THE OLDBURY RAILWAY CARRIAGE & WAGON COMPANY
The history of this company really commenced at Bromsgrove, a town situated midway between Birmingham and Worcester and was bought into being by Mr Johnson of Bricklehampton Hall nearby and an MP for the City of Worcester.
When the first railways were built the companies laid down the rails, built the bridges and stations, fitted up the signals and leased the lines to contractors who provided their own rolling stock and worked the railway.
This was setting up a precedent which was followed by the Birmingham Corporation who bought the old horse trams, relaid the rails and leased them for twenty-five years to a company who introduced the steam trams.
Mr Johnson was a contractor working one of the new railways and built a works adjoining Bromsgrove Station on the old Midland Railway.
As the works grew in importance and the orders came in he found he was handicapped by being so far away from his coal and iron supplies, Bromsgrove being purely agricultural for many miles around.
About 1859 he formed a public company, bought a part of the Broadwell estate and built the Oldbury Works. The main shop of his old works at Bromsgrove is still standing and is used by the LM&S Railway as an engine shed.
With himself as chairman he appointed two managing directors, the senior being Mr William Stableford of Coalville who was a practical road vehicle builder and Mr Herbert Wheeler, the father of Mr Percy Wheeler, as secretary and accountant.
Later a Mr Goodlad a practical man from the GNR works at Doncaster joined as works manager. He spent nearly all his time in the works and always wore a very shiny top hat.
The Broadwell site was ideally situated as it adjoined the L&NWR had a pit shaft drawing coal within five yards of the shops, had at least thirty iron rolling mills within a two mile radius and a canal connection with Liverpol and London which could be used for shipments abroad.
For many years the carriage building shop, which ran nearly the length of the works was the largest in the trade the walls and roof being in existence today. The shop was such a length the insurance companies insisted on a brick division wall with double iron doors being built in the centre.
The saw mill of brick was extensive and well planned with vertical and circular saws, a low rack lagging frame for sawing heavy baulks and trees, and machines for planning, grooving, tenoning and boring.
As it was before the steel age practically all the carriages and wagons with their underframes were of timber and this department formed the major part of the works. At times of pressure an old saw pit was bought into requisition with a man in the pit and another standing on the log who guided the saw. A man who was extra good in any department was often referred to as a “top Sawyer”.
The paint shop, also the wagon and upholstery shops were of wood all gabled and as the boundary on this side of the works followed a very erratic brook course it meant a series of small shops leading from one to another and being a sort of jungle was called California.
When the writer got a situation in the drawing office in February 1871, Mr Thorn was the chief. He had had a long experience with an eminent firm of engineers and was much envied owing to his salary being two guineas a week, and he wore a top hat. There was a second and also a third draughtsman while I was a junior, who rubbed up the Indian Ink.
At this period England was enjoying the greatest boom in trade she had ever known. The Franco-Prussian War was then at its greatest intensity and our rolling mills were supplying most of the world with its famous Staffordshire iron.
It has been stated that in an area between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and Walsall and Stourbridge, there were 500 rolling mills working and supplying more than a third of output of iron in England. Oldbury a very small place in those days had three mills adjoining and two of them are working today turning out rolled steel. Within a hundred yards of the market place there was a large blast furnace by which newspapers could be read at night when it was “blowing”.
In those days when iron was sold by the ton, steel could only be bought by the pound, as it was made by hand crucibles. That was before Bessemer had put his steel converter on the market.
The working hours were long, six in the morning till six in the evening, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Afternoon tea was unheard of and anyone caught in the act would have been sacked.
The men had not much time for recreation. They had their bull terriers, whippets, pigeons and occasional sparrow shooting and they did enjoy their beer. There was a lot of drinking over the week ends and fights outside public houses, and black eyes and swollen faces were common on Monday mornings. There being no large breweries every publican brewed his own beer. There was an epidemic of sickness which puzzled the doctors as it was chiefly confined to men. An enquiry revealed it was caused by freshly made beer, the publicans not being able to brew it fast enough.
When one looks back to this period it is amazing to recall the many types of carriage and wagons which were built for various parts of the world.
New Zealand and Japan were laying down their railways and the works were building at least three types each of carriage and wagons for both countries and also carriages for the Athens and Piraeus Railway.
Although there was not a single bogie carriage in service in England, long sleeping carriages of teak with iron underframe and bogies were being built for the broad gauge East Indian Railway.
Carriages were also under construction for the Midland, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways and also the Metropolitan Railway.
A year or two previously an elaborate state coach had been despatched for the Emperor of Brazil. The chief feature of the vehicle were two large gold Royal Crowns fixed to the outside of the roof.
Besides covered grain wagons for Russia there were wood tipping wagons for Huelva in Spain and iron hopper wagons for Silvertown, which later was known as the Gas Light and Coke Co. there were also wagons for the English Collieries, Denaby Main, Newton chambers and others.
At that period all wagons were of wood with dead buffers and of five, six or eight tons capacity. All carriages were four or six wheelers and had oil lamps one being let into the partition of the third class to serve two compartments. At the book stalls there was on sale brackets for fixing on the window ledges for holding candles and also walking sticks with screw tops and fitted with springs for the same purpose. None of the third class had any upholstery and most were open from end to end.
Mr Clayton of Derby caused a sensation when he put a nine inch hair stuffed pad along the third class seats, and when other railways followed suit he added a similar pad on the partition for the shoulders. He was also the first to use mahogany finish on the inside and linoleum on the floors.
Blue cloth was universally used in the first class, the L & NW Railway being the first to break away and employ s flowery moquette which can be seen sometimes today.
Power brakes were unknown retardation relying on hand screw brakes on the locos and brake vans.
Oldbury Works probably never had or will have so many men to the square yard as in those days as it was nearly all hand labour. Though the works was small, eight hundred hands were employed. There were seventy smiths’ hearths, one twenty, one ten and one five cwt steam hammers, and wheels were pressed on their axles by hand hydraulic operated by two men.
The monthly meeting of Directors was a real event when the Chairman arrived from Bricklehampton Hall in an elegant carriage drawn by two spanking bays with a liveried coachman and footman on the box.
Mr Johnson was a cripple and used a pair of crutches. He was always followed from the carriage to the office by the footman carefully carrying a small highly polished mahogany box or casket.
We were greatly intrigued as to its contents and had visions of jewellery or regalia. One day our curiosity was rewarded when the Chairman was carried into the shops to inspect a special carriage, and the casket was left unguarded. We were egged on to have a peep at its contents and found it elaborately padded and lined with blue velvet on which lay a porcelain vessel used for neither culinary or ornamental purposes.
There was a varied cold collation in which we sometimes came in for a share when the meeting was over.
There was only one type of drink and that was sherry, a cask of which was kept in a strong room adjoining, the aroma of which was kept going from meeting to meeting by Mr Herbert Wheeler who had two dock glasses daily with his lunch.
Whisky was looked upon as common and later one of the managers ordered a few bottles. When the account came before Mr Wheeler he refused to certify it and the manager had to pay for it out of his own pocket.
At this time there was a very small works at Smethwick called the Birmingham Wagon Co, which, when it started to build carriages a few years later, became the Birmingham Carriage Co, and became our keenest competitor.
Like all booms, this was followed by a slump. The Franco-Prussian War was over and orders fell off to such an extent that one year there was an adverse balance of over £10,000 on a capital of £138,000 and there was a crisis. When the £5 shares changed hands on the Birmingham Stock Exchange at seventeen shillings and six pence, the Directors paid out from the reserves fifteen shillings per share and reduced their value to £4 per share.
There had been some irregularities in the works and a three days enquiry was held in the Board Room attended by lawyers from Birmingham, when officials and workmen were closely questioned.
It resulted in Mr Stableford, his brother, nephew and confidential clerk, Mr Whyman being asked to resign. The nephew and some of the best workmen migrated to Coalville and joined another brother of Mr Stableford who owned a small wagon building and repair works. This firm afterwards built a new works and specialised in steel wagons and was able to compete successfully with its competitors.
The greater part of the capital was owned by the Stableford family and any shares owned by officials could only be sold back to the family.
Up to this time, 1886, the Company was known as The Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Co Ltd.
Shortly before this upheaval Mr Thorn the Chief died and also the third man Allen, while Proudlock the second who spoke French and German was away on business on the Continent. Although I was only eighteen, Mr Stableford made me chief draughtsman with a salary of thirty-five shillings per week.
Blue prints were unknown in those days and cloth tracings of all the general arrangements and also the details were sent into the works. The first tracing I made was a detail for the Metropolitan Coach and the second a patent bridle which Mr Stableford (or someone else) had invented and was used on the Norwegian type of hook buffer which was fitted to the New Zealand stock. This bought him a royalty of ten shillings on the carriages and five shillings on the wagons. On my visit to New Zealand it was the first thing I looked for and there it was just as I had traced it fifty-three years previously.
After such a clear out there were many changes. Mr Goodlad was offered the management but he retired and Mr Stanton the Head Clerk took it over, but with so many restrictions he retired after a few years and set up as an agent in London.
Then Mr Proudlock took up the reins but after a time he lost his head and had to go.
Mr Herbert Wheeler called me in and told me we should have to go on as best we could for the time being.
Mr David Archer then appeared on the scene. He had been associated with Brown & Marshalls of Brittania Works for many years and was looked upon as the father of the carriage trade.
He was a fine type of Scotchman beloved by everyone but too conscientious to please his directors and had resigned a year or two previously.
Mr Percy Wheeler had been bought in by his father as his assistant but he took more interest in watching the men at work than looking after the clerical side. Mr Archer took him under his wing and no doubt helped him in many ways.
One day we had a visit from Sir George Berkley the Consulting Engineer for the New Indian & Midland Railway. He was a great friend of Mr Archers and that visit was the turning pointing the fortunes of the Company. He saw all our empty shops and was so impressed by the desolation he saw in the neighbourhood he said he would see what he could do.
The result was an order for seven hundred and fifty all steel covered wagons.
When we had completed fifty wagons he paid us another visit and said the Indian Government wanted to use the wagons for war purposes and the remaining seven hundred would have to be arranged for carrying horses and fitted with movable breast bars and hinged shutters at the sides etc.
This meant a big addition to the price and we all know we don’t provide extras at a loss. Sir George waited an hour while I got out the cost and being pleased with the figure told us to get on with the job.
It was astonishing what a difference it made in the outlook for everyone, previously all had been gloom and depression, for we had all been told to look out for new situations and take them if any were available. I had seen Mr Clayton at the Derby Works and he had promised me a job in case that event took place.
This was at the beginning of the nineties and up to that time all the iron or steel work had been marked off from wood templates and pegs with whiting. This big order gave us the opportunity of using steel bushed templates and jigs for the first time. It also enabled us to put down our first five cwt drop stamps and install new milling, planning and drilling machines besides building a new frame shop.
Mt Archer and Mr Percy Wheeler had an uphill fight for the company had lost prestige during the Stableford regime when an order for carriages had been executed for the Crown Agents.
The carriages were for South Africa of varnished teak with specified copper panel pins for the outside mouldings and panels.
After delivery a carriage met with an accident which stripped off the mouldings revealing that all the panels had been secured with iron pins instead of copper. The saving of a few shillings per coach resulted in our being struck off the list for twenty years to the benefit of the Metropolitan Company at Saltley and other competitors who made the most of our delinquency.
It was only after Mr Wheeler got into power and was able to meet Sir George Lyles of Gregory Lyles & Waring that our name was re-instated and after that date we invariably had the pick of the orders.
After a few years Mr Archer retired and became the Chief Inspector for the Crown Agents and held that position until he died.
We had a director named Kershaw who among his many directorates had a seat on the Board of Sharp Stewart the locomotive builders and he introduced from their works an elderly man named Davies as our Manager. He knew nothing about our business and as we were all young and had been on the works from boyhood he only lasted twelve months.
This was Mr Percy Wheeler’s opportunity and he was appointed General Manager. He had a personality which endeared him to everyone and none more so than the Chiefs of the Railways and Consulting Engineers.
From that day the works grew and the orders rolled in.
In the long history of the Company there have been moments which have been both tragic and comic.
Within one week four fatal accidents occurred, first, a man fell from a ladder and broke his neck, second, a youth was crushed between the buffers of two wagons, third, the horse driver was found drowned in the canal with the horse standing near. This horse was a savage brute and always wore a muzzle. The irony was, the driver always laughed when the horse attempted to bite anyone, and he had evidently caused the driver to fall into the water and he could not swim.
Another incident was when the Directors decided that the introduction of some “new blood” was necessary and a man named Renney from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Works was engaged as assistant to the foreman carriage builder.
We received and order from the Londonderry & Lough Swilley Railway for two third class coaches with luggage compartments. Renney’s first job on his own was to “set out” the staffs for the body work.
There were no overhead cranes in those days and the mounting of the bodies on their underframes was done on Sunday mornings when all was quiet and the shops clear of men.
One Sunday morning I was fetched from my breakfast by the leader of the gang to go to the works because “Summat was wrong with them Irish coaches”.
What’s the matter Jim? The answer was that either the coaches were too short or the underframe too long.
It did not take me long to rush into the Drawing Office and find I had allowed the usual three quarters of an inch overlap of the frame, on the drawings.
The picture of half a dozen men staring at a steel underframe projecting twelve inches past the body is vivid in my mind today.
“Well Jim, there is only one thing to do and that is cut off a foot from both underframes”. In less than an hour men had been bought in, fitters, drillers and riveters, and with diamond pointed chisels, started to cut through eight – eight inches by three, steel channels, and at six o’clock on Monday morning the two coaches stood there mounted on their underframes and bogies.
It appears Renney in marking off his staff had measured for an eight feet luggage compartment instead of a nine feet and had not had the gumption to check his overall length.
Shortly afterwards he caused fifty teak standing pillars to be cut four inches too short, and losing his self-respect cleared off and that was the last we heard of “new blood”.
After the coaches were delivered we received a good report from the Railway Company which did not mention the fact that one bogie was a foot nearer the headstock than the other.
Mr Kershaw, however, made good use of his position as a Director by backing up Mr Wheeler’s demand for more plant and machinery. Heavy drop stamps were laid down, new hydraulic machines installed, multiple drills added, and a new frame erection shop built.
Orders rolled in to such an extent that overtime became general, while Sunday morning conferences for the programme of the following week’s deliveries, became a necessity.
We were all young and enthusiastic for not one member of the staff was over 32 and all were ably backed by the manager. If a difficulty arose and we asked his opinion he gave it for what it was worth and there were no recriminations if the results were not as good as we expected.
He had the happy knack of gaining everyone’s confidence in spite of his language, which was lurid and forceful, but there was no malice behind it. One day he told me to “get off the bloody ground”, and the next to help a young foreman who was somewhat erratic.
In the early nineties it was decided to scrap the steam engines and install an electric generating plant. An Engineer from Glasgow was engaged as Consultant and to draw up plans. A piece of adjoining land was bought and a power house erected on the site of the old pit shaft. When it got going it gave a wonderful philip to our deliveries, cheapened our costs of production and put us far ahead of all our competitors.
With extra steam hammers and a new battery of drop stamps and powerful milling and shaping machines, we were able to undercut everyone in our tenders, and what was equally important, our profits rose in proportion.
I imagine that in 1902, the year we joined in the amalgamation, Oldbury touched the highest peak of its prosperity. Its capital was only £120,000 and it had a yearly turnover of half a million and steadily paid 10% dividends besides building up big reserves.
The overhead expenses were very low as the entire staff over sixteen years of age numbered only twenty-six, which included Mr Wheeler, Works Manager, Foreman, and assistants, Secretary, Clerks, Draughtsmen, estimating clerk, in fact everyone who did not draw a slate or check and whose wages were fixed.
Mr Wheeler lived at the house at the top of the works for about twenty years and would have been content to live there for another twenty but the business of the new company called him to the London Office.
The combine included Metropolitan (Saltley Works), Brown Marshalls (Brittania Works), Ashbury's, and Lancaster, and Oldbury was the only works with an electric installation.
When we had opportunities of going over the other works we were astounded at the poor shops and antiquated methods, for Oldbury had overhead travelling cranes in all the principal shops, while our competitors had scarcely any and such as there were hand driven. Brittania Works derived all its power from a very old beam engine of which they were very proud.
It was the smallest of the works but what it lacked in plant and machinery it made up for in energy. Mr Arthur Shackleford was the Managing Director, and Mr Gibbins the Works Manager, and both being live wires it had a good record for the amount of work it turned out.
Eventually it closed down when the new shops were built at Saltley, and Lancaster Works followed suit shortly afterwards. The latter was well built but was very long and narrow which necessitated three separate steam plants, and the roof being low precluded the use of overhead cranes.
Ashbury’s had never been a real success and at the time of the amalgamation, its prestige was low and it was doomed from the first.
The Metropolitan at Saltley was at its best about 1890. Mr John Rawlins had been its Managing Director for many years. He learned his business from Mr Stableford and was once a draughtsman at Oldbury, but after his death it declined and was at its lowest ebb in 1902.
Though it was the largest of the works, apart from a fine carriage shop, everything else was antiquated. It had no Drawing Office worth speaking of, and “marking off” was general throughout the shops.
Its extensive site was most valuable however, and lent itself to a new layout. An electric generating plant was laid down, Offices built, a new Smithy with heavy steam hammers, and a battery of stamps arranged together with a large wagon shop, underframe erecting and machine shop, also a finishing and a trimming shop replaced others which were quite out of date.
The value of Oldbury in the combine may be measured by the fact that seven and a half, one pound shares were allocated for one four pound share of the Oldbury Co.
The great success of this undertaking was undoubtedly due to its young and energetic Managing Director, backed up by a staff who, having started in their teens were adept in their respective departments.
The low overhead costs were due to a strict training in economy and low salaries, for the best paid was the Works Manager and he received six pounds weekly. Mr Wheeler was very proud of his staff, and would, I know, like a record to be kept of the half dozen who helped him to build up the high reputation of the Company.
First there was Mr J E Wyles the Works Manager, with E E Squires, Foreman Fitter and Works Engineer, J Day, Foreman Blacksmith, J A Hill, Chief Clerk and Buyer, J Baker Secretary and Accountant (who achieved his position when he was under twenty), and the writer who was Chief Draughtsman.
In its time Oldbury had built a great variety of stock from a state train for an Indian Rajah to small bodies for seaside lifts. The former was fitted with open grates for coal fires and gunmetal grids in the floors, covering ice boxes for coaling purposes.
In 1898 we designed and built the first forty ton all steel bogie wagons for the Cape Government Railway.
Its reputation for good sound work was such that after the combine Liveseys repeatedly recommended that orders be placed with the Amalgamation on condition that they should be executed at Oldbury Works.
Mr Wheeler was all in favour of the amalgamation but his father was dead against it and resigned his seat on the Board after he had attended a few of the meetings.
In after years Mr Wheeler was sorry he had not followed his father’s advice, for he said that as a Company, Oldbury was unique and outstanding, but when merged in the combine, it lost its identity.
A E Morgan
Alfred Evan Morgan
Born: 24th June 1857
Joined staff 22nd February 1870
£100 in recognition of 60 years of service 13th February 1931
Died: 15th April 1940
Technical Representative at least since 1928
Based in London Office
Address: Wallington, Surrey
The letter from his son to a friend in 1954 provides another glimpse into Mr Morgan’s life and provides a picture of him participating in what was obviously a favourite pastime.