The Industrial History of Rugby



Until the arrival of the canals in the 1770's the Rugby area was rural with only traditional village industries such as corn milling and blacksmithing. Rugby was not big enough to support any of the agricultural engineering industries that existed in larger market towns. The area's limestone and gravel was probably exploited on a small scale for local use. The lime industry developed once the canal could bring in fuel and distribute the burnt lime to a large area. Some firms converted to the new cement products in the mid 19th century.

Rugby got into the railway age early, being on the first trunk main line - between London and Birmingham. Building started in 1835 and the line was opened in 1838. When the line to Nottingham and Derby opened in 1840 Rugby became the major junction of the period. Although the effect on the town was significant, because of the numbers of railway workers moving here, other industries were slow to arrive. During the 1890's railway locomotive and wagon engineering facilities were developed, both by the LNWR and Thomas Hunters,

The railway let the cement industry expand further and as the town grew a local brick industry developed. Also sand and gravel extraction on a major scale started. The brick industry has died out but sand and gravel extraction continues. The cattle market grew rapidly once the station gave an advantage over the traditional local markets.

Although some factories were developed in the 1880's employing local women it was the turn of the century before heavy industry arrived. The new industry developed the new technology - electricity -which had only started in general use in the late 1870's. Willans and Robinson were the first to arrive in 1899 to build high speed reciprocating steam engines to drive electric generators.

The British Thomson-Houston Company built their works in Mill Road in 1902 making electric motors and generators. They started making turbines in 1904, about the same time as the Willans and were in competition for 65 years. The rivals became united within GEC in 1969.

The first half of this century saw the development of other new technologies. Lodge Plugs moved to Eastlands in 1916 and around the 2nd World War the Roots Plant at Ryton and the Rolls Royce works at Ansty were built.

The last 30 years has seen another transport lead influx as Rugby again became an important junction - this time for the motorway network. This development has been and continues to be to the north, near the motorways, and has not affected the town its self. However the decline of town center industry has ment that many old industrial sites have been redeveloped, often for housing.



The Oxford Canal was built around Rugby in 1773 following the 300ft contour. This saved having to build large earthworks but produced long loops up the Avon and Swift Valleys, almost doubling the length. Between 1829 and 1834 the canal was almost rebuilt, replacing the loops with new aqueducts. Some of the old line of the canal became 'Arms' continuing to serve wharfs along them - e.g. Rugby Wharf, other lengths remained as water supply feeders - such as the east side of the Swift Valley. Other lengths were abandoned totally and the only trace of them is curved hedges in areas of square fields. The main canal in Rugby has remained in use although the settlements serving it at Newbold and Hillmorton have changed in character since freight traffic ceased.


At its height rails converged on Rugby from 9 directions operated by 3 different companies. In the last 30 years 5 of the lines have been closed and most of the railway buildings have been demolished. What is left is a fine collection of bridges and some examples of railway company housing.

Railway Locomotive Testing Station

The Locomotive Testing Station was the idea of Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LNER. Building started in 1936 as a joint project with the LMS railway, but was stopped during the war. It finally opened in 1948 under British Railways. Testing of Steam and Diesel locomotives continued until 1965 but the station did not officially close until 1970. The building was demolished in 1984.

The plant consisted of a main testing area containing the rolling road and measuring equipment with a locomotive preparation area / workshop in a lean-to extension on the north side.

Industry in the town

The area between Railway Terrace and Albert Street, when first developed in the 19th century was occupied by industrial and commercial activities. Apart from the gas works there were a number of timber yards and lots of small workshops and warehouses. In the last 30 years most of the area has been redeveloped.

Warehouses / workshops in stood where Pinders Court is now as well as in Pinders Lane. The old Postal Sorting Office, stood in Murray Road north of the Cattle Market. All this area was demolished in 1984-85.


Messrs. Willans & Robinson's Victoria Works

Willans and Robinson's was the first major engineering firm to move to Rugby, opening it's works in 1899. Their main product was high speed steam engines to drive electric generators both in power stations and ships. The development of the steam turbine soon made the engines obsolete and were not used for power stations in Britain after 1914.

The works was described as making "steam turbines & oil engines" when taken over by Dick, Kerr of Kilmarnock in 1916. They formed the English Electric Company in 1919.

British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd.

The British Thomson-Houston Co. was formed in 1894 to use in the U.K the patents of what became General Electric of the U.S.A. By 1899 they wanted a factory site and chose Rugby. The factory opened in 1902 making electric lamps, motors, generators and meters, Very quickly the product range and the site expanded. At some time or other practically every type of electric powered device was produced by BTH at Rugby. By 1930 the works had expanded across the footpath towards the Leicester Road. Large factories were built for making lamps and motor frames.

The AEI group was formed in 1928 but the name was not used on products until 1961.

The Boughton Road site was not developed until the 2nd World War to make magnetoes for aircraft engines and other war products. The AEI research lab was added in 1960.

The size of the site peaked around 1960. Since 1970 the product range has been rationalised and the redundant buildings removed.

More details of BTH site



The first gas works in Rugby was opened in Gas Street in the 1830's. By the 1870's a larger works was opened beside the railway in Wood Street. Gas holders remained on the original site until the turn of the century when a holder was built in Newbold Road, opposite Wood Street. In 1929 C & W Walker built a second holder. The gas works closed on the conversion to natural gas c 1970. Both of the Newbold Road holders were demolished in 1984.


A water tower was opened in Barby Lane in 1851 collecting water from adjacent fields. The Mill Road works taking water from the Avon opened in 1864. The water tower was demolished in 1965 but some buildings remained on the site until recently.

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© 2004 Rugby Local History Research Group
[ Version C1 31/01/2004 ]