The Industry & Railways of the South West Black Country




STOURBRIDGE FIRE-CLAY has a world-wide reputation, and its importance in the manufacture of fire-bricks, glasshouse pots, and a variety, of other-purposes in connexion 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 twelvemonth cannot be less than 40,000,000.

Foremost among the Firms that have helped to develop this industry, is that of Messrs. Rufford & Co., Hungary Hill, Stourbridge, which was established early, in the present century. There are virtually two branches of the business. What are as the New Works are devoted to the manufacture of glazed bricks and porcelain baths. Covering two acres of ground, and being nearly, 1,000 feet long, these Works afford every facility for the expeditious and economical carrying on of the trade on a large scale. They have been specially planned to economise both time and labour throughout the manufacturing processes. The clay as well as the coal used are in the main mined in the Firm's own pits, whence, after the clay, has been ground and tempered in the mills, it is brought to the Works by means of a tramway. The workshops proper are three in number, and measure 150 ft. by 30 ft. They are heated by underground flues, and the bricks having been moulded by hand, are placed on the floor to dry. When duly "set," the accurate shaping of the bricks is insured by screw presses, and after this they are treated with a special composition, which, on the subsequent application of the glaze, makes the latter adhere to, and form an integral part of, the bricks. Drying in frames and baking in the kiln complete the work.

There are altogether ten kilns constructed upon an improved principle, so contrived that the flame does not come in contact with the bricks during the firing, while at the same time the consumption of fuel is greatly lessened. This ingenious arrangement is the invention of Mr. Holcroft, the senior partner of the Firm, and is covered by patent rights. Each of these kilns will hold 12,000 bricks, and six out of the ten can be utilised for the firing of porcelain baths. Every provision is made throughout the Works to insure the best hygienic conditions for the workpeople; an elaborate system of flues, running underneath the whole of the buildings, carries off all the gases and vapours into a shaft 132 ft. high.

The manufacture of porcelain baths in one piece is a specially of the Firm. At the suggestion of the late Prince Consort the Society of Arts in 1846 offered a premium for the production of such an article, and after protracted experiments, Messrs. Rufford & Co. succeeded in perfecting a porcelain glazed bath. The jury of the 1851 Exhibition, in awarding the Gold "Isis" Medal to this Firm, spoke of the invention as "ingenious," and remarked upon its "novelty and cheapness." There is probably nothing to equal porcelain baths on sanitary grounds, as they are easily kept clean, and the glazed surface allows no resting-place for infectious germs. These baths are now in universal demand for private houses as well as hospitals and other public institutions. Their manufacture forms a leading branch at these Works, and three spacious buildings, measuring each 300 ft. by 30 ft., are set apart for the purpose. They can be had with the outside painted in imitation oak or panelling, so as to require no surrounding wood or other fittings. Housemaid's and hospital sinks, and washing tubs, formed of the same material, are also largely produced; and for durability and cleanliness these as well as the baths are unrivalled.

Adjoining departments of the business include painting-shops, cement-grinding rooms, stores for clay, &c., and a commodious warehouse. In the last-named can be seen a representative collection of the various productions, including porcelain baths, sinks, troughs, fire-brick goods, and an excellent assortment of coloured glazed bricks, which are so largely used in modern architecture. From among the important public buildings for which they have been recently employed we may mention the Birmingham Art Gallery.

Not far from the Works already noticed are the Upper Fire-Brick Works, near which are situated the fire-clay and coal-pits owned by the Firm, the whole covering an area of 150 acres. Powerful engines representing an aggregate of 250 horsepower are here employed in raising the raw materials from the pits, in grinding the clay, and in pumping. Blacksmith's and repairing shops, pattern-making, wheelwright's and other workshops and stores are provided, which help to make the Works self-contained: Every description of fire-brick is made here, and the utmost care is exercised throughout the. various operations to insure the highest quality of material and the best finish. The great extent of this portion of the Works may be inferred from the fact that there are twenty moulding-stoves and nine burning-kilns. In addition to ordinary fire-bricks, the range of productions includes crucibles for brass casting, and clay gas-retorts of a special character, which have proved far more useful than those of the ordinary type.

Commodious offices and packing-rooms are attached to the Works. In the packing of baths, especially, great pains are taken to insure their safety during transit.

Before concluding our notice of this Firm, it is deserving of mention that from the beginning of their business, Messrs. Rufford & Co. have made it their special study to manufacture and supply only articles of the best quality. To this good precept they have conscientiously adhered during their whole commercial career and they have thus built up a reputation in their own branch of trade second to that of no other house. By those connected with the trade, both at home and abroad, it is indeed acknowledged that the mere fact of an article having been made at these Works is in itself an ample voucher for excellence.

© Tom Cockeram 1998