Along The Moors
Until 1979, the ornate clock tower perched above the A518 roundabout in Donnington, stood on the roof of C&W Walker’s Midland Ironworks, providing an audible blast to employees and local people during the working day with its distinctive siren. From humble roots, the company, which was best-known for the manufacture of gas storage equipment, eventually became a world-leader, supplying goods all over the world from its Station Road headquarters.
A Change of Direction
Charles Walker & Sons was originally a London-based firm that began trading in 1837, manufacturing industrial products, such as stamps, presses and press tools. Twenty years later, the business relocated from Clerkenwell to Donnington, where the company continued to produce a range of general engineering products, employing a small workforce of about 35 people. After the move, Charles Walker handed the business over to his sons, Charles and William, and the company became known as C&W Walker.
Despite the relocation, it was not until around 1868 that the fortunes of the business really began to change, when the firm took the decision to begin manufacturing gas holders and purifiers. William and Charles divided their business between Donnington and London, with the latter overseeing operations at the plant, which expanded greatly in the later years of the 19th Century as the business began to take-off.
Into the Twentieth Century
Charles Walker became an influential figure in local circles; no doubt aided by his acquisition of the Leveson family’s Old Hall at Lilleshall, which became his private residence. He later established a charity that financed the foundation of the Walker Technical College, Oakengates and contributed funds for the creation of another institution in Haybridge Road, Wellington; better known today as Telford College of Arts and Technology (TCAT). Walker’s generosity even extended to the education of the people of Donnington themselves; where he provided a reading room in 1867, stocked with over 100 books.
By 1897, both Charles and his brother William were dead but this did not impair the growth of the business. Two years later, C&W Walker became a limited company, by which time its workforce had expanded to over 700 employees. At the turn of the 20th Century the business enjoyed a flourishing reputation on the world stage, manufacturing gas holders for clients as far afield as Australia. The firm also produced and conveyed gas supplies to the local neighbourhood under the name of the Lilleshall Gas Company, an arrangement that continued until the nationalisation of essential industries in 1947.
The Midland Iron Works
When C&W Walker moved to Donnington, the company occupied a forge that belonged to the Duke of Sutherland. As a condition of the company’s lease, it was stipulated that all new buildings should be erected in corrugated iron, the reason being that, if the fortunes of the business should go awry, the premises would be easy to convert to private dwellings! Consequently, the firm’s premises had an extremely distinctive appearance that was made all the more striking by the presence of a cast-iron clock, which was erected on a timber sub-frame outside the company’s offices in 1879. This local landmark, which housed a bell (and, later, a siren) that informed the workers when their shifts were about to begin or end, now stands on the Donnington roundabout of the A518, which itself occupies the site of a former railway station, closed to passengers in 1964.
Alongside the railway, which originally ran from Wellington to Stafford, the Midland Iron Works developed rapidly and covered an area stretching to the former main road from Wellington to Newport. By 1949, the site comprised numerous workshops for the assembly of the company’s many products, together with a foundry, saw mill and timber yard. The premises were also served by an internal rail system connected to the main line, containing a large circular track known as ‘The Field’. Here, platework for the gasholders was brought out from the plant into the erecting yard, assembled for testing, taken apart again and then transported to its destination.
Aiding the War Effort
During the Second World War, C&W Walker expanded and diversified its product range, manufacturing a range of assorted military hardware to meet the needs of the nation. Bomb casings, equipment for detonating mines and steel plates for aircraft and large guns were all produced at the Midland Ironworks, demonstrating a versatility that would serve the company well in peacetime. Although the firm continued to be a market leader in the manufacture of gas works and chemical plant equipment, the introduction of natural gas production led the company to concentrate on petro-chemical storage, containers and silos for a range of other industries.
When the administrative division of the firm moved to the new town of Telford in 1979, the firm still employed some 300 workers at Donnington but the divergence of operations eventually led to the complete closure of the site, which was subsequently demolished for housing. The Company itself was merged to create Walker Greenbank PLC in 1986 and the engineering side of the concern was later sold off, enabling the new company to concentrate exclusively on the production of wallpaper and home furnishings.