THE EAGLE IRONWORKS OXFORD
Posted - October 11, 1986
The story of the early days of W. Lucy & Co Ltd.
When walking along the canal path from Jericho towards Port Meadow one gets the best view of the Eagle Ironworks which has played such an important part in the life of Jericho in the past 150 years or so. An old belief inside W. Lucy & Co that its beginnings lie 200 years ago is supported by a pre-1914 trade catalogue which claims it was established in 1760. Available records however show a continuous thread of business enterprise only back as far as 1812, yet to have been in existence for over 174 years is itself a remarkable fact. More, Lucy’s has also a history of continuous manufacture at the Eagle Ironworks, its present site, for practically 160 years; and this, of course, takes it far back, beyond the beginnings of the electrical industry it serves today. It may well be that there was some wrought iron and blacksmith’s business already on that site which would fit the tradition, but, be that as it may, its origins are beyond modern Oxford ‘in the university city and market town where trade and industry had little place except to meet local demand.
William Carter aimed at this local market when he opened a shop in Oxford High Street in 1812 to trade as an ironmonger, hardwareman, brazier and tinplate worker. Carter seems to have been one of those questing “entrepreneurs” who, if they are not the dominant type, can yet so often be glimpsed through early records of our oldest businesses. Increasing trade caused him to think of manufacturing for himself so that he could as his advertisements put it, offer his goods at the lowest possible terms. The records suggest that, true to type, a determination to have his own business went hand in hand with a fretting at the partnerships to which he had to resort in order to get capital for its further development.
A first partnership with a Birmingham manufacturer, which would have offered a short cut to a manufacturing connection, seems not to have worked at all. By 1821 Carter, calling himself a general manufacturer, was soon producing goods in repair workshops which he had enlarged for the purpose. Three years later he had a separate brass and iron foundry at Summertown (now a northern suburb of Oxford) but very soon, in 1825, moved to the present Lucy site, about one mile north of the centre of Oxford and fronting on the Oxford to Birmingham canal, one of the advantages of which was certainly the cheap transport the canal offered. The larger scale of this Jericho Iron and Brass foundry, as it was then called, which the new site made possible, was no doubt the reason for his being then able to invite all and sundry to come and see for themselves that suggestions that he did not genuinely manufacture were unfounded (but this leaves open the possibility that the calumnies had some basis in his exaggeration of the facilities which he had previously enjoyed). Products named in Carter’s advertisements were still being made at those works a century later - agricultural machines and ornamental ironwork such as balconies, verandas and railings, those being individually designed. One of these can be seen running along the length of the works canteen, from the old cemetery in Walton Street. Even the “patent” grates and ovens which he featured especially still made a department of the business some sixty years later. A bid for a mechanical engineering future was less successful, even though it was embodied in a steam engine of his own manufacture, whose successful use in his works was stressed as a bait for further orders.
The growth of business at the works, however, was large enough for the retail shop to be thought a distraction and in 1827 it was sold off and from then on William Carter gave his whole attention to manufacture. Expansion led to his taking partners, and foundries were acquired in other districts. In 1830, Carter left the Oxford business to Grafton, Baker and Biggs, his partners, and himself removed to Leamington where he continued as an ironfounder and ironmonger at the “Eagle Foundry” (and where, soon, his advertisements once more features his use of the steam engine). To complete his story so far as is possible, in 1835 in Leamington he once more embarked on partnership, this venture lasting for only three years, when the business was divided so that Carter continued as an ironmonger and his two partners as ironfounders; soon, however, he reappears with his son and partner in a business covering both the old spheres and we lose sight of him after a directory entry of 1846. In 1851 the Leamington business was certainly being run by his son as sole proprietor. The wording of certain advertisements suggests that for a time his old Oxford business had continued to compete with him from a Leamington branch. This may also lie behind the adoption, by Grafton and his partners, of the name “Eagle Foundry” for the Oxford works but this is conjecture - what is certain is that from 1838, under Grafton, the Oxford works began to be known as the “Eagle Ironworks”.
The Eagle Ironworks (Lucy’s as we know it today) continued to expand as the great railway age took over from the canals. William Carter, whose propensity for advertisements, coupled with the vicissitudes of his partnership arrangements, has left records which establish him as governer of the business until 1830 (see Echo 30) left the firm to Charles Grafton, his former partner. Historians of Lucy’s have not been able to disentangle the management relationships between the Oxford business and the Birmingham firm from which Charles Graf ton came. We know that the Birmingham firm was a bookshop and printers as far back at least as 1797. Early in the nineteenth century it became a wholesale stationers which, by 1820, included paper making among its activities. By 1835 paper manufacturing was predominating. From 1821 to 1831 the business was a partnership under the same names as the Oxford firm, Charles Grafton, Baker and Biggs. In 1837 Charles Grafton senior died in Oxford. It seems likely that the Birmingham partnership went into joint venture with William Carter in order to launch the younger Charles Grafton in the Oxford business.
A trade connection between the Oxford and Birmingham businesses is indicated by reference in advertisements to a capacity to manufacture paper making machinery. The advertisements of the 1860s suggest that the principal interests of the Oxford firm lay with the building industry, that is cast iron girders and pipes and ornamental ironwork and cast iron. The earliest Lucy’s lamp-posts, some of which are still in existence, date from this period.
In 1853 Grafton went into partnership with William Hood. After Grafton’s death in 1861 Hood set up his own foundry in Reading and the style of the Oxford firm became Grafton and Co. until, in 1864 it became Grafton and Lucy. We know that Lucy was in the business earlier since his name appears receipting a bill on behalf of Grafton and Hood at the turn of 1854/5 when he was only just seventeen. He must have taken over the business in his early twenties. It may well be that the Grafton family kept some financial interest for Grafton’s will names his sister Mrs Frances Kelly and we meet the name Kelly later on. A good deal of work was done for the Oxford colleges. From the Grafton and Lucy period come tales showing that the business carried out the repair and maintenance of ancient wrought-iron gates etc. for several colleges. This responsible and troublesome work had great prestige value. The ornamental ironwork around the Randolph hotel sadly is the only surviving work of importance from this time. Other works were demolished for scrap in the second world war.
The fact that the Oxford company adopted Lucy’s name is reason for wishing that records had survived of its development under his management. Something is known of his personal life however. He married a remarkable woman, who was the daughter of Josiah Geoege Jennings, the famous Victorian sanitary engineer. Jennings was an important customer of the firm for at least twenty years.
Mrs.William Lucy’s feelings on moving to her new home were recorded by a grand-daughter. Maybe the fact that the large house next to the works overlooked the cemetery ff St. Sepulchre had something to do with it but Mrs.Lucy was not happy. Her forebodings were justified when, in 1873, William died of tuberculosis at the early age of 35 and three of their six children had already died in infancy. All are buried in the cemetary nearby. The house itself was pulled down to make way for offices. Mrs.Lucy, however, lived on in Oxford until her daeth at the age of 96 in 1937, 64 years after her husband. Their last surviving son died in 1961 aged 92. All connections with the firm had ceased in 1873 after William’s death when James Kelly of Chester, a district superintendent of the Great Western Railway, bought the business. It does not appear that he took any active part until he retired from his railway post. After his death twenty years later in 1897, the business came under -the control of his son, Charles Kelly, who had joined him in the management. This brings matters up to the end of the century, and Lucy’s as we can see went on to great things playing an important part in the two great wars which were to come.
Author: Ted Harris