It was originally opened in 1832 as Charles Tayleur and Company to produce girders for bridges, switches and crossings, and other ironwork following the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Because of the distance from the locomotive works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it seemed preferable to build and support them locally. In 1832, Robert Stephenson became a partner for a few years. The company had become The Vulcan Foundry Company in 1847 and acquired limited liability in 1864. From the beginning of 1898, the name changed again to The Vulcan Foundry Limited, dropping the word 'company.'
Details of the earliest locomotives are not precisely known despite an "official" list apparently concocted in the 1890s which contains a lot of guesswork and invention, with many quite fictitious locomotives, for the period before 1845. This list claims that the first two locomotives were 0-4-0Tayleur and Stephenson built in 1833 for "Mr Hargreaves, Bolton", but this seems unlikely. The earliest authenticated products were 0-4-0Titan and Orion, similar to Stephenson's design, and delivered in September and October 1834 to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Other early orders came from the Leicester and Swannington Railway and there were also some 4-2-0s for America which were among the first British 'bogie' locomotives.
From 1835 the company was selling to Belgium, France, and in 1836 to Austria and Russia, the beginnings of an export trade which was maintained throughout the life of the company. The company's locomotives had a strong Stephenson influence, many during the following decade being of the "long boiler" design. In 1852 the first locomotives ever to run in India were supplied to the Great Indian Peninsula Railway.
The most notable design manufactured for an overseas railway during this period was the large 4-8-4 built for the Chinese National Railways in 1934-35. These fine locomotives were equipped with a mechanical stoker and six of them were fitted with booster engines on the tender, providing an extra 7670 lbs tractive effort. Of the 24 exported, one returned to the UK and is preserved at the National Railway Museum in York.
Through the 'thirties the company survived the trade recessions with the aid of more orders from India, some from Tanganyika and Argentina, and a large order in 1934 from the LMS for 4-6-0"Black Fives" and 2-8-0 Stanier-designed locomotives.
During 1953-54 the company built sixty J Class 2-8-0 locomotives for Victorian Railways, Australia.
The war had left India's railways in a parlous state and in 1947, with foreign aid, embarked on a massive rebuilding plan. The Vulcan Foundry benefited from orders for XE, XD, and YD 2-8-2s; and ten WG 2-8-2s sub-contracted from the North British Locomotive Company, but the writing was on the wall for all British manufacturers. Not only was the competition fierce from other countries, but India had developed the ability to build its own locomotives.
The factory passed through various hands as English Electric was bought by GEC, which in turn became GEC Alsthom then Alstom, and finally as part of MAN B&W Diesel in 2000. At the end of 2002 the works closed. It was then an industrial estate (appropriately called "Vulcan Industrial Estate"). The site is just north of Winwick Junction where the line to Newton Le Willows branches off to the west from the West Coast Main Line. All the (ex) factory buildings on the site were totally demolished in October 2007, and now there is not one brick standing upon another to show that Vulcan Foundry was ever there, but the workers cottages, known as "Vulcan Village", still survive at the southern corner of the site. As of early 2010 work has started on the construction of 630 homes on the levelled site by the developer St Modwen.