Jackie Adams is a member of Oldbury Writing Group, who meet each Saturday at Oldbury Library.
“I used to live in Brades Village. My mother worked at Parkes sweet factory, as did two or three aunts. That was the way it went back then, one relative got a job, then another was introduced and went to work there. The nearest factory to our house was what everyone called The Brades, with its dark exterior looming high above me, imposing along the length of Brades Road, as far as the post office and newsagents. Opposite the factory was Brades Tavern pub, another impressive old dark brick building. I didn’t know what they made at The Brades until much later. Until I was 27, when we moved to Rowley, I don’t think I even saw workers come and go from the factory. I never heard the sounds of industry coming from the inside – but the walls were castle thick, quietening any sound of workers toiling away within. I remember afternoons when the sun shone on the Brades facade and the deep shadows. All those huge windows that looked as if they’d never been cleaned. I remember other days when rain scudded down, making the scene all the more dark, grey and gloomy. Is anybody really in there, I used to wonder? It was a mystery to me, as I walked past every day, on my way to school or work.
My first job after leaving school was at Myers, in Langley Green. Best factory, best job, best canteen, best food, good people. Happy memories. The variety of the job! Sorting samples of bulldog clips, doing pegboard displays for exhibitions, packing leaflets for orders, running errands for the bosses, typing addresses on envelopes, and my favourite – opening the post. I was curious where the letters came from, all those clients overseas, far-away places. I had pen friends myself in different countries, Sweden, Poland, Turkey, Bangladesh. I enjoyed writing to them and liked to see the different coloured postage stamps.
My worst memory was from the time I worked at Cuxson-Gerrard in Fountain Lane, winding finger bandages and packing them. The noise of the wide cotton spinning machines, to fro, to fro, to fro, the cotton mill hellhole where it had to be hot and humid for the cotton thread. (The cotton would rot and break if there was no humidity.) The dust, the big overhead heating pipes, steam dripping on our heads, our backs cold from draughty metal windows, our feet ice cold from standing for end on quarry stone. The flattened cardboard we had on the floor hardly warmed our feet, even in summer.
It was piece work. We were paid by the number of units we produced, regardless of the time it took. I was really too slow to earn the day’s work, so I had regular tellings off. One week, I won the Bandage Room Weekly Raffle. The prize was a cosmetics bag, an incentive from the supervisor. She was stern. I was so scared and embarrassed collecting my prize. After all, she was always reprimanding me for working far too slow. You see, it turned out I suffered from double vision, so I had problems with co-ordination. You had to work the clamp, turn the handle and the wheel, bring the cotton down, fold it, wrap it, then apply glue to the edges of little pieces of greaseproof paper to hold the wrapper together. So I never made the piece work rate.
But, like millworkers of old, there was one thing that made my experience of that factory worth it. We had the annual works outings. One was to the Isle of Wight and my mother came along. I remember the train pulling out of Oldbury station and the excitement. Once we got there, we saw beauty, a paradise, and the year after we returned for a wonderful holiday there.
Looking back, now that I know what they made at The Brades factory, all those hundreds of thousands of axes and other powerful tools. I reckon I would have a use for them back in the 70s – to demolish some of those factories and to end the terrible working conditions. I’ve have used those axes and I’d have axed every brick, wooden door at Cuxson-Gerrard and demolished those outside iron steps that were slippery in the rain and ice. It was years later that I was going by on the number 4 bus and I saw bricks of that building I worked in scattered about, demolished. It was the kind of morning when a sort of mist lingered in the bright blue sky, beautiful really. I asked myself the question, ‘Why all the drudgery there, the sacrifice of workers health?’ Yet the old was becoming something new. The Brades factory walls now faced the freshly built maisonette housing of Brades Rise and the blocks of flats. Soon enough The Brades itself was demolished. The area looks quite modern, not in keeping with a village tradition. No longer will you find a Black Country wench in her long pinafore looking down from canal bridge. The Black Country changing, its industry fading.”
The image above appeared in the Warley News of June 1956, originally captioned: ‘Two charming employees of the Brades and Nash Tyzack Industries Ltd, compare axes. Left is pictured the Kelly axe, one of the most modern of its kind... and right we have a ceremonial axe belonging to the Household Cavalry, two more of which are to made by the firm, for shipment to Canada.’
Parkes Classic Confectionary in Langley were founded in 1904. They exported sweets to India, Ceylon, Burma, South Africa, Singapore, Canada and Belgium. Continuing into the 1970’s, the firm eventually merged with Bluebird Toffee.
Myers of Vicarage Road, Langley Green, were ‘Manufacturers of office requisites, writing instruments, mathematical instruments, display appliances, small metal pressings and importers.’
Cuxson and Gerrard were founded in 1878 as a manufacturer of surgical dressings and are still in operation today, though without the working conditions recalled by Jackie in ‘the good old days’.