Master of steel, master of town

F. H. Lloyd was one of the great manufacturing enterprises not only of the Black Country but also of England. Acclaimed as 'masters of steel', the company was famed for its large castings - but like many successful enterprises it had begun in a small way.

After the failure of his family's Darlaston Iron & Steel Company in the Depression that fell upon England in the later 1870s, Francis Henry Lloyd set up a small foundry in a disused timber yard at James Bridge. Although located toward the edges of Darlaston and having a Darlaston telegram address, F. H. Lloyd always advertised the James Bridge Steel Works as near Wednesbury because of the historic links between his family and that town.


Of course the Lloyds were best known as the co-founders of Taylor and Lloyd's Bank, but they had made their money from a mill for slitting iron close to the Bull Ring in Birmingham. Then in 1818, Samuel Lloyd the second had gone to live in Wednesbury to look after the family's interests in local coal and ironstone mines and clay pits for bricks and tiles.

However it was F. H. Lloyds that was to have a more profound effect on the town and indeed the Black Country. In the early twentieth century the company began making small steel castings and in the Great War it produced a great amount of cast steel shells. Then in the 1930s, F. H. Lloyds began to make heavy castings for mechanical excavators and earth-moving machines and in 1938 it installed its first electric arc furnace.

The final inspection of a turbine gear housing that was cast at the factory. From the August 1975 edition of 'The Steel Casting'.

Such developments ensured that the firm played an even more important role during the Second World War than it had in the Great War. It manufactured approximately 80,000 tons of finished steel castings. This total included 2,000 turrets for the Churchill tank and 8,000 tons of bomb body castings.

Two outstanding features of wartime production were the importance both of female workers and training. Another was the loyalty of a skilled, experienced and motivated workforce. This was a characteristic that had marked out the Lloyd companies in the Black Country since the time of Quaker Lloyd and it was remarked upon several times in the 1950s by the chairman and managing director, F. N. Lloyd.

Expansion at the James Bridge Works continued into the 1960s with a new heavy foundry and a 30-ton melting furnace. The company became renowned for its heavy castings, and despite often difficult trading conditions, it thrived and took over businesses elsewhere.

In 1970 it was even featured in the 'Guardian' because of its fabrication of five steel frames that would form the body of a 5,000-ton hydraulic press that would produce concrete slabs 20 feet by 10 feet and 10 inches thick. Each frame weighed 30 tons and was also machined at Wednesbury. In 1975, the steel industry in the United Kingdom had about 70 firms and 90 foundries, many of which were small. Consequently the bulk of output was from foundries that produced more than 1,000 tons a year. In fact, four firms dominated the industry, accounting for 55 per cent of output by value.

The largest of them all was F. H. Lloyd of Wednesbury, which produced almost 23,000 tons a year. It was an astonishing achievement but sadly the end was nigh.

The later 1970s brought major economic problems and a rapid decline in the demand for steel. Short-time working at the foundries was brought in during 1980 and sadly two years later the historic firm that was so linked with Wednesbury was felled by a recession which overwhelmed so many great manufacturing names in the 1980s. Gone it may be but the skills and talents both of the Lloyds and their workers should never be forgotten.

The machine shop where John Harper worked.

One of those who has not forgotten is John Harper.

After leaving school in 1958, he began work as an engineering apprentice at F. H. Lloyd's when it was in its heyday.

By then it employed about 3000 people and took on around 40 apprentices annually. John takes up the story:

Fifteen were engineering apprentices destined for the machine shop; fifteen were foundry apprentices and ten were maintenance apprentices, all of whom were five year indentured apprenticeships. Jim Whitehouse's son, Brian, subsequently became Inspection Department supervisor later on. In addition and on a part-time basis the legendary Bert Williams trained the football teams, and Eric Shipton, a member of the successful 1953 Everest expedition, assisted with the early Mount Snowdon forays.

The engineering apprentices spent the first 122 months at the engineering training centre, approximately half a mile from the main works at Bourne House, situated on the Walsall Road. A typical day was spent thus: 7.30 am change into shorts, vests and plimsolls and run down to the sports field in Park Lane for half an hour of hard physical training under the beady eye of Jim Platt, physical training instructor.

Then run back to Bourne House, shower and into the lecture room for engineering theory, followed by half hour lunch then into the training machine shop for practical instruction under the engineering instructor Fred Naylor. Fred was of a smallish build, a softly-spoken man, but was one of those people that imparted his knowledge with a quiet authority that commanded respect. In addition, apprentices were allowed one or two days release to study at the local Technical College.

Mr. Lloyd at the Hilton Valley Railway. John was involved in the construction of the engine. From the Christmas 1958 edition of 'The Steel Casting'.

A major project that was carried out at the training centre was the complete construction of a model steam engine, Francis Henry Lloyd. Began in 1959 by Trevor Guest and later by Fred Naylor and FHL apprentices, many of the components were cast in the foundry training centre, then machined and subsequently assembled by the engineering apprentices.

The locomotive was a 7.5 inch gauge, roughly eight feet long with the tender, and was destined upon completion for Mr. M. C. Lloyd, who was joint managing director, and the track and loco were installed in his huge garden at his home in Hilton Valley, Shropshire. The project took a considerable time to complete, and each intake of apprentices would have the chance to work upon it. The loco, which is still in existence, was bought by the Eastleigh Lakeside Steam Railway and is still operational.

When the locomotive was installed at Hilton Valley, occasionally Fred Naylor would take perhaps six of us at a time to undertake maintenance on site at Mr. Lloyd's house. It was a thing which we all enjoyed immensely due, no doubt, to the fact that MC's garden contained apple, pear and fruit orchards, which, naturally, we took advantage of.

We were transported from the works to Hilton Valley in a twelve-seater Austin van by a man named Archie Trevor, who at that time was in his late fifties, and whose usual job among other things was to transport the firm's various sports teams to sports fixtures and events at other companies.

After 12 months in the training centre, we were absorbed into the huge machine shop, which comprised of three bays. The smallest of these was the "bomb bay", named as such because it was used primarily for shell casing production in World War Two and housed the smaller milling machines, lathes and vertical borers. Each apprentice was allocated to a machine operator for six months at a time. At the same time as learning to operate the machine, it was part of the apprentice's duty to keep the machine clean and free from swarf, which is the metal that is removed from the casting by the machine tool.

I was first assigned to a huge brake lathe. The chuck, the part that turns in the lathe  was roughly six feet in diameter, and the overall length of the lathe was probably 15 feet. The operator was a small, good humoured, skilled man name Sid Causer, and I got on well with him. It was my job to remove the swarf.

The machine shop had many characters, one of whom was a man named Billy Ray, who operated a huge vertical boring machine with twin tool pillars. The machine had at floor level, a circular steel table, some 22 feet in diameter which rotated at a controlled speed when in use, and was straddled by a bridge from which hung two tool pillars. When a casting, usually a turbine casing shaped like a half cylinder, perhaps 12 feet in diameter and 10 feet tall, 25 or 30 tons in weight, was centred and secured on the table, it would slowly rotate and it was machined on the inside half diameter by means of two tools fixed to the tooling pillars. This meant that because it was a half cylinder, one tool was always in contact with the surface to be machined, whilst the other was in mid-air.


I have tried to illustrate this because Billy Ray, a larger than life character, would be standing on a pair of decorator's steps on the turntable, watching and making sure that the casting was being machined correctly. Unfortunately, this meant that Billy's head was reversing toward the approaching tool and just as it looked like curtains, Billy Ray would instinctively duck! It used to put the fear of God into me to watch.

Many of the lads that I worked with at FHL: George Hall, worked with the aforementioned Billy Ray. John Hall, Mick Jones, Ronnie Arnold, Freddie Clarke and Archie Deeley, still keep in touch, and we meet up every couple of months or so at St. Mary's Club, Wednesbury.

The machine shop holds an annual get together at the Royal British Legion Short Heath, and after all these years is still well attended. It is organised by another larger than life character, held in high esteem by all who know him, Ernest Arthur Wright, or "ee ay right" as he is affectionately known by his workmates, and assisted by another machine shop employee Peter Jenkins.


After my apprenticeship I transferred to the Inspection Department in the heavy dressing shops at F. H. Lloyd, One of the heavy dressing shops was bay 8 situated at the James Bridge end of the works and the other being the largest which was situated where Wednesbury IKEA now stands, and was known as Bay 150.

The dressing shops received the raw castings from the foundries, covered in concrete like sand, and were processed by hydroblasting and shotblasting to remove and clean them of sand, and subsequent "dressing", i.e. removal of excess metal and defects by men in protective clothing using pneumatic chiselling hammers and heavy duty grinders.

The noise produced was horrendous, and most communication was done by sign language.

In Bay 8 many of the castings were tank turrets and panniers, (the sloping part at the front of the vehicle where the driver sticks his head out), for the Chieftain and Challenger main battle tanks, and when the castings were completed it was the job of the Inspection Department dimensional inspectors, (markers out), to ensure that they met the required dimensional specification.

The seven and three quarter tons turret of a Centurian tank emerging from the 18 foot quenching tank. The onlookers are Mr. F. N. Lloyd, Arthur Reynolds, supervisor of the heavy heat treatment department, and Jim Pestridge a BBC outside broadcaster.
This was done by levelling the casting on hydraulic jacks on a huge cast iron table, painting them white with a water and hydrated lime paint, then when it was dry the marker out would scribe lines on the casting using steel height gauges to ensure there was enough machining stock and that the various dimensional features were correct to the engineering drawing.

One of the lads I worked with for many years at FHL was a guy named Harry Parry, who worked his way through the ranks and attained a senior position in the Inspection Department. Harry was, and is, endowed with a roguish sense of humour, and I remember one "Open Day" when visitors were allowed a tour of the works, an elderly gentleman enquired of Harry, "Young man, why do you paint the castings white?" Quick as a flash Harry replied "So the night turn don't trip over 'em!"

A Chieftain tank on display at a works open day.

In Bay 150, the heavy turbine casings were processed. FHL produced steam turbine casings for major electricity generating companies, such as C.A. Parsons and GEC, and in addition for hydro-electric casings and Kaplan blades for Markham's of Chesterfield. Markham's produced the hydroelectric turbine generating equipment for the Dinorwic pumped hydroelectric power station at Llanberis, north Wales.

Kaplan blades, designed and developed in 1913 by the Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan, are the four blades fitted into the hub that spins at high speed when high pressure water is directed at them. In a conventional turbine the blades are turned by steam. The blades are a complex shape, each being similar to a single blade of a ship's propeller, and have to be made to strict dimensional tolerances, and due to the complex shape, it was not possible to produce the required form by conventional machining methods.

In the 1960s, this was achieved by levelling the blade, which was roughly 12 feet by 10 feet wide, and weighing about 5 tons on the marking off table. Then a large steel box form template made to the correct form would be lowered by a crane hoist until it just touched the casting. The marker off would mark on the blade where it touched, then the template would be removed and the dressers would remove material with pneumatic chipping hammers and grinding wheels. The whole process would be carried out again and again until the required shape was attained when the template touched everywhere. Hard graft by any standards. This process took many weeks, and must have cost a fortune. Today this would be done in a few days using CNC computer-controlled machines.

An early view of the Machine Shop, where John served his apprenticeship.
In addition to the above, F. H. Lloyd produced huge and complex castings for heavy industry, the Ministry of Defence and many major civil engineering projects such as the Humber Bridge, the Thames Barrage, usually wrongly called the Thames Barrier, and most of the UK power stations, whether coal, oil or nuclear powered.

Usually on a car or coach trip if we pass one of the above projects, my wife Kath will say, "Don't tell me, made at FHL!" The answer is usually yes, it was.

Sadly, one of the last projects that FHL produced castings for, was for replacement components for the Atlantic Conveyor transport ship, lost during the Falklands War in 1982. F. H. Lloyd was a superb company to work for, and the sports and social activities were second to none.

Employee welfare was paramount. F. H. Lloyd had a first class medical centre, led by the indomitable Sister Powell and her team. The medical centre was a vital part of the operations, because, due to the heavy industry that FHL was engaged in, injuries were frequent, and though usually minor, there were a number of instances of men losing limbs, and there were a number of fatalities. One occurred in the heavy dressing shop in Bay 8 where I worked for a time. Such tragedies were thankfully extremely rare, and FHL had generally a good reputation for safe working practices at that time.

There were Christmas parties and presents for employees' children, employees' long service awards, and apprentices' awards. All of the catering and lavish decoration was carried out by canteen manageress Mrs Parry and her team. There was an annual horticultural day held at the sports field in Park Lane, and there were camping and climbing expeditions to Snowdonia for the apprentices.

Inspecting a casting for the top half of a G.E.C. 50 MW gas turbine main casing.

The manager or chief inspector of the Inspection Department that I worked in was Colin Woolhouse, an ex-army military policeman, and didn't he let us know it! If it was your turn for a telling off, usually deserved, Colin would make sure you got it! I never had any hard feelings though and I always held him in the highest regard. His wife, Marion, worked in the medical centre.

F. H. Lloyds, although still making a profit, announced closure in 1983 due to the "rationalisation" of the steel casting industry. I received a first-class technical apprenticeship at FHL, and all of the heads of departments and managers were time-served experts in their field, from the design engineers, methods engineers, pattern shop, foundries, dressing shops and the machine shops, and it was a pleasure to hear them discussing problems and the technical expertise that they utilised to overcome them.

What I learned and experienced from my time there stood me in good stead, and I never had a problem getting a job post FHL. I was 63 when I was taken on by my last employer, the Brockmoor Foundry at Brierley Hill, one of the few remaining successful privately owned foundries in this region. After reaching 65, I stayed to work part time until I was 68 in 2010, when I had to retire through ill health.

With the demise of companies such as F. H. Lloyd's, and the subsequent loss of skills, I wonder who is going to train the apprentices of tomorrow that politicians are now realising are central to the UK's manufacturing base and future prosperity. Superb company, and a superb time to be growing up through the 50s and 60s as witnessed by the lifelong friends that I made there. I just wish my grandchildren could have the same opportunities.

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