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Looking back at a Cradley Heath Chainmaking Clan

By gavin jones  |  Posted: June 30, 2011

Lomey and Mary Billingham with their children.

Lomey and Mary Billingham with their children.

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GARY Billingham conducts a one-name study of his family name, which is closely connected with the Black Country, Cradley Heath in particular.

Gary resides in Australia, but is a regular traveller to these shores, and last year he visited the last general manager of Joseph Billingham's chainmakers of Cradley Heath, namely Michael Billingham, at Upton on Severn.

Writes Gary, “I recorded an interview with him where he recalled his earlier days, factory life, and his family, who used to live in a fine house called The Poplars, in Cradley Heath. I've attached a copy of the transcript in the hope that you maybe interested in publishing it in a future edition.

“Feel free to publish my contact details, as I welcome all inquiries on this local Black Country surname. I would also be interested to hear of anybody's recollections of The Poplars.

Keep up the great work! Regards Gary Billingham 5/49 Sorrento Street North Beach WA 6020 Australia gary.billingham@three.com.au Here follows extracts from Gary’s interview with Michael Billingham in 2010....

Michael Billingham was the last managing director of the old Cradley Heath chainmaking firm of Joseph Billingham.

Located in Providence Street, it was established in 1848 by Joseph Billingham (1807 - 1876), and continued trading until the early 1990s. Management of the company was taken over by his son Joseph (1833-1905), who later passed it on to his own son Gideon (1863-1904), then to his younger brother Lomey (1872 - 1953) upon his death in 1904.

The family home of Michael's grandparents, Lomey and Mary Billingham was called The Poplars, located in Dudley Wood Road. Here was where their three children Hilda (1897- 197?), Joseph (1901-1975) and Lomax (1904-1976) grew up.

When the property was built in the late 1800s, Michael got the impression that no expense had been spared to build it. It was filled with magnificent timber, including beautiful ornate mahogany columns at one end of the dining room, and an enormous fireplace with wooden surrounds to it. The kitchens spread through to a breakfast room type kitchen, which lead to a line of three different sorts of pantries - a cold room, china pantry, and a food pantry. There was also a back kitchen, where not only cooking was done, but all the washing too. There was a huge ornate boiler in the room where the clothes were boiled. The kitchen area occupied the space normally the size of a modern house. There were lots of stained glass windows, with some of the doors inside the property made of solid oak and mahogany.

Michael remembered having the most enormous Christmas parties there. There was a huge dining room, about 30 to 35 feet long, which used to be filled with a huge dining table which would seat 25 to 30 people. They used to have classic type Christmas parties there, with all of the various distant relatives invited.

Just two doors up from The Poplars was located the Methodist Hall, and as all of the family were very keen Methodists, they used to attend the Sunday services there.

After Lomey died there at The Poplars in 1953, his wife Mary went to live in Pedmore until she died in 1967. The Poplars was empty for a long time between 1953 and 1967, and was then bought up and partially used as a dental or doctor's surgery. Certain parts of the original house were retained. There would have been some real estate sales particulars prepared when the house was taken over by the doctor's surgery.

The whole area was later redeveloped for the new ring road, and sadly the property was pulled down, with nothing from the inside saved.

When Michael's father Lomax married Lilian Crowther in 1932, he built a mock Tudor house in Oldswinford near Stourbridge, in Whitehall Road on a big plot of land. They lived there for 30 to 40 years, eventually moving to Clent, then down to Torquay. His uncle Joe used to live in Pedmore, first in Greenridges, then to another house in Pedmore, until he died in 1975.

Every Saturday morning, Michael's father used to go to work, and he would take him to spend time with his grandmother.

She used to spoil him and his brother Christopher, as you'd expect. They had a pianola in the living room, and he used to spend a lot of time playing different pieces of music on it. They also had a very large attic at the top of the house, which was filled with junk going back years and years. They remember ferreting through things and bringing them down and have a morning playing with them.

But it was a fantastic house.

Michael remembers his grandmother Mary used to put the washing out and she'd bring it in, and it was always sooty when it came in. But she'd say "It's alright, it's been boiled, it's clean, it's only a bit of atmosphere that's all."

 She was a very generous person, very short in stature. She was also a very heavy smoker and always had her cigarette in her mouth with all of her upper lip covered in nicotine.

She dressed very smartly, and had two or three servants in service. Both Mary & Lomey were very well to do, although neither were particularly extravagant in their living, but they had very thing they wanted, and had quite a bit of help in the house.

Michael continues with his story. "I also used to go to the factory regularly, and wander round meeting everybody. My grandfather was one of those very generous factory owners.

He used to go around every morning with a big box of cigarettes, and give all of the employees a cigarette first thing. He knew them all obviously by name and he was always seen as a generous and well-meaning boss. They used to start work at seven o'clock in the morning, and then at 8.30am they had a thirty minute breakfast break. In the chainmaking forge, the workpeople used to bring in an uncooked bacon sandwich, and the bacon was cooked over the coals used for making the chains, so there would be a lovely smell going about the factory. They also had a canteen across the road which was run by a very talkative lady named Nelly. She knew everybody in Cradley Heath, and she was known by all of the factory people. She used to walk up the main street at lunchtime in Cradley Heath, and everybody would say good morning to her. There was a very happy atmosphere in the factory."

 "Providence Street used to be hive of activity. Next to the factory of Joseph Billingham's was another called Joseph Penn's and Sons, which was a steel mill. They bought in ingots of steel and they were a rolling mill, where they turned these ingots into narrow section bars of material.

They produced a special steel called tread plate, and for a period Joseph Billingham were the main supplier of this material, which was produced by Joseph Penn.

"By the time that I worked there, the range of items that Joseph Billingham's produced had widened considerably. We did upset forgings, which was taking a bar of material, warming it, and forging the end of that material into a particular shape. For example, we used to large number of handrail stanchions, those things with a big solid foot, then a bar of material and a ball halfway up, which the tubes can go through.

There was also the welding shop, a machine shop, press shop, so there were a wide variety of engineering operations, with about 180 people employed in the 1950s. Then it bought by the Harrison Shelton group, and subsequently closed, in the 1970s. The railway used to run though the back of the factory, but the line was closed in the early 1960s. The earliest workshops go back to the mid 1800s, and consist of converted small workshops, but the original structure is still identifiable. The factory certainly originates from before that time, as I had some of the original ledgers which were dated from the 1850s."

 “There was a much closer relationship between the owner of the business and their workers, and a much bigger difference between their living standards. Many of the houses in Cradley Heath were of the long terrace variety with passages going down between the properties into little gardens in the back. All of the properties in Providence Street were little terraced houses, two up, two down with little passageways between. The area was cleared in the 1950s, because the offices for Joseph Billingham were four separate cottages which were knocked through, but still retained their identity.

"Cradley Heath used to be a very close knit community, where everybody used to know everybody else. Many of the people who lived in Cradley Heath rarely got to go as far as Birmingham. I can remember the factory used to arrange once a year one of those infamous works outings, which the company paid for. They used to hire a private train, which they shared with two or three other local companies, and this private train would pick everybody up at Cradley Heath at 7 o'clock in the morning, and take them all to Blackpool, the most obvious place to go. Then they would all be taken back home, with the train leaving about midnight on the same day. It was always a bit of a race round the pubs after they closed at 11pm, to try and get everybody who'd had a bit too much to drink back to the station in time to catch the train.

“I can always remember two or three lads who worked in the blacksmiths, particularly generous in their drinking, seeing their foreman still drinking in the pub at 11pm. He'd had too much to drink, and they said "come on, time to go, you'll miss your train" so they bundled him under their arm and took him to the station and put him on the train. I think he slept all the way home, and when he woke up as the train pulled into Cradley Heath at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning said "What the hell am I doing back here, I'm on a fortnight's holiday! I shouldn't be on the train, my family's back in Blackpool!" Christmas So there was quite a bit of amusement. The works outings were very popular, and often were the only chance these people got of going to the seaside.

My grandfather used to give as a Christmas present a chicken for everyone to take home. I can always remember the boardroom just before Christmas being filled with chickens for giving out to all the employees....”

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