One Brick: Several Stories
WEBSTER’S BRICKWORKS 1904-1945
Part 3: WEBSTER’S BRICKWORKS 1904-1945
At the end of the previous document (PART 2), it was stated that “Henry Webster at some stage before the First World War distanced himself from the company (did he jump or was he pushed?) and turned to pastures new.’
Some clarification for this comes from the fact that the company ran into difficulties in 1904 and the site was put up for sale, although the (separate) Brickworks Railway continued in operation. It was also the plant and machinery that was for sale – the land remained in the ownership of Cecil Saumarez Irby, who, as second son of the 5th. Baron Boston, had inherited large chunks of land in Foleshill. An extension of the lease of the land had been negotiated in 1900 for a period of 99 years.
The size of the works is well illustrated by the sale details:
BY MESSRS. FULLER, HORSEY, SONS. AND CASSELL, COVENTRY
EXTENSIVE MODERN BRICKWORKS, with UP-TO-DATE PLANT AND MACHINERY. EQUAL TO AN OUTPUT OP 20 MILLION BRICKS PER ANNUM. TO BE SOLD,
WITH IMMEDIATE POSSESSION.
Messrs. Fuller, Horsey, Sons, & Cassell
Are instructed TO OFFER FOR SALE BY TENDER,
THE VALUABLE LONG – LEASEHOLD PROPERTY, known as WEBSTER’S BRICKWORKS, situate in the Stoney Stanton Road, Coventry, and occupying a total ground area of about 44 Acres; the works are served by Electric Tramways, and they have also special facilities for carriage by both rail and water, being contiguous to a branch railway siding connected with the London and North-Western Railway Co.’s system, and having wharfage accomodation on the Coventry Canal. The Property is held on lease for term of 99 years, from 25th March, 1900, at moderate rents for the surface land and lessors’ buildings, and royalties as low as 6d. per 1,000 for common bricks and 9d. per 1,000 for facing bricks, with a minimum dead rent.
The Brickworks proper have recently been erected by the lessees, and the whole of the buildings and plant (excluding the lessor’s buildings before referred to) are the absolute property of the lessees. They comprise Brickmaking House, Grinding Mills, Drying Sheds. Engine and Boiler Houses, Chimney Shafts, Mechanics’ Shops, Stables. Stores. etc., Five, capacious Hoffmann Kilns with Three lofty Shafts. Seven Clay Pans with Elevators, Six Bradley and Craven’s Brick Machines, Two Wire-cut Machines, Power and Hand Presses for bricks and tiles. etc., Two Stone Crushers Two Mortar Mills, Three 30ft. by 8ft. Lancashire Boilers Danks, built for 1501b. pressure. Green’s Economiser, Pumps. Shafting and Gearing. Engineer’s and Smith’s Tools. Tramways, Weighbridge, and other items. The whole of the Fixed Plant, Machinery, and Fixtures, as also the Goodwill of the Business (excluding the right to use the name of the Lessees), will be included in the Sale, the Purchaser having the option acquiring the Loose Plant and Stock-in-Trade at a Valuation.
In August 1904, the Shareholders in the company were to receive the following letter:
Webster’s Brickworks, Coventry The following letter has been received by the share-holders in Webster’s Brickworks, Coventry:
“I am instructed by my board to inform you that owing this company’s inability to pay the sinking fund and trustees’ fees to the Law Guarantee and Trust Society (Limited), London, they put in a receiver and manager of the estate, and although every effort has been made to provide means to discharge the amount of the debentures by the directors and others interested the business, they regret to say they have been unable to so, with the result that the trustees are now proceeding to dispose of the assets of the company. The directors would have informed the shareholders of the proceedings before this, but they had every hope of being able to bring forward a scheme of reconstruction, and regret their inability to do so.—Yours faithfully, Wm. Elson, Secretary.”
Meanwhile, Henry Webster continued to be quoted as ‘Manager’ of Webster’s Brickworks Railway’, and it looks as though this became his primary interest. Webster then left for the United Sates of America, and in 1915, the Webster’s Brickworks Railway became The Foleshill Railway. This railway became an important supply line in the First World War, carrying much heavy ordnance traffic, including the gun barrels from the Admiralty works for the Dreadnought class battleships.
The Foleshill Railway Company was a private company registered with a capital of £5000 in £1 shares. It was registered “to adopt an agreement with the Hon. Cecil Saumarez Irby to carry on the business of railway or tramway proprietors, carriers and wharfingers etc., for the purpose of making, constructing, repairing, maintaining, and working the railway at Coventry known as Webster’s Brickworks Railway, and to be re-named the Foleshill Railway”. The Directors appointed were Hon. Cecil Saumarez Irby, Gilbert Neville Irby, G.H.Thynne (land agent) and T.H.Bailey (mining and civil engineer).
It has not been possible to discover a portrait of C.S.Irby, and all I can offer is a photograph (Courtesy of the V&A) of his wife (neé Florence Augusta Dormer) and the cups won by him during schooldays at Eton College, indicating considerable athletic prowess!
Subsequent to 1904, news of Webster’s Brickworks tends to dry up, with no report on who became the owners, and whether they were regularly and fully employed. From a number of (often indirect) sources, it seems as though the site went into the (unlikely) ownership of J. J. Bate & Son, brickmakers of St. Helens. This firm seemed to have a number of brickworks, and during the 1920s, J. J. Bate acquired an old brickworking site in St. Helens and rebranded the plant as ‘The Old Teapot Brickworks’. It did make teapots as part of their pottery operations as well as fireplace tiles and vases. However its main production was that of bricks, of which it made many different types, some of which were supplied to Liverpool Cathedral. Production was greatly reduced during the 1950s and the Old Teapot Brickworks finally closed about 1967. Their clay pits were filled in 1974 and Pilkingtons took over the site. (Information from Stephen R. Wainwright www.suttonbeauty.org.uk )
One link with the previous owners was the retention of William Elson as Secretary/Assistant manager, and in his obituary in the Coventry Herald of October 25th. 1935 William Elson is described as Harry Webster’s brother-in-law, although it has not been possible to establish the precise link. It also recorded that William Elson had been in a management position at the Brickworks for 38 years. The obituary reported that “Mr J.J.Bate, (proprietor of Webster’s Brickworks) was present, and the staff of the Brickworks was represented by Messrs. W.Field and R.King”.
For much of the period under review- apart from the usual advertisements – the main occasions where Webster’s was featured in local newspapers came with accidents and subsequent inquests; industrial relations problems; fires; and court cases.
A serous fire in 1910 was attended by the Coventry Volunteer Fire Brigade. The fire originated in the machine shop and spread very quickly. The response of the fire Brigade was rapid – the call was received at 10.50pm; horsed escape and tender turned out at 10.51; and the steamer Peeping Tom was on the road by 10.52. Certain difficulties were caused by the necessity to haul the steamer over the railway lines to gain access to the canal and its water. Quite a crowd gathered, lining the canal to observe the progress of the fire. The Brigade managed to get the fire under control, although the machinery shop was destroyed and adjacent buildings suffered damage.
After the fire, Mr. J.J.Bate wrote to Capt. Armishaw to thank him for the valuable services rendered, enclosing a cheque for 5 guineas. He followed it with an announcement in the Midland Daily Telegraph of September 21st. 1910:
WEBSTER’S BRICKWORKS beg to announce to their numerous
Customers that they have made arrangements for WORKING A NIGHT SHIFT so that the
SUPPLY OF BRICKS will not be affected by the recent fire
A sign that activity had continued very much as before came in the strike of 1911, confirming the level of employment at Webster’s and the fact that demand for bricks was strong. The Midland Daily Telegraph of Thursday September 11th. 1911 reported:
‘WEBSTER’S BRICKYARD STRIKE’
THE POSITION TODAY
About a hundred and forty men are idle as a result of the dispute at Webster’s Brickworks, Priestley’s Bridge. The night shift ceased work on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday their numbers were increased, the works being practically at a standstill as a result. No disturbance was created during Wednesday, but this morning the police had to interfere on account of the tactics of some of the men. A crowd has assembled early in the morning, and at seven o’clock when cart loads of bricks were being brought from the yard, a section of the crowd made an attempt to empty a vehicle. However, the strikers were warned as to the consequences of any rash action and were reminded that by stopping builders’ carters they would be affecting bricklayers and others whose work depended upon the supply of material. The strikers desisted, the back board having been removed and a few bricks having fallen into the road. There was no further attempts to interfere with the vehicles.
It is understood that only about 10 men are now engaged at the works, these being the employees who attend to the fires. This afternoon the position was unaltered. The men were being paid their wages and it was understood that the employer’s offer was still open. This is for an advance of a farthing an hour, the men’s demand being for a halfpenny increase. The workers contend that in view of the increased price being obtained for bricks they are entitled for an advance in the rate of pay particularly considering the large amount of building work in progress in the city.’
The strike seemed to quickly crumble and the employer’s offer was accepted, with the men agreeing to recommence work at 6 a.m. on Monday 15th. September.
Production continued during the First World War, but clearly demands on manpower for military service clashed with the desire of the firm to keep production going. The Coventry Military Service Tribunal sat in order to assess the claims of workers for exemption from service on the eligible grounds indicated by the Military Service Act of 1916. There were seven categories for exemption, covering employment or educational studies that were of greater national importance; domestic circumstances; conscientious objection; and medical reasons. Webster’s’ case rested on the importance of maintaining brick production in the city.
One such Tribunal was held in Coventry on December 7th. 1916. In the course of discussions, it was revealed that at the outbreak of War Webster’s employed 133 men, including 52 of military age. There were now 76 employed, including 30 of military age – badged* 17; mobilised for November 30th. 1916, 2; now appealed for, 4; deaf and dumb 4; aged 18, 2; rejected, 1.
* Badged means that the workers had permission to wear a War Service badge, indicating to onlookers that, despite being of military age, they were contributing to the war effort in other ways apart from fighting at the Front. The illustration is of a War Service badge, not for Webster’s, but from the nearby Coventry Ordnance Works.
With labour clearly scarce in wartime – and increasingly so as war progressed – it is no surprise that Websters were advertising for (unskilled) workers e.g. in September 1917 for ‘Navvies for Clay Pit Work’ and in December 1917 for ‘Labourers and Strong Youths’.
The other reference to Webster’s Brickworks in newspaper reports sadly came from the announcement of accidents at the works, including fatalities. One such example came in 1914, where a premature blasting of clay caused the death of one of the workers Frank Parker who was setting up the equipment. Normal accepted procedures had not been followed, and Amos Oughton, foreman, who had activated the blast, admitted his wrongdoing.
Considerable newspaper space was given over to a court case where Webster’s was accused of breach of contract, brought to court by William James Bromley, builder of Coventry. The alleged (verbal) contract according to Mr. Bromley was drawn up in 1910 for the supply of 2,000,000 bricks at an agreed price for the building of 77 homes in Melbourne Road, Coventry. The agreement was for the common bricks to be supplied at 18s. 6d. per 1000 with an extra 5s. for delivery. The pressed bricks, for which there was a much smaller order, would be priced at 35s. per 1000. Building began in late 1910 and early the following year, after 10 houses had been built, it was rumoured that the price of bricks was likely to rise. Bromley decided to safeguard himself by obtaining a written contract, and was assured by Mr. Elson that the matter would be put right. Despite rises in price for similar Webster’s bricks for projects elsewhere in the city, large numbers of bricks continued to be delivered throughout 1911 to the Melbourne Road site at the original price.
Much rested on the existence or otherwise of a letter from Mr. Elson setting out the terms of the contract. An added complication was that at the start of 1912, the Corporation of Coventry were planning to erect some buildings in Narrow Lane, and they advertised for tenders. It was claimed that Mr. Bromley saw this as an opportunity to use the (fixed-price bricks) from Webster’s but to re-direct them to the Narrow Lane site. However, on March 11th. 1912 Mr. Elson wrote to Mr. Bromley to explain, pointing out that he did not believe the contract for the supply of bricks held good if the bricks went anywhere else apart from Melbourne Road. In April 1912, Bromley stopped building in Melbourne Road but returned to the site in mid-1913 and contacted Webster’s again for a continuation of the contract. Webster’s regarded this as an interruption in the agreement to deliver bricks, and Mr. Bromley was informed that the bricks would now be 31s. per 1000 compared to the previous price of 23s. 6d.
The Court found in favour of Webster’s, largely because the existence of a written contract could not be confirmed.
Advertising continued during the 1920s. A typical example was:
Best Red Pressed Facing Bricks and Multi-Coloured Rustic Bricks and Mouldings
in 2 in. and 3 in.; also Common Wire Cuts
Enquiries dealt with promptly and samples submitted
Interestingly, the adverts for the 1930s seemed to concentrate on a different set of materials:
ROCKERY STONE for gardens and drives. Works prices: 4s. ton.
Webster’s Brickworks, Stoney Stanton Road. Coventry
Sadly, the works did not remain free of accidents. One such event occurred in July 1935, when subsequent to an accident at the works, Bert Plummer (aged 53) who had worked at Webster’s since he was 14, died soon after requesting to be discharged from Hospital.
In the inquest, the circumstances surrounding the accident were explored at length. Much rested on whether the accident had been caused by human error, by the failure of the company to take sufficient care over the regulations for the operation of machinery, or by a deterioration in the victim’s pre-existing health conditions.
Plummer had responsibility for certain plant at the works and to keep it properly oiled. There was a shaft about 8ft. 4ins. from the floor with a speed of 140 revolutions per minute. The shaft passed into a bearing which was oiled three or four times a day. Occasionally, this oiling was carried out – against company guidelines – whilst the machinery was in motion. There was indeed a notice by the machinery ‘ANY WORKMAN FOUND INTERFERING WITH MACHINERY IN MOTION WILL BE INSTANTLY DISMISSED’. Extra time was allowed to men who had to do the oiling.
On this occasion, Plummer had been seen climbing a ladder placed against the shaft but his clothing had been caught up in the shafting, and he was thrown to the floor. He was taken to hospital where Dr. Arthur Bickford, who examined him on arrival, suggested that Plummer had severe bruising of the back of the neck and of the chest but these were not life-threatening injuries. A fellow worker told the inquest that Plummer had been feeling “middling” prior to the accident, and he also had a history of pneumonia. After he was discharged from hospital on June 28th, he died at home on July 8th, with the cause of death listed as ‘hypostatic pneumonia’.
The conclusion to the case was that – whilst Plummer should not have tried to oil the bearing while the shafting was in motion – the company should have protected the shafting with some form of fencing. John J. Bate & Son, owners of Webster’s Brickworks, were fined £25 with £3 12s. 6d. costs for neglecting to observe the provisions of The Factory and Workshop Act.
The 1930s see the end of the involvement of J.J.Bate & Son in Webster’s Brickworks. In 1938 the works were taken over by Reuben Hemming, a familiar surname in the West Midlands brickmaking industry. The date of 1938 is taken from some notes I made during a WIAS visit to the works on 15th. May 1993, with the information supplied by our guide, Mr. Hall. However, I have been unable confirm this. The faded HEMMING & SONS, COVENTRY was still visible on a brickworks building until its final days.
Unfortunately, Hemming’s ownership got off to something of a false start because the site was commandeered by The Admiralty for the duration of the war.
This is revealed in a letter to the Coventry Evening Telegraph on 4th. March 1946 from R.S.Hemming, which also highlights the state of the brick industry and its readiness to meet post-war housing demand. The letter is re-produced in full:
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Coventry Brick Supply
Sir – I read with interest the article in your issue of February 27 in reference to the question asked by Mr. Edelman, M.P. in the House as to what steps were being taken by the Minister of Works to increase the supply of bricks in the Coventry area. The Minister’s reply was that everything possible was being done and that there are a stock of a million bricks at the two active works. This may be so, but what are a million bricks? My knowledge of the brick industry is that the country’s active brickworks (about one third of the total) are still on half production. This means heavy expense, out of all proportion to output, and the labour shortage is still the worst problem.
My works in the city have been closed down for five years. We are capable of producing a quarter of a million bricks per week, but the assistance we have had from the Ministry in question has been negligible. Our war damage amounts to something like £10,000, but up to date we have received £300 on account. Are we expected to put our hands in our pockets again, after all the damage we have sustained? When the country wanted munitions the Government spared no expense in equipping factories for war material. The country is now crying out for houses and I, like many others, can see in the near future that the brick famine is going to be very serious.
I am now in charge of a works in Kenilworth, which has run at a loss throughout the war, and is even now on half production, and during this week I have refused orders amounting to two million bricks. I very well remember Mr. Churchill’s words in the early days of the war: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job”. What we say now is: “Give us a little help and we will do the job”. I wonder how many members of the general public do realise what a vast job this housing will be?
R.S.HEMMING, Director, Webster’s Hemming & Son, Midland Brickworks, Coventry.
The experience of Hemming’s works in the war is also highlighted by a photograph on Coventry History Forum www.forum.historiccoventry.co.uk, (a very interesting website full of personal reminiscences), kindly supplied by ‘NormK’ of Bulkington. It refers to a cutting on the office wall of the works.
The final part of the Webster’s brickwork story is contained in Part 4 which takes events from the end of the Second World War to the present day.
Copyright © Martin Green 2020