Sankey's were big. They started off by being big in Bilston, then they got to being big nationally and internationally. They ended up as part of the GKN Group. It seems that if it was made out of metal, they made it. They were popularly known for domestic hollowware, for Sankey-Sheldon steel office furniture, and fo r Sankey vending machines but their range of products was much wider than that.
This history of the firm has been constructed mainly from George T. Lawley, History of Bilston, John Price and Sons, Bilston, 1893; and from a history of the firm, doubtless provided by the firm, in the Wolverhampton Official handbook for 1953.
According the firm's own history Joseph Sankey was born in 1826 and became a workman in a blankshop in Bilston making and japanning tea trays. A blankshop was a factory, usually a small one, which made items, usually of domestic ware, taking them up to the point where a finish was to be applied. These blanks were then sold on to other factories where a finish, such as lacquer or enamel, and any decoration, was applied. Blankshops often made only one sort of blank and there seems to have been a tremendous demand for tea trays. In view of Sankey's later history it seems most likely that this blankshop made tin trays, stamping them out of sheet iron. The alternative would have been papier mache.
The company's history says that at some point Sankey and two other workmen, Hartill and Jackson, set up on their own account in Dudley Street, Bilston, presumably also making blanks. Hartill died in 1854. In that year Jackson took Joseph Sankey into partnership. Lawley's version, which is practically the same, is that "the business was founded many years ago in a small blank tray manufactory, near High Street, which was owned by Messrs. Hartill and Jackson, and was eventually transferred to its present site, in 1854, where new premises were built and the business continued on a more extended scale by Messrs. Jackson and Sankey."
In 1861 this partnership was dissolved and Sankey took over sole control with Jackson as his foreman. The firm's history says "the business prospered and the range of products increased from the original tea trays to embrace many kinds of hollow-ware such as frying pans, bake pans, shovels, kettles, etc.".
Lawley continues the story: "In 1878, Mr. Sankey took into partnership his eldest son, Mr. John William Sankey, who had for some years previously taken an active part in the management, and who on the death of Mr. Joseph Sankey, in 1886, took over the entire control of the business. In this year, the old-established business of the late Mr. J. P. Whitehead, blank tray manufacturer, of Bow Street, was bought by Messrs. Sankey, and ceased to exist as a separate concern". By 1874 the firm employed 65 people.
The company history records that "About 1886 it was becoming evident that armatures for dynamos would in future be made from charcoal sheet iron instead of solid wound cores and early in 1887 Sankey's booked their first order for stampings of this nature for Siemens through a merchant firm in London, Harold and Jenkins. It is believed that their first stampings were made form the scrap centres of rims of the new bicycles which were coming into vogue at that time.... That was the beginning of the Electrical Laminations business. In February 1899 Sankeys bought this business outright from Harold and Jenkins, who subsequently acted as their agents".
Lawley says that "In 1890, the firm patented a new process for the decoration of tin plates, and during the last two years an entirely new branch has been added in the manufacture by this process of their patent "Neptune Art Ware," comprising trays, waiters, candlesticks, bread baskets, etc., in various shapes and of different designs." To judge by a catalogue issued by the firm in 1910 this was a system of embossing designs onto sheet metal which was then used to manufacture domestic items. The catalogue offers such items in "coloured" form, so the process may have included a way of adding some sort of permanent colour to the metal or parts of it.
In March, 1891, Frederick E. Sankey, and George H. Sankey were admitted into partnership. Presumably these are sons of J. W. Sankey. But according to the Victoria County History of Staffordshire, Volume 2, p.56, "the incursion of [Joseph Sankey's] sons John and George into the electrical field dates from 1886 when they pioneered the manufacture of electrical laminations for motors, dynamos and transformers". This lead to expansion of the Albert Street works in 1893 and the purchase of the Bankfield works in 1900. All electrical stampings were moved there.