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William Robert Renshaw, 1845-1923

William Robert Renshaw was my great-grandfather. That is, he was my father's mother's father. Almost everything I know about him is summarised by the following obituary column which I think is from the Staffordshire Sentinel.

Obituary of W.R.Renshaw


Well-known Engineer's Death

It is with great regret that we announce the death of Mr. William Robert Renshaw which occurred at his residence, Northcote House, Stoke-on-Trent, on Monday.

Although he always led a retired and studious life, and took no active part in public affairs, few men were better known in the district, especially among those connected with the profession of mining engineering.

Mr. Renshaw's career had about it many of the elements of romance. Born at Handforth, Cheshire in 1845, he had reached his 78th year, but his natural energy was so great that he gave the impression that he was much younger, and remained in harness down to the moment of the illness with which he was seized about a fortnight ago. He first saw the light amidst agricultural surroundings, and was destined for a farmer. His natural bent, however, was for engineering, and in his early days he went to Kidsgrove and became an apprentice in the iron foundry of Messrs. Barker and Cope. Throwing himself with zeal and energy into his work, he had attained much distinction with the firm before leaving to set up in business in Tunstall on his own account. His works at Tunstall were on a site between the railway station and Rathbone-street, and he carried them on until the opportunity came of taking over the foundry at Kidsgrove, to which he returned as one of the proprietors, the style of the firm, Barker and Cope, being changed to Renshaw, King and Co.

His next move was to the Pheonix Works, Cliffe Vale, Stoke, where engineering on its electricity side was first actively pursued. This was continued until electricity became more highly specialised, and then he turned his attention more largely to engineering in connection with the making of mining plant and railway rolling stock.

The extent to which the works had developed in this latter connection is illustrated by the fact that it was the Pheonix Works which was entrusted with the building of the immense railway equipment which was required for Barnum and Bailey's great show when it made it's European tour. No fewer than 66 huge carriages and waggons, all of the American type, were built for the conveyance of the people of the show and all its paraphernalia, and they were completed within six months. They were the first railway carriages and waggons which travelled over the lines of the other countries of Europe as well as of England.


Contracts of all kinds for railway rolling stock were carried out for the different British companies, more especially the Great Eastern and the North British. His connection as an engineer and manufacturer was world-wide, and examples of his work are to be found in Russia, China, South America, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand.

His whole thoughts were bound up with his profession, and he was always planning and perfecting inventions. There are many of these which he has to his credit, although he left others to develop them commercially.

He gave up manufacturing some years ago and since then had pursued the calling of a consulting engineer, more particularly with respect to mining plant, and it is in this association that he was known in his later days.

No one shrank more from publicity, but this did not prevent his friends on more than one occasion from doing him honour in a quiet way. He was highly respected and esteemed by all who knew him closely, and it was his modesty only that prevented him from becoming a much larger figure in the world than was actually the case.

In 1867 he married  Rachel Martha Davies.

I am grateful to Mr Steven Birks for drawing my attention to the following extract from "People of the Potteries" by Denis Stuart, which re-iterates much of the same information and adds more, although it mistakenly reports his address in 1881 as the non-existent "19 Rathbone St, Kidsgove". In fact in 1881 he lived at 19 Paradise St, Wolstanton, while Rathbone St, Tunstall was the site of one his foundries.

RENSHAW, William Robert (1845-1923), engineer, Stoke upon Trent.

WRR was born at Handforth, Cheshire in 1845. He was apprenticed at the Kidsgrove foundry of Barker & Cope, and by 1880 he was in his own business at the Victoria Works, Tunstall, between Rathbone Street and the Railway Station, producing equipment for collieries, forges and mills.

In 1881 he and his Tunstall-born wife Rachel were living at 19 Rathbone Street, Kidsgrove. Before 1884 he had taken over the premises of his former employers, Union Foundry, Kidsgrove, and traded as Renshaw, King & Co.

About 1890 he moved to the Phoenix Works at Cliffe Vale, south of Etruria railway station where at first he manufactured equipment for the infant electricity industry but then concentrated on building railway rolling stock. About 1897 he built 67 special carriages and waggons for Barnum and Bailey's Circus to whom he rented winter quarters in Garner Street, Cliffe Vale. In addition he constructed in six weeks a special iron safety curtain for the Circus's performances at Olympia in London, without which the show could not have gone on.

The business later ran into difficulties and Renshaw was adjudged bankrupt in November 1909 with liabilities of 18,000 and assets of 1,000, the deficit being caused by his attempts to keep the business operating. The reversal led him to cease manufacturing and he latterly concentrated on consultancy work.

He and his wife Rachel had several sons; William John, Arthur Ernest and Arnold Davies all attended Newcastle High School. By 1892 he was living at Winton Square, opposite Stoke railway station and by 1900 in Cemetery Road, Shelton. At the date of his bankruptcy he was living in Newport Road, Stafford. He died on 19 February 1923 at Northcote House, Hartshill Road, Stoke on Trent.

Census 1881; Dir. 1880, 1884, 1892, 1900; Staffs. Sentinel 30 November 1909, 21 February 1923; Newcastle High School registers (Newcastle Ref. Library).

  1. People of the Potteries - A dictionary of local biography, by Denis Stuart. ISBN 0903160234. Published by Keele University, Staffordshire.

In 1901 the Renshaw firm was registered as a Limited company with an authorised share capital of one hundred thousand pounds.

The Barnum and Bailey circus visited England from 1886 to 1889, with the circus headquarters being situated on premises at Cliffe Vale provided by Renshaw. The first provincial tour took place in 1888, concluding in Stoke. Another tour the following year concluded in Hanley and the circus then moved to Europe. However a horrific train crash in Germany forced Barnum to take his show back to America. The railway rolling stock which Renshaw had supplied to Barnum was subsequently used by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show which toured Britain in 1903 and 1904, using the same headquarters at Cliffe Vale. The sight of native Americans camped around Etruria was apparently not unusual during this time. The railway vans were disposed of in 1908, some being purchased by the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery for transporting miners from the Potteries Loop Line at Tunstall. (Information from The Sentinel archives, and published in The Sentinel's 'Way We Were' publication).

Renshaw's association with Barnum and Bailey also led to the marriage of his third daughter Ethel to Alfred Demarest Starr, the son of the circus' secretary, and the subsequent birth of two grand-sons, who both became officers in Britain's Special Operations Executive during the Second World War (see S.O.E.).

In 1926 the Pheonix Works at Cliffe Vale were taken over by the firm of Hall Lewis which went bankrupt in the early 1930's, and eventually came into the possession of the Central Wagon Company.

Renshaw didn't leave much of a mark historically, but one place where you can find an example of his work is at Coleham Pumping Station, at Longden Coleham, Shrewsbury in Shropshire which contains two compound rotative beam engines which were built there by Renshaw in 1897/1898 and remained in use until 1970. It is now a working museum.

One further item which I can add is that at some time in his life (possibly at the time of his bankruptcy) he is said to have abandoned his family to live with a female companion.