DESIGN ARCHIVES: AGA RANGEMASTER
Design Archive: AGA Rangemaster Group plc.
Estd: The origins of the founding companies in the AGA Rangemaster Group can be traced back to 1709.
Locations: Coalbrookdale, Telford and Royal Leamington Spa (Group HQ).
The AGA Rangemaster Group have a combined history of over 300 years, beginning with industrialist Abraham Darby who, in 1707 was granted by royal letter patent allowing the sole use and benefit of his innovative method of “casting iron bellied pots and other iron bellied ware in sand only without loam or clay”. Nowadays they are best known for the design and manufacture of classic high quality cookers, cooking ranges and cookware.
In 1708 Abraham Darby leased and rebuilt a derelict blast furnace in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire to continue his experimentations and it was here that he first used coke rather charcoal to produce pig iron, an innovation which was a major factor in the production of iron as a raw material and one of several catalysts to the industrial revolution. Darby established the Coalbrookdale Company in 1709 and the foundry, although modified is still in use by AGA Rangemaster to this day; his method of casting iron cookware in sand continues to produce fine results as well as being applied to the casting of other products, such as components of the AGA and Rayburn cookers.
Patent roll recording the Darby invention, 1707 (The National Archives ref. C66-3461).
In 1777 John Flavel (1754-1834) owned a business in Bilton, near Rugby working in the traditional practices of armourer and smith. His son, William Flavel (1779-1844) had been apprenticed to an uncle’s ironmongery business in Coventry at a young age and by 1803 had set up his own business in Leamington Spa. Three decades later John and William Flavel built the Eagle Foundry, an early company history (1937) explains the locality; the Grand Junction Canal was cut in 1779 alongside of which the Eagle Foundry was built in 1833 (…) The Great Western Railway system, from which a private siding is connected to the Flavel Foundry, was completed in 1852.
It goes on to quote an extract from the Great Western Official Illustrated Guide (1861): Approaching Leamington, and close to the line, may be observed the spacious and most important premises of the firm. The Eagle Foundry is the largest manufactory of the kind in the world and especially prominent in a new manufacturing town like Leamington. An idea of the magnitude of the operations of the firm may be gathered from the fact that 100 hands are constantly employed, and not less than 50 kitchen ranges of various sizes, from 3 ft. wide to 16 ft., suitable for the cottage or the palace, are made every week.
The Leamington Kitchener
William Flavel invented the most renowned of these cast-iron cooking ranges, which became known as the Kitchener – a solid fuel stove that could boil, roast, bake and warm whilst retaining a smokeless heat. The Kitchener earned the Flavel name many accolades and in 1851 it was awarded with a prize medal at the Great Exhibition.
The Coalbrookdale Company was also awarded in 1851 for its extensive decorative castings, which included iron gates installed as part of the Exhibition and that still stand today as the gates to Kensington Gardens. The 1851 Flavel medal, accompanied by its surviving original certificate is amongst 36 international awards gained between 1840 and 1937 still extant.
Coalbrookdale foundry exterior, section now demolished including tower chimney by viaduct (viaduct just visible in background).
Upon William’s death, the company passed to his son, Sidney Flavel and, according to the custom of the time, the firm changed its name. Sidney Flavel and Company Ltd. operated for over 100 years until the mid-1970s, and moved into making modern gas appliances from the early 20th century. In the mid-1960s it had been courted by Allied Ironfounders Ltd., who AGA Heat Ltd. was a subsidiary of at that time, but it wasn't for another decade that it would become part of Glynwed, who acquired Allied Ironfounders in 1969. Glynwed had originally been formed in 1939 when the businesses of Glynn Brothers and the Wednesbury Tube Company had merged, and it absorbed several other companies over the years up until 1970 when it included Allied Iron Foundries Gas Appliances Division and the Leisure Gas Appliances Division. After this union in 1974 the name of Sidney Flavel continued to be used initially, but after 1980 the factory in Leamington Spa became known as Flavel-Leisure following the decision to close the Leisure site in Audenshaw, Manchester. Today the Rangemaster factory is still based where the Eagle Foundry was situated and some architectural aspects of the original building remain evident, including a stone eagle carved into the wall of the building.
Swedish design for an AGA pan (25.11.1930).
In 1922 Dr Gustav Dalen, a Swedish physicist and Nobel prize winner who had been blinded by a gas explosion a decade earlier, patented his invention of a cast iron cooker. The design was subsequently made and marketed by Svenska Akktiebolaget Gas Accumulator, a company in which he had previously been Managing Director. What came to be known as the AGA cooker, an acronym also still used by the Swedish Gas company which is now part of the Linde Group, was the world’s first heat-storage stove. It was imported to the UK in 1929 where it was made and sold under licence by one company, Bell’s Engineering and Asbestos Ltd. which became Bell’s Heat Appliances Ltd.
In 1936 manufacturing was taken over by AGA Heat Ltd., Mayfair based with a foundry in Smethwick, until the company became part of Allied Ironfounders. As Basil H. Tripp (1951) points out, in discussion about this post-war rationalisation of the iron industry those at the head of affairs in what had now been formed as a parent company did not stamp out the individuality of the constituent members. They were themselves representative of the constituents, each proud of his company’s past and jealous for its future.
Original hand painted kitchen design, including an AGA by Lawrence Wright, ARIBA, c. 1930s.
In 1947 Allied Ironfounders increased production of the AGA cooker by adding a second plant at Ketley, Telford which became the sole manufacturing site by 1957. During the 19th century the Coalbrookdale Company had begun producing cast-iron fireplaces, stoves, cookers and some solid fuel appliances, but wartime requirements meant that the foundry had to significantly alter its production and it wasn't until 1946 that the Rayburn cooker began to be manufactured at the Coalbrookdale Foundry. AGA cookers have been cast at the Coalbrookdale foundry since the late 1950s, and the enamelling process continues to be undertaken at the Ketley factory.
The story behind a symbol, Allied Ironfounders, c.1950.
The Story Behind a Symbol, a pamphlet produced by Allied Ironfounders (c.1950) includes an emotive description of the Coalbrookdale Company at that time: a works of contrasts. Set in a beautiful Shropshire valley, spanned by the iron bridge which was one of the foundry’s greatest achievements, and with the ruins of Darby’s own furnace there to see, for any who care to push their way through the wild flowers that surround it. And, on the same site, one of the most mechanised iron founding plants in Britain still carries on the Coalbrookdale tradition – a mass of conveyors, cranes and complex handling equipment, for the repetition production of castings in the quantities which the home and overseas market now demand.
AGA Heat brochure, Best Beloved, 1955.
Writing about the development of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Stuart Smith noted that the concept of industry preserving history was a novelty in the 1950s. G. F. (Fred) Williams, Managing Director of the Coalbrookdale Company, whilst it was part of Allied Ironfounders was instrumental in the excavation of the Old Darby Furnace. The company opened it to the public at the end of the decade, as well as a small adjacent museum display. This rudimentary establishment of what is now a world renowned network of museums and part of a World Heritage Site can be ascribed to the radical approach of those who recognised the importance of the company's and industry’s history and undertook projects to celebrate it.
The Kitchen of Today, c.1936.
Both AGA and Rangemaster have substantial design archive collections of important socio-historic value as well as significance to the history of the brands, products and development of the company. As a result, the images chosen for display as part of Obsessionistas' Design Archive exhibition at IDEA Birmingham is necessarily quite selective, but hopefully shows the breadth of the type of material and illustrates a complex and enduring heritage.
All images © AGA Rangemaster and used with their kind permission.
Many thanks to William McGrath, CEO of AGA Rangemaster, and Charlotte Whitehead (KTP Associate, Digital Archive Systems) for sharing this unique access to the company's historical archive material with Obsessionistas.
Visit the AGA website here
 Sidney Flavel and Co. Ltd. (1937) How We Build. P. 11
 Tripp, B. H. (1951). Grand Alliance. P. 41
 Shropshire Archives reference: AGA/C/1/4
 Raistrick, A. (1973). Dynasty of Ironfounders. Chapter 16, Smith, S. B. The next 30 years.