Stories about those locally made items that we call ‘Dudley Dowells’ and the history of Dudley & Dowell Ltd, are never far from the pages of the Bugle and in recent months we've received some really cracking correspondence on the subject.
The latest has come from George F. Sidaway from Rowley Regis, who writes: "In view of your readers’ continuing interest in ‘Dudley Dowells’, I thought some relevant memoirs of the late P.W. Dowell would also be of interest. My late father (from the 1930s) and myself (from the 1950s) acted as accountants and business advisers for the Dudley and the Dowell families and in particular for Dudley & Dowell Ltd.
and its subsidiaries. As will be seen from the memoirs, in 1962 the Dudleys and the Dowells separated their interests but I continued an even closer involvement with both; I became a director of Dudley & Dowell Ltd and a colleague of Walter Dowell in various entrepreneurial enterprises.
In 1968 P.W. Dowell (Walter) expressed an interest in writing his memoirs and I provided him with the appropriate dictation equipment and the necessary word processing and editing services.” The following is based on some of the relevant sections of Walter's memoirs ...
“The history of Dudley & Dowell really starts at the end of the 1914-18 War. Three employees of Walter Somers Ltd. in Halesowen had been friends. They were Percy Dowell, W.E. Dowell (WED) and a Mr Willows. At the end of the war Mr Willows emigrated to Australia, but Percy (the manager of the forge room) and WED (the manager of the machine shop) formed a partnership in an engineering company in 1920.
They rented a pair of cottages in Olive Lane, Blackheath, from Joseph Harper the builder, and Percy soon had the two cottages knocked into one. That was the beginning of the business and the group grew from there. Percy installed the necessary shafting and a gas engine, with a second-hand lathe, etc., creating the nucleus of an engineering shop.
“After the Great War there were plenty of engineering companies, but work was scarce and Percy decided to branch out into castings, and the business became a foundry rather than an engineering company. The cupola in which the iron was melted was made from two secondhand gas tanks bolted together and lined with firebricks.
An air fan was manufactured and the cupola was filled with scrap iron, coke and limestone from platforms in two stages since there was not enough room for a lift.
Work was scarce and Percy and WED used their time to improve the equipment. A moulder, Arthur Hadley, was engaged as the furnace man and worked with them for many years, and with his brother was able to produce enough molten iron for the first years of the foundry's existence.
“When the building trade began to pick up after the war, business increased and Percy and WED turned their hands to producing grid iron castings, gutters, toilet cisterns, etc. Some of the castings required enamelling, which had to be sent away to be done, and the finished product had to be delivered to merchants in Birmingham.
Accordingly the company acquired its own transport, a horse called Tommy, who had been trained in the trotting world; he had a beautiful action and could move over the ground very quickly.
However, whenever he heard the sounds of hooves made by other horses (there were many delivery horses in use at the time), he was always determined to be the fastest horse around.
“Orders were gradually built up and the trade improved, and WED's sons, Edward (Ted) and William (Billy) joined the company as teenagers. Percy obtained an order from Dalton & Co., the large stone ware company at Springfield near Blackheath, and this ultimately grew into a very lucrative business connection.
“Percy's son, Walter, joined the company in April 1928 just before his 16th birthday and straight from Moat Road School. He joined the payroll on a wage of £1 per week and was put under WED's wing on the commercial side. He was in charge of deliveries, which were by horse and dray to Blackheath station on a daily basis. Walter progressed through the business, but ultimately felt the company could do more.
“He circulated all the builders merchants in the country with a priced catalogue and was pleased that some 10% of those contacted became regular customers.
Although a young man, Walter developed a close relationship with Mr Manslow, the Managing Director of Daltons, and Daltons became one of the company's prime customers. A London representative had been appointed, but the workload became too heavy and a separate representative was appointed for the heavy civil engineering customers such as Laing, McAlpine, Costains, and Wimpey, etc.
“The works at Cradley Heath were purchased in 1933 and expanded over the years to cover nine acres and with two foundries. In the 1930s business began to build up with government departments such as the Ministry of Works and the Air Ministry getting into gear with the possibility of a war developing, and an increased demand for draining castings on RAF runways in particular led to this upsurge in business.
“The Air Ministry had stipulated a patented ‘Gathic’drainage grating which was made by Dover Engineering.
But once the Germans had overrun France, Dover Engineering came under shell fire from the French coast and another manufacturer had to be found. Walter's ingenious ‘VeeFix’ casting which he had patented, was what the Air Ministry was looking for.
When America joined the war the demand for airstrip gratings soared and very often there would be a mile and a half of castings on a single airstrip.
“After the Second World War Dudley & Dowell Ltd.
was split into two groups under the auspices of George Sidaway, the Blackheath accountant; Dudley & Dowell Ltd (the manufacturing group) and Dowley Investments Ltd. (a financial investment and banking group).
Walter and Ted (who had been in charge of the business since 1939) had worked well together but felt this might not continue in the next generation.
It was therefore decided they would split the group, one taking the manufacturing and the other the financial activities since they were approximately equal.
Walter magnanimously gave Ted the choice and after some hesitation Ted took over Dudley & Dowell and Walter retained Dowley Investments.
“Ted was very much a works man and George Sidaway joined the board of Dudley & Dowell as a non-executive director. The expansion of the business was driven on and John Wheeler & Son Ltd. of Oldbury was purchased in the 1950s. The Group was to be floated as a public company by a reverse takeover into a shell company, the arrangement having been negotiated and carried through by Mr Sidaway.
“But on the eve of the day proceeding completion, the vendor changed his mind. The shell company was based in Newcastle, and during the process Mr Sidaway had also acquired a company at Hartlepool — Dudley & Dowell (Tees) Ltd. With the reverse takeover defeated it was decided to float the company as a separate entity and the arrangements were well in advance when an approach was made by Brickhouse Foundry Ltd to merge with Dudley & Dowell. Brickhouse had been floated shortly before, and although smaller than Dudley & Dowell, they had a more entrepreneurial managing director and Ted welcomed the opportunity to shed the responsibilities to the investing public.
"This was the beginning of the end of Dudley & Dowell Ltd., although the name continued in the newly established group under the name Brickhouse Dudley Ltd.
Brickhouse Dudley was itself acquired by Glynwed International PLC in June 1986. I know Walter would wish to record the valuable contribution of all the managers at Dudley & Dowell Ltd., as well as Walter Hammond, John George, Eric Mills, Miss Blunson, and others, and especially all the employees over the years whilst the company remained operational in its native Black Country."