A HISTORY OF WARRINGTON IN 10 1/2 OBJECTS: WIRE NEST
Hello and welcome to Episode 9 of a History of Warrington in 10.5 Objects. My name is Craig Sherwood and I’m the Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
The history of a city, a town or even a village can turn on quite a small thing. For instance the town where I grew up is famous for blankets. That’s not a particularly sexy or exciting industry, but even under the new world order exerted by the duvet we’ve probably all at one time or another at least hugged or more probably slept under a blanket. Familiarity may breed contempt but that’s all very well until your knees get cold.
Wire is a bit like that in that everybody uses wire in some form or another but probably doesn’t think about it very often. I’m writing the script for this episode on a computer which receives its power through an insulated wire, you might well be listening to this podcast through wired earphones. On the way home I might grab fish and chips where the fish was caught using wire trawling nets or I’ll go to the supermarket and fill my wire basket with tins of soup that not so long ago ran along a wire conveyor belt in the cannery. Wire is everywhere.
Warrington was once known around the world for wire and even today the hints of the wire industry are everywhere to see from the nickname of the town’s Rugby Team – “The Wire” – to the design of its newest multi-storey car park. But these are just hints of an industry which was once essential to the town’s economy. To find out why we’re going to start with one of my favourite objects in the museum – it’s a bird’s nest but not one made of twigs. Unusually this is a nest made from small fragments of wire.
Object Number 9, pigeon’s nest made of wire, collected in the 1960s from Rylands Wireworks, Warrington.
The bird’s nest is sat in front of me now, it‘s a tangle of rusty wire fragments that roughly resembles a birds nest but just as easily could be a rusty wire toupee for someone with no fear of tetanus. There are wood shavings here and there amongst the wire but this is very much a nest built by a bird confident desperate, or stupid enough to sit on a pile of sharp wire fragments to lay its eggs.
Most people who recall Warrington’s wire industry will think of the huge coils of steel wire which were once manufactured in the town and were then exported to the world but that isn’t the beginning of Warrington’s wire story – that starts in the 18th century with brass and with pins.
The first wire works we know of in Warrington was in 1775 and almost certainly brass wire made for a single purpose, namely turning it into pins. You might not think of a pins as related to wire but that’s actually all a pin is, a piece of wire that’s sharpened at one end with a head at the other. Pins were an essential item in the 18th century household – they were used to make, sew and mend clothes; to fasten items of clothing and even to fasten notes or documents together because the paperclip wouldn’t be invented up for another century.
To make brass pins you obviously needed brass which is an alloy of copper and zinc. Warrington already possessed a copper industry so it was well placed to become a centre for pin manufacturing. A great deal of this work was carried out by children who were the only ones with nimble enough fingers and sharp enough eyesight to work long hours with dangerous machinery making small delicate objects. The last stage of the process, putting the pins in papers for sale to the public was even reserved exclusively for young girls because boys were thought to be dirty creatures who would only get their filthy fingerprints all over the papers.
Then, at the end of the 18th century someone arrived in Warrington who would change its industrial history forever. That man’s name was Nathaniel Greening, one of the premier wire makers in England, and he’d been summoned to Warrington by copper smelter called Ainsworth with the promise of a lucrative partnership. Greening had been working at a wire works at Tintern in Monmouthshire where they made iron wire, primarily for use on carding combs to make wool. Unfortunately when he arrived in Warrington he found out that Ainsworth’s finances had collapsed and so Nathaniel set himself up in a workshop in Warrington on his own.
Another important figure enters the story in 1805, and that was the industrialist John Rylands. This was not the same John Rylands’ Library who founded the library in Manchester but he was a distant relative who’d made his fortune in the sailcloth weaving industry. It is said that half of the Royal Navy’s sails during the American War of Independence and most of the sails at the battle of Trafalgar were made by Rylands makers in Warrington but by the start of the 19th century sailcloth making was in decline and John was looking for a new venture. He decided on wire and so offered Nathaniel the capital to back his wire making business. Nathaniel Greening supplied the expertise, John Rylands supplied the capital and the partners soon moved their growing business to a converted cotton mill in Church Street. There their attention soon turned to manufacturing iron wire whether in individual strands that could be woven into wire ropes, or in the form of woven wire cloth or mesh on the newly developed wire looms that were adapted from the textile looms elsewhere in Lancashire.
But tensions between the partners soon started to appear. The company, originally known as Nathaniel Greening & Company was briefly renamed Rylands and Greening and then, as John Rylands grew older his sons started to argue that Nathaniel Greening wasn’t making the most of their father’s investment. Greening and his sons were more interested in weaving wire and all the possibilities inherent in woven wire cloth while the Rylands Brothers were more interested in the manufacture of wire itself. A split was inevitable and upon the death of John Rylands his sons decided to form a new company called Rylands Brothers while Greening’s sons established the rival Nathaniel Greening and Sons.
The two companies were to remain rivals for the next 140 years and each gave rise to new companies in their turn. A former apprentice at Rylands called Frederick Monks left to form Monks of Whitecross – you may remember the name as it was he who donated the town’s golden gates and the statue of Oliver Cromwell we discussed in a previous podcast. Rylands and Whitecross remained the two most prominent names associated with the manufacture of wire while Greenings concentrated on weaving wire. A descendant of the man who had created the fire wire loom, a man named Thomas Locker, set up his own business not long after and by the end of the 19th century the four most famous Warrington wire companies – Rylands, Greenings, Whitecross and Lockers were in place. By the end of the 19th century there were around a dozen wire companies in and around Warrington and following the invention of the Bessemer process for making steel they all moved their attention from iron to steel wire. The borough of Warrington thus acquired a national, which is not to say international reputation for anything to do with wire.
So what was it like to work in the Warrington wire industry in the 19th and early twentieth centuries?
Well to begin as is so often the case with industrial history there was a rigidly enforced class structure. At the top of the tree were the owners and directors of the wireworks who largely lived in large mansions like Fairlight in Grappenhall for the Linnaeus Greening and Highfields in Thelwall for Thomas Glazebrook Rylands. There they were free to pursue their own interests, only occasionally venturing into the actual wire works. Linnaeus Greening was an avid naturalist who even has an obscure species of venomous Brazilian frog named after him, Thomas Glazebrook Rylands on the other hand studied subjects as diverse as plankton and astronomy. They may not have spent much time in their factories but many of these works owners had interest in the local banks and businesses and they frequently went into local politics and became councillors or even mayors of the town.
Underneath these owners and directors were the managers, often educated and wealthy. After the First World War Rylands, in particular, had a habit of employing ex-servicemen and so several of their managers were former military officers.
Next in the order were the wire drawers, sometimes called wire pullers. They were the men who pulled iron rods through dies to make wire and it was they who gave their name to the local rugby team who became known as the wire pullers, later shortened to “the wire”.
A skilled wire drawer was a craftsman and upon finishing work could swap his work clothes for a frock coat and a bowler hat. The wire drawers had their own areas in local pubs known as guinea rooms, so-called because they were reserved for the wire drawers who could afford the guinea entrance fee. The wire drawers had their own Union from around 1840 which went through several names and exerted great control over the wire industry, only allowing unskilled labourers to join from 1916 onwards. These general wire labourers were considered the lowest rung on the wire industry ladder and performed various menial tasks around the wireworks such as wheeling trolleys full of wire around the shop floor. While the wire drawers were jealously guarded because of the skills they possessed finding work as a wireworks labourer was relatively easy and they often transferred between the firms.
I’ve described the wire drawers and labourers in masculine terms but unusually for the manufacturing industry there were a higher than usual number of female workers involved in the various wire works in town during the 19th century, predominantly those that focused on weaving wire as the work was similar to that found in the textile industry which also employed women in its factories.
Wireworks were, however, dangerous places. Workers frequently lost eyes, legs, arms and ears. For example women working on making wire into mattress springs found that the wire could break and the split end could hit them in the eye, blinding them in the process. If this happened the worker was instantly classed as possessing a disability from the precise time it happened, as with only one eye their employers could afford to pay them only half pay. Compensation was unheard of.
The galvanising plants were particularly unpleasant – to make the wire waterproof it was dipped into huge tanks of chemicals. Workers got blackened teeth from holding wire in their mouths, holes in their clothing from chemical splashes and sometimes even acid burns to their skin. Even the vapours from the tank were so toxic you had to cover your mouth to walk through the factory. Suffice to say that the Health and Safety Act of 1974 led to a radical overhaul of working practices in the wireworks of Warrington.
Even given the occasionally dangerous working conditions most wire workers saw the wireworks as their own lives. It was possible to work in the wire industry from childhood to old age and during the twentieth century the various wire companies all developed their own sports teams, clubs and so on. Rylands Brothers even had its own theatre company. The two largest wire manufacturers – Rylands and Whitecross – had their own publications called Livewire and the Standard respectively. These magazines featured various wire industry events such as births, marriages, retirements and deaths. One issue even depicts a couple being married beneath a decorative arch of wire – a neat symbol of how wire had come to permeate every part of people’s lives and homes.
Which brings us back to the wire pigeon’s nest. It’s worth mentioning that there was a lot of pollution from the wire works in the first half of the twentieth century along with the many other Warrington factories. Warrington’s wireworks were frequently fined for discharging black smoke into the local atmosphere and this pollution contributed to the death of many of the local trees. The wire industry wasn’t alone in causing pollution in the Warrington area which was described in 1887 as having been “watered with the dews of hell”. The author, the public analyst, J. Carter Bell went on to say “we have trees stretching their gaunt and withered arms, and pointing to the authors of this scene of destruction, who have made the treeless pastures with the Stygian streams meandering through, upon whose banks are unctuous slime and stony weariness, a very picture of desolation. And the cause of all this weary waste is due to certain noxious vapours, which carry death in their hideous folds, and as they kiss, consume. These are belched forth from chimneys far and wide, till the landscape is one veritable Gehenna.”
Warrington’s industries took measures to reduce their pollution throughout the twentieth century, for instance Rylands stopped using solid fuels to power processing work and demolished their factory chimneys in 1953 but even by 1964 the pigeons nesting in Rylands roof spaces were building their nests out of the wire ends available from the wireworks scrap heaps rather than relying on the meagre supply of twigs from nearby trees. For the birds, like the local people, wire permeated every part of their lives.
So what happened to Warrington’s wire industry? As the wire nests were being removed from Rylands roof spaces in 1964 the beginning of the end of wire manufacture was already on the horizon. In an effort to protect the struggling British steel industry the government nationalised it as the British Steel Corporation in 1967. The corporation decided to concentrate wire manufacture in Sheffield leading to cutbacks in Warrington which was already struggling with the usual range of problems facing British Industry at the time outdated equipment and technology, factories that were often operating below full capacity, higher fuel costs and increasing completion on the world market. Many of the Warrington wire companies were slowly taken over by firms from Sheffield and Halifax and as these firms all came under pressure to cut their workforces and reorganise during the changing economic conditions of the 1980s the Warrington wireworks found themselves at the periphery of the industry and thus first in the firing line. Although it outlasted its great rival Greenings by almost two decades the largest of the major wire manufacturers, Rylands Brothers, which had by then merged with another rival Whitecross, was the last to go. For the last 5 years of its history it was owned by the Yorkshire firm of Carrington but in 2005 the last of its wire works closed forever to be demolished in order to make way for houses. The fact that the resulting estate was named Carrington after the company that had run the wireworks for 5 years rather than Rylands who had run the factories for almost two centuries is still a cause of some local resentment.
But this was only the end of part of Warrington’s wire history. Those companies that focussed on weaving wire rather than making wire were better able to adapt to the financial conditions of the late Twentieth and early Twenty First centuries and still survive today. With the exception of Lockers they may have moved out of the town centre and they may no longer be weaving wire made in the town but they continue to innovate in their fields such as 3D modelling and knitting wire. Even the local Rugby Team have, under pressure from the fans, restored their nickname of ‘The Wire’. Warrington’s wire story isn’t quite over yet.
There’s one last note to this narrative and it refers to the pigeons nest. When the last Rylands wireworks was demolished in 2005 the workmen searched for more wire birds nest such as the ones in the local museum. This time, however, they found quite normal nests of twigs – although heavy industry might have gone into decline in the town centre, nature was, in some small ways, making a comeback.