Robin Longbottom on the important role that brush making played in the town

BRUSH making is not a trade that is immediately associated with Keighley, but it was one that played a small but nonetheless important role, particularly in the town’s textile industry.

For centuries the traditional brush was the besom, which was no more than a bundle of sticks – usually of heather in the Pennines – tied to a long handle, the sort today associated with a witch’s broom. An article in the Leeds Times published in 1845 during the period of ‘railway mania’ not only lampoons the rush to build new railways, but also gives an insight into the changes faced by traditional besom makers – “a new railway is in contemplation from Rumbold’s Moor to the Pinfold, Keighley, for the accommodation of the besom-makers of that district...the raw material for which is got on Rumbold’s Moor for nothing, cheap and quick carriage to the manufactory becomes a desideratum to enable the trade to compete with those more fortunate dealers who get their besoms ready made.” A revolution had been taking place in the brush trade and a new design of besom was rapidly being adopted.

During the first half of the 19th century, a completely new type of brush, one that particularly met industrial requirements, gradually came into use. Besom brushes were impractical for sweeping under mill machinery; the early solution had probably been to use a ‘flapper’ or ‘alley dasher’, which was a stick with a leather strap on the end that could be used to flick out accumulated waste. However, the best solution was the flat head broom. Unlike the besom, the flat head broom was made in three pieces. It was a radical new design; bristles were fixed in a flat length of wood into which a brush handle was fitted at right angles. This enabled the sweeper to push the broom forward and draw it back and made it perfect for cleaning under and between machinery. The head could be made in any width, and the sweeping process threw up less dust than the traditional besom. Smaller hand brushes were also made along the same principle and used for cleaning textile machinery. The brooms and hand brushes were made in a process known as panning in which the brush makers sat around a table and fixed the bristles into the head with hot pitch from a pan in the centre.

By the 1850s brushes had become an important component of the newly developed woolcombing machine. They were used to automatically ‘dab’ the wool onto the pins of a revolving comb as it was fed through the machine. Unlike general brushes, pitch couldn’t be used to fix the bristles as it would have contaminated the wool. Instead, the brush back was drilled through, and the bristle was pulled, or drawn, into each hole from front to back by a loop of wire in a process known as drawing.

The demand for woolcombing brushes was a new development for the industry. In the 1870s Fred Wadsworth, a general brush manufacturer in South Street, Keighley, advertised that he was making brushes for Noble and Lister woolcombing machines. When he moved to Huddersfield, he was succeeded by Joseph Waterhouse who had his business in Market Street and employed several brush makers. He specifically advertised “machine brushes made and repaired on the shortest notice”. He eventually went into partnership with his brother-in-law, William Smith, trading as Waterhouse & Smith. After his death in 1921 the business passed to William, and his son continued making and repairing textile machine brushes into the late 1930s.

Today the manufacture of mill brooms, machine brushes and combing machine brushes – and their repair – is confined to history and is another of the town’s small but nevertheless important lost trades.