Thomas Parker
born  22nd December 1843, Lincoln Hill, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, UK
died  5th December 1915, Severn House, Ironbridge, Shropshire, UK
buried  St Michael's church, Madeley, Shropshire, UK
era  Victorian/Edwardian
A biographical summary
contributed by Andy Rose, Regeneration Officer, Madeley Town Council
A pioneer of the British electrical industry, Thomas Parker was described by Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) as the "Edison of Europe". He was ahead of his time — a great inventor and entrepreneur. He worked on the development of public and private electric lighting systems, and he gave us electrically-powered public transport, cheap matches (by revolutionising the production of phosphorus), smokeless fuel ... and much more that changed peoples' lives for the better.
As a boy, Parker was fascinated by science, and at the age of 10 he worked alongside his father at the iron foundry run by the Coalbrookdale Company (founded 1709), before attending school. A visit to the International Exhibition held in London in 1862 inspired him — he saw devices such as the telegraph and the wet battery — and the company later allowed him to develop his own ideas into products, such as the award-winning Kyrle Open Grate. Highly regarded by his fellow workers, Parker rose through the ranks, recognised for his achievements and personal qualities.
Working in the electroplating department introduced him to the electrical accumulator (storage battery), invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté (1834-89). Parker discovered that treatment with concentrated nitric acid helped the formation of the oxide layers on the lead plates of an accumulator, improving its performance.
In 1882, Parker set up business with Paul Bedford Elwell (185399) to make accumulators, and they moved to a factory in Commercial Road, Wolverhampton. The rights to the accumulator technology Parker developed had been shared with Planté following a court case, but they were now acquired outright by Elwell-Parker.
The company's greatest success with this technology was in public transport. By 1890, Parker's battery-powered trams were running in Birmingham, and his electric trams had been operating on the Blackpool Promenade Tramway for five years. Later, he would consult on London's Metropolitan Railway, helping introduce electric underground trains and influencing the choice of electric locomotives for above-ground services. Parker built an electric car as early as 1884 and before the decade was out, he was commuting to work in it — Wolverhampton's first motorist.
He was always willing to develop technologies further. Improvements to the dynamo he designed enabled the development of large-scale public lighting schemes. He suggested the use of an alternating-current furnace for the Cowles process for the manufacture of aluminium bronze, which proved a great success, and later lead to a revolutionary way of producing phosphorus (for matches). He also made a notable contribution to the improvement of the electrical purification of copper.
In 1889, Elwell-Parker became part of a new company in Wolverhampton, the Electric Construction Corporation (ECC), later known as the Electrical Construction Company. Parker was appointed works manager but eventually left to set up Thomas Parker Ltd for the manufacture of electrical plant.
He was interested in politics and an enthusiastic supporter of the Liberal cause, joining the Liberal Party and the Executive Committee of the Borough of Wenlock Liberal Association. He contested the Parliamentary seat of Kingswinford in 1892 but was unsuccessful, though he earned the nickname Honest Tom. He later refused the possibility of a knighthood because of his radical views. A man of deep religious beliefs, his notebooks are dotted with prayers and tracts.
Among Parker and his wfe Jane's nine surviving children is Thomas Hugh Parker who shared his father's passion for inventing, building a steam powered car in 1901, and later working on hydraulic brakes and four-wheel steering. Another son, Charles Parker, established the Low Temperature Carbonisation Company to produce the smokeless fuel Coalite, an invention patented by Parker senior.
Thomas Parker returned to Coalbrookdale in 1908 when he retired. He died of myocarditis at home on 5th December 1915.
1843 Born 22nd December, eldest child of Thomas Wheatley Parker (1822-1901) and Anne Parker (1818-1905, nee Fletcher)
1853 Works alongside his father at Coalbrookdale Company
1853-67 Attends Quakers' School, Coalbrookdale, later attends lectures by George Dawson at the Midland Institute in Birmingham and Professor Henry Roscoe at Hulme Town Hall, Manchester
1866 Marries Jane Gibbons (1848-1921), daughter of engine driver Lewis Gibbons, at the congregational church, Stoke-on-Trent (12 children, nine survive to maturity)
1867-82 Works once again for the Coalbrookdale Company
1881 Awarded Silver Medal at Smoke Abatement Exhibition, London, for Kyrle Open Grate
1882 Sets up own business with Paul Bedford Elwell (185399) in Wolverhampton
1883 Installs what is possibly the first underground electrical lighting system in the world, at Trafalgar Colliery in the Forest of Dean (first in Britain)
1884 The business trades under the name Elwell-Parker
1885 Installs electrical plant for a section of the Blackpool Promenade Tramway, working with Michael Holroyd Smith (1847-1932), engineer for the Electric Tramway Company ... Britain's first electric street tramway
1889 Elwell-Parker becomes part of Electric Construction Corporation (ECC)
1893 Alexander Brown establishes the American branch of Elwell-Parker in Cleveland, Ohio
1894 Presents a paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers: The Electrical Equipment of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, awarded the Stephenson Medal and the Telford Premium for it
1894 Resigns from ECC and sets up Thomas Parker Ltd
1894-9 Supplies machinery for UK power stations and public lighting systems, including plant for Wolverhampton, Walsall Corporation, Shrewsbury Electric Lighting Company, Chester, Folkestone, Sunderland, Manchester Corporation, Hull, Belfast and Morecambe
1897 Involved in setting up the Midland Electric Corporation
1899-1905 Consultant engineer to the London Metropolitan Railway Company, advising on the electrification of the Metropolitan Railway (now part of London Underground), resigns as director of Thomas Parker Ltd and moves to London
1906 Patents the Low Temperature Carbonisation Process (for Coalite)
1908 Retires and moves back to Coalbrookdale, lives at Severn House
1912 Purchases Madeley Court ironworks, forms Court Works Ltd with son Charles making iron castings for the electrical industry
1915 Dies 5th December, at home
Selected works
Parker & Weston Patent Steam Pump (with Philip Weston), Coalbrookdale Co, UK .... 1876
Kyrle Open Grate (for anthracite coal), Coalbrookdale Co, UK
Portrush Electric Tramway (electrical equipment), Northern Ireland, UK .... 1881
Dynamos and underground electric lighting (first underground electrical installation in Britain), Trafalgar Colliery, Forest of Dean, UK .... 1883
Blackpool Promenade Tramway electrical plant, Blackpool, UK .... 1885
Nautilus Submarine (batteries), UK .... 1886
Battery-powered trams, Birmingham (Bristol Road route), UK .... 1890
Electrical system for the City of Oxford, UK .... 1892
Liverpool Overhead Railway (only elevated electric railway in Britain), ECC, UK .... 1893
South Staffordshire Tramway (electrification of 9-mile section), UK .... 1893
Dynamo installation, Cragside (first house in the world lit by hydroelectricity), Northumberland, UK .... 1894-1895
Midland Electric Corporation, UK .... 1897
Metropolitan Railway electrification, London, UK .... 1899-1905
All items by Thomas Parker
Everything built ... 1843 - 1915
G.C. Baugh, ed., Madeley: Economic History, A History of the County of Shropshire, Vol.11: Telford (1985), pp. 40-56
Dr Ivor Brown, Thomas Parker, Shropshire born Engineer & Scientist 1843-1915, in Below Magazine, 2004.2, Shropshire Mining & Caving Club, 2004
Janet Doody, Thomas Parker 1843-1915 "The Ingenious Engineer", Madeley Living History Project booklet, Madeley Town Council, Shropshire, 2011
Paul Freund, Parker, Thomas (1843-1915), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2013
Bev Parker, Honest Tom Parker – A Black Country Unsung Hero, in The Blackcountryman, Vol.38 No.3
Further reading
Early Days of the Electrical Industry, in The Electrical Times, London, 28th April 1921, p.405
Engineer's Romantic Career. Foundry lad electrifies the Metropolitan Railway, in Tit-Bits magazine, 18th February 1905, p.538
The Rise and Fall of Electric Vehicles in 1828-1830: Lessons Learned, Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol.101, No.1, January 2013
C.J.L. Elwell, Electrifying the Black Country, Part 1: The Pioneers, in The Blackcountryman, Vol.28, No.1, 1994/5
C.J.L. Elwell, Electrifying the Black Country, Part 2: Supplying Current, in The Blackcountryman, Vol.28, No.2, 1994/5
C.W. Hill, Tom Parker's Pennies, Coin Monthly, September 1973
Royal Society of Edinburgh, census returns for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911
Electrical Engineer (magazine), London, see 10th December 1890, 22nd December 1893
The Electrician, London, see 11th February 1882, 23rd June 1883
The Midland Weekly News, Wolverhampton, 29th July 1905
The Times, London, see 1st July 1892, 23rd May 1894, 29th August 1902, 4th May 1907, 8th December 1915, 15th January 1936
Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire Illustrated, 1899, p.49
portrait  Madeley Town Council courtesy Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

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Thomas Parker
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Thomas Parker at about 19 years of age
Thomas Parker at about 19 years of age.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Parker family, 1998
The Parker family in 1898, the year before the move to London. Ranged around Thomas and his wife Jane (both in the middle) are some of their children. From top left: Lily, Annie and Jane, then Walter beside his mother. Beside Thomas is Kelvin, with Harold below. The other two children are Eva and Bernard, Lily's offspring.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Thomas and Jane Parker
Detail of a photo of Thomas and Jane Parker at Severn House, Coalbrookdale, where Parker made his home on retirement.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
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World's first hydroelectric-powered tram, Portrush, Northern Ireland
The tramway at Portrush, Northern Ireland, was world's first hydroelectric-powered tram system. In 1882, Parker was involved in the development of its electrical equipment while working for the Coalbrookdale Company, Shropshire. In 1888, an Elwell-Parker generator was provided.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Blackpool Promenade Tramway of 1885
Parker's firm Elwell-Parker supplied the electrical plant for a section of Britain's first electric street tramway, the Blackpool Promenade Tramway (opened 1885). Parker was consulting electrical engineer to Blackpool's Electric Tramway Company until 1892.
Photo: reproduced from booklet Victorian Blackpool by G.S. Palmer and B.R. Turner, published by Palmer and Turner, Cleveleys (possibly 1979)
Thomas Parker, with dynamo
Thomas Parker as illustrated on a promotional card showing some of his notable inventions. He stands beside a large Elwell-Parker Patent Dynamo, and an electric tramcar is visible through the window. Among the many installations of the dynamo was the electrical system at the Trafalgar Colliery in the Forest of Dean — the first underground electrical installation in the country, if not the world.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Liverpool Overhead Railway
Poster for the Liverpool Overhead Railway (opened 1896, closed 1956), known as the "Dockers' Umbrella", was the world's first urban elevated electric railway. The Electric Construction Corporation (ECC), which had taken over Elwell-Parker, supplied the electrical equipment. Parker delivered a paper on the railway at the Institution of Civil Engineers for which he was awarded the Stephenson Medal and Telford Premium.
Photo: courtesy Madeley Town Council
Parker patented dynamo
In 1894, Parker resigned from ECC and set up Thomas Parker Ltd, Wolverhampton. Shown is the company's Continuous Current Hinged Pole-piece Dynamo.
Photo: courtesy
Belfast electric lighting station
Belfast electric lighting station (1899), using Thomas Parker Ltd's dynamos.
Photo: courtesy
Parker's second electric car
Parker and two of his sons in the second electrically-powered car he produced. The first was reportedly completed in 1884. Parker had worked on the development of accumulators (storage batteries) at the Coalbrookdale Company, taking this technology with him into his own businesses.
Photo: Madeley Town Council courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust