Written by Anthony Showell – former owner
Written by Anthony Showell (former owner)
Britten Street Redditch, The Old Needle Works
Needle making or to put it in its simplest form transforming steel in to crafted “instruments “is what Redditch has been famous for since ancient times. Our family, The Showells, have played a small part in this story. Our original factory, A.W.Showell Ltd. now buried under the town hall in what was Red Lion Street made needles for haberdashery, mattress making and other non-surgical uses. Arthur, my grandfather decided there was a demand for suture needles after WW11. So, in 1950 decided to build a factory in Britten St. for A.W.Showell (Surgicraft) Ltd.
A suture needle is one where the doctor or nurse threaded through a needle’s eye a suture material with which to sew up or suture a wound. Those needles were all handmade in thousands of shapes and sizes by our skilled craftsmen.
The Britten St. factory, built for £16,000 in 1951, was designed with extra-large windows as daylight was crucial for efficient manufacture. A second block to the rear was added in the 1980’s before the firm built a much bigger purpose built unit in Fishing Line Rd and A.W. Showell (Surgicraft)Ltd. morphed in to a medical device manufacturing company Surgicraft Ltd., still under family ownership using Redditch craft skills with needle making technology at its backbone.
Traditional manufacturing practices had been passed down through the centuries. One such operation was kick stamping.
In terms of energy used Jack, our kick stamper, walked up Everest every month raising a 20 pound weight round a pulley with his right leg placed in a stirrup to allow it to crash down on a needle held with bare hands in a dye to form a needle eye. Needle by needle he did this for 20 years, “stone” deaf and possibly the most widely read individual I have ever met. Jack and his kick stamp were next to rows of mainly female operatives downstairs piercing out needle eyes again one by one.
Key craft skill was concentrated upstairs in the grinding and polishing of needles. Perhaps 6 or so hand held needles would be ground and polished on high speed rotating brushes and stones. Historically lung disease was common amongst these people so good extraction to remove the steel dust was built in to the new factory. The floor upstairs was reinforced to take this equipment.
Showells range of surgical needles covered over 5000 shapes and sizes. From tiny ones for eye surgery, under 10mm in length, to huge ones for post mortem or veterinary surgery that could be 150mm long. Straight, curved, half circle, 5 eights of a circle shapes could be made with a round section or with a triangulated cutting edge. Endless permutations.
But it became clear developments were under way to make suturing less traumatic to tissue and the eyeless needle was developed by us and others in the town. Eyeless needles had
a single thread of suture material pre attached to the end of a needle in the factory thereby reducing the double bent over thread passing though tissue to just a single piece of suture. The surgeon could also be presented with a pre packed single use sterile all in one product. Good for sterility and good for business. Don, Arthur’s son set about this development of making eyeless needles. The new block behind the original building was built in the 1980’s to house state of the art Swiss watchmaking lathes that would drill a minute hole in the end of a piece of wire, point it then chop it off to form an eyeless needle then followed hardening and tempering . Finally after electro polishing (another first from Don) needles were then ready for attaching to suture material, sterilising and presenting for surgery.
Competition was fierce. Ways of using our skills led to the development of other wire based medical devices. Electrodes using needle technology for monitoring a baby’s heart rate became a world leading product then orthopaedic implants for spine and knee surgery were developed that needed clean room facilities so Britten St was sold in the late 1980’s for our new unit in Fishing Line Rd, now Worcestershire College.
Britten St and our other sites gave 3 generations of our family and some hundreds of loyal and committed staff over 70 years of employment and contribution to the Redditch community. We will always be thankful for that.