John Cooksey's "Brickyards of the Black Country" chronicles the rise and fall of the Black Country's firebrick industry

Cover of John Cooksey\'s "Brickyards of the Black Country"
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 Cover of John Cooksey's "Brickyards of the Black Country" 

Cradley is well known for its association with the iron trades, especially chain making, and to a lesser extent for coal mining, which was actually more important than is generally appreciated. However, the importance of the local brick making industry, in days now gone by, is hardly realised at all. John Cooksey's book is aptly sub-titled "A Forgotten Industry".

However, this book sets the record straight. It is the outcome of 35 years of research and also much of the author's working life. It is technical and informative but always readable. Also, it is illustrated by more than one hundred photographs, many of which have not been published before as far as I am aware. But brick making is a big subject, and John concentrates on just one type of brick - firebricks, or to be more exact, refractories.

These bricks were used by most of the other industries for which the Black Country became famous. Firebricks were also used in making coal gas, cement and salt glazed earthenware, in the fireboxes of steam locomotives, and in the making of all kinds of glass, from bottles and jars to the finest decorative glass that made Stourbridge famous. Each of these industries are discussed in detail.

John describes the concentration of refractory brick making in the south western corner of the Black Country around Brierley Hill, Pensnett, Gornal, Amblecote, Lye and of course Cradley. The clay was usually found beneath the coal measures and was brought to the surface by many of the small pits. It was common for pit owners to also own a nearby brickyard. The clay was extracted in this area from the mid-1500s and for the next four centuries, by which time the local firebrick industry was all but finished. The story is one of both hand-made bricks on a massive scale and also of experimentation and technical innovation.

Samuel Evers & Sons Homer Hill Works, Cradley, in around the late 1920s, with the pit head gear of old Homer Hill Colliery in the background.
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 Samuel Evers & Sons Homer Hill Works, Cradley, in around the late 1920s, with the pit head gear of old Homer Hill Colliery in the background. 

In the Black Country in the 1860s there were 200 blast furnaces, 2155 puddling furnaces, 300 rolling mills, dozens of foundries producing cast iron and brass, chain and anchor works and reheating furnaces. They all needed firebrick linings. Open hearth furnaces in the iron and steel works needed hundreds of thousands of refractory bricks each time they were relined. But finally the changing use and design of modern furnaces and technological changes in the glass industry meant that Black Country refractories were no longer suitable.

A manual coal-fired round downdraught kiln at Harper & Moore\'s brickyard, Cradley, around the mid 1950s.
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 A manual coal-fired round downdraught kiln at Harper & Moore's brickyard, Cradley, around the mid 1950s. 

The Cradley brickyards discussed by John are Samuel Evers & Sons at Homer Hill, Harper & Moores at Park Road and King Brothers at Netherend. There were others, and hopefully his next book will take a look at these.

The book is not only an economic and social history, but also a tribute to the Black Country women and men who worked the fireclay. In the mid-nineteenth century 75% of the labour who slaved in this industry were women, and 50% of these were girls under the age of ten.

John is eminently qualified to be the author of this marvellous book. Cradley-born, he is an expert member of the Industrial Archaeology Group of the Black Country Society and also a former brickyard worker himself. In the end he was made redundant from the refractory trade, of which he says: "like all great things, there is an end."

The book was launched at Cradley Library in Colley Lane on 10 May 2003. The first print run of the book sold out in days and most of the next run is pre-ordered. In due course it will be on sale at Stourbridge and Halesowen libraries and the Black Country Bugle bookshop in Cradley Heath High Street. It can also be ordered by telephoning the author on 01384 836122.

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