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The Stourbridge Firebrick Industry

Stourbridge fireclay has a world-wide reputation, and its importance in the manufacture of fire-bricks, glasshouse pots, refractories, and a variety of other purposes in connection with the Industrial Arts need not be enlarged upon. Its chief value consists in its refractory character, which enables it to resist the highest temperatures without melting. As evidencing the importance of this industry, it may be stated that the quantity of clay raised in the Stourbridge district amounts to some 160,000 tons per annum, and the number of fire-bricks produced in a twelve month period cannot be less than 40,000,000. There were a number of fireclay suppliers in the Stourbridge area, including:
  • Rufford & Co

  • Harris & Pearson - Website

  • E. J. & J. Pearson

  • E Sutherland & Co

  • Timmis & Co

  • Charles Squires
The famous Harris & Pearson offices, now fully restored and a Grade II listed building, constructed entirely from their own firebricks. Please click photo for larger version

The information below concerns one of the oldest established and largest firms of Firebrick and Gas Retort Manufacturers, HARRIS AND PEARSON, and was kindly supplied by Tom Cockeram.

"Fireclay Stourbridge" is appropriately enough the telegraphic address of the firm which has done so much to make the name of Stourbridge fireclay famous all the world over. For well neigh two centuries now these works have been in operation, and the continuous growth of the business is one of the most interesting chapters in the industrial history of our district. The works where originally established at what is called to-day the Old Works at Amblecote, in 1739. A century later the business was acquire by Mr. Peter Harris and Mr. George Pearson, who, in or about 1850, established the firm of Harris and Pearson. From here dates the rapid growth of the business. The old works repeatedly enlarged, standing on six acres of ground, became too small to deal with the demand. In 1870 the new works were erected, covering nine acres. Other mines were bought and leased and to-day the mining rights extend over one hundred acres; quite an army of hands is employed and the annual output reaches very large figures.

The clay is mined from the pits, of which there are four in operation. When brought up it is first picked by women who have been carefully trained for this work. In the case of clay for glass-house pots a second selection is made; for the least impurity left undiscovered in the clay would cause a failure in the pot and entail the total loss of the valuable "metal" in them. There are also two coal pits which supply fuel for the works. After the clay has been picked it is deposited in huge mounds, containing many thousand tons, to "weather." The action of the wind and rain disintegrates the clay which comes from the mine in the shape and substance of rock, that is "weathers" it, as the technical term goes. A long period is necessary for the proper "weathering" of the clay, and the vast stock kept by the firm ensures this important process being properly carried out. After being "weathered," the clay is brought from the mines in boats, loaded into trolleys, run on rails to the top of the mill house, and shot down into mills where huge wheels crush it into powder.

An elevator catches this and carries it up to a slanting sieve which separates the fine powder from the coarse material, diverting the latter back into the mill. The sieves are of varying sizes according to the purpose either finely or roughly ground clay may be require. The powder now goes to the tempering vat where it is mixed with water and prepared for manufacture. Trolleys and barrows take this to the "stoves," where it is worked into the almost numberless articles which are produced at these works.The moulding of small bricks is done by women. Though the clay is damp and the work might in consequence might appear injurious to health, it is pleasing to know that some of the employees of the firm have been continually in their service from the commencement (1850) to the present date, a sufficient proof of the healthiness of the occupation. Two women usually work at one moulding table, the moulder and the "carrier-off." After the bricks, or what ever is being manufactured, have been dried on the warm stove floor, they are taken to the kilns, were they are burned in an intense heat. When they have become cool they are ready for shipment, having stamped on them the name of "Harris and Pearson" to every civilised country on the globe, as an evidence of their excellence.

The making of glass house pots varies in manufacture from that of firebricks and gas retorts, in that they are gradually, inch by inch, built up by hand, and that they are not burned, but dried. This process usually takes six month. Messrs. Harris and Pearson are one of the few firms that possess a good mine which yields clay of sufficiently high quality to be suitable for making these pots, and they have obtained the highest reputation for such goods; in addition they sell the clay in the lump state or ground, to other manufacturers. Only a few of the mines in the district produce clay of sufficiently high quality to resist the action of the chemicals inside the pots and the heat outside, and the demand therefore for "Harris and Pearson pot clay," is very considerable.

The various kinds of articles which pass through the 32 kilns of this firm daily require a catalogue for themselves, and may only be indicated here. Whatever kind of heat resisting material may be required is manufactured here: iron, steel, brass and gas works, railway companies and shipping firms, glass works and architects, all come to Stourbridge for what they require in firebricks, linings for cupolas and furnaces, boiler seatings, flue coverings, pots, crucibles, glazed and coloured bricks, etc., and among all the firms who represent the industry not one reaches a higher eminence than this firm.

All the moulds, of which there are thousands, are made on the premises. There is further a wheelwrights and blacksmiths shop, and most of the fitting is done in the firm's own workshops. A splendid and permanent advertisement are the handsome offices of Harris and Pearson, which were erected in 1888. Every brick of this building was made at the works. Situated on the main road adjoining the Great Western Railway Station, they are easily accessible by train or electric trams. The traffic arrangements are perfect. The firm's boats can pass on the canal from mine to mine and works; a system of haulage instituted eighteen months ago connects the old works with the Great Western Railway station, and goods may be sent by water or rail direct from the works to any part of the world. On the day on which the writer was permitted to visit the works, waggon loads of barrels containing powdered clay were consigned from the back-door of the premises, as it were, to Japan. The new works have their own railway siding, the Great Western Railway trucks running right into the works.

The stock kept by Messrs. Harris and Pearson is enormous - there is no other adjective for it. Gas works and others using fire-resisting materials frequently want the goods in a hurry. An accident happens and the faulty piece must be replaced at once. The firm who has the article ready secures the order, caeteris paribus. As there are literally thousands of tons of fireclay goods from small bricks to huge unwieldy gas retorts the stock required to be kept becomes immense. There are battalions of gas retorts of all shapes and lengths at their works, and a further large stock at Ellesmere Port, in the Potteries, Liverpool, and elsewhere. As a consequence there is scarcely any order that Messrs. Harris and Pearson could not fill at a moments notice, and as a further result in connection with their superior quality this ability has made them the premier firm in the district.

Mr. Peter Harris, one of the founders of the firm, died in 1874, his place being taken by his son, of the same name. When Mr. Pearson died in 1899 he was succeeded by his son, Mr. A. H. Pearson. Standing at the head of firm of world wide reputation, their abilities are demonstrated by the progressive and flourishing state of the business and the perfect organisation with which the vast machinery is kept running smoothly.

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