Puneet Varma (Editor)

B. Hick and Sons

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Predecessor  B. Hick and Son
Founder  Benjamin Hick
Number of locations  2
Headquarters  Bolton
Founded  10 April 1833
Type  General partnership
B. Hick and Sons
Industry  Engineering Heavy industry
Successor  Hick, Hargreaves & Co. Ltd.
Key people  John Hargreaves Jr. John Hick George Henry Corliss William Hargreaves William Inglis Robert Luthy Benjamin Hick John Henry Hargreaves
Number of employees  1000 (1894) 600 (1961) 350 (1990)

B. Hick and Sons, subsequently Hick, Hargreaves & Co, was a British engineering company based at the Soho Ironworks in Bolton, England. Benjamin Hick, a partner in Rothwell, Hick and Rothwell, later Rothwell, Hick & Co., set up the company in partnership with two of his sons, John (1815–1894) and Benjamin (1818–1845) in 1833.


Benjamin Jr left the company after a year for a partnership in a Liverpool company, possibly George Forrester & Co. In April 1841 he filed a patent for a governor for B. Hick and Son that featured on the front page of Mechanics' Magazine using his father's Egyptian winged motif.


The company's first steam locomotive Soho, named after the works was a 0-4-2 goods type, built in 1833 for carrier John Hargreaves. In 1834 an unconventional, gear-driven four-wheeled rail carriage was conceived for Bolton solicitor and banker, Thomas Lever Rushton (1810–1883). The engine was the first 3-cylinder locomotive and its design incorporated aerodynamic turned iron wheel rims with plate discs as an alternative to conventional spokes. The 3-cylinder concept evolved into Hick's experimental horizontal boiler A 2-2-2 locomotive about 1840, adopting the principle features of the vertical boiler engine. The A 2-2-2 design appears not to have been put into production.

Hick's wheel design was used on a number of Great Western Railway engines including what may have been the world's first streamlined locomotive; an experimental prototype, nicknamed Grasshoper, driven by Brunel at 100 mph, c.1847. The 10 ft disc wheels from GWR locomotives Ajax and Hurricane were lent to convey the statue of the Duke of Wellington to Hyde Park Corner in London.

Several more locomotives were built over the 1830s, some for export to the United States including a 2-2-0 Fulton for the Pontchartrain Railroad in 1834, New Orleans and Carrollton for the St. Charles Streetcar Line in New Orleans in 1835 and a second New Orleans for the same line in 1837.

Between 1837 and 1840 the company subcontracted for Edward Bury and Company, supplying engines to the Midland Counties Railway, London and Birmingham Railway, North Union Railway, Manchester and Leeds Railway and indirectly to the Grand Crimean Central Railway via the London and North Western Railway in 1855. Engines were built for the Taff Vale Railway, Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, Cheshire, Lancashire and Birkenhead Railway, Chester and Birkenhead Railway, Eastern Counties Railway, Liverpool and Manchester Railway, North Midland Railway and the Paris and Versailles Railway.

In 1841 the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway successfully used American Norris 4-2-0 locomotives on the notorious Lickey Incline and Hick built three similar locomotives for the line. Between 1844 and 1846 the firm built a number of "long boiler" locomotives with haystack fireboxes and in 1848, four 2-4-0s for the North Staffordshire Railway. In the same year, the company built Chester, probably the earliest known prototype of a 6-wheel coupled 0-6-0 goods locomotive.

Engineering Drawings

Hick Hargreaves collection of early locomotive and steam engine drawings represents one of the finest of its kind in the world. The majority were produced by Benjamin Hick senior and John Hick between 1833-1855, they are of significant interest for their technical detail, fine draughtsmanship and artistic merit. The elaborate finish and harmonious colouring extends from the largest drawings for prospective customers to ordinary working drawings and records for the engineer.

Works like this influenced the contemporary illustrators of popular science and technology of the time like John Emslie (1813-1875), their aesthetic quality stems from a romantic outlook in which science and poetry were partners.

Hick, Hargreaves & Co

After the death of Benjamin Hick in 1842, the firm continued as Benjamin Hick & Son under the management of his eldest son, John Hick. In 1845 John took his brother-in-law John Hargreaves Jr (1800–1874) into partnership followed by his younger brother William Hargreaves (1821–1889) in 1847. John Hargreaves Jr left the firm in 1851. The same year B. Hick and Son exhibited engineering models and machinery at The Great Exhibition in Class VI. Manufacturing Machines and Tools, including a 6 horse power crank overhead engine and mill-gear driving Hibbert, Platt and Sons' cotton machinery and a 2 hp high-pressure oscillating engine driving a Ryder forging machine. Both engines were modelled in the Egyptian Style. The company received a Council Medal award for its mill gearing, radial drill mandrils and portable forges. The B. Hick & Son London office was at 1 New Broad Street in the City.

One of the Great Exhibition models, a 1:10 scale 1840 double beam engine built in the Egyptian style for John Marshall's Temple Works in Leeds, is displayed at the Science Museum and considered to be the ultimate development of a Watt engine. A second model, apparently built by John Hick and probably shown at the Great Exhibition, is the open ended 3-cylinder A 2-2-2 locomotive on display at Bolton Museum. Bolton Museum holds the best collection of Egyptian cotton products outside the British Museum as a result of the company’s strong exports, particularly to Egypt.

Locomotive building continued until 1855, and in all some ninety to a hundred locomotives were produced; but they were a sideline for the company, which concentrated on marine and stationary engines, of which they made a large number.

B. Hick and Son supplied engines for the paddle frigates Afonso by Thomas Royden & Sons and Amazonas by the leading shipbuilder in Liverpool, Thomas Wilson & Co. also builders of the Royal William; the screw propelled Mediterranean steamers, Nile and Orontes and the SS Don Manuel built by Alexander Denny and Brothers of Dumbarton. The Brazilian Navy's Afonso rescued passengers from the Ocean Monarch in 1848 and took part in the Battle of The Tonelero Pass in 1851; the Amazonas participated in the Battle of Riachuelo in 1865.

The company made blowing engines for furnaces and smelters, boilers, weighing machines, water wheels and mill machinery. It supplied machinery "on a new and perfectly unique" concept together with iron pillars, roofing and fittings for the steam-driven pulp and paper mill at Woolwich Arsenal in 1856. The mill made cartridge bags at the rate of about 20,000 per hour, sufficient to supply the entire British army and navy. The intention was to manufacture paper for various departments of Her Majesty's service.

Steel boilers were first produced in 1863, mostly of the Lancashire type, and more than 200 locomotive boilers were made for torpedo boats into the 1890s. The Phoenix Boiler Works were purchased in 1891 to meet an increase in demands.

The company introduced the highly efficient Corliss valve gear into the United Kingdom from the United States in about 1864 and was closely identified with it thereafter; William Inglis being responsible for promoting the high speed Corliss engine. About 1881 Hick, Hargreaves received orders for two Corliss engines of 3000 hp, the largest cotton mill engines in the world. Hargreaves and Inglis trip gear was first applied to a large single cylinder 1800 hp Corliss engine at Eagley Mills near Bolton and the company received a Gold Medal for its products at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition. Mill gearing was a speciality including large flywheels for rope drives, one example of 128 tons being 32 ft in diameter and groved for 56 ropes. Turbines and hydraulic machinery were also manufactured. Many of the tools were to suit the specialist work, with travelling cranes to take 15 to 40 tons in weight, a large lathe, side planer, slotting machine, pit planer and a tool for turning four 32 ft rope flywheels simultaneously. The workshops also featured an 80ton hydraulic riveting machine. For the ease of shipping and transportation, Soho Iron Works had its own railway system, traversed by sidings of the London North Western Railway (LNWR). Inglis, who lived in Bolton was a neighbour of LNWR's chief mechanical engineer, Francis Webb.

John Hick retired from the business in 1868 when he became a member of parliament (MP). The company was renamed Hick, Hargreaves and Company about this time. On the death of John Hick's nephew Benjamin Hick in 1882, a "much respected member of the firm", active involvement of the Hick family ceased until 1893 when Benjamin Hick's great grandson, also Benjamin Hick started an apprenticeship, followed by his younger brother Geoffrey about 1900.

The sole proprietor William Hargreaves died in 1889 and, under the directorship of his three sons, John Henry, Frances and Percy, the business became a private limited company in 1892.


About 1885 Hick Hargreaves & Co became associated with Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti during the reconstruction of the Grosvenor Gallery and began to manufacture steam engines for power generation including those of Ferranti's Deptford Power Station, the largest power station in the world at the time.

In 1908 the company was licensed to build uniflow engines. From 1911 the company began the manufacture of large diesel engines, however these did not prove successful and were eventually discontinued. Boiler production finished in 1912. During World War I the company was involved in war work, producing mines, 6 and 9.2 inch shells and oil engines for submarines.

In the early hours 26 September 1916, the works were targeted by Zeppelin L 21; a bomb missed passing through the roof of nearby Holy Trinity Church.

The company's recoil gear for the Vickers 18 pounder quick firing gun was so successful that by war's end a significant part of the factory was devoted to its production. Civil manufacture was not suspended entirely and in 1916 the firm began making two-stage steam jet air ejectors and high vacuum condensing plant for power generation. Its production was greatly expanded as centralised power generation was adopted in Great Britain, by the formation of the Central Electricity Board (CEB) in 1926.

After the war the firm entered a contract with the Vulcan Motor & Engineering Co of Southport for 1000 20 hp petrol engines, but work was discontinued in 1922 when Vulcan became bankrupt, with only 150 completed.

As the steam turbine replaced reciprocating steam engines Hick Hargreaves' development continued, by 1927 its engine work was principally steam turbines for electricity generating stations and the company became a major supplier to the CEB.

During the 1930s Hick, Hargreaves acquired the records, drawings and patterns of four defunct steam engine manufacturers: J & E Wood, John Musgrave & Sons Limited, Galloways Limited and Scott & Hodgson Limited. As a consequence it made a lucrative business out of repairs and the supply of spare parts during the Great Depression. Large stationary steam engines were still in use the many cotton mills in the Bolton area until the collapse of the industry after World War II.

3 and 4-cylinder triple expansion marine steam engines were built during the 1940s, post-war the company expanded its work in electricity generation, again becoming a major supplier to the CEB and branched out into food processing, oil refining and offshore oil equipment production, continuing to supply vacuum equipment to the chemical and petrochemical industries. By 2000 its products included compressors, industrial blowers, refrigeration equipment and liquid ring motors.

Soho Iron Works

Between the 1840s and 1870s, the firm had its own Brass Band, "John Hick's Esq, Band," known as the Soho Iron Works Band with a uniform of "... rich full braided coat, black trousers, with two-inch gold lace down the sides and blue cap with gold band," who would play airs through the streets of Bolton.

Ownership changes

In 1968 the Hargreaves family sold the company to Electrical & Industrial Securities Ltd. In 2001 the firm was bought by The BOC Group from Smiths Industries, lower costs in Eastern Europe proved attractive so production at the Soho Foundry was wound down and machinery transferred to Czechoslovakia; the historic records, including drawings and photographs were deposited with Bolton library. Hick, Hargreaves was the most enduring engineering company in Bolton and Britain, surviving 170 years from the outset.

Smiths had already sold the site to J Sainsbury plc and, despite being marked by a blue plaque, Soho Iron Works were closed 23 August 2002 and demolished entirely about November that year in favour of a car park, petrol station and Sainsbury's supermarket, opening 27 March 2003. Two switchgear panels, the works clock and symbolic cast iron gateposts with Hick's caduceus logo were saved by the Northern Mill Engine Society.

Later The BOC Group plc was taken over by Linde A.G. of Germany who intended to return the combined group to a 'pure gas' business and so sold off the BOC Edwards engineering division into which Hick Hargreaves of Bolton had been placed where it had been combined with the Edwards High Vacuum business of BOC Edwards based at Crawley, West Sussex. The business of the vacuum company was sold to private shareholders CCMP Capital and on 1 June 2007 was re-established as an independent UK private limited company "Edwards Limited".

The Bolton site of Edwards Limited is now a design shop with outsourced UK and foreign manufacture and has moved to new office premises in Lostock, where it continues to sell some steam ejector, feed heater and deaeration technology of the old Hick Hargreaves business as a Process Vacuum part of Edwards Limited.

Mills powered by Hick, Hargreaves engines

  • Textile Mill, Chadderton
  • Cavendish Mill, Ashton-under-Lyne
  • Century Mill, Farnworth
  • References

    B. Hick and Sons Wikipedia

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