The Main Offices of the Coventry Ordnance Works, c.1910.
Facility Type & Function:
A privately owned heavy engineering company engaged primarily in the manufacture of artillery pieces and associated items plus large naval guns and mountings during the period of 1905 to 1925.
The origins of the company’s site in Coventry can be traced back to the purchase of an earlier ordnance manufacturing works on the same site. In 1902, Messrs. Mulliner and Wigley moved their existing military ordnance business from Birmingham to a new 60-acre site on Stoney Stanton Road in Coventry with the intent of using it to enter the naval gun market.
A plan of the Coventry Ordnance Works (1907).
Shortly afterwards, in 1903, Charles Cammell, of Cammell Laird, purchased this works and invested considerable capital into it. He re-employed its former owners, allowing Henry Hall Mulliner to continue as the site’s managing director while Mr. F. Wrigley remained responsible for the technical side of the business.
In 1905, the works was purchased by a consortium of leading British ship building companies under the encouragement of the British Government who wanted a third major arms consortium to compete with the duoply of Vickers Sons & Maxim and Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth & Company to drive down prices. The new company, the Coventry Ordnance Works Limited, was owned by a consortium comprising John Brown & Company of Sheffield and Clydebank (50%), Cammell Laird & Company of Sheffield and Birkenhead (25%) and Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company of Glasgow (25%).
Under consortium ownership the new company (generally known as “Coventry Ordnance Works” or “C.O.W.”) continued to thrive. It produced smaller sizes of Naval guns and mountings as well as field guns, gun carriages, ammunition and other military accessories. In 1906, the company’s Coventry site expanded and work commenced on the manufacture of guns and turrets up to the largest sizes for both Admiralty Battleships and Cruisers.
5.5-inch Naval Guns lined up on one of the assembly shop floors within the Coventry Ordnance Works, c.1910s.
A novel feature of the Coventry works’ design was a system where up to 20 portable machines could be applied to single large item under fabrication, rather than having to move the item itself from one machine (and factory area) to the next. In addition, 1906 was also the year that the C.O.W. set up its own gun proving ground at Boston in Lincolnshire. This included a 22,000 yard testing range.
In 1907, the consortium established a new works at Scotstoun on the River Clyde for the construction and fitting of complete gun mountings. The new works, which did not become fully utilised until 1911, was capable of manufacturing 12 sets of complete heavy double gun mountings per year. This facility allowed the C.O.W. to better compete with their principal British rivals (i.e. Armstrongs plus Vickers). Around the same time as the construction of their Scotstoun Works the C.O.W. also engaged in the operation of a shell filling factory which was part of the larger Cliffe Explosive Works on the Thames Estuary in Kent.
In 1910, after a long series of altercations between Henry Hall Mulliner and the British Admiralty, the former works manager was replaced by Rear-Admiral Reginald Bacon who, from 1907 until then, had been the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Ordnance. This new appointment opened the door to further Admiralty orders for mounting the heavy guns on one of their largest battleships. This required the first use of some of the work’s largest and most expensive equipment which had hitherto remained idle. Also, in 1910 the consortium established a second works in Coventry for manufacturing munitions fuses.
A 15-inch Naval Gun leaving the Coventry Ordnance Works (1914-18).
The advent of the Great War created a boom time for the Coventry Ordnance Works. Like other areas of British industry at the time, the huge demand for additional production brought massive labour shortages that were compensated for by the mass introduction of women into the company’s workforce. Skilled labour shortages were further compounded by a significant number of the male workers enlisting to fight in the armed services. To encourage men to stay at the factory the managing director made a direct appeal to the workforce and, as in many other factories, staff were issued with “ON WAR SERVICE” type badges so as to display to others their critical home front roles and prevent them being the unwanted targets of “white feather” campaigners. During this period, the company’s main Coventry site was at its peak production and employed approximately 9,500 workers of whom around 3,000 were women.
A C.O.W. Ltd. “Special War Service” Badge bearing the enamelled image of a 4.5-inch Howitzer (issued c.1914-15).
By the time of the outbreak of the war, the C.O.W. was very well established and, via some of its new acquisitions, had even attempted to break into new military markets (e.g. the “Coventry Ordnance Works Biplane”, a military aircraft developed in 1912 but which unfortunately failed to be majorly successful). Apart from Naval Guns (of various sizes) and their associated mountings, other of the company’s principal products included 4.5-inch Howitzers and 15-inch Siege Howitzers which entered production in 1910 and 1913 respectively.
A 15-inch Siege Howitzer on the Western Front (1914-18).
Although only entering service at the end of the war, another of the company’s famous products was the 37 mm gun which was developed in 1917 and was the first modern automatic cannon.
After the end of the war, the C.O.W. saw a rapid decrease in its orders and in 1919, the Coventry Works was taken over by the English Electric Company (E.E.C.). In the resulting post war recession, the British ordnance and munitions industries E.E.C. struggled to make profits resulting in the Coventry Works eventually closing in 1925.
A female worker at the Coventry Ordnance Works helped by workmates to exit from a 15-inch Naval Gun barrel carrying out an internal inspection of it (1914-18).
In the lead-up to the Second World War, the site of the Coventry Works was again re-commissioned for making gun mountings. After the war, the site continued to build naval guns into the late 1960s, building the “standard” 4.5-inch turrets for the County class destroyers and other classes.
Parts of the perimeter walls plus some structural building elements of the original factory still exist on the site of the former works which is now largely occupied by an industrial estate.
For more on the site’s history, click on the “Gramophone” image below where a web link will take the reader to an oral history recording about the works which was made as part of the BBC Radio’s “World War I at Home” Series.
Coventry, Warwickshire, England.
Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:
Type I (Note 2)
Function: Unknown (Note 1)
Design: Bifacial with reeded/milled.
Shape & Size: Circular, 32.5 mm
Obverse: Raised legend around edge reads THE COVENTRY ORDNANCE WORKS LIMITED . all within an outer beaded and raised edge border. Incuse stamped identification number 3 in centre of field.
Reverse: Blank apart from an outer beaded and raised edge border.
Date: c.1910-1919 (Note 2).
Published References: None.
- There is nothing in the shape, size or legend of the check to indicate its likely former purpose. However, it was likely used as either a time recording or toll loan check.
- Given the use of the generic name “Coventry Ordnance Works” as that adopted by the consortium which ran this multi-operating site company, it is not possible with certainty to assign the use of this check to the company’s main Coventry manufacturing works which operated between 1905 and 1925.