Walker Brothers of Wigan were one of the most important heavy engineering businesses in the north of England. From their base at the Pagefield Ironworks in Wigan and with decades of experience in the design and manufacture of mining equipment for the Lancashire coalfields, they grew into an organisation producing locomotives, road vehicles, winding gear and ventilation equipment that travelled around the world. Walkers-engineered machinery was shipped overseas to Japanese coal mines, South African gold mines and the Peruvian mountain railways, often travelling with the Wiganers who had to ensure it was in working order at the other end of the journey.
The surviving records of Walker Brother provide a valuable insight into Greater Manchester’s engineering history and the lives of employees at the Pagefield works, as well as the evolution of design and research practices used by firms like Walkers.
The company was founded in 1866 and quickly developed an expertise for bespoke engineering work. As well as mining and ventilation machinery, the company produced commercial vehicles under the Pagefield name, including lorries, cranes, buses and trucks. Local transport corporations throughout the north-west of England and beyond commissioned buses and other vehicles from Walker Brothers, including the Liverpool and Wigan Corporations. In 1900, Mitchell and Kenyon filmed the employees at the Pagefield Ironworks and this wonderful film is held by the British Film Institute. The firm continued to operate in Wigan after the Second World War, when it was sold to the Walmsley family, moving increasingly into machinery for paper production.
Wigan’s contribution to the Made in Greater Manchester Project included the cataloguing of hundreds of engineering drawings from the design offices. These records are a complex collection of documents that shed light on how the business went about creating the products that made its name throughout the world. These drawings are small works of art in their own right, every one drawn by hand, and are far removed from modern practices of computer aided engineering design.
At first glance – to the uninitiated archivist or volunteer – the drawings appear a complex web of lines, calculations and mechanical descriptions. The Archives were fortunate to be able to recruit a handful of volunteers with mechanical and engineering knowledge, who were better able to explain to the rest of the team exactly what sat in front of us on the strongroom shelves.
Many of the drawings describe component parts, albeit components that could be of a huge size themselves; the ability to visualise the relationship between the constituent parts and the eventual finished piece of equipment was aided by referring to the company’s photographic archive. The surviving images show enormous products forged from wrought iron and steel, with their creators standing proudly besides them on the factory floor, dwarfed by the scale of their creations.
Our volunteers worked to painstakingly describe and catalogue the records, digitising in turn some of the stand-out drawings. We were delighted to welcome former employees of Walker Brothers into the Archives as part of the project, one of whom, John Webb, had worked in the drawing room. As every drawing was signed and countersigned as part of the process of quality control at the time, we were even able to reunite him with some of the documents he had worked on over 75 years ago.
We are certain the new catalogues will provide a wonderful resource for historians and engineering enthusiasts alike. We have already been contacted by groups working to preserve surviving pieces of Walker Brothers’ machinery and hope to be able to supply copies of original drawings that will help inform the preservation of the physical objects, from a Welsh coal mine’s head-gear to Wigan buses.
Wigan & Leigh Archives and Local Studies are delighted to have participated in the Made in Greater Manchester project and hope the outcomes of the project will inspire further engagement with our business archives into the future.