Elwell-Parker, Limited

Thomas Parker and his family moved to Wolverhampton from Coalbrookdale, in October 1882. Thomas had agreed to go into partnership with Paul Bedford Elwell, to manufacture accumulators at Paul’s premises in Commercial Road, from where he ran the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company. The Parker family lived in St. Jude's Road and their daughter Jessie Eliza was born there in March 1886.

Paul Bedford Elwell was born on 7th February, 1853, in Albrighton, the second son of Wolverhampton merchant, Paul Elwell.

He was educated at King’s College, London where he obtained a distinction in mathematics, and spent a year at Liège studying coal mining and iron manufacturing. His wife Elizabeth was born in Wolverhampton and in the 1881 census they are recorded as living at "The Cottage", Ryton, Shifnal, Shropshire, with one son, Paul L. Elwell, aged 7 months. 

Paul Bedford Elwell's occupation is listed as 'the manager of a works making nails etc., employing 100 hands'. By 1882 the family had moved to St. Cuthbert's, Albrighton. The Commercial Road Premises was rented from the owner; J. Smallman.

According to an article in the Birmingham Daily Post on 20th July, 1864, what must have been the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company in Commercial Road, was placed in the hands of the Elwell family after they loaned more money to the firm.

Thomas Parker and his dog. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

The manager was Alexander Stocker, previously of the Bordesley Iron Works. In 1835 he acquired a patent for his improved method of producing horseshoes. It seems that Stocker founded the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company with money provided by the Elwells, on the understanding that the horseshoes would only be supplied to them.

The surviving Elwell nail making machine.

In 1864 Charles and Paul Elwell dismissed Stocker because of his absence from the business, and he took them to court over the matter.

In 1871 Paul Bedford Elwell was clerk to the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company, and by 1876 was managing the firm. He took out several patents. The first for nail-making machinery was registered in 1876, the second, registered in 1878 was for shoe tips, and the third, registered  in 1879, was for Venetian blinds.

What is almost certainly the only surviving Elwell nail making machine was found in 2004 at the Crown Nail Company in Commercial Road, where it had been in store for over 100 years.

The machine has been rescued by the Black Country Living Museum and is currently in store. Hopefully one day it will be restored and put on display. It must be one of the oldest, if not the oldest surviving British cut-nail machines.

Another view of the Elwell cut-nail machine showing his patented oscillating feed arrangement.

In a conventional cut nail machine the steel strip from which the nails are cut is turned over between each cut, to eliminate waste. This involves a rotating feed mechanism, which is eliminated in Elwell's design, by the oscillating feed.

A drawing of another Elwell cut-nail machine, also with an oscillating feed, which can be seen on the left.

An advert from 1871.


Initially the company had premises on the southern side of the Crown Nail Company in Commercial Road. On 17th April 1882 Elwell purchased part of the large factory that stood on the corner of Walsall Street and Commercial Road, on the other side of the Crown Nail Company's works. Further space at the works was acquired on 24th June.

In the early days, Elwell had little knowledge of electricity, and so left that side of the business to Thomas. The new company was housed in a corner of the Commercial Road works, the electrical department staff consisting of Thomas, one of his sons and a man.

Dynamos were needed at the factory for lighting and for charging accumulators. Unfortunately the dynamos used at the works, like many of the dynamos available at the time, were unreliable and not up to the job in hand. Thomas decided to design an improved dynamo that would reliably and efficiently provide power, both for the company's own needs and as a new product. The first Elwell-Parker dynamo was completed in October, 1883 and was a great success.


A view from 1954 of the offices of W. E. Jones timber importers who occupied the site of the Elwell-Parker factory. It could well be that the building was once the Elwell-Parker offices. It is now long-gone.

Thomas described his early years at Wolverhampton, in a speech that he gave to the Directors of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, on 7th January, 1893:

As to our work at Wolverhampton, I may tell you that Wolverhampton ten years ago had no thought of being guilty of building dynamos, but there came a circumstance, that circumstance being an individual, myself, who went to Wolverhampton and thought that he could build dynamos. That was October 1882.

I took with me my boy and began by employing one man. We first built accumulators and afterwards began to build dynamos. The first one built, I remember it well, it was a waster, I thought, and it lay in the shop after I had tried it. It did not do what I wanted it to do, but there was a difficulty in Lancashire of coating calico printing rollers with nickel, and Mr. Freemantle paid a visit to Wolverhampton to see what we were doing. He was secretary of the Manchester Edison Company, and he was also associated with some of the people who were trying to cover their rollers with nickel. He said they had tried every dynamo, and he came to ask me how to get over the difficulty. I told him there was one there that could do what he wanted, if it didn’t we would take it back.

We went to Manchester; at first they could do nothing with it. On following it to Manchester, I saw at once what they required, and in a few hours I coated their rollers with nickel. I received a £40 cheque from Mr. Freemantle, with a testimonial, and that was the first dynamo built in Wolverhampton, the year being 1883. I was encouraged to build one for lighting, this was a success, and got us an order for six. We received from the Manchester Edison Company of that time, £1,000 in advance for building dynamos: this was the beginning of Elwell-Parker, and of dynamo manufacturing at Wolverhampton.

In 1883, the company designed, built, and installed dynamos and electric lighting for the Trafalgar Collieries in the Forest of Dean. This was the first underground electrical installation in the country, if not in the world. The electrical equipment included a 1.5hp. motor that was attached to a pump to lift water 300 feet from below the surface.

In the same year Paul Bedford Elwell was promoted to captain of the local Rifle Volunteers.

The Elwell-Parker motor attached to the Greenwood and Batley pump as part of the installation at Trafalgar Collieries. From the October 1902 edition of Feilden's Magazine.

Another Elwell-Parker motor fitted to a Greenwood and Batley pump.  From the October 1902 edition of Feilden's Magazine.
Read a description of the Elwell-Parker accumulators from The Engineer magazine

An order was also received for six dynamos from the Manchester Edison Company, and they were paid a £1,000 in advance. The rapid success of this part of the business overshadowed horseshoe manufacture, which soon ceased; and in 1884 the company became the Wolverhampton Electric Light, Power, Storage and Engineering Company. This name was soon changed to Elwell-Parker, Limited, after an infusion of fresh capital.

Mr. Parker made the acquaintance of Mr. Charles Moseley of Manchester, through Mr. George Freemantle, who was then the secretary of the Edison Company. Mr. Charles Moseley became chairman of Elwell-Parker, who at the time employed thirty men at the works in Commercial Road. By 1885 the amount of business had increased to such an extent that considerable extensions to the premises were necessary. Elwell-Parker accumulators were successfully tested at the Bush Hill estate, near Enfield4 in 1883. This estate was a property development in which Elwell and several relations had invested heavily. Unfortunately their investment was not a success and they eventually lost a lot of money.

The location of Elwell-Parker, Ltd.

Read about the steam engine designed by Elwell and Parker to power their dynamos

An Elwell-Parker accumulator had also been in use since 1882 at Elwell's home, St. Cuthbert's, Albrighton. In October 1885, Elwell described the effects of a lightning strike that had occurred at the house, to the British Association in a meeting at Aberdeen. From his description it was obvious that both Elwell and Parker had done a first class job with their wiring. He told the Association that he occasionally used one of his telephone cables for the dual purpose of carrying power for lighting and receiving operatic music from the theatre at Wolverhampton, which was a good 10 miles away.

In 1883 Paul Bedford Elwell is listed in Crocker's Directory, as being the Managing Director of the Patent Economic Coal Company, Limited, Commercial Road. He obviously had other business interests than his partnership with Thomas Parker.

Thomas, surrounded by Elwell-Parker products. In the background is a revolving field alternator, on the right is a transformer and in the foreground a dynamo.

Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

The modern type of dynamo was developed by the Belgian electrical engineer, Zénobe-Théophile Gramme, in Paris, in 1869. His D.C. generator used a ring armature, consisting of a coil of wire wound on a ring of iron, which rotated in a two-pole magnetic field. He patented the principle and effectively prevented others from modifying his design until the patent ran out in 1884. When the patent expired, dynamo manufacturers seized the opportunity to produce a more efficient and cheaper machine, and Elwell-Parker led the way.

In 1885 Sir William Preece, speaking before the Royal Society of Arts, said that the revival of the electricity industry in this country was due to the efforts and success of Mr. Parker, and writing in the Royal Society of Arts Journal, he praised Mr. Parker for winning a place for Britain in the fast developing electrical industry. In the same year Thomas was made a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

The following is from 'The Engineer', 13th June, 1884:

Engineering at the Staffordshire Exhibition

The machinery and industrial sections in the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Industrial and Art Exhibition, which was opened on May 30th, and will remain open until the end of October, are well-filled with excellent specimens of engineering and similar work. The buildings are shortly to be lighted-up on the incandescent system by the Wolverhampton Electric Light Engineering and Storage Company.

The stand of Messrs. Crossley Brothers, Manchester, who were represented by their Wolverhampton agent, Mr. H. P. Lavender, contains a small "Otto," a Parker-Elwell dynamo, and a Parker-Elwell, Planté accumulator, all engaged in exhibiting on a small scale, the incandescent system of domestic electric lighting by Mr. T. Taylor Smith. The dynamo drives twelve lamps of 20 candle power each. The Otto is of ½ horse power nominal and 1·9 horse power indicated, and the dynamo has been made specially for that size of engine. The arrangement is the same as that used to light-up by several of the swan companies. Though on a small scale, it is an object of much interest to the visitors at night.

Ellwell-Parker Limited displayed eleven dynamos and an electric motor at the 1885 Inventions Exhibition at South Kensington, and in the same year supplied dynamos for lighting to the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London.

Read a detailed technical description of the Elwell-Parker products displayed at the 1885 Inventions Exhibition

Thomas continued his links with the Coalbrookdale Company. Elwell-Parker Limited didn't have a foundry and so most of their castings were made at Coalbrookdale.

One of the first large orders secured by the new company was for the design and construction of the electrical plant for driving the Blackpool Tramway, the first English electric tramway of any size. The trams used a conduit system, where the power was picked-up from a slot between the rails.

The conductor was composed of two copper tubes of elliptical shape, attached to iron studs The studs were supported in porcelain insulators, that were mounted on blocks of creosoted wood in the sides of the channel. At each end of the car there was a switch box, with resistance coils placed under the platforms, by which means the strength of the current and speed of the car could be regulated.

A section of the conduit used at Blackpool.
To reverse the direction in which the car was travelling, the direction of the current through the armature was reversed. The shunt-wound field coils were always magnetised in the same direction. Each car was driven by a single bipolar, reversible motor, the drive being transmitted by an open chain to one of the two truck axles. Work began on the motors and dynamos in 1884. The first tram ran on 2nd July, 1885, this was the first electric tram to run along an English street. 

The system was a great advance on any other electrically powered transport system at the time. It did have some defects however. Often at high tide, it was completely covered in water and sand, when the wind blew in from the sea, and many times it was under several feet of snow. The switchgear became crusted with sodium and chlorine salts and so could be unreliable. 

One of the original trams still survives at the National Tram Museum, Crich. It was converted to run on an overhead wire, and ended its career as a service vehicle.

Originally Blackpool tram number 3, it later became tram number 4. Thomas Parker remained as the tram company’s consulting engineer until 18925.

Blackpool tram number 4.

The restored interior of Blackpool tram number 4. This is typical of a public vehicle of the day and is similar to what was used on many of the horse-drawn trams.

The underside of Blackpool tram number 4. The original traction motor has been replaced, only the end casting remains. The tram is chain driven as can be seen from the sprockets, the chain having been removed.

After the inaugural run, the Mayor of Blackpool and his guests retired to a celebration dinner in honour of the opening of the new tramway. After the meal speeches were given and Thomas Parker said that the future of railways was with electric traction. Electrically powered locomotives were cheaper to run than steam and could travel at 70m.p.h.

Read a detailed description of
the installation at Blackpool

Thomas always took a keen interest in electro chemistry and electro-metallurgy. When the Cowles process for the manufacture of aluminium bronze was first introduced, he considered the use of continuous current to be a mistake, and designed an alternating current furnace, which when tried, proved to be a great success. Later this would lead to a revolutionary way of producing phosphorus.

Thomas developed a system of electro-deposition for the refining of copper and the extraction of gold and silver. Elwell-Parker made a notable contribution to the electrical purification of copper, when their dynamos were installed at the Bolton Copper works at Oakamoor, and revolutionised the purifying process.

In 1886, Nautilus, the first electric- powered submarine, was invented by two Englishmen, Andrew Campbell and James Ash. On the surface it was powered by two internal combustion engines, but when submerged it was propelled by two 50h.p. electric motors. They were powered from a 100 cell Electric Power Storage (E.P.S.) battery, which could power the submarine for as long as four hours, before recharging was necessary. The submarine achieved a surface speed of 6 knots, and could cover 80 miles between battery charges. In 1887 the submarine was fitted with an Elwell-Parker E.P.S. battery.

A large Elwell-Parker dynamo.

By this time, Elwell-Parker had supplied dynamos to several local manufacturers including nearby Swan Garden Ironworks run by John Lysaght, E. T. Wright and Sons at Monmore Ironworks, the Staffordshire Steel and Ingot Iron Company in Bilston, and George Wilkinson and Company at Tividale, for use in their sheet mill. 

One of the dynamos supplied to the Great Northern Railway.

Elwell-Parker supplied three dynamos to the Great Northern Railway which were used to supply power for lighting in the locomotive works, and to charge accumulators. Two of the dynamos had an output of 300 volts at 56 amps, at 840 revolutions per minute. They supplied current to 84 carbon arc lamps. The third dynamo had an output of 130 volts at 120 amps, at 880 revolutions per minute. It had a resistance coil connected to the shunt winding in order to vary the output voltage. It supplied power to incandescent lamps, and was also used for charging accumulators.

In between 1884 and 1887 Elwell and Parker took out no less than 14 patents for electrical equipment, either jointly or separately. Some of their other electrical installations included Lloyd's offices in the Royal Exchange, and Manchester Central Station. The "Electrician" for 28th January, 1887, stated that "Messrs. Elwell-Parker have rapidly come to the front rank of electrical engineers, and their dynamos and motors are being widely used".

Thomas designed and built multi-phase alternators with a stationary armature and a revolving field of the salient type. Salient poles were built-up from steel stampings, either bolted or dovetailed to a frame. This type of design proved to be very successful and was used for many years.



An alternator with a revolving field and salient poles.

In 1887 Mr. James Oddie of Ballarat, Australia, came to England to obtain information on electrical knowledge and its developments. He was a wealthy gold miner, who became Ballarat’s first Chairman of the Municipal Council and was greatly impressed with Elwell-Parker and their products. Whilst here he visited Blackpool and his description of the trams was printed in the Ballarat Star, on Friday, 18th April, 1890. His description is as follows:

I had great pleasure in looking at the esplanade, which is two miles long. It is lit up by nine arc electric lights and an electric tramway system runs from end to end. There are 10 cars on it, each capable of seating 55 or 60 passengers. In the summer season, when Blackpool (a favourite resort) is crowded, 2d is charged for the journey from end to end; in winter, when visitors are scarce, the same ride may be had for 1d.

This line is one of the sweetest things in the empire. There is no jar, and the travelling is perfectly lovely. The motive power in this case is picked up by conductors from an underground conduit. Through my cousin (Mr. John Nixon, who is a member of the council, who put up the lights) I had access to the corporation members and officers and to the managing directors of the Tramway Company.

While there I gave a dinner to the members of the corporation and the tramway directors and officers; the mayor of Manchester, Mr. Alex Siemens (nephew of the late Sir Wm. Siemens), Mr. Thomas Parker (of Messrs. Elwell and Parker), and other electricians were present. The dinner went very well and the proceedings were characterised by enthusiasm. The manager of the gasworks informed me that the electric light was cheaper than gas, and that the latter was either 2s.6d or 2s.9d per 1000ft., certainly not more than 2s.9d.

The electric tramway was so successful that in the first year it paid a dividend of 5 percent. The second year it just paid expenses owing to a mishap, the sea getting into the conduit and partly filling it with sand, the Job of removing which was most costly. The third year, when it carried 950,000 passengers (mainly 2d fares), it paid 7 percent. It is hampered by not being allowed to run on Sundays, while busses are; otherwise it would beat all opposition.

The power used is obtained from a double set of machinery, two semi portable engines (worked one at a time) and two Elwell Parker dynamos, all models of beauty and economy, and which work like clockwork. The line is a patent of a Mr. Smith, of Halifax, but its success is mainly due to Mr. Parker.

In 1887 Thomas Parker developed a process for the production of phosphorus, and chlorate of soda, by electricity, which greatly reduced the manufacturing costs. The company also manufactured alternators and supplied their generating equipment to Eastbourne, Melbourne, South America, New Zealand, India, and many other locations throughout the world.

Orders increased, and in 1887 the decision was taken to build a large new works at Bushbury, on the outskirts of the town. Land was acquired in Showell Road, but the project was delayed because of the death of Mr. Charles Moseley, the company’s Chairman, in October 1887.

On 15th December, 1887 the trial of an Elwell-Parker electrically powered tramcar took place on the tramline from Wolverhampton to Willenhall, which was only about 500 metres from the factory. This must have been the first trial run of an electrically-powered tramcar on a street in the West Midlands. The car, which had been ordered by the Australasian Electric Tramways Company was designed on the lines of the Julien accumulator system developed by Edmond Julien of Brussels.

The tram was similar to a double-deck, four-wheeled, horse-powered tramcar, except that the wheels were driven by a single electric motor, mounted beneath the car, and coupled to the wheels by gears. Power was supplied by a set of lead-acid accumulators mounted beneath the seats, and accessible via doors on the outside. A second trial took place on 4th January, 1888, and another a short while later which was viewed by representatives from several tramways, including Birmingham. The trials were a complete success, and two tramcars, and two sets of batteries were soon despatched to Australia. In September of that year, one of the cars was demonstrated on the streets of Melbourne, and in Ballarat in October.

An impression of the electrically-powered tramcar.

The cars were ordered by Mr. Edmund Pritchard on behalf of the Australian Company, and led to a legal battle between Mr. Pritchard and Mr. H. G. C. Woods who had purchased the Australian rights to the Julien patents. Mr. Woods had expected Mr. Pritchard to pay him royalties on the patents, but Mr. Pritchard refused because the cars were built in England under the terms of the English Julien patent owned by Elwell-Parker, and not in Australia.

Elwell-Parker dynamos were used for many applications. In 1888 one was supplied Erith Ironworks to supply power to an electrically operated crane. The dynamo provided a supply of 120 volts at 80 amps, at 1,200 revolutions per minute, and was installed in the main boiler house.

After publishing a translation of Gaston Planté's book "The Storage of Electrical Energy" in 1887, Paul Bedford Elwell left the company. This appears to have been due to two reasons, the forthcoming sale of the business to the Electric Construction Corporation, and the large amount of debt incurred by the failure of his Bush Hill estate investments. When questioned by an Australian parliamentary standing committee in May 1890 about electric tramways, he stated that "The business was sold to a company in a way of which I did not approve, and I preferred to clear out."

He sold his house at Albrighton, and went to Paris to prepare plans for the Paris underground electric railway. Soon afterwards his bad luck continued. His wife Elizabeth, died of typhoid and he left for Australia in the hope of finding suitable employment there. He became Electrical Engineer to the New South Wales Railway Commissioners, and was responsible for the electrification of Sydney tramways. He played a leading part in the development of Sydney’s tramway system, and its power station at Ultimo, the buildings of which still exist as part of the Powerhouse Museum. Sadly he died there on 10th September, 1899, at the early age of 46.

Read Paul Bedford Elwell's views on tramways
Read Paul Bedford Elwell's Obituary

Thomas Parker and the motor car

Thomas must have been the first motorist in Wolverhampton, if not in the UK. He claimed to have had an electrically powered vehicle running as early as 1884 and developed many prototypes during his lifetime. He religiously obeyed the Light Locomotive Act, the red flag law, which was only banished in 1896. It set a speed limit of 4m.p.h. in open country and 2 m.p.h. in towns. The Act required three drivers for each vehicle, two to travel in the vehicle and one to walk ahead carrying a red flag. One of his cars gave over 18 months trouble free service on daily runs to and from Tettenhall, to the E.C.C. works at Bushbury. 

One of Thomas Parker's early cars outside the family home; The Manor House, Upper Green, Tettenhall. Thomas is sat in the middle and on the back seat is possibly his son Alfred.

During a talk that he gave to the automobile Club, he described the hilly town of Wolverhampton as being without a single yard of level ground from Tettenhall to the town. He groaned at the "Queen Square gradient", which was a real problem when insufficient batteries limited his progress.

One of his cars went to London and was shipped to Paris, but the ship floundered in mid channel and his valuable car was salvaged and brought home. Some of Thomas's vehicles had hydraulic brakes on all four wheels, as well as four-wheel steering. These features are even now being described as revolutionary.

An Elwell-Parker motor, driving a stamping machine that was used for making jewellery at James Harrison & Sons, Tenby Street, Birmingham. It is from a catalogue that is in the collection at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Vyse Street, Birmingham.
The initial Patent Tip & Horseshoe Company's site on the eastern side of Commercial Road.
The rear of the initial Patent Tip & Horseshoe Company's site facing the canal. The remains of their wharf can be seen on the right.

Birmingham Trams

An order was received  from the Birmingham Tramways Company, for the design and construction of a prototype electric tram, to run on their existing system, which was operated by steam trams. 
The steam trams were noisy and dirty, and a cleaner and quieter alternative was required. The decision was taken to test an electric tram on their system, which would hopefully fulfil all of their requirements and also be more reliable and cheaper to run than the existing trams. 

It was decided that the tram must be self-powered, as overhead wires were considered to be unsightly and a conduit system too expensive to install. A battery-powered prototype was built and successfully tested at Birmingham, on 7th November, 1888. It was an instant success and Elwell-Parker expected further orders.

Read about the successful trial of Birmingham’s first electric tram, and a description of the proposed system

Thomas was a director of the Douglas Patent Clock and Electric Meter Company of Birmingham, founded in 1888. The firm produced electricity meters.

One of Thomas's many patents was for a switch that automatically switched between a battery and a dynamo, so that when the dynamo ceased to operate, the battery was disconnected. When the dynamo started again, and the voltage had reached its normal level, the battery was reconnected to continue charging. It could also be used in installations where the battery provided backup power when the supply from the dynamo failed. The following is a brief article describing the device:

From 'Engineering' magazine, July 15th, 1888.

By 1889 the company had 400 employees, and the works operated both day and night. In the same year Thomas Parker became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and a rosy future seemed certain for the company.

A drawing of the Kensington Central Electric Lighting Station from an 1889 edition of  'The Engineer',  showing a small Elwell-Parker dynamo in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1889 Thomas Parker and William Low patented the Lowrie-Parker dynamo. Several were supplied to Kensington Electric Lighting Station. Also in 1889 a large syndicate was formed to manufacture electrical equipment of the type already made by Elwell-Parker. The syndicate founded the Electric Construction Corporation, Limited and purchased a number of prominent manufacturing companies to form the new corporation. Thomas Parker was invited to London in 1888, to meet Mr. Balfour, from the Corporation, regarding the purchase of Elwell-Parker, Limited. Terms were agreed and Elwell-Parker, Limited was absorbed into the new concern, as from 30th September, 1888.

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