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The bricks that built the Black Country

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 12, 2014

By Mike Fenton

  • Typical image of Black Country women brick making

  • Gladstone House, Portway Road, Oldbury, once owned by John Sadler

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THE identification of a region by means of their industrial and manufacturing industry is a well worn path and a useful tool to any concerned researcher in such matters.

The towns, villages and other communities that dot the landscape of the Black Country are themselves an intrinsic reflection of an equally proportionate numbers of crafts and trades practised and honed over many centuries.

Stourbridge could allude to its fine tradition of glassmaking, Cradley Heath is inseparable from the history of nail shops, locks from Willenhall, Oldbury's chemicals, cast iron and springs from West Bromwich to mention but a few.

The buildings, sheds and self-built constructs that housed many of these industries do however share a common thread, one with a surprising and rich provenance.

Bricks are one of the oldest known building materials dating back to around 7000 BC.

Early allusions to brick making in the Black Country can be referenced by the fact that the route between Great Bridge and Harvills Hawthorn in West Bromwich was popularly known as Brickhouse Lane as early as 1600.

At this period, however, the industry was in its infancy. Even moving forward to the early 19th century, West Bromwich could boast only one active manufacturer by 1818, reaching the dizzy heights of 11 by 1851.

This latter date is significant as it marks the establishment of what was to be later named the Joseph Hamblet works at Greets Green. It was ever famed for its production of blue bricks, although it did produce many other varieties including the ubiquitous red, ones for kerbs, coping and brindle bricks. By 1890 the company's weekly output stood at an astounding half a million. Nearby the Albion Brickworks, Wood & Ivery, had an impressive quarter of a million witnessed every seven days. The zenith of such production, however, saw a rapid decline and by 1915 it felt necessary to close its works due to labour and fuel shortages. In 1919 it sold off the estate and the plant.

Despite this, its legacy continued. When the marl holes were filled with water, anglers and teenage swimmers could be seen swarming around these relics of an industry long gone.

The town could boast other companies actively involved in this business. There was B. W. Blades, a dynastic family of brick manufacturers who can be traced to at least the 1850s and still active in the first decade of the new century. From at least the 1880s a company named P. S. Wood were active in the production of "Best Staffordshire Blue Bricks", their somewhat unique trade mark being the unexpected Star of David with the letter W at its centre.

I cannot omit mention of Blackheath and its once impressive South Staffordshire Blue Brick Company Ltd, situated at its Cakemore Brickworks site. It was registered in October 1887 to take over the properties of the former Cakemore Blue Brick Co and its products soon became utilised across the country, the Grand Union Canal favouring its bricks in much of its architecture. Their wares were to be discovered as far south as London's St. Pancras Railway Station. Just two miles away, heading towards Dudley stood the works of the Springfield Brick & Tile Works at Rowley Regis, owned by the well established firm of Doulton & Company and famed for their production of drainpipes and similar sanitary ware since 1846.

Its longevity, however, could not provide guarantees of secure employment prospects indefinitely, and it was forced to close shortly after the First World War. The brick works succumbed to the same fate later, its last tangible vestiges being demolished by the 1970s.

Turning our backs on Blackheath and Rowley, our path meanders towards Oldbury, for long a town associated with chemicals and heavy industry. But this corner of the Black Country too could not be found wanting when it came to bricks and their manufacture.

If one family remains pre-eminent in Oldbury when conducting research into the town's brick making industry, it surely must be the Sadlers and in particular John Sadler, whose imprint on the town was so noticed and memorable, that he was dubbed 'the Grand Old Man of Oldbury'.

A carpenter and builder under the stewardship of his elder brother Samuel, John, at the age of just 21, firmly established his own identity by taking the reins of his father's brick making concern in 1841. This, however, was not sufficient for this entrepreneurial and ever confident young, business man, as by 1847 he had registered the John Sadler & Sons Company of Shidas Lane, Oldbury and like many of his contemporaries would publicly proclaim their products as the best in the land. On this occasion the company waved its flag from the roof tops, saying they were the "manufacturer of every description of Staffordshire brindled, red, blue and brown bricks and tiles."

Boasts aside, it truly was a huge site, covering more than seven acres and is somewhat ironic that the marl hole used to extract the clay required to make the bricks grew to such proportions that it eventually devoured one of John Sadler's former residences Gladstone House, which was situated at the top of Portway Road.

As time took its natural course, the house slid into the muddy darkness, a solitary post box and two gate posts remaining to mark its former existence. Today the marl hole is occupied by the local council's refuse tip. Like its Black Country brothers, Oldbury could list others determined to make their mark in this industry; there was George Wood at his Brades Brickworks and more recently there was Pratt's Brickyard, although it began life as the more correctly titled New Century Brickworks which began in 1900.

Other less substantial works peppered our district's industrial panorama but were of no less importance to our heritage and historical importance. Over at Great Bridge, and certainly since the 1870s, Thomas Bayley was busily developing his brick, tile works and quarry. Thirty years later and in his early 60, he, his wife and three children were still thriving. A hop, skip and jump from here, the Earl of Dudley had his Coneygre works at Tipton, while further afield at Stourbridge John Stevens had his Hurst Firebrick Works.

A more recent manufacturer, he was a listed exhibitor at the British Industries Fair in 1937, with his world-renowned "Stour" Firebricks.

We are all fully conscious of the enormously important role the Black Country and its diverse industries have made. However, we can be supremely proud of the contribution our brick making ancestors have achieved, often in perilous and dangerous circumstances.

Many of the brickworks employees were women and in its early history, many children were shamefully employed causing illness and malformation. If we fail to preserve their history, we succeed in insulting their memory and contribution – these after all were the people, who brick by brick, built the Black Country.

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