Bradley & Co. Ltd

Mount Pleasant, Bilston

1.  Walter S. Bradley and the Founding of the Company

The main, practically the only, source of information about the origins and early days of Bradley’s is a write up of the firm’s founder, Walter S. Bradley, which appeared in the Birmingham Gazette on 16th September 1908.  (It was No. 80 in a series on “Midland Captains of Industry”). 

Walter S. Bradley.

According to that report Walter S. Bradley was born in 1854 and educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School.

The newspaper says that his father's firm was Thomas and Isaac Bradley   - presumably the Caponfield furnaces - and that they made pig-iron and other castings.  It is likely that his second name, Smith, was the maiden name of his mother, as giving the eldest son the mother’s maiden name as a second first name was a common Victorian practice. 

On leaving school Walter joined his father’s firm in 1870 but after only two years, in 1872, he established Bradley's at the Albion Works "laying the first bricks of the new factory" himself. 

This means Walter was about 18 when he founded the company.  As he was under 21 he was, in the law of the time, a minor, unable to buy land and with limited powers to enter into contracts.  One supposes that it was his father who backed the venture, financially and otherwise.

 It was a time of industrial boom in the UK and the hollowware trade was expanding.  Father and son had seen an opportunity.  Boom, of course, was followed, if not by bust, by depression;  and the Birmingham Gazette notes that "foreigners ...Germans, Spaniards and Americans alike" had taken up the trade and had done so behind high tariff walls; and countries like Denmark and Australia were becoming self sufficient.  The Gazette noted that “American watering cans are often sold in the Midlands at a less figure than they can be produced in the immediate homeland of the English industry”. 

According to one of Mary Southall's typescript histories Walter S. Bradley "purchased a plot of land upon which stood some cottages, in an area called Mount Pleasant in Bilston.  This was in 1872.  Mr. Bradley brought workmen skilled in the craft of hollow-ware from Birmingham to work for him.  They started making buckets and similar household articles, actually in the back yard!"

But exactly what the company first made is not clear.  In Mary Southall’s second typescript history of the firm, which is probably based on oral tradition within the firm, says that in 1872 the firm employed about 25 sheet metal workers and produced frypans, bowls and galvanised buckets.  They may have started with such products and may have offered a general service in pressing, stamping and sheet metal working to other companies.  But it is clear, from the earliest company catalogues available, that they quickly expanded their range to cover almost anything which could be produced in sheet metal.

Mary Southall also records that “With more and more new products being introduced, in 1899 the firm became Bradley and Company Limited”.  At the turn of the century changes in company law had enabled private firms to incorporate and gain the advantages of limited liability without making their financial affairs too public and very many firms became limited liability companies. 

The origin of the trade name "Beldray" (which later became the name of the company"), and of the logo, is given by Mary Southall in one of her typescript histories:  "Mr. W. S. Bradley had two sons, Hermon and Hector, and one day as the little boys were playing with their [alphabet] bricks on the hearth, their father asked them to spell out their names.  One of them formed the letters "Beldray" and so the famous trade mark was born.  At the works next day Mr. W. S. Bradley proudly told his work people of the new name, offering a prize to anyone who came up with a design for a suitable motif to go with the name.  The winning design was of a bell on a dray".  This is a charming story and may well be right as to the name although, as Hermon was about 6 years older than Hector, perhaps he was just helping out his little brother.  So if Hector is about 4 years old at the time, the date would be 1895.  Yet the "dray" on the logo is clearly a motor lorry of a style that must be post 1918.  It seems that there must have been an earlier version of the logo, showing a horse drawn dray;  but it has never been seen.

OS map of 1902.  Mount Pleasant runs diagonally across the map, with the old Technical School and Brueton House (now the Craft Gallery and Library).  Bradley's is shown as "Albion Works (Galvanising)", with a row of houses, probably built by Bradleys, facing Mount Pleasant. 

On the opposite side of the access road, marked Bilston Pottery, is Myatt's pottery.  Their premises
and more were eventually taken over by Bradley's. 

The Gazette records that, to meet foreign competition, Walter Bradley expanded from hollowware into iron stampings, tank making and the manufacture of sanitary ware.  "Even recently Mr. Bradley opened up a branch in art metal work and this has now grown to considerable dimensions".  This suggests a date, also suggested elsewhere, of about 1903 for the introduction of these brass and copper wares.   That makes Bradley's a rather late entrant into that field, but it does not preclude the possibility that some items, such as copper kettles, were made before that date as part of a general hollowware business.  But by the time of the report in 1908: "In brass and copperwork  Bilston productions include kettles and urns, coal scoops and letter racks, salvers and cake stands, pin trays and fern pots, flower vases and rose bowls, mirrors and plaques, and even clocks mounted in antique copper, with decorated dials and fired enamels". 

A silver tray, presented to Mr and Mrs Walter S Bradley by the work people of the Albion Works. (by courtesy of Jaap Arriens).

The Gazette's report reads as if the company's story was one of steady expansion under the guidance of Walter Bradley.  But it was not quite that straightforward.  Michael Doubleday records (on the basis of his research into his family history which included conversations with many family members) a slightly different version of events:-

My great grandfather, Harry Baker Doubleday, worked for Sankey's as a foreman on the production side (prior to which he had been a toolmaker in Birmingham). He met Walter Bradley, possibly through his wife's family.  Harry, although originally from a middle class background himself, in the parlance of the day married "up". His wife, Alice, was the daughter of William George Turner, a businessman who owned an electroplating firm in Birmingham. The census records show that in the 1880s the Turners and the Bradleys lived very near to each other on the Soho Road and by 1901, although both families had moved, they still lived near to each other - the Turners on the Pershore Road and the Bradleys at Somerset Grange just around the corner. It seems likely to me that Turner & Bradley, both being in metalware and near neighbours, probably knew each other socially and or professionally and this could account for Harry initially getting acquainted with Walter.  However that may be Walter Bradley and Harry Doubleday travelled together everyday from Birmingham to Bilston by train. Bradley's at the time was struggling to make headway against their competitors.  Bradley asked my great grandfather if he would go and have a look at his factory. Harry did so and was less than complimentary, pointing out to Bradley that he was "behind the times".  Bradley promptly offered him the job of modernising his factory and in 1902 or thereabouts Harry became Bradley's works manager. The story goes that Harry agreed to become Walter's works manager on condition that he be given a free hand and this was agreed. My father's family always took the view that Bradley's expansion was entirely down to Harry - but who can say. I think we can assume that he brought a lot of knowledge of Sankey's methods with him and that the move by Bradley's into the type of product that Sankey's were known for, domestic brass and copper wares, was a direct result of Harry's joining the firm. 

Grandfather Harry joined the firm at much the same time as Hermon Bradley.  I suspect that Harry knew that Hermon, though well educated, did not really have an interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of the manufacturing process.  Harry might have been brought in at that time to give Hermon good sound guidance.  This might explain why Harry always behaved as if Bradley's was 'his firm'.  Since Hermon and Hector did not block the appointment of Harry' son, Norman, as works manager, I presume that Hector and Hermon were not at all resentful of Harry's influence.

Harry lived at first in a house on the Wellington Road, rented by Bradley's, named "Nestleton" (it still stands) but then moved into a house on the Willenhall Road, named "Penrhyl". This house also still stands, having been a vicarage for the past few years, and, I was told, was in fact built by W.S.Bradley for himself. On completion however, Bradley's wife declared that she would not leave Birmingham for Bilston.  Mrs Bradley's refusal to move into "Penrhyl" was apparently quite vigorous! She took a dim view of Bilston it seems. Then again I suppose 1900s Bilston with its fumes and factories wouldn't have compared too well with leafy Edgabston!  So Bradley made it the works manager's house and Harry moved in.  Harry, loved the house. He lived the life of an Edwardian Gent, grew grapes in a conservatory and employed a uniformed maid etc..  I also believe he owned one of the first, if not the first, cars in Bilston.
"Penrhyl" which was 63 Willenhall Road but has been re-numbered 43.
As far as I know my great grandfather retired in about 1922. Harry was well remembered in Bilston even as late as the 1950s, when I was a boy, although not always with affection! He was, I think, fairly typical of bosses of that age and pretty strict with the workforce, although I remember a story told to me by a man (who'd be well over 100 now if he was still alive) whose father had been Bradley's blacksmith. When this man first went to be interviewed Harry gave him the job but said "Mind you, if you don't suit us, you'll be out at the end of the first week"; to which the man replied: "Doh worry gaffer, if yo doh suit me I'll be out at the end of the fust day". To Harry's credit he was amused and told the story against himself.

Harry's strictness as an employer might also be illuminated by a story told by Hermon Bradley when he was presenting a 50 years service aware to a foreman, Mr. W. Jones, in 1952.  "When he was 17 I found him larking in the shop, and sacked him.  The next day the works manager took him on again.  I have never regretted it during his 50 years". (Birmingham Gazette, 21 March 1952).   Assuming that the works manager was indeed Harry Doubleday the story says much about the two men and their relationship.

Michael Doubleday continues:

My grandfather, Norman Harry Doubleday, took over from his father as Works Manager. Harry had insisted that Norman learn his craft elsewhere before going to Bradley's and I believe he worked for a firm in Darlaston at first whilst also studying at night school. He gained some sort of engineering qualification and then joined his father. When Harry finished in about 1922, "Mister Norman" stepped into his shoes (and the house!), which tends to suggest that Bradley's was a pretty paternalistic firm at that stage.

In 1908 the firm is reported as employing "some hundreds of workpeople" and to have the most up-to-date plant and "steam, suction gas and electricity are variously employed as motive power".  And it is said that Walter maintained a "friendly relationship" with his work people.  As an instance of this the Gazette mentions that on Walter’s marriage (to “the daughter of the later Mr. Isaac Martin Lindley of Stalybridge” – her name is not mentioned) he received a presentation from the work force, as he had done on his coming of age and did on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.  Mike Doubleday finds that the marriage took place sometime in the first quarter of 1883 and his bride was Sophia Margaret Lindley.

The newspaper also notes that on the death of his father, about 1898, Walter took over his interest in the "Caponfield Furnaces" and became a life director of that company.  It also notes that he was a member of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce;  that he was a strong Unionist and Tariff Reformer; and that he resided at Somerset Grange, Edgbaston.  He had declined invitations to enter public life and, in his limited spare time from work, "his recreations have been restricted to riding and driving and, latterly, motoring".  (The "driving" referred to would have been carriage driving).

By the time of this report, 1908, Walter Bradley was "assisted by his elder son, who was educated at Rossall School, and presently a younger son will be entering the firm of Bradley & Co. Ltd.".  He duly did. 

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