A Family's Brush With Industry (22 August 1975)
The pending closure of M A Cook and Sons’ brushworks in Victoria Road, Bletchley – a voluntary dissolution, not made for any financial reasons – will leave Beacon Brushes Ltd. the sole remaining representatives of an industry on which the town formerly relied for a good deal of its employment.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that brush-making arrived in the town as a very welcome new source of employment for its women in particular, helping to fill the vacuum left by the fading of the old cottage industries of lacemaking and straw plaiting.
How, why and when brushmaking came to the town is something of a mystery. One source of information says that a Thomas Ives came from Manchester because labour was cheaper here than in that industrialised area. Another says that a Samuel Hackney opened a brush factory in Tavistock Street in 1877. Maybe one took over from the other.
What is not open to conjecture is that in about 1883 the comparatively small works in Tavistock Street were bought by Mr James Root. He was a brushmaker from Diss, Norfolk, who had founded a business in Wood Green, London. His London place was worked solely by hand, but there was already a little machinery at Tavistock Street, giving a quicker output. So part of the firm came to Bletchley and the products were taken by rail to London.
The two factories were continued right up to 1929, first by the founder, and then by his son, who was also named James. But on the latter’s death in that year, the founder’s two grandsons, Mr Ernest Root and Mr Alfred Root, decided to concentrate the whole business in Bletchley – and here it remained until its closure, quite a number of years ago now.
About the year 1880 Mr Henry Cook, a brushmaker by trade, came to the town and was employed as manager of the Tavistock Street works. Some six years later he started up on his own account in a nearby house, helped by his wife, Mrs Mary Anne Cook. Subsequently, because of increasing trade, he erected the first of the Victoria Road workshops.
On his death in 1901 the name of the firm was changed to M A Cook and Sons, the senior partner being his widow, Mary Anne. She was a woman of outstanding business acumen and industry, so that when the locals came to speak of “Ma Cook’s” as they did, they were not merely playing with initials. The other partners were her four sons, Jack, Harold, Harry and Bert.
Root’s and Cook’s then progressed together in this small area of Fenny Stratford. They were among the earliest subscribers to the town’s telephone system, installed about 1905. Cook’s was No 7 and Root’s No 22.
Towards the end of 1926, however, came a further development. Mr Jack Cook separated from M A Cook’s, and with his two sons, Mr Jack Cook junior and Mr Arthur Cook, founded Beacon Brushes Ltd. with premises in Denbigh Road – their present location.
This brought the number of brushmaking firms in Bletchley to its so-far ultimate total of three and that continued to be the position for the next quarter century.
According to the Gazette of February 5, 1949, the directors of Beacon Brushes were then still the same, while Mr Harry Cook, Mr Bert Cook and his son, Mr David Cook, were partners in M A Cook’s, though I believe that Mr David Cook was already the only working director.
Thus, from a small, obscure beginning in Tavistock Street, Bletchley, [be]came(sic) a power in the brushmaking world.
In the early days most brushes were “hand drawn.” The operative, usually a woman, sat with a perforated piece of wood in front of her. In one hand she held the fibre and in the other a piece of looped wire. She thrust the loop through one of the holes, placed the fibre in the loop and then pulled back the wire so that the fibre bent in half and was drawn into the hole, leaving a tuft behind. This process was repeated until all the holes were filled with tufts.
At one time Root’s had 50 employees all engaged on this operation. A veneer of wood, screwed or glued to the back, hid the wiring and completed that part of the job.
A skilled hand-drawer could work at a remarkable speed but, as in other industries, the machine gradually took over the manual work in all directions.
M A Cook’s first used machinery on any scale in 1912. For many years, however, what power was needed was supplied by an Ackroyd Stuart heavy oil engine.
Local inventiveness was also present in the person of Mr Jack Cook senior. A mechanics enthusiast, he designed boring machines for his works and was also the first man to plan how to fill a bannister brush by machinery.