The following is a brief timeline of the development of the wire industry in Warrington, it is by no means exhaustive but gives an overview of how wire manufacturing and wire weaving came to dominate Warrington’s employment structure for over 170 years.
The earliest dedicated Warrington wire works we know of is established in Tanners Lane by William Houghton. It made brass wire which was turned into pins in the surrounding workshops by children, some as whom were as young as 5 years old.
Wire worker Nathaniel Greening is persuaded to move to Warrington to set up a small wire works in Bridge Street. There he finds a financial backer in the wealthy sailcloth manufacturer John Rylands. The pair form Nathaniel Greening and Company and by 1817 they have moved their growing business into a former cotton mill in Church Street.
James Locker invents the wire cloth weaving loom. Wire cloth has a wide variety of uses and over the next 30 years some of Warrington’s wire workers switch from making wire – known as “wire drawing” – to weaving the resulting wire on looms. One of the most important uses for wire cloth is the Davy Lamp used by miners. This lamp uses a fine wire gauze to stop the flame igniting underground gases and causing explosions. Warrington-made wire gauze saves countless lives.
Wilhelm Albert devises an iron wire rope for use in coal mines to wind up coal to the surface. Wire rope soon became another of Warrington’s famous wire products and is still used extensively in mining as well as in cranes, lifts, aircraft and suspension bridges.
The families of John Rylands and Nathaniel Greening fall out and dissolve their partnership. John Rylands’ sons set up a new company in Church Street called Rylands Brothers while Nathaniel Greening’s sons open a new smaller wireworks in Bewsey Street called N. Greening and Sons. The resulting rivalry between the two companies lasts for the next 140 years.
A former apprentice at Rylands Brothers called Frederick Monks opens a large, modern wire works called Monks of Whitecross. Later renamed Whitecross Company by 1905 it employs more people than any other factory in the town. Frederick Monks went on to present the Town Hall Gates to Warrington on Walking Day 1895.
Thomas Locker, grandson of the inventor of the wire loom, founds Thomas Locker and Company in Market Street. From the beginning Lockers start experimenting with new uses for steel wire and they are the first to make wire mesh on a steam-powered loom.
The First World War means that Warrington wire is greatly in demand. Several of the town’s wire works are taken over by the War Office and turned over to the production of wire rope, nails and barbed wire for the war effort. Most of the barbed wire laid between the British trenches at the front is manufactured in Warrington.
The end of the war means less demand for British wire. Competition from foreign imports mean that the Warrington wire drawing industry begins to struggle for the first time. In an effort to combat this decline several local steel companies – including Rylands Brothers and Whitecross – form a conglomerate called the Lancashire Steel Corporation.
The outbreak of the Second World War led to a boost in demand for Warrington wire again – this time for mine sweepers, mooring ropes, aeroplane controls and gas masks. Wartime demand means mechanised wire drawing is introduced and a single wire works can produce 1,500 tons of wire every week.
Over the past 150 years Rylands Brothers, the largest Warrington wire drawing company, has grown from a single factory to 4 separate wireworks covering 32 acres and employing 2,500 people to manufacture 4,500 tons of wire a week. It is a community in its own right with a recreation ground, social clubs, sports teams and even a theatre.
Similarly Thomas Locker and Company has grown to 7 wireworks covering a total of 14 acres.
The newly formed British Steel concentrates wire manufacturing in Sheffield and cuts back production in other places such as Warrington. Rylands Brothers and Whitecross form a new company called Rylands-Whitecross and close down the Whitecross site to concentrate on the former Rylands Brothers works.
The Greenings Strike of 1983 is the largest industrial dispute to hit the struggling Warrington wire industry. 550 workers go on strike over proposed redundancies and the wire works is shut down for several weeks. Greenings, the longest established Warrington wire company, is eventually split up and sold off in 1986.
The closure of the last former Rylands Brothers wire works in Battersby Lane with the loss of 165 jobs brings the era of large scale wire drawing in Warrington to an end. However Warrington’s wire weaving companies are better able to adapt to a changing market and firms like Lockers, Croft Filters and a number of others carry on Warrington’s wire working traditions into the 21st century.
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.