The History of Oakey

From Piano Makers Apprentice to Great Britain’s Leading Manufacturer of Abrasives & Polishes - the English inventor John Oakey was born in 1814.

John OakeyApprenticed to a piano manufacturer, one of his tasks was to prepare sanded paper to rub down the wood and coatings. Taking pages from old ledgers, he would coat them in glue, subsequently sifting sand or powdered glass over them. After acquiring a detailed understanding of the processes that made these compounds bond firmly, he founded John Oakey & Sons Limited in 1833, with the aim of mechanising the production of abrasives.

Operations Begin in London

Initially the business operated from Francis Street (now Crampton Street) in Walworth, London, an area that is now part of the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark. However, success soon prompted moving to a larger, purpose built factory on Blackfriars Road, Lambeth. By 1872 The Wellington Works, named after the company’s distinctive Duke of Wellington Trade Mark, needed to expand again. Oakey acquired additional land on Westminster Bridge Road, previously held by the Royal Female Orphan Asylum. By 1874 an even larger factory and mills were erected to the design of Messrs Parr & Strong at a cost of almost £15,000. The building subsequently became known as Wellington Mills.

John Oakey died in 1887 and was buried at West Norwood, now one of London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries. The business passed to his sons, who converted it to a public company on 21st April 1893.

Simplifying the Process

Knife polishOriginally, the process of making glass paper and emery cloth was carried out by hand, requiring a five-year apprenticeship. Paper was carefully and evenly pasted with hot animal glue and then allowed to cool slightly so that it became tacky. At precisely the right moment the abrasive powder was sprinkled on, taking care to get an even coating. The coated paper was then reheated to soften the glue, allowing the abrasive to sink, creating an even stronger bond. After cooling, the paper was cut to size by hand.

Over time Oakey mechanised this process, using machines that he invented and patented. Mechanisation enabled larger sizes of paper and cloth to be handled and rolls of 50 yards by 48 Inches were commonly. Waterproof papers and cloths required a slightly different process, which he kept secret for many years.

Sandpaper Was Just the Start!

At its height, the company manufactured papers and cloths using many different abrasive compounds including:

Corundum (Aluminium Oxide)

Flint and Quartz (Silica & Silicon Dioxide)



Carborundum (Silicon Carbide)

Wellingtonite (Aluminium Oxide)



Oakey also produced black lead for the household market and introduced Wellington Knife Polish in 1858. This was a great success, generating many imitators. Silversmith’s Soap, Plate Powder and Furniture Polish were also introduced during the Victorian era. Liquid Metal Polish, Liquid Silver Polish, Floor Polish, Stove Polish and Furniture Cream subsequently followed.

Oakey busA Leading Manufacturer

Eventually, Oakey’s products were used in most industries from furniture, metal and stonework to leather production and telescope lens manufacturing. Advertisements for Oakey’s “Wellington” Knife Polish were still a common feature on buses and trams well into the twentieth century.

Why Oakey is Still Great Today

Since then, generations of tradespersons have made Oakey their first choice for abrasive papers – a tradition that is still going strong to this day.

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