From the 1830s to the 1950s part of the site of the old Bromford Forge was used by the wire drawers Rollason & Company. Wire drawing was so called as metal was drawn through a hole in a ‘draw plate’ to a particular size.
In 1830 it was described that making wire involved ‘drawing [metal] through a steel plate, by the addition of revolving cylinders, urged by horses, water, or steam’, the article continues: ‘this ‘draw plate’ is pierced with a number of conical holes of different sizes, the size of the smaller orifice determining the diameter of the wire, which is seized by a strong pair of nippers, and forcibly drawn through these holes when the plate is placed on the draw frame’. It is this way of drawing wire that Geoff Stevens used when he started at an old fashioned wire drawers called Hall & Rice’s in 1959, but as one of only a few people still living that made wire in the old way, his descriptions are invaluable, and help to describe the way that wire would have been made at Bromford.
We asked Geoff some questions:
What was it like inside the mill?
“Inside the mill it used to be very dusty, cos the soap dust used to get about everywhere, you know, dust was everywhere, thick dust, probably […] inch and a half thick sometimes in some places, but it was soap, they reckon it was, you know, healthy. It never bothered you too much, and the smell used to be smelling of soap and occasionally you’d get the smell of the hydrochloric acid from the cleaning house where they used to clean the wires, and all that, lime it off, ready for coming back into the mill.”
Describe what it was like to walk into the wire mill?
“The first thing you’d hear is the blocks, the blocks turning […] there was different machinery so it would be different sounds, but it would be the blocks turning […] and you’d get the smell of the soap, you’d definitely smell the soap, it was Lever’s soap they used to use, it was like little square cubes, very expensive stuff they used to tell me, and you could smell all that like. Never hear much chatter, never hear much of people talking, you know.”
What was the wire drawing process?
“You used to start with the rods, and then you used to draw that down to a manageable size for the other workers to use, then that would be sent out, once you’ve drawn it, cos it gets harder as its been drawn. You’d take it and send it out to be annealed, it would be annealed and then dipped in the acid to clean again and then dipped in the lime to stop it rusting, and then they’d bring it back out to the wire drawers, and then they’d draw it back out to the required size they needed, for making nails or pins or whichever case it was going to be used for. You’d just keep continually drawing and drawing down to different sizes until it was what they wanted.”
BACKGROUND HISTORY OF ROLLASON’S WIRE MILL
Aston’s Bromford Mill was taken over by Witton born Abel Rollason in about 1835; he began by utilising the water powered mill for rolling metal, sharing with a firm of wire drawers, but by 1860 they were manufacturing wire too. At this time Rollason applied for compensation from the Birmingham Corporation for the sewage that was building up in their sluices after being dumped in the river; he got £1,800. The firm was handed down from father to son, and the family drew wire in Bromford till 1937 when Wrights Ropes Ltd bought the Bromford factory, though they kept the family name of Rollason.
In 1957 the Rollason Wire Company Limited took a stall at the British Industries Fair, just a few miles downstream on the banks of the Tame at Castle Bromwich. ‘High Strain Steel Wire in various finishes for the Aircraft, Motor, Cycle and Engineering Industries. Spring Wire, Music Wire, Rope Wire, Bedding and Seating Wire, Saddle Wire, Concrete Re-inforcement Wire’.