Workers leaving Kynoch Limited’s Lion Works in Witton, c.1890s.
Facility Type & Function:
A privately operated explosives munitions works belonging to Kynoch & Company (later Kynoch Limited). Engaged in the manufacture of cartridges, small arms and rifle ammunition, fuses, shell cases and cordite.
In 1856 the Scottish entrepreneur, George Kynoch, joined Pursall & Phillips who operated a percussion cap factory in Whittall Street, Birmingham. However, in 1859 an explosion at the works destroyed it and killed 19 of its 70 employees. As a result, in 1861/2 the firm moved to what was consider a more remote and safer 4 acre site location in the rural village of Witton, then on the outskirts of Birmingham. Here they constructed a new percussion cap and cartridge works adjacent to the London and North Western Railway’s Grand Junction line.
By 1862 George Kynoch was proprietor of the new works along with a sheet metal rolling mill the company owned in Water Street, Birmingham.
Despite the new works having a dedicated gun powder magazine the its safety record was still poor. During the 1860s and in 1870 it suffered a series of devastating explosions which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. However, business remained strong and George Kynoch made significant developments in cartridge production technology which he patented allowing him to expand production at what was now known as Kynoch and Company’s Lion Works. The association of Kynoch and the Lion was so strong that the left facing head of a lion was to become used as the company’s trade mark emblem.
Workers leaving Kynoch Limited’s Lion Works in the early 1900s.
In 1872 the Lion Works expanded further as an additional 19 acres of land was added to it. By 1882 it was the second largest ammunition works in Britain, employing 800 staff who produced 400,000 cartridges per day. At this time Kynoch’s also procured a separate gun factory to add to the company’s portfolio.
In the immediate years that followed George Kynoch pursued even bigger plans for the Lion Works but his interests in public and political service demanded more of his personal time. By 1884 his interests in the Lion Works had been bought out by Kynoch & Co. A new board of directors was established for the company with George elected as its managing director. However, the new arrangements bought him into direct conflict with the company’s board of directors. The situation continued to worsen leading to George’s resignation from the company in 1888. Thereafter, Arthur Chamberlain was appointed as the company’s new Chairman, a position he held for a further 25 years.
Shortly after taking over the company Arthur Chamberlain disposed of two of its unsuccessful subsidiaries, the lamp factory and the gun business. The metal rolling plant in Water Street, Birmingham, still owned by George Kynoch, was bought by the Company and an option to purchase a larger mill in Lodge Road in the city. These moves gave the Company security of metal supply and control over quality. Shortly afterwards work started on a new .303 cartridge plant, a Q.F. (quick-firing) shell factory and a fuse-making department. Determined measures were taken to improve quality control across the business. The company procured a further 85 acres of land at Witton and Streetly in order to provide improved magazines and adequate proof ranges. Attempts to change the factory name from Lion Works, which was thought to be too closely associated with George Kynoch, to the Witton Ammunition Works were however unsuccessful.
By 1891 the company’s meticulous attention to production quality plus safety standards at the Lion Works brought rewards in the form of additional Government contracts. In addition to its military ammunition work the Company’s 3000 strong workforce are producing half a million sporting cartridges a week.
Between 1893 and 1896 the company entered the explosives making industry by buying out the Yorkshire based company, Shortridge & Wright. It had a rapid expansion and opened new works. A cordite factory in Arklow, Ireland and a 750 acre explosives works at Kynochtown, Essex. Meanwhile the Lion works continued to expand adding shells of various types to its product range as well as a bicycle works. In 1897, in order to fund its rapid expansion the company re-formed as Kynoch Limited.
The out break of the Second Boer War in 1899 saw further increased demand for the company’s products from the British Government and increased profits allows it to continue to expand its interests. By this time it is even producing its own machine gun.
The Workers’ Pay Office at the Lion Works, c.1900
In the early 1900s the company saw a turn down in its traditional lines of business. This lead to a scaling down or close several of its works although a diversification into other product lines, such as printing and motorcycle manufacture, assisted it in these difficult times.
Within weeks of the outbreak of the Great War the company received increasing contracts from the British Government. Cartridge production rose steeply from 4.0 to 7.5 million per week. As the war progresses Kynoch Limited received further huge contracts for shell cases, detonators, cordite, acetone and other products. At the peak of the war effort 18,000 people were employed at the Lion Works many of whom were women, known locally as the “Kynoch Angels”. Throughout the war Kynoch’s employees pay levels remained good and the status of the company’s workers protected them from conscription. The typical weekly output of the Lion Works during the war was:
- 25 million rounds of rifle ammunition
- 700,000 rounds of revolver ammunition
- 5 million cartridge clips
- 110,000 cartridge cases for field guns
- 200 tons cordite
H.M King George V on a visit to the Lion Works in 1915.
At the end of the war Kynoch’s munition orders collapsed resulting in the closure of several of the company’s operating sites. However, the Lion Works remained open.
In order to save the British munitions and explosives industries from total collapse it underwent unavoidable rationalization. In November 1918 Britain’s largest munitions manufacturers combined to form Explosive Trades Ltd. although this was quickly re-named Nobel Industries Ltd. This was a merger of Nobel Explosives, Kynoch Ltd. and other former competitors in the industry.
After the General Strike of 1926 further rationalization resulted in the merger of Nobel Industries Ltd., Brunner Mond & Co. Ltd., The United Alkali Co. Ltd. and British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd. to form a new industrial conglomerate which took the name Imperial Chemical Industries (I.C.I.) Ltd. By 1929 the trading name of Kynoch Ltd. had disappeared being replaced by I.C.I. Metals Ltd. The Lion Works was re-named the Kynoch Works and became the head office and principal manufacturing base of I.C.I.’s Metals Division, later to become better known as Imperial Metals Industries (I.M.I.).
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 is part of the BBC Radio’s “World War I at Home” Series.
Witton, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England
Associated Token, Check & Pass Issues:
Function: Canteen/Refreshment Token
Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge
Shape & Size: Circular, 32.0 mm
Obverse: Raised legend around upper half reads KYNOCH & Co with ornate symmetrical scroll work either side of a star in lower half, in centre field, within a circular line border, 3D, all within an outer beaded and raised edge border.
Reverse: Raised legend around upper edge reads LION WORKS . WITTON . In the centre field, within a circular line border, 3D
Date: c.1888 to 1897 but possibly continued in use much later
Published References: Unknown.
Function: Time Registration Check
Material: Cupro-nickel alloy
Design: Bi-facial with a plain edge
Shape & Size: Circular, 32.3 mm
Obverse: Legend around upper half of edge reads G. KYNOCH & Co LIMITED and around lower half * TIME CHECK * and within the centre field the stamped number 1940 all within an out raised edge border.
Reverse: Legend around upper half of edge reads LION WORKS and around lower half * WITTON * all within an out raised edge border.
Date: 1897 to c.1929
Published References: Unknown
Image Courtesy of Ralph Hayes
Function: Pay Collection Identification Check (Unissued example – Note 1)
Design: Uniface with a plain edge
Shape & Size: Circular, 37.0 mm
Obverse: Raised legend upper half reads KYNOCH LIMITED and in the centre field a blank space for a stamped identification number above a raised line below which a legend reads PAY CHECK .
Date: 1897 to c.1929
Published References: Hayes, R. – Time, Pay and Tool Checks. Part 15. Token Corresponding Society Bulletin. Volume 9. Issue No. 6.
- This pay check is attributed to Kynoch’s Lion Works. Similarly designed brass checks are known to have been used at the company’s Kynochtown works. While these checks have a near identical obverse design their reverse bears the raised legend THAMES EXPLOSIVE WORKS which clearly identifies their location of issue and use.