The Round Oak Iron Works were built in 1857 at Round Oak, near Brierley Hill, under the direction of Richard Smith, the Earl of Dudley's principal agent. The Earl of Dudley already owned coal and iron mines, limestone quarries, sand-pits and blast furnaces. His aim, in building the Round Oak works, was to have all these departments integrated on one site. Iron was manufactured there using ironstone and thick coal taken from the vast resources available on the Earl of Dudley's estate. The iron was reputed to be very well-manufactured, and Round Oak Iron Works won a Prize Medal at the International Exhibition of 1862 for 'a fine collection of iron of good quality.' The location of the Works was in Brierley Hill, in the parish of Kingswinford, Staffordshire. A Conveyance dated 1st February 1858 tells us that William, Baron Ward, bought 28 acres of land, a private railway, mines and minerals under the land, and buildings forming Round Oak Iron Works from The Right Honourable George, Earl of Aberdeen. The works were described thus in a report by Mr William Blakemore, Consulting Engineer, dated 13th April 1891: '[the Works are] bounded on the North by the Great Western Railway, from which there are sidings into the Works, and on the North-East and West by the Birmingham Canal, thus affording communication by boat with Birmingham and the surrounding district, and also with the London and North Western and Midland Railway systems. The Earl of Dudley's Pensnett Railway also passes through the property, and by means of which fuel from his Lordship's collieries can be delivered into the Works at the lowest possible cost. The Property includes a valuable Frontage (of considerable extent) to the populous Township of Brierley Hill.'
The first Earl of Dudley (2nd Creation) owned the company from 1857-1885 when, after his death, it passed to his son, the second Earl of Dudley (PC, GCB, GCMG, GCVO; Mayor of Dudley 1895 and 1896; Lord Lieutenant of Iralend, 1902-05; Governor-General of Australia, 1908-11). He succeeded to the business at the age of 18, and continued to be the owner for 47 years until his death in 1932. He was succeeded by his son, Viscount Ednam, later the third Earl of Dudley. The third Earl became Chairman in 1924 and remained there until 1953 when Round Oak Steel Works Ltd. was acquired by Tube Investments Ltd. In the early years of its operation, Round Oak Ironworks had 'twenty eight puddling furnaces, two hammers, two forge-trains and five mills. It was twice as big as the average works of its day, covered fifteen acres, and employed 600 men.' In 1868, the Works was described as a 'vast Cyclopean workshop, which is a standing monument of the enterprise of capital and the skill of labour united.' By 1883, the works employed 700 men and boys, and produced around 700 tons of finished iron per week. The Iron Works began as a successful enterprise, and the plant was extended to meet ever-increasing demand. In 1889, the company diversified into making chains and ships' cables. However, by the late 19th century, steel began to take over from iron as a more popular, economic and adaptable form of metal, and the Earl of Dudley began a steel plant at Round Oak during this period. The Earl of Dudley decided to sell the iron and steel plant for the sum of £110,000 in the late 19th Century. The business passed through several hands before becoming the property of the Lancashire Trust & Mortgage Insurance Corporation Ltd. who operated under the name 'The Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Iron & Steel Works Ltd.' In 1890, the Corporation invited subscriptions for share capital worth £202,000 in the company, to be divided in to 20,000 ordinary shares of £10 each and Founders' Shares of £10 each. They then sold the company to Robert McIntyre Boggs of Old Trafford, Manchester, on 6th April 1891, for the sum of £160,000. The company was run under the same name as previously, but went into liquidation in 1893, and the works then reverted back to the Earl of Dudley. During the period 1894-1897, the works were carried on as a department of the Earl of Dudley's estates. In 1897, a new Company was formed, under the title 'The Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Works Ltd.'. The second Earl of Dudley was Chairman of this company, with Directors Gilbert Claughton; George Hatton; and John Tryon. The company succeeded until after the First World War, when there was a national depression in the Steel Industry. This produced a financial crisis for the Round Oak Works. However, the Company recovered and during the period 1923-1937 it prospered, having the Earl of Dudley as Chairman, with W.H.B. Hatton and T.N. Ballantyne as Managing Directors. In 1936, the firm changed its name to 'Round Oak Steel Works Ltd.' to reflect the fact that the production of wrought iron and chain was now being discontinued. After the Second World War, the plant was modernised at a cost of £4m. In 1951, the company was taken over by the Government as part of the nationalisation of the steel industry. This continued for two years, until in 1953 the company was purchased by Tube Investments Ltd. By 1977, Round Oak Steel Works was jointly owned by Tube Investments Ltd. and British Steel Corporation, operating as an independent steel producer. It was capable of producing half a million tonnes of carbon and alloy steel bars per year. Round Oak Steel Works was finally closed on 23rd December 1982, after 125 years of operation. Around 1,300 employees were made redundant, and the closure was seen locally as the 'end of an era' for Brierley Hill. Bids were made from several firms to buy the Steel Works and to save jobs, but eventually a redundancy package of £6,800,000 was accepted in January 1983. The Round Oak Steel Works site, consisting of over 100 acres of land, was sold to two brothers, Don and Roy Richardson, in March 1983. The Richardson family also owned Merry Hill Farm, 50 acres of land adjoining the Round Oak site. Richardson Developments Ltd. developed the site into 350,000 sq. ft. of office space, known as The Waterfront development. They also created the Merry Hill Shopping Centre, which contained over 200 retail shops and parking for 10,000 cars in 2006.
The collection contains business records of Round Oak works, dating between 1797 - 1983, including the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Iron & Steel Works Ltd. (DROU/A1/1), dated 1891. It also contains the original title deed of the conveyance of land and buildings at Round Oak from The Right Honourable George, Earl of Aberdeen to William, Baron Ward in 1858, which became the Round Oak Iron Works. The financial records include sales ledgers; records of expenditure; daily accounts of various works departments; and a detailed inventory and valuation of Round Oak Iron, Steel and Chain Works in 1897 when it was worth £174,061-9s-3d. There are also financial records of various collieries which were associated with Round Oak, including Parkhead Colliery; Saltwells Colliery; Windmill End Colliery; Shutt End Colliery; and the Wallows Colliery. Personnel records within the collection include wages books, giving employees' names and detailing the work they had done on a weekly basis, dating back to 1866. The collection contains many interesting and unique photographs of Round Oak Steel Works. There are 12 photograph albums containing images of the Works, taken by the Works' photographer, between 1972 - 1980. There is also a valuable collection of photographs of the Pensnett Railway which served the Round Oak Works, which date back to the mid-19th century. In addition to the business records, the collection also contains a wealth of information relating to the Brierley Hill area, including title deeds to land and property in Brierley Hill, Himley, Harts Hill, Dudley, Wrens Nest, and other areas.