Made in Yorkshire - WT Knowles clay chimney pots
- Credit: nigel holland
Four generations have moulded an Elland family firm into a successful nationwide business. Photographs by Nigel Holland
Britain has changed enormously since 1906. In that year Edward VII was on the throne, Henry Campbell-Bannerman led the Liberal Party to a General Election victory and the Lusitania was the biggest ship on the seas. Rolls Royce was a new company, Manchester United won promotion to the First Division and another development over the Pennines saw Walter Thomas Knowles step away from the family firm.
His father has started a company in Darwen near Blackburn making clay pipes and Walter moved to Yorkshire to launch a business of his own. He bought out a brickworks at Elland and began a company which continues to thrive 110 years later.
Today WT Knowles make a range of 6,000 different clay pipes, bricks, tiles and chimney pots – along with scores of other items – which are supplied to the building industry around the country. The fourth generation of the family are now at the helm – Walter’s great-grandson Martin Knowles has been managing director since 1995.
‘My father said I could only come to the company after I’d had experience in another industry so I worked as a vehicle mechanic and then came in and worked my way up in the business. That gave me a good grounding,’ he said. ‘I started with the company in 1981 and became a director in 1993 before I became the managing director.’
The company now employs 42 people – ‘they’re like members of the family,’ says Martin – and although much has changed, they still use traditional moulding techniques on many of the pipes and pots they produce, making them one of the few traditional manufacturers in the industry.
‘We have moved with the times and do have modern machines but we have an old machine too,’ Martin added. ‘And we still have people doing traditional hand-moulding as well.
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‘We have been through some hard times over the years but as long as houses are being built and renovated, we have a good prospect of keeping going. People are now looking upon fires and wood burners as nice features so that’s helping the industry.’
The business, and the brickworks that stood on the site before it, were built on a seam of clay which has provided the raw material over the years for hundreds of miles and pipes and enough chimney pots for all the rooftops in West Yorkshire.
In the Second World War, WT Knowles & Sons provided drainage for many airfields and as Britain re-built in the post-war years their chimney pots were much in demand. Steam engines were brought in to the production process in the 1930s with electric motors introduced in the 50s. The company now has six downdraft beehive kilns still in use, making a range of salt-glazed and unglazed chimney pots in original vernacular styles.
Martin’s sister Helen Flockton is in her second spell with the business, having taken a break when her children were born and gone on to work elsewhere. Now a director with the family firm, she said: ‘I like the glazed finish best, they last longer and I think they look better – that’s what’s on my roof.’ w