Douglas Firebrick Company

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The Douglas Firebrick Company was a manufacturer of bricks used throughout the United Kingdom, based in Galston, Ayrshire.

William Douglas, a master blacksmith, and his wife Janet, had a son, John, born at Moorhouses, Stevenson, in 1822. John grew up in the clay industry, and became the manager of the Corse-hill Tile Works, Dreghorn, where on 4th May 1855, his eldest child was born. He was named William after his grandfather, and was destined later to found the Douglas Firebrick Company. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Ardeer Tile Works at Stevenson, where his father became manager. The father died twenty years later, aged 53 years, but his son, now aged twenty, had already left home and was working at Drumchapel Colliery at Duntochar, Dumbartonshire.

William moved to the Glenboig Fireclay works owned by the famous James Dunnachie and here he met and formed a friend-ship with John Stein which was to last them all their lives.

William’s younger brother, John, also came to work at Glenboig and remained there to become the Works Manager after Dunnachie’s death in 1921, until his own death in 1928. While at Glenboig, William Douglas became a keen geologist and a member of the Glasgow Geological Society. He made a particular study of the fireclays in Ayrshire and this became easier when he moved about 1892 to become the manager of the freestone quarries and brickworks at Lylestone near Kilwinning. This was a good centre for exploring the Garnock river valley, some two miles to the west, where some fireclay seams were exposed south of Dalry. Samples were taken and sent to J. T. Norman in London who reported the results in June 1910. This report convinced William that he had founded a commercially workable, highly refractory fireclay. Later the Geological Survey named these deposits the Douglas Fireclays. Mention has already been made of William and E. M. Anderson of the Geological Survey taking samples of the bauxitic fireclays on the beach at Saltcoats about 1912, so by this time William knew some excellent refractory raw materials, and was ready to start up his own business. Perhaps the success of his friend, John Stein, encouraged this course.

A lease of minerals was obtained from Charles Edward Grant of Monkcastle, and signed on 19th January 1912. Fireclay from the lease was made into bricks and burnt in the kilns at Lyle-stone. So keen were they to see the first bricks from the kiln, that Richmond Douglas recalls his father telling him to ‘Take your bunnet to it’, as the hot brick was extracted from the kiln. The Kilmarnock bunnet was sacrificed in the process. The trial was judged satisfactory, and a mine was driven into the seams on Monkcastle estate which lay on the west side of the Garnock river. There was no access to a railway on that side so a further lease was negotiated with Colonel F. G. Blair of Blair Castle, and signed on 24th January 1914. Here on the eastern side of the Garnock with access to the Glasgow and South-Western Railway, a works was built and connected to the mine by a mineral railway, The Douglas Firebrick company was incorporated on 19th August 1914, a few days after the declaration of war with Germany. William Douglas was 59 years old.

The initial share capital was 1,400 £10 shares, of which William received 300 and £560 in cash for the fireclay stock, mine, and buildings, together with a yearly salary of £150. The remaining shares were issued for cash at £2-10-0 (£2.50p) paid up, and various members of the Douglas family subscribed for 500, and the public took up the remaining 600. The first directors were William Douglas, senior and junior, James Black, Robert King, and frank Paterson.

An early link with the Morgan Crucible furnace department was established when Leonard Harvey, the manager, was so impressed with the Douglas firebrick that he ordered a rail wagon of fireclay to be sent to Morgan’s Battersea works. This was followed by an order for 3,000 tons of firebricks on condition that they were fired in a kiln similar to those at Battersea, they entered into further discussions which resulted in a financial agreement signed on 1st March 1918, whereby Morgan became the sole selling agent of the Douglas Firebrick company in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Douglas capital was divided into £1 shares, and Morgan subscribed for a further 6,000 new shares making the total capital 320,000. In April 1920, Morgan subscribed for a further 10,000 ordinary shares giving them effective control.

This extra capital was used to bring in a supply of electricity from the grid, and to install semi-plastic brick-making machines to take over much of the hand making. Two modern tunnel kilns were built in 1935, and two American Boyd dry presses replaced the semi-plastic brick machines. The kilns were fired by producer gas made from anthracite coal in fully mechanised producers.

The sole selling agreement of 1918 was cancelled in 1944, and in return Morgan received 40,000 deferred 5/-d (25p) shares. The existing ordinary shares were restricted to a 10% dividend, and the deferred shares were entitled to a dividend up to 50% of the nett selling price free on rail. This gave them effectively all profits after the 10% ordinary dividend. The capital was further increased to £60,000 by a scrip issue of 80,000 5/-d (25p) to Morgan in 1949.

William Douglas discovered some excellent fireclays, and was the last of the Scottish entrepreneurs to set up his own business, at the relatively late and difficult time of 1914. He suffered from the usual lack of sufficient capital to expand it early on, and had to turn to Morgan Crucible who supplied it and took effective control. Both parties benefited and the co-operation worked well, but it would not have suited the temperaments of James Dunnachie or John Stein.

The VIIth International Ceramic congress was held in Britain in 1960, and on 24th May the members visited the Douglas Works at Dalry. A small descriptive booklet was issued for the occasion describing the various Douglas firebrick brands, and the high alumina Triangle brands based on calcined bauxite from Guyana, and the local bauxitic fireclays from high Smith-stone mine, and the Langside mine at Galston. The bauxitic clays were calcined in a shaft kiln with a capacity of about 3,000 tons a year, while firebricks amounted to about 25,000 tons a year. A most profitable range of refractory cements and castables added another 7,000 tons a year.

William Douglas died in 1937, aged 82 years. His son, Richmond, had seen the company grow from the first beginnings and had led it ably through the depression of the 1930’s until his own retrial in February 1970. Richmond was in turn President of the Scottish Employers’ Council for the Clay Industries(1), the National Federation of Clay Industries, and the British Ceramic Society. He was a man of great charm and always ready to help a young man with advice. He died on 7th September 1980, aged 89 years.

Richmond’s nephew, William Douglas, a grandson of the Founder, served as a director and works manager after the 1939-45 war. Robert Kerr was the company secretary, and Ian Tulloch, the sales director. Ian Tulloch started at Morgan’s Neston works, and came to Dalry in 1960 to build up the Douglas’ own sales force, which helped to retain orders in the years of declining demand. Morgan sold the Douglas Company to A. P. Green Refractories in 1970, but the continuing decline in orders forced the closure of the Monkcastle mine, and the works in 1982. The works is now a mushroom farm!

Source Kenneth W Sanderson

1.  In 1917, William Douglas from Douglas Firebrick Company helped form the Scottish Employers Council for the Clay Industries.
2.  John Douglas: 19 June 1901, Certificate Number: 4,248 (2nd), District: East Scotland. Certificate of Competency as an Under-Manager of Mines granted under the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1887 (50 & 51 Vict. Cap. 58, Secs. 23 and 80)

Job adThe Glasgow Herald, 27 March 1957


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Last modified: Sunday, 12 January 2020