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History of Bilston - Part 24

The History of Beldray/Bradley & Co. Ltd - Mount Pleasant - Art Metalware.

A report on the founder of the company, Walter S. Bradley, which appeared in the Birmingham Gazette on 16th September 1908, suggests that the firm started making art metalware in or about 1903. This would be quite a late date to enter this field, many of the other makers in the Wolverhampton area having started around the 1870s. But it seems to be a firm date.

However the earliest known company catalogue of holloware lists no less than nine different copper kettles, mostly of a plain design. The catalogue also adverts to a separate art metalware catalogue, suggesting that the plain copper kettles, at least, were seen as part of their normal stock and also suggesting that the company made copper kettles long before 1903.

Such documents on the history of Beldray as there are give no specific reason given for the company entering into this field. The art metalwares were introduced about the time that the founder's eldest son, Hermon Bradley, joined the firm and it was originally thought that the introduction of the new line may have been something to do with him. But it is now clear that the most important factor was Harry Doubleday's joining the firm in 1902 or thereabouts as the works manager. He had previously worked with Sankey's, in production, and was engaged by Walter Bradley specifically to modernise the factory and to help lead expansion. Doubleday would have been well acquainted with Sankey's successful brass and copperwares and well aware that, for a company which had been working in sheet metal for many years, there would be little or no technical problem in adopting new materials and that the new machinery he was installing could be used for the purpose.

The art metalware products were made of brass or copper, with the occasional use of wrought iron for stands and such. The wrought iron parts were probably made by Bradley's themselves as there is clear evidence of blacksmithing on their premises. Copper was also used as a substrate for other finishes, such as a bronzed finish and later, after the introduction of chrome plating to the UK in 1925, for chrome plate. Before that a silvery finish had been obtained by the use of a chemical applied in the same way as the bronze finish. Brassware was also finished in a matt gold. Many of the variations of design shown in the catalogues and surviving pieces were obtained by making different combinations of finishes and body shapes and decorative bands.

Whilst the company made almost everything in the art metalware line there are far fewer trays than one might expect. This may be because trays were an established speciality of Joseph Sankey & Sons who were just down the road. But there is a much greater variety of vases and bowls than Sankeys, or any of the Wolverhampton makers, produced. Those features of the range, and the presence of many smokers stands, rather suggests that Beldray would have had a large market supplying hotels, restaurants, clubs and pubs. Those types of users continued to use brassware long after it and copperware had become very much less fashionable with the passing of the Arts and Crafts style. At what might be seen as the other end of the social and moral spectrum, many of their brass vases have been seen on altars and in other parts of churches.

It is also of interest that the company's earlier catalogues refer to "art metalware" but the later ones refer to "metalware in brass and copper" as if the phrase "art metalware" had become unfashionable.

It is known, from the testimony of those who worked there, that the company's own drafting office designed everything on the "copper side" in the 1930s and this was almost certainly the practice from the start. (It may be relevant that the Bilston Art and Technical College was just a hundred yards down Mount Pleasant from the Beldray works). The company's art metalware designs seem to have followed design fashions closely, from the Japanese influenced designs at the beginning of production, to the Art Deco influenced designs at the end of production. Design was almost certainly driven by ideas of what would sell and there is little or no evidence of any attempt to lead fashion or to produce innovative designs.

Production of art metalware ended in 1939. The testimony of those working there at the time is to the effect that less and less was being produced in the late 1930s and that production cased altogether at the outbreak of war.

Mary Southall says: "1939/45 saw [Bradleys] involved with munitions once more; alas this meant the end of the Art Metal section. The area where all this lovely stuff was produced was called the 'Copperside'. Soon this place was used for manufacturing bomb tails, parachute containers, smoke bombs, etc., etc.. It was still called the 'Copperside' by the older people of the factory until it was demolished in 1980". Apparently the drafting office did engage in producing new designs for a proposed post-war re-introduction of the line but this never happened.

All of the art metalware seems to have been sold through the trade. The known catalogues are all directed at the trade and no flyers or advertisements have been found which indicate any form of direct selling to the public. To the right is the front page of a catalogue, undated but apparently from the 1930s, which shows a vase, a smoker's stand, a cache pot, a rose bowl and a fruit bowl, with a glass dish. Bradley's did not make glass and the glassware for the many items which called for them were undoubtedly bought in, but where from is not known.

A number of flyers (apparently from the 1930s) advertise "cases" containing a mixed range of items which retailers could buy as a lot. This picture shows the contents of Case No.6, showing a representative range of items. The factory is known to have had a blacksmith's shop at one point in its history and the wrought iron elements of this shop would have been made there. (The copper trays were also sold separately as "waiters"). The company also made copper kettles on stands, some of which were of wrought iron (whilst others were of cast brass). Any use of cast iron seems to have ceased by the 1930s.

Chrome plating was not introduced into industrial production until 1925, when it soon became fashionable. Bradley's seem to have taken it up early, as a replacement for their "oxidised silver" finish. Some of their existing designs in copper were produced in chrome versions, copper being a good substrate for chrome plating. But they also designed items for the finish, with more than a nod to the art deco style which became fashionable at the same time.

The company's range included the basic items which all makers of art metalware went in for, including water jugs or ewers. This diamond pattern seems to be exclusive to Beldray. The do not seem to have made much use of the "beaten" finish popular with other makers, it seeming that it was only used for a copper water can.

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