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Long established Pensnett works where the past meets the present

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: January 27, 2005

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Those of you who have been following our brick saga will no doubt recall, on page 16 of our January 6th edition, the bizarre brick brought down from Scotland by Jeff Pritchard, a former builder who had found it a couple of decades ago in Kingswinford after demolishing a row of cottages.

It bore the name Solomon Dingley and the company which made it, Ketley. During his chat with the Bugle, Jeff mentioned that Ketley were later taken up by Pensnett firm Hinton Perry and Davenhill, of Dreadnought brick and tile fame. He also recalled that the Dreadnought works had been known, in his youth and much earlier, as ‘No Mon’s’, due to the unusually high number of women workers employed there years ago.

So we were pleasantly surprised when we got a call from Ken Bird, production manager at Hinton Perry and Davenhill’s Dreadnought works, to tell us that the firm had a couple of photographs we might be interested in; one of which dated from the No Mon’s days. Better still, both Dreadnought Tiles and the Ketley Brick Company are still alive and well at the site, and remain in the hands of the Davenhill family.

The photographs in question hang in the entrance hall of the works, a low-roofed Victorian building which exudes industrial history every bit as much as the pictures do. In 1925, according to the evidence of one of the pictures, there were indeed no men to be found on the factory floor - and most of the twenty-six females were barely into womanhood. The only man with the group is Mr Perry, at far right. Many of the girls must only have been teenagers, and some on the front row have their arms around each other in the way that they would have done at school. Yet, despite the dusty, no doubt heavy nature of their work, they look a pretty happy bunch. Thankfully most of the names were preserved along with the picture, and they are as follows.

Back row, from left: Molly Hughes, May Walker, Annie Hughes, Daisy Hill, ?, Ethel West, Lily Marsh, Daisy Kempton, Minnie Caswell.

Middle row: ?, Sally Taylor, Louis Malpass, Minnie Malpass, ?, ?, Elsie Bonsor, Mr Perry.

Front row: Mary Jones, Sally Cook, Eliza Taylor, Lizzie Bates, Linda ___, ?, ?, Alice Marsh, ? and Bertha Flavell.

Displayed alongside this picture in the entrance hall is an earlier image, this one dating from 1912, and showing an exclusively male group. All are in just the sort of attire we’d expect of the period and the area; white shirts with rolled-up sleeves, boots, waistcoats and the trademark flat cap. Their names, with just a few omissions, are as follows:

Back row, from left: Enoch Norrey, ?, Billy Smith, Joe (Runner) Priest, Frank Hughes, ?, ?, ?, ?.

Middle row: David Jones (Dave Prop) Foreman Bricklayer, Will Loat, Enoch Parkes, Tom Raybould, Yard Foreman, ?, Big Jim Westwood, Bricklayer’s Labourer, Joe Southall, Head Kilnburner.

Front row: ?, Little Joey Darby, Jack Marson, ?, ?, ?.

There has been a brickworks on this site since 1805, two hundred years this year, and the most striking thing about the Dreadnought works today is just how little it has changed, in several respects, in the last century or so. There are new buildings, new machinery and up to date working practices, but the modern is blended in seamlessly with the traditional. There are machines here which have been producing bricks since before those men were pictured in 1912, and there are workers here practising skills which date back far earlier.

The well-known Ketley Pavers are pressed on an eighty year old machine which was originally powered, via belts in the ceiling, by a large engine. Now it has its own electric motor and is caged for safety, but is still working as well as ever and churning out the iron-hard blue pavers in exactly the way it always has done. But that is a mere youth in comparison to another machine that is put to use regularly here; a hundred year old hand press which is operated by two men taking a lever each. Amongst its tasks is one of the most modern - the large blistered bricks which line pavements at the edge of a zebra crossing.

The Dreadnought works’ traditional approach to manufacture is reflected in its output. The forty or so staff produce special bricks and tiles to order, but even their standard shapes and sizes are different from a lot of what is widely available these days. As they’re made the way they always were, using local clay from the firm’s own Ketley quarry, the tiles, for instance have a slight variety in their colours, which blend together to give a wonderfully warm hue that cannot be replicated with the artificially-coloured concrete tiles seen on a lot of roofs.

Specially-ordered bricks and tiles are made by hand in the same way as they have been for generations, using hand-made wooden boxes to mould and shape the wet clay. Steve Cartwright (pictured) was busy finishing off by hand a huge brick, the clay still wet, when we made our visit. It will require a month or so to dry out before being gas-fired in a modern kiln. These kinds of bespoke items are often used in the renovation of Victorian buildings and canalsides, as are the Staffordshire Blue

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