TAME PAST PRESENT FUTURE

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3.a – Wednesbury Bridge Mill

Along the Tame and its tributaries were a number of water powered mills, and near Wednesbury Bridge was one such mill, called Wednesbury Mill (or Wednesbury Bridge Mill), which was an important site in iron making and in forging gun barrels. Gun barrel making was, in the late 1700s, a really important part of Wednesbury industry, and gun barrel making led onto Wednesbury’s famous trade of tube making.

Although the mill has gone, the bridge stands today, or at least the one that was built in 1826, towards the end of the construction of the London to Holyhead Road, and overseen by the renowned engineer Thomas Telford. Remnants of an older bridge still exist beneath, and the first bridge built here seems to be more-or-less contemporary with the iron forge, both appearing in the 17th century. If the mill itself still stood it would be an important historical artefact, representing the beginnings of the iron industry in the Black Country.

By 1761 the mill was in the hands of John Wood who obtained a patent that year for making a new kind of malleable iron from pig iron, which was well regarded by the local gun barrel makers, as it eliminated the need to make iron using charcoal, producing a much better quality product. Wood did well from his patent and “lived in great splendour at Wednesbury, keeping his hunting stables, and kennels for a pack of hounds there”.

In 1785 Wednesbury Mill was one of only four iron forges in Wednesbury, two others were water powered, Wednesbury Forge on the Tame and Sparrow’s Forge, just off the other Tame (Willenhall Brook), and the other, Adam’s Forge, was horse powered. So the river Tame and its tributaries were exceptionally important in the town’s early industry.

The mill closed in 1885 and converted back to grinding corn.

 

3.b – Wednesbury as Tube Town

Although tube making did not begin in Wednesbury, it never-the-less became renowned all over the globe as ‘Tube Town’, an appellation that it is proud of today; the central bus station being entered through a great tube sculpture.

It was the innovation of Cornelius Whitehouse, which he developed with the Russell brothers, which helped put Wednesbury tubes on the map. John Russell, previously a gun barrel maker, had been making tubes since 1811, but fashioning them in a similar way to the barrels by tapering them so that they would slot together. In 1825 Cornelius Whitehouse was working at Wednesbury Forge (a mill on the River Tame) for Edward Elwell, and developed an improved method for joining tubes using the ‘hollow fire’ of the edge tool maker rather than a smithy’s furnace. Elwell had no use for the innovation in the edge tool trade so suggested that Whitehouse took it to the Russell’s, who agreed to help him patent it; they then purchased the patent and paid Whitehouse annually a tidy sum for the use of it. It was one of those moments that every businessman dreams of, production prices were cut by a third, if not by half, and the Crown Tube Works made Wednesbury a place known around the globe. They were so successful that the other local tube makers formed hostile crowds at the gates, or tried to sneak in to discover the secrets of the process.

Although the Crown Tube Works was not along the river, the Russell’s did purchase the Patent Tube Works in 1875, which stood on the banks of the Tame. The Patent Tube Works had previously been run (and opened in 1850) by Edward Elwell, uncle to the Mr. Elwell at Wednesbury Forge. The Patent Tube later became the Anchor Works, due to that motif being placed on the frontage when it was rebuilt; that frontage was moved to the Black Country Living Museum when the works was demolished, and now forms part of the entrance of the museum. Another Tameside tube works was the unsuccessful enterprise of Cornelius Whitehouse, who decided to branch out on his own when James Russell died in 1849, and opened the Globe Tube Works just east of Wednesbury Bridge. Globe Street is a reminder of the factory that once stood there. Tubes are still made along the river at Wednesbury Bridge, as Top Tubes runs their manufactory under the abandoned railway off Smith Road.

Tubes were needed for the new gas lighting (invented by William Murdoch in 1792), steam engines, water piping etc, and initially gun barrels could be used, but there was a market for cheaper and longer tubes to be produced, and it was this niche that Wednesbury filled.