There’s a connection between chimney sweeps’ brushes and school uniforms – and it’s less tenuous than you might think.
Both are significant chapters at either end of the colourful history of Sheffield-based corporate and protective clothing specialist Arden Winch, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary more than ready to add a few more chapters.
Brushes were Arden Winch’s stock in trade when it started out as R Richmond & Son in 1812 - the same year that Napoleon launched his disastrous assault on Moscow and the United States declared a shooting war on the British Empire over trade.
“We used to make every conceivable brush – from the brushes used by chimney sweeps to paint brushes and from brushes used on steelworks machines to silver hair brushes,” says Arden Winch’s modern day managing director Steve Barker.
It’s actually Richmond’s tar brushes that form the first link in the chain that transformed the business into what it is today.
There was a massive market for the brushes, with their stiff bristles and angled heads, not so much among the city’s builders as its steel works, where they proved ideal for removing scale and swarf from mills.
It was on the eve of another war – the Second World War – that Lawrence Arden Winch bought Richmond’s and its Brush Works, standing on a site in what was Bath Street and became Broomhall Street, off Hanover Way, where Viners cutlery factory would later be built.
The Bath Street Works was still sending a three-tonne lorry loaded with brushes around the steelworks in Sheffield’s East End three times a week well into the 1960s.
Even after the company moved to Catley Road in Darnall in the mid-70s, it was still making 300 tar brushes a day to meet the demand from the steelworks, as well as other industrial brushes, including brushes used as filters in chemicals works.
But the writing was on the wall. Cheap hand-made brushes from the Far East and machine-made brushes from Germany were making inroads into the market and, although the company continued making wooden-handled tar brushes with natural bristles into the 21st century, it was clear that imports would win the day.
Fortunately, Arden Winch had more than one string to its bow by then.
The company had capitalised on its steelworks connections and started to supply other consumables, ranging from gloves, supplied, like the tar brushes, in their thousands each week, to toilet rolls from Izal’s plant in Chapeltown and, as the steelworks’ modernised, hand cleaner for the new washrooms as well as other janitorial supplies.
The arrival in the mid-60s of Robert Wetherill, who had previously worked for Newcastle-based protective clothing company John Taylor, Dunford and Co, prompted a diversification into safety products including safety wear used by furnace men.
As companies became more image conscious, Arden Winch made the natural progression into corporate clothing, installing state of the art embroidery and heat seal machinery to add logos to a range of clothing.
Today, the company supplies everyone from steelworks to stately homes and the hospitality industry to schools – the final link in the chain for the former brush maker, which has continued to re-invent itself.