Down the tubes

sterling tubes

I worked for a time near here in the early 90s; Sterling was a huge plant, but it always seemed oddly devoid of activity. Image supplied by Andy Dennis.

Further to the Birchills Ironworks discussion, I had this interesting contribution from reader and top friend of the blog, Andy Dennis. I’d certainly be interested in any material relating to Sterling Tubes or any other companies operating in the area discussed here last weekend.

Comment here, or alternatively, mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.

Andy wrote:

Hello Bob

I found a picture of the old Sterling Tubes factory, which is how most people over school age will remember the site where Birchills Hall Iron Works had been. This was 2002, so it was still operational, but its days were numbered. The building dominated that stretch of Green Lane, though it is less imposing from further back. For many years the frontage bore a rather drab and unloved appearance, though in the picture the benefit of recladding in the mid-1990s is still just about discernable. It appears Sterling Tubes now operates in Ahmedabad, India. The TK Maxx warehouse was expected to be the largest single private sector employer in the borough of Walsall with something like 800 permanent and 300 or 400 seasonal jobs. I can’t find any statistics on the web.

While looking for this I found another picture, which shows a mural on the canal side wall of Deeleys Castings, which stood on Leamore Lane, just off the north west corner of your map in “Forged into the mapping”. Also some way off patch in the Foreign of Walsall, but at least it is unusual. I recall revisiting some years later, but the mural was obscured by foliage. The buildings were demolished some years ago.

Best wishes


deeleys castings mural

Wonder who painted this, and if it was an ‘official’ project? Image supplied by Andy Dennis.

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26 Responses to Down the tubes

  1. Ian Shires says:

    I began my working life in the early 1960’s on the site as a Production Apprentice. At that time It was known as Talbot Stead and was part of the vast Tube Investments organisation. Over the years it reinvented itself a number of times changing its name to TI Stainless before becoming Sterling Tubes.

    Back in the 60’s it was said to have upwards of 4,000 employees and I can remember special buses running to and from the site from the back of the Savoy cinema in Walsall.

    On site there was a Bar Mill, Hot Mill and Cold Mill and a tube manipulation department part of which manipulated tubes which went into the nuclear power stations which are now reaching the end of their lives. Nearer to home we produced the tubing which went into the Rugeley B Power Station.

    The site had its own maintenance department and made and maintained much of the tools which were used on this site and other TI plants in Wednesfield and Oldbury.

    As part of the TI Group the site was always at the cutting edge of technology. The old Hot and Cold Mills were demolished and became the Continuous Tube Plant (CTP) which boasted three state of the art Cold Reducing Machines and two 100ft draw benches drawing from coils of intermediate tubes to the finished product using floating plug technology.

    The photo you show was the Stainless Mill which produced tubing for the food and chemical industries as well as for power stations across the world.

    Tube Investments said that they could do virtually anything involving tubes from golf clubs to hypodermic needles. The story was that some Americans visited the Oldbury sites and after touring the plant said “Gee about the only thing you don’t do with tubes is turn them inside out.” so they did because they could!

    Whole families worked on the site over the years. All those skills, all gone and if we ever build anymore nuclear power stations we’ll have to rely on the Chinese and others to provide the miles of tubing each will contain……

    • Peter says:

      Ian…… Great to hear your story, what I could never understand was in the late 80’s I was buying thousands of metres of Carbon Steel Heat exchanger tube maybe 3/4″, 1″, and especially 1 1/2″ o.d for eventual use in the production of heat exchangers. The price from Sterling Tubes was probably 20% higher than those of German producers, yet alone the emerging Far Eastern companies???.
      Hinckley point is probably going to be the first big Nuclear Power re-build in the UK, the design authority is French (Areva) and they are dictating who does what, pound to a penny a French company will be producing the tubes, French companies are already set up to produce parts for the reactor and pipework, products that start off life as a forging or a casting have already been identified and they are all French at this stage.

      How not surprising is that???

      Thanks again for your tale Ian.


    • Hi Ian (and everyone else)

      Thanks for your recollections. Considering our political differences, it’s nice to know you’re reading this and saw fit to make such a fine, personal contribution.

      That’s appreciated, thanks, and what this blog is about.


    • My Great Great Grandfather, Sir William Talbot Founded the Works at Talbot-Stead – thank you so much for posting this information which I have just found, it is so interesting to keep our history alive! Many thanks, Elizabeth Talbot –

  2. Chris Hill says:

    Hi Bob. The original Company on the site was Talbot Stead Tubes from the 1930’s until 1963. It was then T.I. Stainless Tubes Ltd., part of the Tube Investments Group. I did a 5 yr engineering apprenticeship at TIST in Green Lane, and they put me though college and eventually sponsored me as a VSO. Thats what good companies did in those days.

  3. stymaster says:

    Don’t know if there’s truth in it, but an urban myth I heard had an American tube company sending TI the smallest tube in the world, so TI send it back, with a smaller tube inside…

    • peter says:

      Hi. I too heard a similar story many years ago (late 80’s) but the story I heard involved Superior Tubes in the Sates and a Swiss company……… probably many of these stories going around?

      Mind how you go………..

    • Ian Shires says:

      It’s true. There was a display case at the Oldbury site showing not one but two tubes inside each other to prove it..

    • Hi folks.

      The tube-in-a-tube thing is an urban myth.

      It comes in many variants – one says that NASA sends finest gold wire to Birmingham Jewellery Quarter/Swiss Watchmakers, who send it back with holes drilled in it. Like miners who exaggerate tales of massive local subsidence, these stories are matters of pride for workers and locals alike.

      This legend has it’s basis long, long ago.

      I’ve heard it said about many companies across the world, usually against other countries; the target varies. It might be tube, it might be drill bits, anything. The Redditch needle thing is a new one on me.

      That this has been demonstrated, or there are examples on display doesn’t surprise me. I still think there are too many cited examples for them all to be genuine, but it’s a cracking tale and one that would generate pride in a company.

      It’s worth comparing this to another great myth – that water swirls down the plughole in the opposite direction south of the equator. It doesn’t, but people will often cite that Palin demonstrated the phenomena on Around the World in 80 Days. Of course he did. His previous profession was a comic, a wind-up merchant. Tour guides on the equator practice this party trick.

      None of this denigrates TI or the skill of those employed in any way, but does demonstrate the very strong bond large companies had with workers and their communities. When a place gave you a path from cradle to grave you were bloody loyal, and proud of it.

      Many modern companies could learn that lesson.


  4. There is a similar story in the Redditch needle industry, which is backed up at the Needle museum in Redditch. They have the American’s smallest needle with the Redditch one threaded through the eye!

  5. Laurie Thacker says:

    My family also had relatives working at Talbot’s. My great grandfather( Mom’s side) Joseph Dorroicott worked there as roll mill manager in the early days. He had worked at John Russell co Ltd and had lost his arm in an accident when his sleeve became caught in a tube reducer. It was only the quick thinking of the operator, to throw the belt off, that saved him from even worse injury. His sons later joined him at Talbot’s. Joe, who was chief engineer, Herbert who later became installation engineer, nick name Bubble and Wilf who was later sent over to Tipton as Deputy manager.
    My father’s side of the family also had connection’s with the company, My Grandfather Levi worked on the gas producer in the 50’s and his wife Violet worked as Mr Talbot’s cleaner for several years until he died in the late 1940’s. The story about the American’s visit is as stymaster
    recalls, they sent a tube over claiming it to be the smallest ever produced only for Talbot’s to make one to fit inside and send it back. Some of this Tube was given to various staff and we had
    a piece for many years.

  6. Truetyke says:

    I first came to the Midlands in the late 60s as a salesman for a Sheffield Tool Steelmaker ( when there was special steel making in Sheffield ). I recall that we held an account for T.I.Stainless Tube, Green Lane and they were one of my calls. What I do remember overwhelmingly about the company was the buyer whose name was Dennis Hackett. Dennis was ‘Black Country’ and a perfect gentleman but what a character ! He could speak a language that I could not understand and make you laugh in a very dry, local fashion without being coarse. My object was to sell tool steel to T.I. but if I didn’t get either an order or even an enquiry, the visit to see Dennis Hackett was always enjoyed for it’s entertainment value. Months later, I was invited to a stag party at a local rugby club and guess who was the comedian ? To my amazement it was Dennis Hackett ! Yes, this was his hobby and ‘sideline’. His performance was somewhat different to that in the office but he had everyone ‘rolling’ with laughter. In fact, when he finished his spot and the films should have started, no-one would let him leave and he had to do another 10 minutes. I guess he’s now long gone from this world but maybe someone else will remember him ? Another very closeby call I had was ‘ just over the road ‘ at Reedswood Power Station where we sold special steel plates for the extra wear points on all the coal shutes. All now long gone and almost forgotten !

  7. Stuart says:

    A short note at present due to personal circumstances, but I worked at Ti / Sterling / Sandvik Steel from 1981 to 2003. The move to Halesowen I thought was in 2001 all clearing of the steel side being finished by the end of that year. Sterling tubes Sales team moving to Halesowen at the same time. I do have some pictures to scan and upload and some more information to post at a later date. As a footnote my Father worked in the maintenance department from 1968 to 1998ish

  8. Phil says:

    Stuart, where were you employed in the company? I worked with Roger Cope in the toolroom for 7 years until I took early redundancy in 2000. I have only very fond memories of my time there where I served my apprenticeship and was put through college.

    • Stuart says:

      I remember Roger well,I worked from 1981/82 then full time 1983 until they closed the place in 2002/3 when I stayed with the company but moved to Sandvik at Halesowen. 81/82 I worked in maintenance, sandwich course from college.In 1983 I started in the offices, moved down to the labs,but from the time you were there I would have been running the stock yard. I was finally made redundant in 2004/5 when they had another merger with RGB who moved from Smethwick to Halesowen.

      • Phil Jones says:

        You must have been working with Smigga then on the side loaders I reckon. I still see a few blokes about like Julian from the tool room and Ian and Chris Kelly from the Mills.

  9. dean riggott says:

    I worked for sterling tubes tll it closed in chesterfield derbyshire

  10. Philip Parker says:

    Hi guys my Dad Norman Parker worked there whilst I grew up on Beechdale, in the maintenance dept. He was there from at least 1957 as Talbot Steads until towards the end. He was involved a lot in the Stailnless mill before it finished. He was a union shop steward at some point too. After it went down the pan he just walked off site and straight off to a job at Walsall Conduits. Never missed a day in his life as far as I can remember.

  11. I worked at Sterling in the maintenance dept Knew Stuart his dad Roger and many other fine chaps A great part of my life Wonderful times

  12. When I was there The maintenance was Geofe Brooks Geof Kilvert Alec Rudge Dave Smith Ron Smith Andy Ames Allan Kilvert Cyril Smith Trevor Sears and lots more lovely guys A pleasure to work with

  13. Peter Anderson says:

    Hi guys, just looked at my comment and noticed that my email was wrong . To recap like Ian Shires I served my apprenticeship at Talbots in the early sixties , I have a few photos of apprentices whilst on the Talbots camps . If any one is interested my email is. . I’m now retired and live in Geelong ,Australia . Keep smiling . Peter Anderson

  14. Ron says:

    I was based at the TI Computer Unit in Aldridge between 1977 and 1983. Part of my job was to assist Companies within the group by offering advice on improvements to existing computer systems and, where applicable, to develop and install them.

    I worked in the Green Lane offices for 18 months in 1980 and 1981 alongside such stalwarts as Ray Lunn, Horace Davies, twins Reg and Ron Brookes, Bob Lavender, Bob Foster, Peter Wheeler and Dennis Sheard. I recall being asked by management to join them for a Saturday morning meeting (held in a portakabin) in order to explain to various foremen and works officers how the new system would operate on the shop floor. It required completely new work order documentation and computer terminals would be scattered around the place to record work order progress.

    The meeting never got off the ground. A union rep (called George Norman I think) walked in and told the management present that they hadn’t followed the correct protocols when organising the session and that they’d have to try again another time. He was right – some short cuts had been taken and he wasn’t having it.

    The system eventually went in and it was a success. Happy memories and good times working with great people. As soon as I’d finished I was despatched to the Chesterfield site to do a similar thing up there but that’s another story for another time.

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