In the early 1870s, the first clangs of metal rang out in a workshop overlooked by Shakespeare’s church – sounding the humble beginnings of a company that would go on to gain royal patronage and become a world leader in its field.
Bell & Thorpe’s company began producing metal garden labels in unassuming surroundings on Chestnut Walk, close to the playwright’s final resting place at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The business gained the attention of Stratfordian John Smith, who eventually took over and moved the premises from College Paddock to 41 Rother Street, behind the former Great Western Arms pub, which is now The New Lamplighter.
He named the company ‘The Metallic Label Works’ and trademarked ‘The Stratford’ in 1875. The document, and notes about the company’s history, are held in archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT).
Queen Victoria was so impressed by the cast iron garden labels, with their raised lettering and bold, clear rendering, that she commissioned them for her rose gardens at Sandringham and granted permission for the business to use the ‘Royal’ prefix in its title.
The company became known around the world as Royal Labels Factory, with the unmistable imprints denoting roads, streets and other places in Africa, Canada, India and the West Indies. The raised lettering on the signs, which at this time was unique, had made such an impression on the Queen as it was reported that she was experiencing problems with her eyesight and the letters could be used like braille.
The words made in Stratford were shipped to some of the farthest reaches of the world
In fact, the quality of these labels has been recognised again in recent years when Westonbirt Arboretum unearthed over 100 late 19th century metal labels in 2007.
The labels that were discovered were a variety of sizes bearing the names of trees and shrubs and on the reverse side appeared the words ‘J.Smith, Royal Labels Factory, Stratford on Avon.’ By November 1918, Royal Labels moved to College Lane in Old Town where it began to produce road signs in vast quantities that met the specification of the Ministry of Transport.
Across the world and in particular the Commonwealth, the company’s cross road, level crossing, Halt and Slow signs were renowned and were produced for these export markets in aluminium and iron. During the Second World War a further diversification took place with the factory producing aircraft parts as part of the war effort. After the war, the firm returned back to sign production. An insight into the high level of craftsmanship can be seen in an illustrated catalogue by the industrious makers which is held at the SBT.
By now, the signs were cast in high-grade silicon aluminium and finished by spraying with synthetic enamels and oven stored, according to notes held at the SBT. The opening of the Chipping Norton site in 1963 signalled the beginning of the end for the Stratford factory and slowly production was transferred over until the eventual demise of the College Lane business in 1982. The site was converted into housing and there are now few clues as to the previous occupants of College Mews.
Royal Labels has continued to trade and are now located in Buxton in Derbyshire where they are part of Leander Architectural, producing signs currently for the National Trust and Military Memorials. Far from being flossy Victoriana, the bold, durable letting can still be seen on signs and lamposts today.
Much of the manufacturing business of Stratford has now disappeared, but it is important to remember the contribution of many local firms in the Second World War and a time when the words made in Stratford appeared around the world.