Well, I thought I had found all there was available to find with the former Rattlechain brickworks, which forms the bowl of the hazardous waste lagoon of today, but how wrong I was!
I have found an extraordinary article from an obscure American publication called “The Brick and Clay Record” , which dates from 1st January 1912. It appears that the author of the piece had travelled to The brickworks in Dudley Port at the invitation of the Barnett family, at this point, Samuel Barnett still being alive and in control of the site, now run also with his “sons”. Indeed, one of these referred to as “Julius” is also pictured.
Not only does the piece describe in very exact detail the specifications and methods used to produce the fabled Staffordshire blue bricks, from which the marl in the pit was extracted, but it also shows a picture of the long forgotten Stour Valley Brickworks, also owned by Barnett, and situated on the canal further down in the direction of Tipton.
I didn’t believe that any pictures of this site existed, which commenced construction from around 1894, except for a very obscure view offered on one of the postcards of the infamous canal collapse of 1899 below, and another view published in The Engineer magazine.
But just look at this!
The article states that this larger operation produced 70,000 bricks per day, with rattlechain at 40,000.
Of course the name “rattlechain” takes its name from the type of chain used at the site.
The BP book of Industrial archaeology by Neil Cossons 1975 describes the manner in which it was used.
The visit of the American abroad appears to have seen the site in its heyday when it was still being run for brickmaking instead of being run down by characters like the dodgy Sydney Sheldon, who sold off most of the surrounding lands, and then the site itself for tips and housing. The author writes
“This is one of the largest clay making concerns in The British Isles , and the representative of Brick and Clay Record was received most cordially by members of the firm, both Mr S. Barnett and Mr Julius Barnett, his son, as well as their representative, Mr A. Tongue, treating me in the most hospitable manner and affording me all possible assistance in securing information regarding their plant and methods. “
Indeed, “Julius” Barnett, and A. Tongue– who I have never heard of before, are pictured in front of the recently patented continuous kiln, which produced blue bricks. I am not sure of who “Julius” actually was, as there is no record of anyone by this given name in existence in official census listings of the time. Perhaps this was Barnett’s son William, Joseph or Thomas, or another who used this alias or middle name?
The blue bricks are described in detail, “The brick is not only blue on the surface, but is also of the same dark colour throughout the stratum.”
These type of bricks were burnt to a higher temperature than other red bricks, and for longer at 6 full days.
The article observes that women were being employed at Rattlechain which is interesting-(were they cheaper? ), and that the site had been in operation for around 100 years, as according to his source- The Barnetts. (N.B An article from The British Clayworker of 1908 states that Barnett had took on the lease of the rattlechain works in 1882.)
Compare this with the evidence offered by the man himself at the trial where he claimed damages from The canal board for the breach in 1899.
The “continuous kilns” referred to it is claimed were patents of The Barnett family, and the other type of kiln for producing the blue bricks, also a patent of Barnett and Hadlington– and is described in quotes by the author in great detail from the piece that had already been written in The British Clayworker periodical previously.
The name Hadlington, although a common name in Dudley, is also mentioned as their employer and “contractor”in the death of workmen who lost their lives building the Barnett stack in 1906. I would imagine that the two are likely connected or the same person.
On the fourth page of the article we get a picture of the rattlechain brickworks pit itself, though there is little to gauge from the perspective as to where it was taken.
The statement is made that; “The pit from which the clay is taken, is 105 feet in depth from the surface, all the materials being taken out by hand, no steam shovels or mechanical tools of any kind being used.”
I instantly take issue with the claimed depth in feet because of contradictory evidence supplied by another reliable source, The Engineer magazine from 1899 at the event of the canal breach.
“The marl-hole, although, 100 yards deep, and having a surface boundary of about three acres, was quickly filled to the brim, whilst nearly two acres of surrounding meadows were also submerged.”
This article was not written by someone who had been informed by the Barnetts , and I also think that this may have also been deliberate misinformation given to the American author by them. The article implies that the brickmaking family had been after a monopolisation of local brickmaking, and had been “wrecking” other sites in order to make themselves the sole supplier, and limit over production through their own works. In this way of course they could control the price and make it very profitable as a result by lowering production. They would eventually take up expansion of sites in Titford and also in Walsall of course.
The article below also shows that in 1914, he purchased The Gower brick works, at this time in greater capacity than those at Rattlechain. This site would become the site of the infamous Albright and Wilson Gower tip. Was he buying these sites up just to “wreck” them and then flog off the empty voids for tipping purposes?
By claiming that the Rattlechain pit was well below capacity, and that only 100ft had been dug gave a psychological edge in that they would have had decades worth of marl to dig, perhaps forcing competitors to sell up who knew that their own capacity was probably nearing its end.
That the works had supposedly been in operation for 100 years, and that over 7 miles of canal at a depth of 6 feet had been emptied, also tells me that this pit would have been much deeper at the time of the breach than 100 feet, and more like the 100 yards claimed in The Engineer.
There are perhaps reasons to do with the structural failure of the canal bank and pit which Barnett would not have publicly wanted to admit to- such as digging too deep into the marl and potentially facing liability for another incident when he was dumping ashes from the brickworks operation liberally. We do not know how the breach was repaired, as there appear to be no records of how this was achieved.
It is also worth stating that this article was written 12 years after the breach, and so would have been deeper than at the time of the incident, and going further forward to the 1940’s when it is claimed that work on this pit stopped, (and the conman Sheldon sort permission to dig from another hole), it would have been deeper still. 40,000 bricks per day seems an awful lot of marl required to me, and I genuinely believe The Engineer article over this one as an accurate historical source.
It is also stated that the eventual hand made bricks were shipped via canal barge, their own, as has been seen from the picture of the boats in The Rattlechain basin.
“…an average barge containing 8,000 brick or a weight of about 35 tonnes.”
It is also stated that some of the rattlechain bricks were also shipped via rail, but with a lower capacity than American train cars.
It is claimed that the Barnett operation was a military supplier, and that they shipped bricks around the UK as well as abroad. This is where the article again relies on information from a biased source itself, and also starts to read as more of prospectus for the family firm.
Barnett’s position as councillor would have been able to have facilitated many favourable outcomes, and it appears that the newly built Birmingham council house was being made from the inside of Barnett bricks. Perhaps in the years that followed, from those employed and serving there, it has been as rotten from the inside ever since. 😯
As a primary source, this Brick and Clay Record account is interesting but also a little questionable, as it is very favourable towards The Barnett enterprise, and perhaps almost serves as an advertisement to an American market.
There are massive elephants in the room that are omitted from the piece, and which Sam and “Jules” left out of their fairy tale castle construction – especially the 1899 canal breach and the effect that this had on production and the area itself- not least as a direct result of Samuel Barnett’s dodgy activities. There is also the convenient omission of the deaths of men who built the stack from which the bricks were created- just 5 years earlier, as though it had never happened. No mention is also made of Samuel Barnett’s disability of loosing an arm in earlier life at the age of 16 at The Stour Valley works. No mention of health and safety is even made in the article, just the boast of brickwork manufacture rate. Of course the American observer was reliant in the information being given to him, and would not have been able to scrutinise whether the information being fed through the rollers was accurate, but the brickmakers themselves would of course be a little reticent in telling him anything harmful to their reputation whilst romancing the tale.
The blue bricks referred to in the article were used extensively in canal and railway architecture, especially in the local area. An example below shows a railway viaduct in Park Lane East, Tipton, but were they Barnett bricks made at Rattlechain or Stour Valley?
The Stour Valley Brickworks, stated to be not in use in this article would not remain for long. Although still present on the 1919 ordnance survey map now renamed “The Stour valley NEW brickworks” , they are gone by the next in 1938, with the merging of the Pit and also the Groveland Colliery pit forming the Vono Lagoon that would be used for indiscriminate dumping, before that too was infilled to form an extension to the London Works rolling Mill, and more latterly, the Autobase Industrial Estate.
Nothing of either these brickworks now remain, except the canal basins which once served them. The Stour Valley basin still contains water, though the rattechain basin, only during periods of heavy rainfall.
Samuel Barnett died in 1918 after a fall from a horse and cart, not far from his home. I will be looking in greater detail into this and also the fate of the Barnett family in the next post, but until then, enjoy this piece of fascinating local history.