Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,372 pages of information and 245,906 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

William Mills (1856-1932)

From Graces Guide

Sir William Mills (1856-1932), of William Mills, Mills Munitions and William Mills (of Birmingham), the inventor of the Mills bomb. The Mills bomb, an adaptation of the Roland bomb, was the hand grenade most widely used by British and Imperial forces during the First World War.

1856 April 24th. Born in Wear Street, Southwick, Sunderland, the son of David Mills, a ships joiner[1], and his wife Sarah Ann Kirkaldy.

It was recorded by the Sunderland historian James Watson Corder that David Mills had an interest in the Sunderland-based Mills' shipbuilding firm (S. Austin and Mills), however it was actually run by his brothers George Mills and John Mills.

By 1871, William Mills and his family had moved to 22 Camden Street, Sunderland. David Mills was recorded as a joiner in the Census taken that year. William was a butcher, however he soon switched careers and began a seven-year apprenticeship with George Clarke, the famous Marine Engineers of Sunderland.

After completing his apprenticeship, Mills spent seven years at sea, obtaining a first class Certificate as a Marine Engineer in 1884.

It was during his time at sea that Mills witnessed great loss of life caused by the unsafe engaging and disengaging methods used on ship lifeboats. The experience prompted him to invent a simple, safe and efficient method, which was first exhibited at the Liverpool Shipowners' Exhibition in 1886. Mills was awarded a Gold Medal by the Mercantile Marine Service's Association for his efforts, as well as an Exhibition Gold Medal. The Board of Trade quickly approved his design and it came into worldwide use in both naval and merchant vessels.

After leaving the sea, Mills went into business as a General Engineer in Sunderland in 1885, when he established the first Aluminium foundry in the United Kingdom at The Atlas Works, Bonnersfield, Monkwearmouth.

It was here that he produced some of Britain's earliest aluminium golf clubs - Patent, No 13545. known as Metallic Golfing Instrument Heads. He was a keen golfer and had joined a the Wearside Golf Club in around 1892.

Apart from his company in Sunderland, Mills also set up a company in Birmingham of the same name, which produced castings for the motor car and aircraft industries.

Early in 1915, Mills opened the Mills Munitions Factory in Birmingham, making the Mills Bomb Hand Grenade. Until then, grenades had often proved as deadly to the thrower as to the intended target. The first grenade used when war broke out in 1914 was a cast-iron canister on an 18-inch stick, which was dangerous to use because it often caught on the trench front when lobbed.

Sir William carried out extensive research into common design faults and came up with his own grenade, which had a central spring-loaded firing-pin and spring-loaded lever locked by a pin. A four-second time fuse allowed the thrower to take cover before it exploded. His bombs were used exclusively and successfully by the British and other Allies throughout the war and 75,000,000 were supplied and many tens of thousands were killed and maimed by them

Besides the hand grenade and golf clubs, Mills was also the inventor of the Patent Instantaneous Engaging and Disengaging Gear for Ships and Boats. It was used worldwide and had a great reputation for efficiency and for life saving. Another of his inventions was a telescopic walking stick seat.

Mills was an active member of the Executive of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the James Watt Centenary Committee and, in his spare time, a collector of pictures, china and antiques.

1922 He was knighted.

1932 Mills died at Weston-super-Mare. He had been married for about 40 years, although his wife died two years before him. He left £37,839 in his will - a relatively small sum for a world-renowned inventor with no children. He received £27,750 from the Government for his Mills Bomb invention, but failed in his efforts to avoid paying income tax on the money. Indeed, he claimed to have lost money on the grenade.

1932 Obituary [2]

Sir WILLIAM MILLS was best known as the inventor of the hand grenade bearing his name, of which many millions were used during the War.

He was born in Sunderland in 1856 and was apprenticed for seven years to Messrs. George Clark of that town. He then went for further training to sea, and gained considerable experience in laying and repairing submarine telegraphic cables.

In 1884 he obtained his first-class certificate as a marine engineer. In the following year he entered the Central Marine Engine Works, West Hartlepool, as a draughtsman and for a short time later worked as outside manager to Messrs. J. Dickinson of Sunderland.

He commenced business on his own account in Sunderland in 1885, and his various activities included many inventions, amongst them being the Mills patent engaging and disengaging boat gear which gained a prize of 100 guineas at the Royal Naval Exhibition in 1891, the gold medal at the Liverpool International Exhibition, and the highest awards at other exhibitions at home and abroad. This invention was adopted by most navies and shipping companies.

He also turned his attention to metallurgical research, and in particular to the practical application of aluminium and its alloys. After a series of costly experiments, he succeeded in 1894 in producing aluminium castings that withstood the protracted tests applied to them. He thereupon established in Birmingham the first aluminium foundry of its kind in the country. His industrial activities became extensive, and he was chairman of several companies.

In 1922 he was awarded a knighthood for his services in connexion with the War.

He was chairman of the James Watt Memorial Trust, and was a member of the Alloys Research Committee of the Institution.

He had been a Member of the Institution since 1897.

His death occurred, in his seventy-sixth year, on 7th January 1932, at Weston-super-Mare.

1932 Obituary [3]

SIR WILLIAM MILLS, an Original Member of the Institute, died at Weston-super-Mare on January 7, 1932, at the age of 76.

He was born at Sunderland and there received a private education. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to George Clark, Ltd., marine engineers, and served with that firm for seven years before taking his first-class certificate as a marine engineer in 1884.

He then went to sea, where his work included the salving of ships and laying and repairing submarine telegraph cables. On one occasion he ran a blockade and witnessed the spiking of old-fashioned guns in Chile and Peru.

Sir William Mills first set up in business on his own account in Sunderland as William Mills & Co., Atlas Works, in 1885, and shortly afterwards (in 1891) he designed and patented the Mills Patent Instantaneous Engaging and Disengaging Boat Gear, which won for him the "Fairplay" prize of the Royal Naval Exhibition in competition with fifteen others. This invention also won several other awards.

He began experiments with aluminium somewhere about 1890 at his original works, and a few years later was the first to produce castings of the metal on a commercial scale. This important event led in 1905 to the acquisition of works premises in Grove Street, Birmingham, and the opening of the Atlas Aluminium Foundry in order to supply the demands of motor-car manufacturers in the Midlands. It was at this factory that the principal supply of aircraft castings was made during the war. For this purpose Sir William invented an alloy which was subsequently practically taken over by the Government and which is still known as "L.5." His original works were retained to supply the North.

Sir William Mills will be chiefly remembered as the inventor of the hand-grenade which bears his name. This device was brought out in February 1915, and 76 millions are said to have been made during the Great War. To demonstrate their use, he prepared an instructional film and also lectured on the subject. Besides other numerous patents which bear his name are those for telescopic aluminium seats, golf-clubs and folding-head shooting-sticks, one of which was regularly used by the late King Edward.

Sir William Mills was Managing Director of William Mills, Ltd., Birmingham, and proprietor of Mills Munitions, Ltd., Birmingham, and of the Sunderland Works. He was formerly Chairman of Triumph Trust, Ltd., and was a Director of the Java Produce Co., Ltd. Although engaged in so many and varied business activities, Sir William. Mills still found time to devote a good deal of his energy to public and semi- public works, and he was thus a Chairman of the James Watt Memorial Trust, a member of the Council of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Alloys Research Committee, the Imperial Mineral Resources Bureau, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He was deeply interested in the drama, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme for rebuilding the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. He was also a connoisseur of old pictures, china, and antiques.

1932 Obituary[4]


Sir William Mills, the inventor of the Mills hand grenade, died at Weston-super-Mare on Thursday, January 7. To many of those of the generation which took an active part in the Great War this fact will conjure up many recollections, some realistic, some fantastic and some merely amusing. For over 75,000,000 Mills grenades were consumed by the Allies during a few years, and their handling demanded not a little skill and was not unattended by risk to friend as well as to foe. Though the invention, or rather the adaptation, of this grenade will be Mills’s principal claim to fame, he himself stated that he had lost money by its development, and, as a matter of fact, it was but one of many products of an ingenious mind, some of the more successful of which, it is interesting to note, were designed to save rather than to destroy life.

William Mills was born at Sunderland in 1856, and, after the usual school education in that town, was at the age of 14, apprenticed to Messrs. George Clark, Limited, with whom he served the full term of seven years. At the same time, he continued his theoretical studies, and after a period at sea, during which he gained considerable experience in the repair of submarine telegraph cables, obtained the first-class certificate of the Board of Trade as a marine engineer in 1884. In the following year he obtained a post as draughtsman in the Central Marine Engine Works, West Hartlepool, and was subsequently for a short time, assistant outside manager in the marine engine works of Messrs. J. Dickinson, Sunderland. In 1885, however, he set up in business on his own account in the same town, and, besides carrying out general engineering work, established the first aluminium foundry in the United Kingdom. In fact, he may well be said to have been a pioneer in this branch of the metallurgical industry, since he devoted much attention to the practical applications of aluminium and its alloys, and both before, during, and since the war was responsible for turning out large quantities of aluminium castings, especially for aeroplanes, at the factories he controlled in Sunderland and Birmingham. In addition to the hand grenade, Mills invented a boat-releasing gear, which was largely adopted on many British and foreign passenger steamers, and as a result, was awarded a hundred guinea prize by our contemporary Fairplay.

William Mills was knighted in 1922. He was elected a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1897, and was also a member of the Institute of Metals, besides being chairman of the Watt Memorial Trust."

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