GKN Shadow Factory tunnels, Smethwick, Birmingham
A cold morning in Birmingham was to be the start of a weekend “up north” taking in a few sites that had been neglected for far too long. The tunnels under the GKN Shadow Factory had been cropping up for a while online and looked pretty special.
In reality, the tunnels are a glorified basement, but what a basement it is! Running under the entire site some of the tunnels were as long as the eye could see. A thick, sticky oil is present in a lot of the tunnels and seeping from the brickwork and the heavy air begins to give you a headache after a while. Hundreds of small storage areas and rooms branch off the tunnels, some still full of random tins and tubs of materials.
We walked the length of the tunnels and came out, strangely, without any kind of separation, into offices and a stairway to the outside area of the site where we could breathe fresh air again!
History of the site
In 1854 J. S. Nettlefold, a Birmingham screw manufacturer, had revolutionized his industry by introducing automated American machinery. Room was needed to house this; Nettlefold, joined by his brother-in-law Joseph Chamberlain, father of the statesman, established the Heath Street Works in Cranford Street, Smethwick. The firm dominated the market by the mid 1860s. In 1880, the year in which it became a limited company, Nettlefolds took over one of its local rivals, the Birmingham Screw Co. The newly acquired works was almost as large as the Heath Street Works and faced it from the opposite bank of the Birmingham Canal.
By the outbreak of the First World War the new company produced over half the screws and about a quarter of the nuts and bolts made in the country. In the late 1960s the headquarters of Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds Ltd., by then an investment company, adjoined the Heath Street Works, a 50-acre complex run by GKN Screws and Fasteners Ltd. and employing some 4,500 people.