Iron founders are an endangered species. But J and J Siddons of West Bromwich has its grounds for optimism, as Geoffrey Foster reports.
"At one time", says Andrew Siddons, with a gesture towards the wall behind his head, "you couldn't see, on this side, across Wednesbury for the smoke." On the far side of the wall a few tall chimneys are still discharging effluent over neighbouring housing estates. But pollution control is by no means the only reason for the clearer atmosphere these days. The fact is that there are not very many factory chimneys to be seen. The Black Country, once the home of British metalworking, is now as good a centre as any for the study of industrial decline.
Siddons is himself a member of an endangered species: he is an iron founder. Aged 38, he has been head of the family firm of Joseph and Jesse Siddons for the past three years. Shortly before he joined the firm in the early 1970s there were, so it is said, around 1,500 iron foundries in Britain. Ten years later the total had fallen to 550. That figure has since been halved. A dozen years ago, Siddons remembers, his company was one of 47 iron founders in and around West Bromwich. There are 19 left. Moreover, almost everyone connected with the industry seems reconciled to the prospect of further contraction.
The industry's current anxieties have less to do with the recession, or with competition and structural change, than with the expense of meeting more stringent environmental standards. One foundry owner has estimated that this will wipe out seven years' profits. Manufacturers of iron castings use some inherently dirty processes, and Siddons accepts that "we've got to clean our act up". He is also in no doubt that "more foundries will close - because of environmental costs if nothing else." Given that certainty, he seems strangely unconcerned that his own company, which is privately owned and at the smaller end of medium sized, might be listed among the casualties.
Joseph and Jesse Siddons does, it is true, have certain strengths, some of which are products of a long history while others are of more recent origin. The name suggests earnest Victorian enterprise; and, indeed, the firm is reckoned to date from 1846, when two cousins, the eponymous Joseph and Jesse, formed a partnership to make cast iron cooking utensils. However, Andrew Siddons, who represents the fifth generation of the family, believes that its beginnings go back some way beyond that. Pre-1846 J and J were "both already known in the founding trade".
The partnership flourished, for in 1876 Joseph Siddons and his successors bought a site of about nine acres, strategically located beside a branch canal at Hill Top, West Bromwich, only a stone's throw from the original premises. Here they built a substantial factory: rows of long sheds with a two-storey office block and a house for the manager, all in red brick. The workers lived in back-to-backs nearby. The project might well have put a strain on resources, because when the firm became a private limited company soon afterwards, a number of shares went outside the family. Nevertheless, the investment has since been critical to survival.
Siddons continued producing tinned or enamelled holloware until the mid-1950s. At times it prospered mightily and at others made heavy losses. In the post-World War I boom the workforce reached almost 650. After shrinking to 170, numbers recovered in the wake of World War II to around 250. But aluminium and plastics were by then making inroads into more traditional materials, and UK holloware manufacturers were coming under intense pressure from imports.
In 1956 Siddons ceased all manufacturing except in the foundry, and cut the payroll to 80. Numbers have been up and down since, but have mostly remained about the same. The foundry became almost wholly dependent on subcontract work, producing general engineering castings for pump and diesel manufacturers, forklift truck makers and others. Most of the remaining buildings were cleared and let out to individual tenants. Industrial estates occupying redundant factory premises are commonplace today. They were something of a novelty in the 1950s, and Ken Siddons, the present managing director's father, was a pioneer of a kind. Had it not been for the changes that he carried through, says the son, "there wouldn't be a business today".
It might be supposed that Joseph and Jesse Siddons nowadays consists of a factory estate with a landlord who happens to operate a foundry on site. Not so, apparently, although property is obviously rather more than a sideline. "The estate helped us get through the '80s," says Andrew Siddons. Indeed it did. The company's accounts make no distinction between manufacturing and rental income, but during the period 1980-87 it was the estate which kept the business in profits, while the foundry at times worked a two or three-day week. On the other hand, the foundry was vastly the bigger earner in the three boom years before the present recession took hold. "Over the past 15 years they have each made about 50%," says Siddons. "Over the longer term they balance each other out."