Smith Bros (Quinton) Ltd.

By Clifford David Smith

A Brief History (obtained from the website)

Smith Bros. (Quinton) Ltd was established in 1927, the proof of this establishment being defined by Cliff Smith (one of the founder brothers) when a sign emblazoned with the Smith Bros. (Quinton) Ltd scroll was erected by Ran Smith, above their first workshop at 570 Hagley Road West, Quinton, Birmingham. At that time, which was during the recession of the late twenties, Stan, Ran and Cliff Smith, were like so many other people at the time - looking for work, and decided to try and go it alone.

Starting with the manufacture of timber incubation units for chickens, known as "Foster Mothers". They also made sheds, greenhouses, garages, porches, verandas and generally anything constructed in wood that people in their vicinity required. They managed to make a go of this, and being as they needed to purchase nails, screws, paint, glass, putty, etc., they decided to sell such items from 570 Hagley Road West and hence the Smith Bros. (Quinton) Ltd Ironmongers was opened. The enterprise continued much the same growing bit by bit until the outbreak of the Second World War, by which time Eric Smith had joined the company. Ken Smith was to join them just after the war making five of the six Smith brothers involved within the business.

During the war the brothers were at the age where if they were involved in war work (a reserve occupation) they were allowed to continue such an occupation. During the war years manufacture of timber buildings was superseded by the manufacture of ammunition boxes (El Mark Ill's), thousands of these were produced by Smith Bros. at Quinton for the war effort.

After the war luckily all survived and Smith Bros. reverted back to manufacture of timber buildings, however the great problem was obtaining sufficient timber (as it was on license) to continue in business. To this end they managed to purchase a quantity of what were described as Canadian timber invasion barges from the Ministry of Defence. In the early fifties, Cliff Smith was approached by a friend of his who worked at the Austin Motor Company and asked if he and his brother would be interested in quoting for export packing cases for what was to become through time Rover Group. It was decided to tender for this work and fortunately they were successful.

I am following the above with extracts from an audiotape, donated to the society by Brian Smith. The recording was made of Brian’s father, Cliff, in 1992, when he was aged 87, Cliff was born in 1905 and died in 1996. I hope you will enjoy this short extract. I am sure, like myself, you have fond memories of Smiths Bros (Quinton).

Early Days

“Yes, we were all born there except Stan, there was a row of houses there and Stan first rented a house the last one in the row. Stan was born there, but the five of us were born where the shop was, in that room above the shop. There was a nice piece of ground there enough for two houses really, which was good, which was very good for us because we, we used it later on”.

Childhood

“There was mom and dad in the front room, the one over the shop, and in the middle room, which was my office eventually; there was Stan, Geoff and myself. Ran and Eric were in the little room at the other end. There were 3 of us in one bed, Stan was one side and I was the other and poor old Geoff was in the middle getting sandwiched between us, but we didn't seem to mind. None of us had pyjamas we all used to sleep in our shirts.

Every Saturday morning we used to clean the brass taps and all the knobs, they were brass knobs, with Brasso. We also had to polish the knives and forks and spoons every week with Brasso”.

Pony & Trap

“When I was a kid at school there was a sweet shop, just opposite the church, kept by a Mrs Rose whose husband Sammy Rose was a bricklayer. Mrs. Rose had got a pony and trap and she used to go into Birmingham, go into the centre of town to get her tobacco and sweets, with a pony and trap. She would probably take about an hour to get there, but today quarter of an hour and you're there aren't you?

In those days there were no cars, and I used to have to go and catch the pony that was in a field down Stoney Lane, down Ridgeacre, used to go down there and catch the pony bring him up put the harness on and put him in the trap ready for her to drive off”.

"Call on your way back from school" she'd say.

“Well of course I did and was given a big box of all sorts, toffees and chocolates, perhaps going a bit mouldy, but I was very popular with the kids at school. Of course today everybody's got a car, even children have got cars haven't they, but in those days nobody had a car and it was always horse and trap. The first mechanised vehicle I saw was a steamer that they used to deliver the flour. Then in the weekends I used to help Mrs. Rose make ice cream, have a turn on a Saturday and another turn on the Sunday and she'd give me a couple of Ice Pies to come away with. The machine I used had a container in the middle; it was a container inside a bigger wooden container that left about a 2-inch gap all around that you filled with ice. I had to keep sprinkling commercial salt on it, and as it melted it was intensely cold, as the salt melted the ice, and the handle got much harder to turn as the ice cream was nearly frozen. It was easy when I started but it became harder and harder, when it was nearly right it was blooming hard work. When I'd finished she'd let me, you know the thing that rotates in the middle of a washing machine it was like that, but there was still a stack of ice cream on it she used to give me that I used to eat that with a spoon”.

Father

“My father was an engineer; he worked at Webley & Scotts, making guns. In the early days he worked at Stewart & Lloyds, an engineer in the tool room. In fact he got chucked out of Stewart & Lloyds, they had a strike, the labourers there were only getting 18/- a week while at the Nile St factory in town they were getting 21/- a week. It wasn't a living wage 18/-, and dad tried to get them a pound a week, dad was one of the ringleaders.

They didn't sack him then, but nearly all the blokes who had been involved in the strike were got rid of later on. So he got this job in the tool room at Rover in Coventry. He used to get on the bus about 6 o'clock every morning and get the train to Coventry and return about 8 o'clock at night, by the time he'd had his supper it was time to go to bed. Out early in the morning and back late in the evening, it was nothing but bed and work, bed and work, which he stuck for about eighteen months”.

Phipps

“I started at Phipps at Harborne when I left school at 14, they used to give you a card, a green card, and I had 3 green cards, one at Phipps at Harborne, one at some builders at Selly Oak, and another one at some carriage builders in Bradford St. Birmingham. So I got on my bike, first one I came to was Phipps's and that's where I started.

I used to cycle to work to start at half past seven and I finished at six. We only had an hour for lunch and it's quite a trip down to Harborne, I went home for lunch about a quarter of an hour there and back and half an hour for my lunch. It was long hours for a kid”

Start of Smith Brothers

“I'd always intended to go on my own from when I was a kid, always intended to go on my own as soon as I could. In fact I started doing jobs at 14, and the first job I did was a boiler lid for the mother of a pal of mine. I was at Phipps at the time and managed to get a few 5/8ths boards, nice handle on it and I think I charged her about 7/6d. She was very pleased with it.

We started in the early 30's, working from home, in dad's garage; it was rather a big garage. It was in the depression, a bad time to start. We paid ourselves thirty shillings each a week, used to have ten bob and give a pound to mother, she had three quid. Then when we started to do better we paid ourselves fifty bob, we had a pound and mother had thirty bob.

The first job we had was from a friend of my dad's chap named Jim Parkes and he made pumps what they called a Philit Quick Pump. That was a pump with a tube inside a tube, you pulled the inside tube up and as you pushed it back down it put so much in the tyre and so much in this other tube above. As you pulled it up you put the rest in, under pressure, so instead of wasting energy as you pushed it down you're putting air in as you pulled it up you're putting air in. He had a bigger version, what they called a Garage Pump, which was made in brass and packed in cases, nice varnished cases. He asked me to put a price in for it, which I did, I ended up doing hundreds of these bloomin’ pump boxes.

There was a wooden handle which had to be unscrewed to go into the box, but that still left a part sticking out, the part that the handle screwed into, so we had to cut a part out of the box. Well we got a gas engine, to cut the wood up, got a saw bench with a sort of fretsaw, with a belt on it. It was only a fretsaw with a little blade but it didn't half travel at a speed, slick and smooth. We used to break saws by the dozen, but Stan and Ran worked on it, in fact mother used to help us sometimes, because we had long pieces of timber delivered. To work these long pieces we cut a slot in the side of the garage, and mother used to come along when we were cross cutting, we did everything on this on this saw, it was a rip saw but we made it cross cut, do anything, and mother used to feed the timber in, because you couldn't do it on your own. If Stan & Ran were out mother used to come and help me to cut the stuff off.

While I was still working at Phipps I put our first workshop up, up the garden, dad had some tons of ashes tipped because the ground sloped. I levelled it off then mucked the floor down; it was 30ft x 13 It, which was a good size at the time. I put the floor down first, then made the sections on the floor, they helped me to erect it but I made them on my own.

Then later on we had our first proper workshop, where the mill is now, and managed to arrange enough money to get the steel frame up then we filled the rest in. That was 6Oft x 30ft, our first workshop”.

Smith Bros (Quinton) Ltd.
Smith Bros (Quinton), Hagley Road West in 1937.
The premises were demolished in the 1980s when Guardian House was built.
One of the brothers, Stan, is on the ladder.

Ammo Boxes

“When we first started out on our own, we wanted to get a contract for ammunition boxes, it was such good business. There was a pal of Ran's, Cyril Goodway, and then another friend, chap named Wilf Scutt. We got to know this feller, Scutty we called him, and he got us a job for the Ministry of Supply but you've got to do a sub contract before you get a direct contract so he got us a sub contract with B.S.A. From then on we got a direct contract.

Scutty arranged for this chap Colonel Van den Berg and a chap named Green, who did all the work, to come and see us. Colonel Van den Berg was Chief of Pheasant Margarine, and because of that he got offered an honorary job, but Green did all the work. They came up with a view to seeing whether we were fit to do direct contract work because we were doing an indirect contract, sub contract work. Anyway he came along, and he gave us an order for 50,000 new, I mark 3 munitions boxes, and that was god knows very welcome. One day I was having lunch, Stan and Ran were there, we were living at home then, and this chap Green rings up from Snow Hill station he says "The Colonel wants to have a word if you could come down, we've got time before the train comes" so I left my dinner, dashed down Hagley Rd, and met them at the station. "We've got a very big job we can offer you, it's a contract to break down old ammunition boxes. Old boxes, all used boxes in the country, all there was in the country would come back to you"

Well you couldn't get timber for love or money, if we didn't break them down and use the timber somebody else would. So I said, -Yes, I think so"

Coming back along the Hagley Rd I thought 'Christ I don't know how I'm going to do the 50,000 new 1 mark 3 boxes, let alone this. When I got back Ran said, “I wonder if Goodway would be interested" and Cyril Goodway took it on, because he was in the building trade and of course there was no building work because of the shortage of materials, and he'd have had to have gone in the army no doubt about that. Well he took it on and he took over Shirley Stadium, he needed it too, and all the boxes from all over the country, redundant boxes, were sent to Shirley Stadium, and they broke them down. In fact we had a contract from the Ministry to make boxes out of his timber. It was all done through Smith Brothers for the first 18 months, because he hadn't got a contract, but after the 18 months he had a direct contract. We didn't make a penny, we never got a sausage for it, all the books and all the accounts were carried through”.

Ed’s Comment – I am indebted to Brian not only for the copy of this tape but also for the many photographs he donated to the society. Also I would extend my sincere thanks to Brian for his permission to publish his Dad’s memories. The tape is fascinating and will be a significant piece of the society’s archive – more to follow in future issues.

©QLHS & Clifford David Smith 2003

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