Posted by: kbenoy | July 4, 2012

William Lea & Co

One of the oldest ledgers in the Smith, Son & Wilkie collection is that of William Lea & Co, dating from 1869-1902. Their records show they were clients of the accountancy firm from at least 1876.

William Lea & Co Ledger D-SSW/2/LEA/1

This ledger is one of the more attract volumes within this collection. It was suffering with red rot and has been treated by Jon, the Conservator.

Cover detail

Cover corner detail

 Beautiful panel detailing can be seen on the cover and in the corners of this ledger, originally bought from Steen & Blacket, late Simpson & Steen, of Wolverhampton.

Steen & Blacket label

The history of William Lea & Co has been researched by Christine, one of the project volunteers who has put together the following information.

William Lea and Co. was a Brass Foundry operating from Bloomsbury Foundry, 106, Pool Street, Wolverhampton. The ledger in the Smith, Son and Wilkie collection contains entries from 1869 to 1902 with a full summary of accounts from 1869 to 1882. However, prior to 1869 the foundry seems to have operated as Lea, William and John from at least 1849 when the Wolverhampton Directory described William and John Lea as general brass founders and manufacturers of patent rack bolts operating in Pool St. By 1850 they were listed in Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham, Staffordshire and Worcestershire as general brass and cock founders and an advertisement in the 1851 Slater’s Directory of Birmingham, Worcestershire and The Potteries was for William and John Lea, Bloomsbury Foundry, manufacturers of patent double action mortice bolts, suitable for French casements etc, brass cocks and patent cabinet locks, cast brass foundry of every description.

In 1851 William and John Lea are listed in the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations volume 2 (London 1851) exhibiting a range of brass and security items including fasteners for saches, alarm bells for doors or shutters, stays for French casements, Gothic hinge handle and Escutshion, ornamental handles for locks etc, brass bell  handles, latches for closet doors and shutter, brass cabinet lock suitable for French Casements, cupboards and wardrobes, a model showing the registered bolt and night latches. Then in 1855 William and John Lea of Wolverhampton are listed in the Paris Exhibition catalogue exhibiting ‘brass goods’.

More details of the work carried out at the Bloomsbury Foundry comes from evidence given 1861 for the Parliamentary Commission Report into the Employment of Children when the commissioner, F.D. Longe interviewed several people at Messers. Lea’s foundry including John Lea, Junior, Thomas Burton, Iron founder, John Smith, assistant to brass caster, Robert Brookes, brass caster, Joseph Jones, keymaker and William Stuart, Locksmith. Longe reported that brass casting is very unhealthy work since a quantity of oxide of zinc is thrown off in pouring the metal into moulds and this white powder hangs around the shop and is inhaled by the workmen and their boys. Robert Brookes, brass caster told the commissioner that few men therefore continue in this work after 40 years of age whilst John Lea, jnr confirms this and stated that asthma is common amongst brass casters after they are about 21 years old. He also stated that there were no boys under 13 years of age and no girls under 18 were employed at their works.  Longe reports that women and girls working in brass foundries would be in the finishing and lacquering shops on work which needed some skill and care. An Iron Founder, Lock maker and Key maker also gave evidence at Messrs Lea Foundry site and Longe had stated that at larger manufacturies a range of various kinds of hardware goods, including lock making were often combined on one site. The lock maker stated that much of the lock making was done off site as home working in small workshops and backrooms with the product sold to manufacturers and factors.

The Directory & Gazetteer of  Staffordshire, 1861, Harrison and Harrod listed patent double action mortice bolts suitable for French casements, wardrobes, chaffioneers and all folding doors as well as brass cocks and patent brass cabinet locks plus brass cast foundry of every description. An advertisement in the same directory describes their patent self lubricating cock with no vent peg required.

During this time William Lea senior lived at Penn Fields Cottage, Penn with his family including two sons, William junior (born 1841) and John junior (born 1843) who also worked as brass founders. William Lea senior’s brother, Alexander Lea also worked in the family business. At some time between the 1861 and 1871 census William Lea senior moved with his wife, two daughters and younger son John to Isledon Rd, Islington, London. By 1871 his occupation is described as ‘iron merchant’ whilst his younger son John is described as an ‘iron agent’. In the same census the elder son William is still a brass founder lodging in Penn Fields, Wolverhampton. If William Lea, junior is the William Lea of William Lea and Co. then nevertheless his father and brother continue to be involved in the Bloomsbury Foundry and Alexander Lea is also paid from the firm’s profits.

On 1st January 1876 William Lea senior dies (noted in the firm’s ledger) and it is later that year that John Lea loans his brother money towards a new Cornish boiler. This loan is paid back with interest over 3 years. It also appears from the ledger that John Lea acted as a travelling agent for William Lea & Co. The firm’s record for innovation and invention continued and the London Gazetteer of 28th February 1873 listed provisional protection being granted under the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 to William Lea, Junior of Wolverhampton, brass founder, for the invention of “improvements in roller blind movements or furniture”.

By the 1881 census John Lea is living at 112, Tufnell Park Rd, Islington, London and is a widower with two daughters and one son. His widowed mother Emma Lea is there as housekeeper and John Lea’s occupation is described as Iron Home and Export Merchant. From 1899 to 1902 John’s daughter Lillian was also receiving payments from William Lea and Co. and these payments were recorded in the Accounts Ledger.



  1. Hello, I have a piece of Arts & Crafts or Mackintosh-style dining room furniture I bought in Chicago in 1989; I was told it was found in a barn in Scotland. Now I see it has the L&C marks on the original brass handles. I am trying to trace the origin of the piece. Do you have any suggestions for me?

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