Until Warrington’s famous rugby team changed their name to the “Warrington Wolves” in 1996 they were popularly known as “The Wire”, a shortened form of “The Wire Pullers” or “The Wire Drawers” – the profession for which Warrington was known around the world.
If you’ve looked into Warrington’s wire heritage then you’ll probably have heard the term “wire drawers” or “wire drawing” which was a term used to describe manufacturing wire – but what was wire drawing and how did it work?
The first stage in wire production was the manufacture of wire rod usually made of iron or steel which were produced in the local foundries and steelworks. These long strips of metal, circular in cross section, were the raw material for wire drawing and the various Warrington wire companies depended on them for their products. In order to ensure a steady supply of wire rods the various companies either entered into business with local foundries, established separate foundries under their control or even built their own foundries onsite.
Before the wire rods were drawn and turned into wire they were “annealed” by heating them for a while (generally until they were glowing) and then slowly allowing them to cool to room temperature. This softened the wire rods and prepared them for drawing.
Drawing Plates and Dies
Wire drawing involved a type of die called known as a draw plate – also known as a”dressing plate” or “wortle plate”. These plates were made of hardened steel with several holes through which wire would be drawn to make it longer and thinner. Plates were available in many different sizes and shapes for drawing different shapes of wire – round, square, oval, half-round and hexagonal. A typical plate would have 20-30 holes so a range of diameters of wire could be drawn. These holes were slightly wider at the back than at the front.
In the early days of the wire industry apprentice wire-drawers would make these draw plates themselves using punches “shaped like the blackpool tower” to make the correct shaped hole for drawing wire.
As wire drawing became more mechanised in the 20th century the plates were replaced with tungsten carbide dies which revolutionised the wire drawing industry but diminished the role of the skilled wire drawers.
The annealed wire rod was sharpened at one end and this end was then inserted into a hole in the plate or die that was slightly narrower than the wire rod. Wire drawers used special pliers, called draw tongs, to hold the tip of the wire and pull it through plate, sometimes with the aid of grease or even wax as a lubricant. Thin wire could be drawn manually by a strong wire drawer, while very thick wire needed a wire drawer’s bench with a crank. The Warrington wire works all used this system until around the 1920s when the whole process started to become completely automated.
Drawing the wire rod through the draw plate reduced the thickness of the wire by reshaping the metal; simultaneously making it longer and thinner. A wire rod therefore became considerably longer during as it was drawn through a plate or die and turned into wire.
Wire usually needed to be drawn through a plate more than once, through successively smaller holes, to reach the desired size. The wire could be drawn three times in a row before it needed to be re-annealed (heated and allowed to cool) because drawing wire hardened the metal and increased the risk of it snapping.
The drawn wire was not necessarily finished, of course. If the wire was intended for outdoor purposes such as fencing it could be galvanised which involved coating the wire in zinc to stop it rusting. Conditions in the galvanising plants were among the worst in the wire works. Wire workers spent long hours there breathing hazardous chemicals, often without protective clothing.
Wire intended for outdoor use – or for use in cables or electrical purposes – could also be covered with various insulating materials, such as cotton, rubber, or plastic.
In the 19th and early 20th century the skilled wire drawers were considered to be the elite craftspeople of Warrington who ventured out of the various wire works at the end of the day in their frock coats and bowler hats. They were paid over twice a much as the other wire workers and had their own exclusive areas in Warrington pubs called “guinea rooms” which were reserved exclusively for the wire drawers who could afford the guinea entrance fee.
A separate Wire Drawers Union existed from around 1840 which went through several names and exerted great control over the wire industry. The union only allowing workers from other areas of the wire industry to join in from 1916.
As the 20th century drew on, wire drawing became more mechanised and the wire drawers lost their unique status in the town.
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 a hundred years in the 18th and 19th centuries, putting the town at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.