The Industrial Town

Locks and Keys

Willenhall's manufacturers, like those in the neighbouring towns, originally worked in small workshops, often in a small yard behind a family home, where at times the whole family would be involved in the manufacturing process. As time progressed, the town's industry was dominated by the lock and key makers. By the 1850s when lock factories began to appear, there were more than 300 lock makers, 90 key makers, and a dozen or so key stampers, working in small workshops throughout the town.

As the number of manufacturing firms increased, and the local transport network improved, large factories were built, completely changing the Black Country landscape. The factories increased in size and number. By the Second World War there were around 200 factories in the town, both large and small, along with 40 or so workshops.

An important development happened in 1830 when James Carpenter and John Young designed a door rimlock with a perpendicular action, which led to the development of the modern mortice lock. Carpenter and Young had a joint patent which they agreed to divide into two halves, giving Young the right to make mortice locks, and Carpenter the right to produce a perpendicular action rim lock, which became known as "Carpenters lift up lock". His business grew and he built a large factory in New Road, known as Summerford Works. James' daughter, Harriet married James Tildesley.

When James Carpenter died in 1844, John Carpenter and James Tildesley inherited the business, Carpenter and Company, which in 1851 became Carpenter and Tildesley. James dissolved his partnership with John Carpenter and became the sole owner of the company.

An advert from 1938.

James Carpenter was an ardent church goer who became a Wesleyan Methodist due to the antics of the Rev. William Moreton, curate of St. Giles' Church. He was a keen supporter of Wolverhampton's Member of Parliament, C. P. Villiers, and is buried in a vault on the east side of Union Street Methodist Church.

An advert from 1938.

All kinds of locks were produced in the town, including padlocks, lever locks, and Bramah locks; but another form of lock, the cylinder pin tumbler lock, would revolutionise the local industry, leading to several large factories, and greatly increased production.
Read a report about a Willenhall keymaker and his wife in 1841

Two adverts from 1938.

An advert showing a pin tumbler lock, from 1938.

One of the town's largest lock factories, which stood in Wood Street, was originally built by H. and T. Vaughan, a business established in 1856 by Henry, William and Thomas Vaughan, the sons of lockmaker Able Vaughan.

On 6th December, 1869 Willenhall Local Board approved plans for the factory in Wood Street, and in 1872 approved plans for a second factory in Union Street.

Around 1910 the company extensively developed the cylinder pin tumbler lock which had been invented in America by Linus Yale, and improved by his son Linus junior. The lock became extremely popular, and few houses were without them.

H. and T. Vaughan became the largest manufacturer of door locks in the world.






Henry Vaughan, son of Abel Vaughan. He was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, and became a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire, and President of the Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce. He was also a County Councillor, and a member of Willenhall School Board.

An advert from 1938.

Thomas Vaughan also became a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire.

In 1935 two bells were given to St. Giles' Church as a memorial to Mr. and Mrs Henry Vaughan.

In 1928, when Vaughan's managing director, Joseph Starkey died, the family decided to sell their business to the American firm, Yale and Towne Manufacturing Company, the original inventors of the lock.

This allowed the American company to begin producing the 'Yale' cylinder pin tumbler lock in the UK with a ready made factory and workforce.

Cylinder pin tumbler locks were also made in Willenhall by Josiah Parkes & Sons, Enoch Tonks & Sons, Arthur Shaw & Company Limited, Century Locks Limited, and J. Legge.

Two adverts for padlock manufacturers, from 1938.

Read Samuel Griffiths' description of Willenhall and its industries in the early 1870s
Originally all lock parts were hand made, often being filed from square or round iron bars. Other parts were forged on the anvil then filed to final size and shape. Holes were punched-in on a vice, or anvil, and drilled with a bow and stock.

A file was one of the most important tools used by the lockmaker. Children of only 9 or 10 years old were taught to file, which they did for many hours each day, continually bending over their work. As a result of starting at such an early age, many of them developed humped backs, twisted shoulders, and even bent legs, which led to the town's nickname "Humpshire".

Some public houses even had hollows in the wall behind the bench seats, so that customers could sit upright, with their hump in the hollow.

An advert from 1938.


Two adverts for cabinet lock manufacturers, from 1938.

An advert from 1938.

It took a long time for the lock industry to be mechanised. Low wages meant that large numbers of people could be employed in the industry, turning out vast numbers of locks by hand.

The manufacturing process was speeded-up in the late 1830s when cheap malleable iron castings became available. The cast parts were accurately produced and only needed a little filing to clean them up, and finish them off. This process also simplified key making with the introduction of key castings.

Another manufacturing aid came in the form of the fly-press developed by Isaac Mason. The press allowed large numbers of parts to be quickly and accurately pressed out from a die, saving much time and labour.


Two adverts for rim and dead lock manufacturers, from 1938.

The most important lockmakers in the town in the late 1800s included:
Beddows & Sturmey
Carpenter & Tildesley
John Harper and Company Limited
William Harper
Joseph Legge and Company
John Miners & Sons
Enoch Tonks & Sons
J. Waine & Sons
H & T. Vaughan

An advert from 1938.


Two very different adverts from Josiah Parkes, the one on the left from 1938, the other from 1919.

The former offices of Josiah Parkes & Sons Limited, demolished some years ago.

An advert from 1974.

An advert from 1938.

Eventually the industry did become more mechanised, often with special-purpose machines that were tended by female workers. The various components were made by machine, with the final assembly and finishing carried out by skilled locksmiths. As a result, the manufacturers produced a vast array of different locks, for almost every use, and supplied many industries such as shipbuilding, aircraft building, military vehicle makers, and the railways, both at home and abroad.

Willenhall greatly prospered thanks to the lock industry, which survived until recent times. Sadly it began to decline in the late 1980s, due in the main to cheap foreign imports. Many businesses were taken over, or amalgamated, and many others soon disappeared.

In its heyday there were over 4,000 people employed in the town's lockmaking industry, but this number rapidly reduced in the 1990s, until today only a handful of skilled lock makers remain.

If you want to read more about the local lock making firms, please look at the Gazetteer of lock and Key Makers, which is also on this website. Because of this, I have deliberately kept the description of the industry short, rather than duplicate what is already there.

View the Gazetteer of lock and Key Makers

An advert from 1938.

An advert from 1938.

One of the last workshops in the town where locks are still made. It belongs to A. Lewis & Sons.

The company still manufactures high quality brass cabinet locks.

Part of A. Lewis & Sons workshop.

Other Industries

An advert from 1938.

Like its neighbours, Willenhall had a wide variety of manufacturers, producing all kinds of metal goods.

There were brass foundries, die sinkers, drop forgers, grey iron and malleable iron foundries, bolt manufacturers, and companies producing all kinds of presswork.

Willenhall became famous throughout the Black Country for its grey iron castings produced by such firms as John Harper, William Harper, Charles Perks, William Horton, and Thomas Pedley. Large numbers of malleable iron castings were also made in the town.

Malleable iron was cheaper than steel, and just as good for many applications. Castings were produced by Charles Perks, Star Foundry, John Harper, William Horton, and at many other local foundries.

In 1917 Josiah Parkes & Sons Limited acquired Wolverhampton based Crane Foundry, where large numbers of castings of all kinds were produced.

Crane Foundry remained in their hands until 1945 when it was sold to Qualcast.

There were also foundries producing non-ferrous castings, including C. & L. Hills, J. Parkes junior, Pioneer Castings, Wye Foundry, and Knowles Foundry.


An advert from 1958.

An advert from 1953.

An advert from 1953.

A company letterhead from 1936.

John Harper was second son of John Harper senior, a hardware merchant in Willenhall.

John Harper junior became a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire, County Councillor for North Bilston, and served on the Willenhall School Board. He was a staunch Liberal, and close friend of C. P. Villiers, M.P.

He was a prominent Wesleyan and a lifelong teetotaller. As well as being the principal shareholder, chairman of the directors, and general manager of John Harper & Company, he was proprietor of the Bilston Windmill Cement and Plaster Company, and a Fellow of the Imperial Institute.

He extensively travelled throughout the world.

John Harper junior.

Albion Works, one of the oldest factories in Willenhall, run by John Harper & Company Limited, was founded in 1790. The firm not only produced locks, but also a wide range of products.

Read a history of the company   

Read the story of 'The Old Works', produced by John Harper & Company Limited in 1950.
Read an Albion Works Bulletin from John Harper & Company Limited
for June 1951.
Another once-well-known Willenhall company was Ash Foundries Limited in Wood Street, founded in 1908. The firm originally traded as Arthur Ash & Company until 1948 when it became a limited company.

All kinds of small repetition grey iron castings were produced for many industries, particularly the local lock trade which required small thin-section machineable parts.

In the late 1940s the foundry was rebuilt and new machines were added to widen the product range to include castings for textile and agricultural engineers.

There was also a jobbing section where larger castings could be produced, and an up-to-date pattern shop. The larger castings included press beds for machine tool manufacturers.

An advert from 1954.

An advert from 1953.

An advert from 1953.

From the 1976 edition of the Walsall Official Handbook.

An advert from 1976.

An advert from 1974.

An advert from 1954.

William Harper Son & Company were another firm, specialising in repetition work, particularly for engineering firms, and the motor trade.

The business was based at Star Foundry in Birmingham Street, where castings were produced in malleable and soft iron.

Many of Willenhall's foundries were great innovators, constantly developing new techniques to keep ahead of the competition. One such company, A. Fryer & Sons Limited, founded in 1903, produced castings using the Shell method, which were cleaner and more accurate than castings made using traditional techniques. The castings had such a fine finish, and were so accurate that machining was often unnecessary.

Castings were produced for a wide range of industries, in particular electrical engineering, building and the motor trades.

The factory had a modern shot blast plant where work was done for outside companies, and a large stock was kept of chill cast phosphor bronze rods, both solid and cored, for sale to the trade.

An advert from 1954.

H. & J. Hill were based in Walsall Street on a site purchased from John Harper & Company Limited.

The firm specialised in malleable and soft grey iron castings for all trades, and produced annealing pans and hardening pots.

The business went into liquidation on 5th May, 1981.

An advert from 1954.

Knowles Foundry in John Harper Street was founded in 1880 to produce small brass castings for the local lock trade. The firm's product range greatly changed in the intervening years to include castings in aluminium alloy, gunmetal, phosphor bronze etc., for many industries including electrical engineering, shipbuilding, and textiles.

Aluminium alloy castings were produced up to two hundredweights, particularly for petrol and diesel engines, fire engine-fittings, textile and machine tools, emulsifiers, traffic signs, bus and coach fittings, electrical switchgear, lighting fittings, and outboard engines. Aluminium gravity die castings were also made. The pattern shop produced numerous patterns of all kinds for the trade.

An advert from 1954.

Read about C. & L. Hill Limited brass, non-ferrous, and iron founders
One of Willenhall's notable foundries was Victoria Foundry in Stringes Lane, run by Arthur Tipper Limited, grey and malleable ironfounders, producers of conduit tubes and fittings, and makers of a vast range of builders ironmongery.
The firm produced almost every kind of builders' fittings including door and gate bolts, shelf brackets, Suffolk and Gothic latches, axle pulleys, tee and butt hinges, hat and coat hooks, shelf brackets, letter plates, sash fasteners, fanlight stays and catches, and casement stays and fasteners.

Their delivery vans operated over most of the Midlands, and their London office and warehouse supplied London and places as far afield as the south and east coasts.

Some of Tipper's coat hooks.

An advert from 1954.

An advert from 1958.

An advert from 1958.

One of the many local industrial success stories is that of the Ductile Steels Group, which started in 1915 when Mr. Frank Hall acquired a fifty percent stake in Stanley & Hawker, a steel merchandising firm. He became sole proprietor in the early 1920s after the death of his partner. In 1924 Mr. C. H. Batten joined the firm, and became a partner in 1931.

The business became the largest stockholder of cold-rolled steel strip in the country, importing over 6,000 tons per year. In the early 1930s Frank Hall foresaw the coming of the 33⅓ percent tariff that was to be imposed on all imported steel, and so he decided that the company should produce its own steel. He purchased two second-hand cold rolling mills, and had a 'coffin-pot' annealing furnace built in a small factory on a levelled dirt tip in Stringes Lane. Within a short time cold rolled steel strip was in production.

Ductile Steels Limited was formed as a private company, and two further cold rolling mills, and a hot rolling mill were installed at the factory. The business prospered and became a public company in 1936 incorporating Starkey & Hawker, whose stock and machinery were moved to the Stringes Lane site. Although the stocks of steel strip were gradually reduced, the stocking and shearing of steel sheets continued, and became an important part of the business.

An advert from 1958.

The Willenhall factory expanded again in 1945 when the manufacture of cold-formed sections was added to the product list. The firm purchased Sections & Mouldings (Birmingham) Limited and transferred its plant to the Stringes Lane site. In the same year the firm purchased The Monmore Green Rolling Mills Company (1924) Limited at Wolverhampton, which was in liquidation. The name was changed to Monmore Conduits Limited, and the factory began to produce electrical conduits made from Ductile's hot rolled steel strip.

In order to improve the sales of electrical conduit, the firm purchased the conduit fittings supplier, Seal Conduit Company Limited in 1946 and moved the business to the Monmore Green site. A warehouse was also opened in Coventry to stock the firm's conduits, along with fittings, certain electrical goods, and a quantity of Ductile steel flats and sheets.

1946 also saw the formation of Metalon Steels Limited at Jubilee Works, Short Heath to turn Ductile steel strip into galvanised coils. In 1947 the firm acquired press maker Samuel Griffiths (Willenhall) Limited,  based in John Harper Street, Willenhall to make all of the machinery for the mechanisation and development of the Ductile group.

Expansion continued in 1948 with the acquisition of Dudley Port Rolling Mills Limited, of Lower Church Lane, Tipton.

This was one of the most up-to-date and efficient rolling mills of its kind in the country. The firm produced rolls, small flats, strip, rounds, ovals, and special sections in bright drawn and hot rolled finishes.

This operation was expanded by the purchase of Shropshire Steels whose entire operation was transferred to Dudley Port.

In 1953 Ductile formed Ductile Planetary Mill Limited in Planetary Road, Wednesfield to operate a newly installed hot steel rolling mill, the first of its kind.

The new process called "Planetary Rolling" was named after Planetary Road. In 1963 the group moved its head office there.

An advert from 1976.

An advert from 1938.

Another important local industry, which still survives today is drop forging. It began in Willenhall in 1812 when John Grimley moved here from Birmingham and began to produce keys, using a drop hammer.

The industry rapidly grew to become an important part of local manufacturing. A vast range of products were produced, including bolts, hinges, letter boxes, staples, and every kind of ironmongery. Parts were also produced for the shipbuilding industry, cycle manufacturing, and vehicle manufacturing.

Some of the main companies were:
Armstrong Stevens
Criterion Stampings
Vaughan Brothers
A. Vaughan,
E. Nicklin & Sons
Platts Forgings
Victoria Drop Forgings
G. A. Tildesley & Co. Ltd.

The thud of the drop hammers would have been a familiar sound in the town.

It could be heard until recently around the premises of George Dyke Limited in Doctors Piece, now closed,  and can still be heard at W. H. Tildesley Limited in Bow Street.

George Dyke Limited in Doctors Piece, now derelict.

An advert from 1958.

The stone panel on the side of the derelict factory built by E. Nicklin & Sons, dropforgers, in 1894.

E. Nicklin & Sons' factory, now derelict, on the corner of Field Street, and Round Croft. It was later occupied by Henry Ellard and Sons Limited.

A final view of the factory, as seen from Round Croft in January 2015.

W. H. Tildesley's Clifford Works in Bow Street.

G. A. Tildesley and Company Limited were one of the larger drop forging companies in the town.

There were also a number of patternmakers, such as the Central Patternmaking Company, catering for the numerous foundries in the area.

Both adverts are from 1938.

A company letterhead from the mid 1960s.

An advert from 1954.

Two adverts from 1976.

Vaughan Brothers (Drop forgings) Limited of Eagle Works, Somerford Place, Willenhall was founded in 1874. It became a private limited company in 1936, and went public a year later.

All kinds of drop forgings were produced including parts for vehicle manufacturers, railway companies, aircraft manufacturers, aircraft engine manufacturers, fittings for ships, and parts for agricultural machinery.

The firm also carried out machining and produced a number of finished products including jacks, gear boxes, and many tools. Another product was Eagle brand spanners.

By the 1960s the company employed over 300 people.

The Firm closed in the recession which began in the late 1980s. The business was taken over by a company called Shakespeare, which only lasted for a short time.

Eagle Works has since been acquired by the Middleton Paper Company Limited, paper merchants and convertors, specialising in paper sheeting, rewinding, rewrapping, and recycling.

An advert from the late 1930s.

A Vaughan Brothers spanner, made for the GPO in 1939.

The Middleton Paper Company moved to a new site and so for several years Eagle Works was unused. Walsall Council's planning committee gave permission for the site to be redeveloped into 1 and 2 bedroom apartments and 2, 3 and 4 bedroom houses. Demolition of the old factory began at the end of 2022.

An old letterhead.

A Vaughan Brothers adjustable spanner.

 One of the local firms that made parts for vehicle manufacturers. An advert from 1938.
Vehicle manufacturers were supplied with all kinds of pressings from several locally based firms including Thomas Herbert and Company, George Carter and Sons, and the Willenhall Motor Radiator Company, founded in 1919. During World War 2 the company manufactured parts for the De Havilland Mosquito, and in 1951 began to produce steel cabs for ERF trucks.

In the late 1950s DKR scooters were built at the factory, and in the 1960s sheet metal motor components including wings, bonnets, petrol tanks, and shields were supplied to vehicle manufacturers. Body pressings and assemblies were also supplied to Ford. The company still exists today as part of  Caparo Modular Systems Limited, a steel engineering and automotive group, based in the UK, India and the USA.


Two of the many local firms producing presswork in the late 1930s.

George Carter (Pressings) Limited was founded by George Carter in 1830. He was a general smith, specialising in hand-forged vices and hand and power presses.

He was succeeded by his son, also George Carter, who specialised in hand-forged press tools.

The firm was then taken over by the founder's grandson, Robert Carter, who improved the firm's manufacturing processes.

On his death in 1925, his two sons Arthur and Allan Carter took over. The firm became a private limited company in 1946 and by the 1960s employed around 180 people, producing general presswork for the motor trade.

Sadly George Carter (Pressings) Limited closed in May, 2009.

An advert from 1958.

An advert from 1954.

Another firm, once-well known for high grade metal pressings was H. & L. Appleby in Forge Road, Short Heath.

The business, founded in 1840 had a well-equipped factory with a toolroom complete with the latest machine tools, a jig-boring facility, and a large press shop housing thirty five power presses with capacities up to three hundred tons.

A large extension, built in the early 1950s, was used for the assembly and finishing of the firm's products, including welding, riveting, painting, enamelling, and machining.

The firm survived for over one hundred and fifty years. It was dissolved on 6th October, 1998.

Willenhall firms produced component parts for almost every industry.

Castings and pressings were made for lockmakers (in grey iron, malleable iron, brass, bronze, and gunmetal), and for gas stove and cooker manufacturers, bedstead makers, the electrical industry, tool manufacturers, fittings for travel goods, vehicle manufacturers, etc., etc.

One of the few screw manufacturers in the town.

An advert from 1884.

Two of the many foundries in the area.

An advert from 1861.
Another metal working company was the Metal Products Company (Willenhall) Limited, based in Neachells Lane. The firm was founded by James W. Whitehouse in 1908 to reclaim and refine metal. It originally traded as J. W. Whitehouse & Sons. The factory included a ferrous foundry, a brass foundry, and a non-ferrous foundry which produced metal ingots. The brass foundry closed in 1914 in order to make space for the refining part of the business. During the First World War hot metal pressings were produced for shell fuses, and the company became the first in the country to make chilled brass bars for stampings.

After the war the firm developed a process for hardening alloys in ingots, including manganese copper, silicon copper, ferro copper, and phosphor copper. In the 1950s the product range included metal alloys for the aircraft industry, particularly for jet engines. In later years development continued with a range of alloys for use in nuclear power stations.

The factory grew to cover over 76,000 square feet, and included an up-to-date and well equipped research laboratory. The firm had a large export business and sold products to almost every country in the world.

Another non-ferrous foundry.

Another of Willenhall's diverse industries was the production of arc welding electrodes at Invicta Electrodes Limited in Bilston Lane. The firm, a member of the Owen Organisation, produced a wide range of electrodes suitable for welding mild steel, medium high tensile cast iron, steel reinforcing, and stainless steel. The electrodes were marketed using the trade name "Wey", including "Speedway" and "Deepway", and were produced on machinery built by companies within the Owen organisation. The factory was extended during the Second World War to enable the firm to fulfil a number of Government contracts which resulted in the production of  millions of feet of electrodes. The factory had all of the latest facilities including chemical and mechanical laboratories, X-ray machines, and microscopy, to ensure that the products were of the highest quality.

An advert from 1954.

Although the town was dominated by factories working on metal goods, and known for its lockmaking, there were many other manufacturers and producers of a wide variety of products, such as those that follow:

Presswork specialists W. R. R. Pedley & Company produced high class toys, the Willenhall Box Company made cardboard boxes of every kind, Harris & Sheldon Limited made distinctive display fittings for shops etc., B. E. Wedge Limited galvanised all kinds of products, H. A. Birch & Company Limited manufactured electrical resistances, rheostats, and elements, and Grant's Bakery produced bread and confectionery.


Two more adverts from the late 1930s.

The Union Mill which stood on the corner of Union Street and Stafford Street, was run by John Austin. He was a miller, baker, and grocer, who became famous for something quite different.

In 1844 he introduced copper farthing tokens, which were known as Austin Farthings. In 1853 Austin left Willenhall and moved to Allscott near Wellington, where he founded an artificial manure works.

He sold his business in Willenhall to Joshua Rushbrooke who had previously worked at Birchills Mill in Walsall.


Both sides of an Austin token.

Rushbrooke continued to produce the farthings which still carried the 1844 date. Although the front remained unchanged, the reverse side of the token now carried Rushbrooke's name. The farthing tokens were sold to local traders at the rate of 5 shillings worth of tokens for 4 shillings and ninepence in cash.

The tokens continued in circulation until 1860 when new and smaller bronze pennies, halfpennies, and farthings were introduced. At the same time severe penalties were imposed on people using tokens, and so Rushbrooke immediately called-in his tokens, which cost him a considerable amount of money, and melted them down. He managed to sell the copper, and completely recuperate his loss. He married the eldest daughter of Richard Tildesley in 1849 and they had 11 children. In 1863 he retired, and went to live in Sutton Coldfield. He was succeeded in the business by his  son Joshua. The family-run concern survived until after the Second World War, when the building was demolished, as part of the town centre development scheme. The Rushbrooke farthing name is still remembered today, because the name of 'The Spring Vale Tavern' in St. Anne's Road has been changed to 'The Rushbrooke Farthing' in commemoration of the once well known tokens.


Both sides of a Rushbrooke token.

Willenhall had its own packaging producer in the form of the Willenhall Box Company Limited, founded in 1934 to make rigid and folding boxes for Willenhall's lock makers and hardware trades.

The product range was extended in 1938 when a new department was formed for the manufacture of fancy covered boxes and shoe boxes.

In 1946 the factory was re-equipped with the latest machinery including semi-automatic fed machines which could efficiently produce boxes in either small or large quantities.

Products included rigid, folding, collapsible, and fancy covered boxes, cartons, and containers for almost every trade, including boots and shoes, clothing, electrical goods, plastics, hardware, locks, and buttons etc. A considerable number of boxes were made for the aircraft industry and the Ministry of Supply. The firm's boxes were made to a high standard at an economical price and so were extremely attractive to manufacturers of all kinds.
View some of the products made in St. Anne's Road by William & H. H. James Limited  

An advert from 1954.

An advert from 1865.

An advert from 1851.

An advert from 1851.

An advert from 1851.

An advert from 1954.


Two of the many and varied industries in the town.


Adverts from the late 1930s.


More adverts from the late 1930s.

An advert from 1958.

An advert from 1958.

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