The birth of one of Wednesbury’s most famous industries took place in 1811 when John Russell, gunbarrel 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“When artificial light first came along it was with difficulty, because the gas was carried in either copper or brass tubes with their own special fitting.
In a town renown for tubes of wrought iron, maybe it was a bit ironic that the council couldn’t afford the tubes needed. And because these special tubes were so expensive , lighting the town would have been a long time coming if not for this very ingenious Wednesbury tube worker”.
Cornelius Whitehouse succeeded in making a cheap wrought iron gas-pipe.
The cheapness of these machine welded tubes compared with the cost of the elaborate process in which gun barrels were produced had now revolutionised the trade in iron pipes.
Cornelius who worked for Edward Elwell at Wednesbury Forge. was said to have 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. 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 revolutionized 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.
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.
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.
!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 union’s”
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 end was near:
The new owners Stewart and 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”.
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.
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.
Next: Hope Patent Tube Works