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Last Updated: Friday, 29 February 2008, 11:35 GMT
Town's name built on red bricks
By Brendon Williams
BBC News

Henry Dennis (picture: Wrexham Archives)
Henry Dennis was regarded as one of the giants of the industry
When the doors closed at the famous Dennis Ruabon tile factory, it marked the possible end of a 130-year manufacturing era for Wrexham.

Now there are fresh hopes of reopening the plant, which has left a distinctive mark across the urban landscape since Victorian times.

Ruabon's famous red bricks have built structures like the Pier Head in Cardiff and Liverpool University.

Brick and tile making was once a major industry across north east Wales.

It was embedded deep in the region's culture, but there have been fears recently that this famous name would disappear.

Staff at the factory were sent home from work last month without warning, and were told there was no money to pay them.

The company was then bought by Ruabon Sales Ltd on 1 February

Now Wrexham Council's leader said the owners want to continue manufacturing.

The discovery of vast quantities of high quality Etruria Marl clay in the Ruabon area in the 19th Century heralded the beginning of tile and terracotta production on a vast scale.

It also brought prosperity to factory owners and jobs to workers in villages like Ruabon and Gresford.

Dennis Ruabon factory
The future of the once-thriving factory has been in doubt

By the turn of the 20th Century, several factories employed roughly 2,000 people.

Workers produced massive amounts of terracotta, earning the village of Ruabon the nickname Terracottapolis.

But it was for the disctinctive red bricks from that the area - especially Ruabon - became famous.

The material was so popular it was used to build schools, hospitals, universities, law courts, pubs and other key buildings in cities across the UK.

The most famous of the industrialists in Wrexham in the late 19th Century was Henry Dennis, who founded the company in 1878 that would later become Dennis Ruabon Tiles Ltd.

Dennis, born in Bodmin, Cornwall, studied civil engineering and travelled to Wales to supervise construction of a tramway at the Llangollen slate quarry.

Henry Dennis with son Henry Dyke Dennis and grandson Patrick Gill Dyke Dennis  (picture: Wrexham Archives)
Henry Dennis amassed a fortune for him and his family

After a stint in Spain at a lead mine, he later returned to Wales after amassing a considerable personal fortune.

Dennis became managing director of the Hafod Colliery and by 1878, had established the Hafod Brickworks.

The business flourished at a time when demand for the red bricks and terracotta was high.

By 1893, a new factory which became known as the "Red Works", was constructed on the site where the present-day building still stands.

There, workers produced ridge tiles, chimney pots, tiles and other products using 24 coal-fired "Beehive" kilns.

Rebuilding Britain

The hard, durable bricks were responsible for many red buildings in and around the Wrexham area.

But they were also in great demand across the UK during the late Victorian re-building programme.

Ruabon's materials were the subject of the term "redbrick" which was coined to describe the wave of university buildings in industrial cities.

At Liverpool University, the Victoria Building was constructed in 1892 from Ruabon brick and terracotta.

The giant Hafod Red Brick Works in 1906  (the year Henry Dennis died)
The "Red Works" became one of the region's most famous factories

In Cardiff Bay, Ruabon produced the terracotta murals for the side of the Pier Head building.

By the time of his death in 1906, Dennis had established himself as a giant of the industry, ensuring that his firm - and the name of Ruabon - had been forever cemented in British architectural history.

He also had interests in collieries, lead mines and water and gas, and is thought to have employed up to 10,000 people.

Modernisation

Under the control of his son, Henry Dyke Dennis, the Hafod brickworks became a private limited company in 1934 - Dennis Ruabon Limited - and continued to produce materials including tiles, chimney pots and ornamental terracotta.

In 1944, Dennis's grandson, Patrick Gill Dyke Dennis, took control and launched a modernisation programme.

By the end of the 1970s, brick production had largely ended, and the company concentrated its efforts on making quarry tiles.

By the 1980s, another modernisation programme was underway which included a new factory and a computer-controlled kiln.

Redbrick at Liverpool university and Cardiff's Pierhead (right, photo Matthew Cummins)
Redbrick at Liverpool university and Cardiff's Pierhead

In 2001, the company became Dennis Ruabon Tiles Limited, and expanded by also taking control of the Hawkins quarry tile business.

Shortly after, it developed a new range of products which included paving tiles.

It also developed a new range of tactile surfaces to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 2003.

The new owners, Ruabon Sales Ltd, have claimed the firm is still in business and is able to take orders.

The local council hopes some of the workers will be getting their jobs back and manufacturing will restart, to take an old name forward and to leave its indelible impression on the next generation of buildings.



SEE ALSO
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