It took just one bright idea almost a hundred years ago to spawn what became Walsall’s largest private sector employer.
At its height in the 1970s JA Crabtree & Co employed 3,000 people at its Lincoln Works factory where it made lighting switches, based on an original design and patent by John Ashworth Crabtree.
Now a new book, The Crabtree Story, is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the town’s biggest manufacturer – the first visit of a monarch to Walsall.
The Crabtree Society, which represents former employees of the firm, has painstakingly researched and interviewed workers and collected a treasure trove of photographs to create a comprehensive history of the business.
John Crabtree was born on October 24 1886 in Broughton, Lancashire. His father died when he was five and his mother relocated the family to Yardley in Birmingham, where young Crabtree did his engineering apprenticeship at Veritys and Tuckers switchgear companies.
He founded JA Crabtree & Co in 1919 after patenting the “quick make and brake” tumbler switch at a disused leather works in Upper Rushall Street in Walsall, now the Lyndon House Hotel.
The switch was so successful it was not long before the company outgrew the premises and a seven-acre field was bought in the Chuckery district in 1923. In three years the company built a new factory named Lincoln Works, employing some 600 people.
Crabtree Society chairman Allan Preston said: “When Mr Crabtree formed his own business and was looking for a premises it was cheaper in Walsall and there was a supply of people who were used to using their fingers in leather work. He needed people with nimble fingers.”
He added: “The book is a labour of love. A man from Dublin who worked for Crabtree for three years in the 1960s is coming over for the book launch.
“It had such an impression on him he started a website in Ireland about the company.”
JA Crabtree manufactured the first all-plastic moulded switch – the Lincoln Switch – in 1929, many of which are still in daily use, testament to the company’s slogan in the 1920s: “That which is built soundly endures well”.
By the mid-1930s the company employed more than 1,000 people at the Lincoln Works but in autumn 1935, after a business trip to the USA, Mr Crabtree contracted pneumonia and died on November 27 at the age of 49.
His widow took a leading role in the company for 25 years and their eldest son of the same name later took the position of chairman and managing director of the company.
The company carried on manufacturing throughout the Second World War and by the 1950s the its product range had grown to include motor control gears and circuit breakers.
In 1972, with more than 3,000 employees, Crabtree was acquired by the British Ever Ready Company.
Following a succession of owners it was then bought by Electrium, a subsidiary of Siemens, in 2006, with a head office in Cannock.
The public book launch will be the Lyndon House Hotel from 4pm to 9pm, where there will be a display of memorabilia and a screening of BBC archive footage.
The book is £20 with all proceeds going to the Electrical & Electronics Industries Benevolent Association.