Whitecross Company

Dates: 1864 to 1973 when it amalgamated with Rylands to become Rylands-Whitecross

Location: Milner Street and Froghall Lane, Warrington

Specialities: wire rope, iron and steel wire (drawn and rolled), patent steel wire, barbed wire, nails, wire netting

The Whitecross Company was originally founded as Monks of Whitecross by Frederick Monks, a former apprentice at Rylands Brothers who had been central in founding the Warrington Cooperative Society in 1860. Monks had tried to establish a cooperative enterprise for the wire workers of Warrington, but had met with such resistance that he decided to start a new wire-working venture in the town based upon his social principles.

Persuading a variety of people to put up the necessary capital of £5,000 – including a Belfast tobacco merchant called Robert W. Murray and Latchford tanner Charles Broadbent  – Monks of Whitecross was founded in February 1864. Frederick was to be in charge of manufacturing the wire and Murray in charge of selling the resulting products.

Frederick and his partners had selected a location for their wire works on Milner Street, to the north of Bank Quay Road and between two railway lines near the site of a now vanished ancient cross that gave the company its name. The iron rods for turning into wire were supplied by the Dallam Forge, who had recently lost their best customer, Rylands Brothers, when the latter had set up their own forge in Bewsey Road.

Monks of Whitecross expanded over the next decade, adding a galvanising mill and strand-twisting machine before adding a rolling mill and eventually, in 1869, an iron forge of their own.

Despite his popularity with the workers, Frederick Monks left the company in 1874 after 10 years, unable to reconcile his social and religious beliefs with the demands of a rapidly expanding commercial company.  He then went on to start a new venture with his brother-in-law called Monks Hall and Company, which ironically became one of the England’s leading manufacturers of iron and steel. Through this business, he later heard about a magnificent pair of iron gates made by the famous Coalbrookdale works at Ironbridge which he bought and donated to the town. Today these are known as the golden gates, one of the town’s most famous landmarks.

The company – now led by F.W. Murray and known as the Whitecross Wire and Iron Company – continued to develop, adding a ropery where they began to make wire ropes for export. By 1891 the Whitecross wire works was making 5,000 tons of wire rope every year, much of it for export to places such as Australia, Brazil, Tasmania, New Zealand, Belgium and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). By the end of the century it covered 13 acres of land and employed up to 1,000 workers making not just wire rope, but 1,500 tons of nails and 5,000 miles of wire netting every year.

Like other wire works in town the Whitecross Company came under the control of the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War, having to delay their plans to build a new wire ropery on land they had purchased in Froghall Lane, and instead giving themselves over to the production of barbed wire, baling wire, wire netting and wire ropes for the war effort.

The new ropery in Froghall Lane was eventually completed in 1923, and it was here that the Whitecross Company manufactured what was then the longest wire winding rope in the world. It was 6600 ft long and was used to lift wights of up to 78.4 tons in a Belgian gold mine in the Rand, South Africa.

Ironically the Whitecross Company, which had been Rylands Brothers main competitor for over 100 years, became part of the same corporation when Lancashire Steel (which also owned Rylands at that point) purchased the company in 1932. Whitecross started to modernise their works, building a new wire drawing mill on the west side of the works in 1935 which used continuous drawing technology.

The Whitecross Company continued to have a global reputation for wire rope, manufacturing transatlantic telephone cables in 1956 and 1959 but as with Rylands Brothers it suffered from the nationalisation of the British steel industry in 1967. Along with their former rivals, the Whitecross Company were sold by British Steel and amalgamated into a new company Rylands-Whitecross, jointly owned by Tinsley Wire of Sheffield and British Ropes of London.

By this point the Whitecross side had been largely given over to making high carbon wire for car seats and with the  decline of the British car industry in the 1970s this part of the Rylands-Whitecross company was rationalised with the loss of 1000s of jobs. The remaining 200 workers were released over the next year and the former Whitecross site at Milner Street closed in 1981, leaving only a small works in Priestley Street.

This article was written for 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 170 years, putting the town at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.