Diss U3A January 2015 Meeting – “Steel Yourself!” The story of Old Hall stainless steel tableware

Steel3“Steel Yourself!”     The story of Old Hall stainless steel tableware – Jon Read.  The trigger for Old Hall tableware was the discovery by Harry Brearley (born 1871, Sheffield) of ‘rustless steel’. Son of a steelworker, Harry began to research steels that could withstand intense heat. During a troubled period before WW1, arms manufacturing increased significantly. However, the excessive heat caused the erosion of the internal surfaces of gun barrels. Harry began to research new steels that might be able to resist this erosion and discovered that the addition of chromium, with a higher melting point, to steel, could solve the problem.  Thus, he is considered by many to be the inventor of stainless steel.

The next meeting of Diss U3A will be on Thursday 5th February 2015, commencing at 10.30, at Diss United Reform Church.  The guest speaker will be Anne May who will give a talk called, ‘Fans-tastic – the History of Fans. 

For further information on Diss U3A please visit the website:  www.dissu3a.org.uk

James Thomas Wiggin (born 1893) and his son, James Enoch,  set up a small business in harness and buckle manufacture, in Bloxwich, Walsall. As the business flourished they moved to a Salvation Army Hall in 1901, hence the trade name ‘Old Hall’. All five sons joined the family business.

After the war, during which time the Old Hall was used for munitions, other products were tried out such as windscreens and roller-skates.  The term ‘staybrite’ was used to describe these non-rusting steel goods.

Steel1The first tableware was a toaster, made by another of James’s sons, William, for his wife. They were celebrating their silver wedding and had been given many gifts made of silver.  Nellie, reluctant to do all the silver cleaning, had suggested James make something out of the same staybrite material as their bathroom fittings. The success of their first toaster inspired Nellie to design a teapot to be made in stainless steel (1930).

Today, his grandson, Nigel Wiggin, is the owner of the first one of these teapots, which cost him 25 shillings. There are now 200 of these teapots and, we were told, they NEVER drip!  These were the forerunners of Old Hall stainless steelware.

Much time was spent running advertising campaigns in the press and having stands at trade and public exhibitions. In 1934 the Wiggins’s tableware range was displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, known as ‘Staybrite City’. Many other items were displayed along with the famous toaster and teapot, such as, trays, cake stands, cruets, vegetable dishes, sauceboats and candlesticks.

In 1938 a leading industrial designer joined their company, Harold Stabler.  Until then, the family had always designed their own tableware. Harold was commissioned to design a new range of tea and coffee tableware but unfortunately, his more elaborate designs had to be shelved due to the outbreak of WW2. After the war his designs were considered to be too costly and were abandoned.

Steel2The company continued to expand after the war with a huge increase in exports, in particular to hospitals, hotels and other catering outlets.  In  1955 a new design consultant was appointed, Robert Welch.  The Campden range was his first major project and his four-section toast rack won ‘Design of the Year’ award from the Council of Industrial Design. This was a hugely successful period for the Old Hall business. The company was awarded the contract to supply the 42,500 ton luxury ocean liner ‘Oriana’ with all its stainless steel tableware.  By the late 60s, the company was employing 500 people. Two more prestigious awards had been gained; one for a set of 22 matching dishes in 1962 and the other for the Alveston range of cutlery, in 1965.

Later developments included a takeover by Prestige and finally by Oneida.  The factory closed down in 1984 but fascination with the Wiggins’s innovative range of products in the first half of the 20th century has not waned.

Jon Read started his collection with a tea strainer.  A good friend with a teashop in Wales once asked him if he would search out some more stainless steel for his shop. During this quest, Jon tried the factory in Norwich which had recently closed down. Next, he placed an advert in a Walsall paper.  He received many responses with offers of stainless steel tableware, including one from Nigel Wiggin, great grandson of the now famous Staffordshire blacksmith James Thomas Wiggin. This encounter became a lifelong friendship. Together, Jon and Nigel started the Old Hall club and by 1998 they had over 200 members.

Jon showed us his own fascinating personal collection which includes, a stirrup for an army horse, a tureen, a hammered tea pot with a ‘stay cool’ handle, a finger held toast rack, and a collapsible cake stand. Jon and his wife are indeed avid collectors. Daphne has collected over 300 sugar casters, and a variety of typewriters. It was obvious, from the number of questions raised at the end of this intriguing talk that many of us have fond memories of the stainless steel era. We were left with two tips, firstly, to use a Chantry knife sharpener, but perhaps not on the bread knife, and secondly to beware the corrosive effects of salt and sweaty hands!

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