N. Greening and Sons

Dates: 1799 to 1989

Location: Britannia Works, Bewsey Road, Warrington

Specialism: wire weaving, perforated metal, screens, conveyor belts, wire brushes, sieves etc.

N. Greening and Sons (also commonly known as Greenings) was the longest-established wire company in Warrington – a source of much competition with Rylands Brothers.

A 1948 advert for N. Greening and Sons

The founder, Nathaniel Greening was brought to Warrington from Tintern Abbey Wire Mills in Monmouthshire by Captain Ainsworth in 1799. Ainsworth was a copper smelter who produced clock parts, but wanted to move into the wire-drawing business. Greening as an experienced wire drawer would supervise the building of a wire works and manage the business.

Greening had had a lifelong association with wire. One of his ancestors was said to be making needles in St Omer, France during the 15th century but by the 17th century the family had become established at the Tintern Abbey wireworks where Nathaniel worked after completing his apprenticeship at Fromebridge Mill. The wire works at Tintern was one of the longest-established and most important centres of wire production in England, originally producing iron wire for carding combs for the wool industry.

Unfortunately Nathaniel’s backer Ainsworth quickly ran out of money and so Greening continued by himself in a wire works near the Red Lion in Bridge Street. Greening was looking for a new sponsor and found one in sail maker John Rylands who provided the capital to expand his business – N. Greening and Company was founded in 1805.

Initially based in a foundry, the wire drawing part of their business later moved to a former cotton mill in Church Street while their developing wire weaving business moved to Cloth Hall Yard in Buttermarket Street. It was around this time that the original Lancashire wire weaving hand loom was invented, probably by James Locker who seems to have been an employee – although Nathaniel Greening himself also claimed the honour, Whatever the truth of the matter, by 1812 Nathaniel had attracted quite a reputation as a natural historian in Warrington, holding talks in his house and even establishing a small private museum.

Unfortunately the tensions between the Rylands and Greenings family increased as time went on, perhaps evidenced by a change of name of the company to Rylands and Greening in 1838. During the 1840s the Rylands-Greening partnership was finally dissolved for reasons that remain unclear, although John Rylands’ sons later claimed that they felt Greening wasn’t making the most out of their father’s investment. The Rylands family stayed on at the Church Street works where they concentrated on wire drawing while Greening set up his own business – N. Greening and Sons – in Mottram’s Yard, Crown Street.

Nathaniel Greening retired in 1851, leaving his 3 sons – Timothy, Noah and John – in charge although Timothy soon left to start his own wire company and then emigrated to Canada. Noah and John Greening ran the company jointly until 1878 when they both retired, leaving Noah’s son Linnaeus Greening and John’s son Nathaniel Greening in charge of the firm.

Compared to Rylands Brothers, Greenings expanded more slowly at first but underwent rapid expansion towards the end of the 20th century.  In 1894 Greening’s opened a new wire works at Scotland Road, and built what later became known as the Britannia Works in 1899 using bricks made from clay that had been extracted by the company itself. All staff were concentrated in these new works by 1906 in order to take advantage of the railway and Greening’s private network of steam locomotives soon became a familiar sight for those passengers arriving at or leaving Warrington Central Station by train.

At the beginning of the 20th century Greenings was probably the largest wire weavers in Britain – by 1923 they had a second works in Hayes, Middlesex and a head office in London. They also started taking over other local companies such as Sankey Green Wire Weaving Company in Thelwall and British Wedge Wire, turning them into subsidiaries. One section of the company concentrating on making a variety of wire screens and wire cloths while another department made perforated steel plates. Although Greeening’s speciality was wire weaving rather than drawing they did have a small wire drawing department who were able to draw wire to thicknesses as small as 1/100 of an inch.

Aerial view of Greening’s ‘Britannia’ wire works, Bewsey Road in 1949

The Greening family itself remained very powerful locally. Linnaeus Greening, perhaps inspired by his taxidermist father (who had named him after the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus), became an enthusiastic natural historian who even met Charles Darwin as a child. As an adult Linnaeus collected amphibians and reptiles into adulthood, many of which he donated to the museum on his death. He even has a species of venomous Brazilian frog (Greening’s Frog) named after him!

Like many other Warrington wire companies Greenings began to struggle with the tough economic climate of the latter half of the 20th century and they were eventually taken over by the Sheffield-based steel and engineering firm Johnson and Firth Brown in 1977.

Shortly after the takeover, in 1980 Greenings announced the loss of 75 jobs when they ended production of cold heading wire that was used to produce nuts and bolts for the struggling British car manufacturing industry. In 1982 a further 100 job losses were announced at the company.

An Xmas party for the children of Greenings wireworks in 1951

Greening’s workers enjoy a tea break in 1957

The announcement of a further 89 redundancies in 1983 was the last straw for the workers at Greenings who started a strike which was to last for a total of 23 weeks, almost half of the year. After many tense standoffs between workers and management an agreement was finally reached in September 1983, whereupon the 450 strikers finally returned to work. The strike had cost Greenings over £1 million (the equivalent of £4 million today) while the striking workers had lost an estimated £2,000 each (£8,000 today) in wages.

The Greenings strike of 1983

Plans to wind up the company were announced in 1986 and in 1989 the management bought out the wire weaving department for £1.3 million, before buying out the wire working division 2 months later saving a further 25 jobs. What remained of the company was renamed Wirework and Display Systems Limited, occupying only part of the 22 acre Greenings site.

This short article is part of the Wire Works Project 2020-2021, a National Lottery Heritage funded project aiming to highlight and celebrate the legacy left by the wire industry, which dominated Warrington’s employment structure for over a hundred years.