Doug Hurd: John Mills & Co – the history of the Railway Foundry in Llanidloes

It was a full house for Doug Hurd’s talk on the 18th May. Doug was Senior Engineer at the Foundry during the years of peak production from the late 1940s to the late 1970s when the company employed up to 230 people.

The company’s origins were in Trefeglwys in the 1840s when William Thomas, a skilled wheelwright, and his two blacksmith brothers, manufactured agricultural machinery. The company thrived, producing chaff cutters, threshing drums, ploughs and wagons, and in 1851 relocated to Llanidloes, to the rear of the Bridgend Flannel Factory in Shortbridge Street. At the new site they were able to expand their range to support the burgeoning lead mining industry in Cardiganshire and Montgomeryshire, and manufactured lead crushers, screens, kibbles (large buckets for raising the ore) and waterwheels. In 1864 the company moved again to a larger site next to the railway station, and here added coal weighing machines and railway wagons to their product range.

William Thomas died in 1893, and the company was taken over by his nephew-in-law, John Mills, who was succeeded in 1909 by his sons William and John Edward Mills. They traded under the name John Mills and Co, which later became John Mills & Co (Llanidloes) Ltd. To see a photograph of the foundry in 1919, click here. One of the key standard products in the early 1900s was the steam hauling engine which was used for surface operations, and compressed air versions for hauling coal and ore wagons from underground, gradually replacing pit ponies as other methods of cutting and extraction became automated and more efficient. The engine range of 8 to 100 Horse Power models was Mills’ main product for over 30 years. Electric haulage gears with power of up to 300HP were produced in the mid 1940s. The company supplied mines in the North and South Wales Coalfields, some in Yorkshire, and also newly developing mining industries abroad including India. Winding gear was also supplied to north Wales quarries.

The nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 saw significant investment in the mines as the war-time years of neglect were rectified, resulting in a surge in demand from John Mills and Co and their competitors. Mills & Co opened a new ferrous and non-ferrous foundry across the railway line in about 1953, creating additional capacity for moulding, casting and pattern making. The machinery produced was often of great size and weight, with the 300HP unit weighing 28 tons. Four of these were supplied to mines in south Wales which were formerly part of the Ocean Coal Group, which was owned by David Davies of Llandinam.

In 1957 the company won the contract to replace the steam operated winding gear on the Great Orme Tramway in Llandudno with electrically driven gear. The whole operation was undertaken, from design to full working order, between the end of the summer season, and the beginning of the new season Easter the following year. Electrical haulage gears and winders were also being exported to Malaya, Australia, British Guiana, South Korea and, significantly, India. The Indian market was subsequently lost when their government required that they themselves should manufacture their limited requirements from John Mills & Co under licence. This move spelt the beginning of the end for mining equipment production at the Llanidloes factory, and the Gorn foundry was closed, and staff numbers reduced.

Another avenue of mine supplies opened up in the 1930s when the traditional wooden pit props and roof boards were replaced by rolled steel arches and props. When these were buckled and distorted by serious roof movements, they were removed and replaced. The removed units were repaired, and the company successfully developed a 60 tons (of pressure) horizontal hydraulic steel press to do this. These presses were also available in 2, 8, 15 and 30 tons options. The skill of the company in meeting such specific needs led to a post war reputation for producing purpose-built equipment up to 400 tons, many being semi, or fully automated. Smaller scale presses were also supplied, including to Flowform in Welshpool, moulds were sold to Cadbury’s for chocolate production, and steel liners for Fordson tractor cylinder blocks. The last product to leave the Llanidloes factory was for processing cobalt in a Zambian copper mine.

Over the years early 1970s to the early 1980s there were several periods of difficulty, including during the power cuts of the 1972-74 miners’ strikes, when production was at times reduced by half, staff were on short time, and orders were difficult to fulfil. Marketing became increasingly difficult, and the John Mills & Co finally went into liquidation in September 1983. The name John Mills & Co (Llanidloes) Ltd still represents skilful and innovative engineering in many parts of the world, with their products continuing to be in use, and seen to be changing hands at auction. Doug, assisted by Jeremy Pryce (a former Mills employee), then showed a number of photographs and plans of some of the company’s products, and answered questions from the audience. An excellent evening and a fascinating talk, just 2 days before Doug’s 93rd birthday!