Long-serving Hill and Smith staff recount stories of hard graft, fun times and feeling valued
Generations of employees from a historic West Midlands iron manufacturer, which once supplied fencing to Queen Victoria, have shared their fondest memories of the business to mark 100 years since it began creating public safety products.
When Hill and Smith first opened its doors in Brierley Hill, nearly 200 years ago, it specialised in the manufacture of puddling machines, ornamental gates, fences and structural steel work. As trusted experts in the industry, Hill and Smith were tasked with creating fencing for Queen Victoria in 1860, ornamental gates for King Chulalongkorn of Siam in around 1900 and materials for the Naval Base at Simonstown, South Africa in 1910. The company also provided components for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, and, closer to home, created the dome steelwork at Birmingham University.
In 1922, the direction of the company’s manufacturing changed, focusing on steel railings and bridges, with public safety at the forefront of its work. In the 1970s, Hill and Smith began manufacturing crash barriers for the Department for Transport. These were the very first UK tested restraint systems on the market. Seventy years on, Hill and Smith is one of few manufacturers that still supply this legacy system to National Highways, helping to keep users of the Strategic Road Network safe.
Now based in Bilston, Wolverhampton, Hill and Smith has become one of the UK’s best-known road safety and vehicle restraint system (VRS) manufacturers.
Celebrating 100 years of safety
To mark its centenary of safety and as the company unveils its new branding, its longest-serving employees have spoken out about their time at Hill and Smith and what the company’s heritage means to them. The company’s longest-serving current employee is Alan Bill, 60, who joined the firm as a welder, in 1979.
Alan was keen to follow in the footsteps of his mother, who herself worked for Hill and Smith for more than 30 years, having joined the company in 1965. “My mother always enjoyed her time with the company. One day she told me that a job had become available. I applied and got the job, aged 19, “ said Alan. “I’m proud to have worked for the same company for so many years. I’ve always been happy and always felt like an important part of the team.”
Soot, ash and snow
His mother Barbara May remembers harsh factory working conditions in the 1960s, but she and her colleagues, who were responsible for riveting and assembling security fences, always felt well looked after.
Barbara said: “The working conditions were tough in the early years with floors of soot and ash, and when it snowed it came through the roof into the factory. But we just wiped it off and carried on working.”
Another long-standing Hill and Smith employee, Simon Bevan, began making security fences at the company in 1980 after leaving school, and has stayed with the company ever since. This time it was Simon’s mother, Peggy Cole, who followed in his footsteps, becoming the factory’s cook in 1981 until 1996. But word of their enjoyable and stable employment at Hill and Smith spread quickly among Simon’s family, with his Aunt and Uncle, Anne and Peter Thursfield, both taking on long-term roles within the company.
Simon, now 57, said; “I didn’t intend to spend long with the company. I took the job while waiting to go into the armed forces, but in the end I decided to stay. I remember my first wage was £27.50 for 40 hours’ work.”
He added: “My family and I have always been happy to work for Hill and Smith, and have made some real friends during our time with the company.”
Hill and Smith… and Jones?
But it was the Jones family that made the biggest mark on the firm, with five family members working at the company since the 1970s. Brothers Ronald and David Jones began working at the company in 1971, followed by Ronald’s son, Darren Jones, who joined in 1990, and Darren’s cousins, Lee and Shaun Jones, also taking on positions.
“At one point there were so many family members employed at the company, it became a standing joke that the company was Hill and Smith and Jones Ltd!” said Darren.
Ronald and David, who have both since retired following more than 30 years’ service each, worked on a large coil slitting line that supplied material for all of the factory departments. Darren added: “My Dad and Uncle both worked very hard, but they loved their time at Hill and Smith, and always mentioned with fondness the continual jokes and special comradery that they had with their friends and colleagues.” For Darren, now 53, the most memorable moments of his career were receiving his 25 years’ service award, moving from the Brierley Hill site to Bilston in 1998 and seeing my father and uncle reach retirement.
A real Black Country business
Operations Manager, Alan Millard, 52, joined the company 36 years ago as a picker and packer in the dispatch department and worked his way up to where he is today. Also following in the footsteps of his family members, Alan’s two cousins already worked at the company and told him that a job had become available. He was interviewed and started that very day.
He said: “Hill and Smith has always been a real Black Country business and a fantastic company to work for, going over and above to look after its employees.
“There have obviously been many changes during my employment, but these sentiments have always seemed to remain a constant from the company and continue to be so today. I have never wanted to work anywhere else.” He added: “Our teams have a close bond which has created a ‘can do’ environment where anything can be achieved. Colleagues, both past and present, have all contributed to shaping and making the business what it is today.”
Peter Wilkinson, Managing Director of Hill and Smith, said: “I’m very proud of Hill and Smith’s heritage and longevity. Our generations of long-serving, loyal team members are testament to our caring environment and positive safety culture, which is now stronger than ever before.”