J. Brockhouse & Co. Ltd.
Brockhouse Castings Ltd - My experience 1950-63
By Gordon Fryer
Brockhouse Castings was situated in Hall Street. They made steel castings of all descriptions up to 7 tons. During the war they made naval fittings. The factory closed in the 1980s.
This was my first job on leaving school but to join the iron and steel foundry industry was not my preference because I wanted to be an industrial chemist. This was to be an opening. I became an apprentice for 5 years and remember my first pay was £1 10s 0d (£1.50 in today’s money) for a week’s work. We used to go in Saturdays, when asked, for extra pay.
In those days you had to start with the dirty jobs and gradually learn one day at a time. The new arrivals would start collecting samples which would be taken back to the laboratory for analysis. Armed with a steel spoon with a six foot handle you would follow the ladle of steel and when directed by the foreman who had regulated the flow of molten metal to a trickle, insert the spoon and collect the sample. We had no protective clothing no gloves, no eyeshields, just a warehouse coat over our working clothes. The sample was taken back and when the red appearance was going away the metal was cooled in a large pot of water. Using a large electric drill sufficient sample was taken and put in a packet and identified with a serial number, also known as the heat number. This was passed to the laboratory staff for analysis.
In between one would clean up benches and watch the other staff. The next job up was sand testing. Tests were made on the various foundry sands, including moisture content, general strength, and permeability which was the degree of passing of gases through the rammed up sand.
It was usually after a year when you got to this level and later on you were able to do wet analysis, which was the time consuming method used in that era.
The Chief Chemist was Fred Kempson who became a good friend. I remember some of the original staff then including Des Renolds, Pete Sargent and Terry Sealey.
I think it was 1952 when there was a big explosion in the Melting Shop. The cupola at the end of the day had its “bottom dropped” which removed the remains of the coke and molten remains of metal. One late afternoon some water had been present on the ground at this event and an explosion occurred which caused a lot of burns and cuts to the men. Practically all the panes of roof glass were blown out. There were no very serious injuries but the Nursing Sister did a wonderful job at the time in treating the injured.
A few years later it was decided to move the Laboratory, which had been situated in the Melting Shop, to the building which had previously been the social club. This was not a popular move to the workers and staff although everyone had a share of the funds following the winding up operation. Compared with the old premises this new laboratory was a palace. The building was divided up into about 6 parts with panelling which was glazed. All the benches were new as well and a lot of new equipment was bought. We had our own test house because previously we had to take the test bars to the Weldless Steel Tube. I remember cycling there with the test bars in a bag on my back.
Another big move was the setting up of our Radiography Department and Dark Room. All newly ordered castings could be checked before bulk production and some orders required the film to be sent with the castings. I believe that at this time all the new things were introduced because of the standards introduced by the customers. We did work for the Ministry of Defence, British Railways, Plessey, Rubery Owen, Ransomes Sims and Jeffries and many others. Some of the castings were over 5 tons with, at times, only one on the order. And when you realise the pattern equipment had to be built in wood you can understand why, in present times, a lot of casting work has been taken over by fabrication. The Pattern shop was quite large and produced patterns in wood, aluminium and, occasionally, plastic. The foreman of this department was Ernie Smith. There were also two carpenters, named Joe and Jack Carron, who did maintenance around the works.
The Fitting Shop had a lot to do maintaining the moulding machines, the furnaces cranes, ladles and dealing with any mechanical problems. There was always a lot of saving broken down items for spares; and if you needed a part then it was usually made. This department was under the Chief Engineer, Danny Homer. Adjoining this department was a Blacksmith, who worked in the traditional way, and mainly finished anvils which were cast in the foundry.
The Despatch Department was situated on the left of the main open yard and had the usual steps to the loading deck. One of the men in charge was called Dick Hayes. I could not help wondering how the delivery drivers managed because in those days every thing seemed to be piled on the lorry with no pallets. Fork lift trucks were a rarity. One amusing incident I remember involved a casting which had to get to Liverpool Docks to catch a boat: the casting was late out of Heat Treatment and was loaded on the lorry very hot. But I believe it arrived on time.
The foundry was divided into four sections. The largest was number 1 which was for steel castings; number 2 was grey iron; and 3 and 4 varied with demand.
Steel production from the Melting Shop was by the use of a side blown converter, not a Bessemer but on the same principle. The white iron to go into this converter was melted in one of the 4 cupolas and transferred by ladle. Various additions were made during the process and involved a lot of experience to decide when the metal was ready to cast. The Foreman was Jimmy Everton, whose son was later to join us in the Laboratory. Several years later the duties were taken over by Reg Handy.
The steel was tapped out into the ladle which was put on a four wheel bogie and pushed by hand into number 1 foundry. Depending on specification the metal was put into the correct moulds. On big moulds the whole of the ladle was put in, often with the next ladle being used for topping up.
Inside number 1 foundry was an electric arc furnace and a high frequency furnace. These were used for alloy steels mainly but occasionally to help out with other production. The furnaceman on the electric furnaces was Jim Gibson, who was later to be Chief Inspector. A number of nickel/chrome alloys were made, mainly stainless steels, but one special one which came out in the war was heat resisting and used in the blades of jet engines. I think it was about 1960 when a new order was received for this alloy which led to new apparatus being needed in the Laboratory.
Also in 1959 a new hot blast cupola was received from a Belgian firm. A party of their employees came over to install it and spent 6 months instructing our melting operatives how to work it.
Working closely with the Chief Metallurgist, the Laboratory staff had a lot of contact with him. When I started, this position was held by Ron Wigfall who lived in Wednesfield. There were several changes after he left. Two names I cannot remember but in the 1960 period we had Les Postlethwaite, who lived in Hagley. The one reason I know this is that one Sunday there was a problem and he usually travelled to work by train. They did not run on Sundays so I had to fetch him in on the pillion of my motor bike. I got a lot of overtime payment that day to cover my time and expenses.
In this period of time I can remember other Laboratory staff: Brian Morell, Bill Beckett, Jim White, Mervyn Humphries, Clem Brown, Derek Paskin, John Hill, Jim Morgan and Bill Train.
A useful feature of Brockhouse Castings was a canteen which served meals of reasonable quality and a price of no less than 10 old pence. We used to joke about the sweet choice which was apple tart, jam tart, treacle steamed or rice. This choice never altered in the 13 years I worked there.
A Christmas bonus was paid to all employees in the form of a profit sharing scheme. On average I think this amounted to one and a half week’s wages. It was useful at the time of the year.
When I started the General Manager was Mr W Brunt and Dr J Grieve was Works Manager, later to take over as General Manager, when a Mr F Dulhanty became Works Manager. I remember a Sales Manager named Harry Bryan and an Accountant named Mr McCree. The wages were under the care of Margaret Evans and I can see the stacks of wages cards resembling a brick wall at the side of the office. The man who handled the cards was Charlie Mason, who was Timekeeper for all the period I worked there. In purchasing, as manager, certainly for the later years, was Keith Gethin.
One department which was very important in the final stages was the Dressing Shop and Heat Treatment. The castings were knocked out of the moulds when cool enough and the running systems were cut off them; and after heat treatment they were taken to Dressing Shop where, using various cutting tools and grinders, the final surplus metal was removed from the castings.
Heat treatment depended on the type of steel: there was annealing, which was slow cooling; there was normalizing, which involved rapid air cooling; and other treatments involved water quenching, oil quenching and stress relieving. There were various temperatures the castings were heated to before these applications were made, the details of which I have no room for in this article. I remember Harry Colley was in charge of this department, later to be replaced by Dick Beaton.
I found that Brockhouse Castings gave a lot of different opportunities for metallurgy laboratory work and quality control. In addition to what has been mentioned there was crack detection, hardness checking and tensile testing. In the laboratory, apart from the basic elements in iron and steel, I did work on copper aluminium, vanadium, tungsten nickel, chrome, slags, limestone, coke and sand. For a time we had problems with the structure of the steel and we had to cut specimens with a saw, polish them and view under a microscope.
Life was very different in those days. There was not much unemployment and it was hard to fill vacancies. In fact many jobs were listed in the press as “no previous experience required as training given”. There was no panic in production. For instance when orders were received the delivery quote was given as 10 to 12 weeks, although we could do most work in 2 weeks on receipt of pattern equipment. This then allowed planners to go for a level of production and no short weeks. I admit there was a bad patch once but I think this applied all over the country at the time. The work was hot, unhealthy and at times dangerous. In spite of this many foundrymen put in as much as 50 years service. There was to me some fascination in seeing molten metal being poured out with all the sparks.
I have been unable to find the early history of the works. I know it was working a shift system during the war years and made a lot of castings for the war effort. And I recall in my early years talking to an old employee who told me that it was originally a chocolate factory.
Since this article was first published on the Internet I have been very pleased to receive several emails about it.
Dr. Nigel S. Clarke wrote: My Grandfather, William Brunt, was General Manager of Brockhouse Castings Ltd for many years (for more than 20 years I think) until the mid-sixties.
I do have some information about the earlier period of the foundry - Compton Mackenzie had been commissioned by John Brockhouse to write a book about the Brockhouse Group, and this included some information before the time that my Grandfather was General Manager.
I recognise some of the names from Mr Fryer's article (Hayes, Gethin, Grieve) and I met some of these people on my visits to the Foundry as a small boy.
Maurice Baynton wrote: My mother, Evelyn Baynton, worked there about the same time as Gordon Fryee. I also remember my mom mentioning Ron Acreman and Horace Jordan. I think she said my dad, Samuel Baynton, worked there.
Sarah Stewart wrote: I shared your Brockhouse Castings article with my dad, Raymond Chell, who replied:
Well – what a turn up this is. In one of the earlier paragraphs mention is made of a ladle sample being taken from molten steel using a spoon on the end of a six foot metal pole. I did this job most working days for almost a year in 1958 – 1959. Also sample tests for moisture in moulding sand (used to form moulds for various cast steel pieces). I worked most days with Mervyn Humphries and oft times Clem Brown. The boss of the labs (therefore my boss) was Fred Kempson – also mentioned. Every lunchtime the lab people played table tennis on the lab tables. Clem Brown was good at this. When I left Brockhouses (I was just turning 16yrs) I went to Proberts Butchers and worked with Billy Marsh. When I was 18 yrs I worked at Jack Boods Butchery on Cannock Rd and left there for Australia in November 1965. In 1993 Mavis (Raymond's wife, Mavis Hill) and I went to the UK for holiday and visited Jack Bood at Kidderminster market. Same people doing the same jobs almost thirty years after we first left for Australia.
Dad attended Wards Bridge School, and in his last year there Fred Kempson paid a visit to the school to invite students to consider a career in metallurgy. Dad expressed interest and started at Brockhouse Castings straight from school.
He worked at Brockhouse for 1 year before starting as a butcher’s apprentice. Not long after arriving in Australia he began studying for his Meat Inspection ticket and became an Export Meat Inspector for the Australian Government, worked in the Quarantine Service, and then in private enterprise as a manager at an export meat company. He was active in his national union management, studied for two degrees part time, gained his 3rd Dan Black Belt in Judo and ran no less than four judo clubs in Northern Tasmania. Not bad for a little feller (Dad struggles to make 5' 4").
Bill Train wrote: I read with great interest your review of life working at Brockhouse Castings Wednesfield.
This is Bill Train now living in Charlotte North Carolina USA and I was so happy to see how accurate your reporting of what life was like being an apprentice at Brockhouse. This was my first job after secondary school started in July 1957 and I became a foundry apprentice completing my time in all of the departments before finishing as foreman in the iron shop where we struggled making SG iron at that time. During my lab time I remember the many problem episodes with the new MBC hot blast cupola and the week ends the lab kids spent cleaning out the tuyeres with Hydrochloric Acid as the cooling water used was from the local cannel. There are so many little things that I remember albeit to say that the work experience I gained at Brockhouse gave me so many opportunities later that I will never forget them. If you or others would like to get in touch with me my email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks again for the article I only found it by chance.
If anyone has any further information about the company and those who worked there, or knows if Compton Mackenzie ever wrote the book, plea get in touch with me via the webmaster of this site.