four foot lengths in a day, but now the same man could produce 200 eight foot lengths in the same time. As a result Crown Works now led the industry and became well known throughout the world.

Unfortunately success came at a price. Other manufacturers, still using the old methods, greatly resented the company, also the tube workers who had lost their jobs because of the introduction of the new process, were very angry. Cornelius Whitehouse was even fired-on by hostile demonstrators and as a consequence always kept a loaded gun by his bedside. Russell built a high brick wall around the works, topped with iron spikes, to keep out the hostile crowd and prevent anyone stealing the secrets of his process. F. W. Hackwood mentions that some of the would-be spies even rented a row of houses that were adjacent to the works, in the hope of observing the process.

As well as producing tubes of all kinds, the company also made a wide range of tools for use with the tubes, and also for use in industry generally.

The image on the left shows the front cover of Russell's April 1877 tool catalogue.

A lovely image of Crown Tube Works from the April 1877 tool catalogue, as seen above.
Some of the tools from the 1877 catalogue:

Crown Tube Works in 1905.

Russell had to spend large sums of money towards legal proceedings to protect his patent from infringement. In 1838 he obtained a 6 year extension for the patent on the understanding that he would pay Whitehouse £500 annually during that time.

Crown Works became one of the town’s most important employers and the extension of the patent was celebrated in the town. By James Russell’s death in 1849 the works employed around 200 men who were producing well over 4 million feet of tubing a year.

After his death the works were run by his son John James Russell and by 1865 were producing over 5,300,000 feet of tubing a year. John added a foundry to the works to make tube fittings and built a mechanic’s institute for the workers, complete with a library, classrooms and lecture hall.

In 1866 John found himself in financial difficulties through no fault of his own. The company’s London agent had been embezzling large sums of money, which resulted in the business being transferred to a limited company; James Russell & Sons Limited. John became chairman and most of the shares were purchased by the company’s employees.

An advert from 1905.

An advert from 1873.

Crown Works retained its dominant place in the industry in spite of other large UK manufacturers, and exported its products to many countries including France, Germany and Russia.

By 1889 nearly 1,100 people were employed at the works, and before the turn of the century the company opened a galvanizing plant at Darlaston.

The 1880s saw the introduction of steel making in Wednesbury using the Siemens open hearth furnace, and as a result Crown Tube Works began to produce seamless steel tubing, but their main products were still made from wrought iron, which continued to be popular because it didn’t corrode when used for water or gas.

By the turn of the century the Crown Tube Works began to suffer from lack of investment, which would eventually lead to its downfall.

Striker's wives and children queuing for bread.

In 1913 a large strike began in Wednesbury, which effected many of the local companies.

It started on 9th May when 200 workers from Crown Works demanded higher wages. Large numbers of strikers gathered in the Market Place

The strike had a great impact on the local companies and was a time of great hardship for the strikers.

The strike eventually ended after the employers agreed on a minimum wage of 22 shillings a week for unskilled labourers.

They also agreed to allow their workers to join trades unions.

Strikers gathering in the Market Place for handouts of free food.

The works still relied heavily on man power. During World War One the wages bill amounted to 27% of their sales. A proposal to modernise the works and install the latest machinery led to a disagreement between the directors, which got completely out of hand. Things were so bad that the business could not continue to operate, and as a result 87% of the capital was acquired by John Russell & Company who set about the task of sorting things out.

The new owners found that the factory was “a rabbit warren of small shops impossible to supervise”. Many of the antiquated machines were only suitable for scrap, the men were obstructive and the foremen had no control over them.  They were very critical of the management, who had no accurate means of stocktaking or analysis of sales, and hardly ever visited their depots.

Crown Tube Works was bombed in World War One during a Zeppelin raid. On 31st January, 1916, nine German Zeppelin airships left their bases to carry out bombing raids over England. The target was Liverpool, but two of them got lost and ended-up over Wednesbury. One of them, L21, captained by 45 years old Max Dietrich dropped bombs on Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall before returning home. As it neared Wednesbury, the airship flew across the relatively dark area of Lea Brook, heading for the brightly lit town centre. As it travelled towards the High Bullen, bombs were dropped around King Street and on the Crown Tube Works, setting the huge factory alight.

Sadly one of the bombs destroyed the house at number 13 King Street and badly damaged number 14 next door, killing four members of the Smith family. They were Joseph Horton Smith, aged 37, Nellie Smith, aged 13, Thomas Smith, aged 11, and Ina Smith, aged 7, whose body had been blown onto the roof of the tube factory.

The advert opposite and the text below were taken from the 1918 Wednesbury Official Handbook.

A letterhead from 1929.

An advert from 1922.

The decision was taken to close and demolish Crown Works and temporarily transfer the business to their Walsall factory and the old Wellcroft Street works at Wednesbury. They also opened a new tube works at Runcorn and built a new Crown Tube Works at Hill Top, near the railway and the Tame Valley Canal. Unfortunately both ventures were unsuccessful and the company sold out to Stewarts and Lloyds in 1929.

In 1928 Stewarts and Lloyds also acquired another tube works in Wednesbury, the Prothero Steel Tube Company Limited, founded in 1926. They manufactured hot rolled and cold drawn weldless tubes. Just before the outbreak of war in 1939 the Crown Works were equipped with shell making equipment to produce shell forgings as part of the war effort.

One remnant of the old Crown Tube Works at the High Bullen remained until 1989, that was George Croft's Bright Drawn Steels.

An advert from 1927. The Prothero Steel Tube Company Limited, Portway Road, Wednesbury manufactured hot rolled and cold drawn weldless tubes.

The frontage of John Russell's Old Patent Tube Works can now be seen at the Black Country Living Museum.

Globe Tube Works

In 1849 Cornelius Whitehouse founded the Globe Tube Works at Holloway Bank, the first joint stock limited company in the town. Unfortunately he was no businessman and the company failed in the 1875-1886 depression, the only tube works to do so. He died in poverty in 1883. The works reopened in 1882 after being acquired by John Spencer. The factory remained in business until 1935 when John Spencer Limited was taken over and closed by Stewarts and Lloyds.

The location of Globe Tube Works.

A letterhead from 1927.
The advert opposite and the text below were taken from the 1918 Wednesbury Official Handbook.

An advert from 1889.

Other Early Tube Works

In the 1850s and 1860s a number of ex-Crown Works employees set themselves up in business making hand-forged tube fittings. Such enterprises required little start-up capital and mainly relied on the skill of the workers. One of them, John Knowles, who founded Walsall Street Works in 1850 went on to become the main producer of tube fittings. Others tube manufacturers were Job Edwards’ Junction Works founded in 1863, and Eagle Works founded in 1880. The business was eventually taken over by Wellington Tube Works.

James McDougall founded the highly successful Hope Patent Tube Works in 1869 which became the first factory in the area to produce weldless tubes. Sales of the tubes were extremely high thanks to their many and diverse uses including bicycle frames and bedsteads. In 1913 McDougall purchased the Imperial Tube Works from Isaac Griffiths & Sons Limited.

An advert from 1922.

The text above and the advert below were taken from the 1918 Wednesbury Official Handbook.

Hope Patent Tube Works produced a wide range of products including:
bedstead, blind, and fencing tubes, and ferrules; special light tubing; oval and flat tubing; cold-drawn weldless tubes for cycles; boiler tubes; electricity conduit tube; electrical fittings; sanitary flush pipes; strong tubes for hand rails etc; gas, steam, and water tubes, and appropriate fittings

The company was eventually taken over by Helliwell's Aircraft.

An advert from 1922.

The list of tube makers in Cope's Wednesbury & Darlaston Blue Book of 1922.
An advert from 1908.

From the 1918 Wednesbury Official Handbook.

An advert from 1918.

An advert from 1851.

An advert from 1918.

An advert from 1918.

From the 1918 Wednesbury Official Handbook.

An advert from 1905.


An advert from 1918.

Eagle and Junction Tube Works.

An advert from 1865.

Foster Brothers

Thomas Foster was an ex-Crown Works employee, who later worked at Globe Works, Wednesbury and Ridgacre Lane Tube Works in West Bromwich. In 1887 his two sons, Thomas and Humphrey founded Ratcliffe and Foster with Mr. Ratcliffe, an experienced businessman. The business was set up at the site of the old Lea Brook Iron Works, alongside the Walsall Canal in Leabrook Road, where their first batch of tubes was produced in 1888.

In 1893 Thomas Foster senior, helped his sons to buy-out Mr. Ratcliffe and the firm was incorporated as Foster Brothers Limited. Unfortunately before the transaction was completed, Thomas junior died, leaving Humphrey in charge. A few years later, Thomas senior died. He had been running the tube works in Ridgacre Lane, West Bromwich, with another of his sons, John Foster. The West Bromwich site was sold and John joined his brother Humphrey at Leabrook Road, bringing much of the better machinery from Ridgacre Lane with him.

By this time, Foster Brothers was very successful, producing tubes, wrought-iron fittings, cocks and valves, both in iron and brass. Many of the products were exported throughout the world. In 1902, Humphrey junior joined the firm, as did his younger brother Kenneth in 1918. The firm also manufactured tubes for the railway companies and specialised in high pressure tubes and fittings.

By the 1960s the firm had expanded with the formation of two subsidiary companies, Foster Brothers (London) Limited, based at Clapham and Foster Brothers Plastics Limited at Wednesbury.

Sadly the business went into liquidation in 1985, when liquidators were appointed, as can be seen from the following notice in the London Gazette.


Decline of the Industry

In the 1850s and 1860s competition from the new tube works at Halesowen, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton began to have an effect on Wednesbury's tube industry.

In 1900 the town still had a monopoly on tapered tubes that were mainly used for telegraph poles and electric tramways. The two main suppliers were Crown Tube Works and Globe Tube Works.

America and Germany increased their import duty on imported tubes to protect their own manufacturers, who by 1914 were exporting large quantities of tubes to the UK.

By World War One Wednesbury had lost its dominant position in the industry. The largest manufacturer at the time, Stewarts and Lloyds, of Halesowen easily exceeded Wednesbury's total annual production.

Wednesbury's older factories were suffering from a general lack of much needed investment. Much of the machinery was old-fashioned and by 1906 the wages bill amounted to 84% of the total production cost.

The town continued to concentrate on iron tubes and by the 1930s many of the factories had closed.

In 1924 Griffiths & Billingsley Limited, of Alma Street was purchased and closed by the British Tube Association. In 1935 it was the turn of Edward Smith Limited, who were purchased and closed by the Wellington Tube Works.

Other companies survived for much longer. John Knowles Limited of Walsall Street was purchased by Tipper Brothers. It was still going in the 1960s as were Thomas Pritchard & Company, and Foster Brothers.

In 1937 a new company, founded by Percy Newman appeared, and built a large up-to-date factory. This was Newman Tubes Limited in Holyhead Road who began to produce cold drawn weldless steel tubes.

In 1947 a new automatic mill was installed for the production of electrically welded tubes.

The business became Newman-Monmore Tubes of Western Way, one of Wednesbury's main tube producers.

An advert from 1949.

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