The white heat of technology

This weekend, I have been mostly excavating the mapping record for Birchills Iron Works. I know it’s way off our normal beat, but once I started looking at the geography following the remarkable sale post of last Friday, I couldn’t help but be captivated. I think  other local history buffs will be, too.

I realised after an hour or so that whilst the Ironworks initiates the fascination, there’s an awful lot of other change going on in the cartography that’s remarkable. What we can actually see by following the course from 1886-1938 is the technological revolution that occurred after the industrial one. A gradual shift from processing raw materials, to using them for manufacture.

The first thing is to get oriented, to take a handle on where we’re talking about. The best way is to take the 1886-1887 map I featured yesterday, and overlay it on Google Earth.

1886_1887_ Birchills

Birchills Hall Ironworks, as shown on the1886/1886 first epoch 1:2,500 Ordnance Survey draft of Walsall. Please click for a larger version.

Birchills overlay

The above map overlaid on Google earth imagery. Despite the correction tear 3/5 of the way up the sheet, it matches the modern landscape quite well. Click for a larger version.

This is fascinating. We can see that, just as Andy Dennis pointed out, the site of the furnaces is now public open space, south of the Water Company HQ. On the other side of Green Lane was the Ironworks, where TK Maxx is now. We can see the remnants of lost canal arms, rail lines, tramways and old shafts.

I’ve made an overlay for use in Google Earth, which can be downloaded at the link below. Instructions on using it can be found in this post. The overlay can also be used as a map in modern graphical Garmin GPS units like the 62, Colorado, Oregon, Dakota etc., but it’s only to be used as a guide, not a definitive plan.

Birchills 1886-1887 1:2,500 scale Google Earth overlay

1903 Birchills

This is a 1:10,000 Ordnance Survey map of the same area. Note how much has changed. Click for a larger version.

By 1903 (above), the Ironworks has shrunk in size, and bricks are in demand, hence the number of new brickworks. There’s also a tram depot on Bloxwich Road. This is a place adapting to changing local needs, and very possibly the exhaustion of pre-existing resources.

1914 Birchills

A 1:2,5,00 scale plot from 1914. The changes are subtle, but worth noting. Click for a larger version.

By 1914, several new factories had sprung up, while the Ironworks seemed to contract a little further. There’s a tube works, saw mill, glue works, and housing is proliferating. The tramway depot has grown, too.

1938 Birchills

Chains changed. By the time of this 1938 1:2,500 plot, Birchills Ironworks had gone. Click for a larger version.

By 1938, only the basins of Birchills Ironworks remain. The tube plant, to the north, is now twice the size. The tram shed is now a huge omnibus depot, and Goodall Works has appeared to the north east. Housing growth has intensified, and now utilities are noted: a bowling green, a couple of pubs.

Any information about the glue, tube or metal factories is welcome, and I’m intrigued by Goodall works, too.

Most significantly, note the building just to the west of Green Lane, on the bottom of the map. That is Walsall’s first power station, and led me to realise that I was missing something in the mapping record. But that’s for the next post.

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21 Responses to The white heat of technology

  1. Pedro says:

    A big thank you to Bob for putting so much time and effort into the Blog.

  2. stymaster says:

    That’s ace. The old map lines up remarkably well- presume it took some tweaking?

    • Hi
      A little, not much. The current GE imagery for this area is remarkably flatform and appears to be perspective corrected; think it’s to do with the vector map overlay they use having to line up. It’s also a fairly flat landscape which ames it easier.

  3. Pingback: An industrial powerhouse | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  4. David Oakley says:

    Hi Bob,
    Walsall Glue factory stood on the site where South Staffs Water, Head Office now stands.
    I remember it as a smelly little factory, which, if the wind was in the right direction, assailed your nostrils for quite a while in that area of Green Lane. It manufactured animal glue and relied largely on ‘fleshings’ from local tanneries. These fleshings, which were scraped from the internal hides of cows,before tanning, were collected from one tannery in Whittimere Street, put on a trailer, and transported up to the glue factory by tractor. Green Lane, in those days was paved in granite setts, for its whole length, giving a bumpy ride. If the trailer was a little overloaded, a tiny residue of fleshings could be seen on the road, to be ultimately dried and shrivelled in the open air.

    The Alpha Tube Works belonged to Lamberts, and was a going concern into the 1950’s, I knew many who worked there, at that time, Talbot Stead’s across the way was also a large employer of labour, there being an old ‘right of way’ from the works which persisted to the Bloxwich Road, via the Bus depot, so many of Talbot’s workmen could be seen hurrying from the vicinity of the Transport sheds, at knocking off time.

    Goodall works belonged to Hawleys, the rope and tent manufacture, and could be reached by a gully directly opposite the Bus Depot, colloquially know as ‘over the forest’. due to the naming of streets, Beeches Road, etc.,in that vicinity. Goodall works was chosen, because the works was in Goodall Street. Walsall, in its early days

    Another two concerns at that end of Green Lane at the time was Frost’s Sunhouse Heaters and the former railway sidings once used by the Ironworks was occupied by The Leamore Coal ad Coke Company until about 1972.

    • CHeers, David, as ever your comments are knowledgable, fascinating and authoritative.
      Interesting that the canvas works was Hawleys, a lost Walsall name I’d forgotten.

    • Andy Dennis says:

      I don’t really know why, but I always thought The Forest was a much older name. And there is a Forest Colliery named on the 1903 map, NE corner. Could this be the origin of Forest Lane?

      • David Oakley says:

        Good point. When one looks at the development known as the Forest Estate which includes street names as Hawbush Road, Beeches Road, Oak Crescent, Chestnut Road, Forest Lane, and the activities formerly carried out in a forest environment, Archer Road, Hunter Crescent, Stag Crescent, these names perpetuate the ancient usage of the area as a forest and are historically important.
        Bullings Heath and the future development of the Royal Oak site in Walsall Wood has a similar resonance, historically speaking, for many local people, and place names are important in preserving this historical record for posterity. From a recent discussion on the blog, I was quite pleased to see this topic raised and suggestions made..

    • BRIAN WEBSTER. says:

      Hi Bob.
      Ref. An Industrial Powerhouse.
      With regards to Davids comments on the Walsall Glue factory, the “Tannery” which was mentioned, down in Whittimere St. in the town, was a company named “HANDFORD GREATRIX”, opposite the T.A. Drill Hall. An old established company from the turn of the century. My dad & several other of our family members worked there throughout the late 40’s & 50’s. Dad & one of my uncles, actually operated a “fleshing” machine, along with other jobs within the works. A heavy & smelly old job, but was part of the process to produce leather. I remember the little old truck & trailer being loaded of fleshings ready to be transported up to the Walsall Glue factory. The tannery stood derelict for a number of years throughout the 70’s before being transformed into the now, Morrisons supermarket.

      • David Oakley says:

        Hi Bob and Brian,
        I worked at Greatrex’s myself from 1947-1952 and well remember all your family members. Harry, Jim and Harold Webster, together with Brian Ireson, and his uncle Norman. Being a friend of Harold, I visited your great-grandma’s house in Green Lane, long since demolished, on a number of occasions. I was paid 10d an hour,
        (just over 4p) and we worked a 48 hour week.
        Sincere best wishes to you and all the Webster family.
        The Managing Director at the time was Col Cartwright, DSO. MC. who was Commanding Officer of 32nd Aldridge Battalion of the Home Guard, recently featured on the blog.

        • BRIAN WEBSTER. says:

          My dad was Jack & as I mentioned previously he worked on the “fleshing” machine with my cousin, guess who ? Brian Ireson & Derek Webster ! You’d remember Howard D’ville who used to drive the 3 wheeler “Scammell Scarab” & trailer. He lived on the property in the gate house, & also Jimmy Lee who was on the fitting staff. I do remember the name Col Cartwright as well !
          Grans house was in Green Lane, as you say, where the police H.Q. now stands. Opposite her house was the “hot spud & ice cream family of Di-seecio’s”.
          Small world eh ?
          Brian’s not so good, I’m sorry to say.
          Nice to see your comments on the local history trail.

          Regards. Brian.

  5. David Oakley says:

    Thanks, Bob. Surprisingly little industrial development had taken place in Green Lane, mid 20th century, perhaps the scars, usage and depletion of an earlier age had taken its toll. After leaving Barton Conduits in Old Birchills and Bates’s in Hospital street, and proceeding north up Green Lane, there was nothing until you reached the little cluster of industry at the top end. South Staffs Water Head Office, was a major development in the vicinity for quite a number of years.
    An amusing little tailpiece. I was working in the old head office in Sheepcote Street at the time, a cramped little place just off Broad Street, when the move to Green Lane was mooted. Provoking quite a lot of discussion and anxiety at the time. At one meeting, The Engineer-in Chief, the late
    Mr. J. Lamont was asked about the new location and traffic volume in Green Lane. His reply was,
    “well, there might be a farm cart, or two, but nothing to worry about”. Perhaps a tad of an understatement, but after fighting Birmingham traffic to get to Sheepcote Street, the comparative calm of Green Lane at that particular time was welcome. Nevertheless, the ‘farm cart or two’ assurance was oft repeated in Green Lane as traffic thickened and “Couldn’t get through the traffic, because of the farm carts” became the humorous response from the latecomer on many meetings and appointments.

    • Heh. I like that. I worked up that way for a short time in the early 90s and remember the HQ then looking modern and stylish. Always wondered about the openspace to the south.

  6. Pingback: Down the tubes | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  7. Pingback: Sterling stuff | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  8. Geoff Beeston says:

    I was pleased to see the photograph of Talbot Stead New Stainless Mill that was built about 1957 and containing the first significant change to the tube making process by using a cold rolling process. One 2.5 inch machine and one 3.5 but still using drawbenches for the finish sizing.
    I was appointed Mill Maintenance Supervisor on finishing my apprenticeship in 1960 and left to take up an Engineering post in Kent in late 1963. The building to the left is I think the Acid neutralising area where there was a terrible tragedy during the August shut down maintenance period of 1958 when three men were overcome by fumes from the adjoining pit they were working on. One was a Carpenter, his assistant who was still an apprentice and a friend of mine, and finally the Works Engineer who was returning from lunch when he came across the commotion and decided he must help before the emergency services arrived. The building behind that with the exhaust fans is a part of the old polishing shop. Further to the left but not in picture was the old blacksmiths shop where I spent many a happy mid morning break toasting my sandwiches on his hearth and being amazed at all his equipment and hand made tongs of every possible shape and size.
    The daughter of the last owner of the Glue Factory, OEnone Benton still lives in Bloxwich and no doubt can add a lot to the story. Skins and bones were also delivered there by canal narrow boat and unloaded onto a concrete wharf at the rear of the factory but fully visible from the footbridge that ran alongside and allowing workers to pass from Talbots and Lamberts to the new Beechdale estate (originally Gypsy Lane Estate) most times holding their noses!
    A further interesting feature of the New Stainless Mill was that during its construction two significant events occurred :-
    First at the corner nearest the camera a winch type drop pile driver was being used when the operator suddenly realised the driver was not stopping as it had broken through into an old mine breather shaft. Many truck loads of rubble and concrete were then needed followed by high pressure concrete injection to stabilise the surrounding ground. Further to this while digging one of the two cold roiling machine foundations the JCB driver came across huge concrete foundations that turned out to be from the old iron works. This was the site of a much earlier tragedy when there was a huge explosion of an iron melting furnace. I believe there was a loss of many lives but do not know the story in detail.
    There are plenty more stories but time for others to detail those

  9. Philip Parker says:

    Fantastic to read all this, my Dad Norman Parker worked at Talbots and we lived on the Beechdale from about 1956/7 and I well remember walking over the Gluepot Bridge to rake hims “snap” when he was on shifts. I recall 2 huge wooden clad vats next to the canal with 2 horses each I think walking round them attached to paddles which must have been stirring the contents. I actually liked the smell of the glue!

  10. There is a plaque on the Sister Dora memorial on the Bridge commemorating a blast furnace explosion of 1875 at “Birchills Iron Works”.
    Would that be the “Birchills Hall Iron Works” you refer to on the maps.
    “The second industrial accident for which she is remembered took place on 15th October, 1875 at Birchills Iron Works.A blast furnace exploded as it was being tapped, when a tuyère burst. The furnace workers were covered with molten metal and red hot ashes.” —- more at details and a newspaper report of the event via

  11. Hi my name is Steve I worked at Sterling tubes the mid eighties till it finishe’d in 2000 although we as maintenence men were kept on till 2001 to strip out machinery, and send it to the chzec Republic the 200 ton drawbench went to India but the rest wenth to the chzec Republic

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