Labour and Wait Field Trip 1 – R. Russell, Brush Makers
Today it is my pleasure to begin a new series in collaboration with Labour and Wait, visiting the manufacturers who make the traditional hardware sold in their shop in Redchurch St. For more than ten years, Labour and Wait have championed small British makers and for this first field trip, it was my delight to visit R.Russell, brush makers.
Robert & Alan Russell, sixth generation brush makers
Take the Metropolitan Line from Liverpool St St Station all the the way to Buckinghamshire and after a ten minute walk through the small market town of Chesham you will arrive at the tiny factory of R.Russell - Brush Makers since 1840 – secreted in a hidden yard. Here you will find brothers Robert & Alan Russell, sixth generation brush makers, working alongside their eight employees making beautiful brushes by hand, the last of their kind in a town once devoted to the trade. Surrounded by beech woods, Chesham had a woodenware industry since the sixteenth century and brush manufacture began two hundred years ago as a means to utilise the offcuts from the making of wooden shovels for use in brewing.
The workshop at R.Russell is on the first floor looking down onto a garden with a tall pollarded tree and an old camellia in flower. Two large battered worktables fill the centre of the room where batches of brushes are lined up in different stages of manufacture. There are stacks of brushes with garish plastic bristles and racks of sweeping brushes with natural brown bristles. Over by the window is Alan’s work bench, overlooking the garden. And it was here that I joined him as he placed the bristles into the former to make a broom, speaking as he worked with breathtaking dexterity, occasionally pausing for thought and gazing out onto the garden below, yet without ceasing from his task.
“My father was Robert, his father was Stanley, before him was Robert, his father was George and then there was Charles. The origins are lost in the mists of time, but we know that in 1840 Charles Russell had a pub by the name of The Plough in Chesham, and he used to make a few brushes at the back of the pub and sold them to the customers. His son George was the first member of the family down in the records as a brush maker.
I’ve been making brushes since I was sixteen and I’ve been here forty years, After you’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been doing it, it’s quite relaxing. I’d much rather be making brushes than sat behind a desk doing office work, your mind goes off wherever you please.
My grandparents lived in the house at the front and the factory was a shed in their back garden. I came down here with my father at the age of six and he showed me how to make brushes. I used to make brushes with the waste off the floor, because the bristles were too valuable to spoil, but if you can make a proper brush with the waste then you really know how to make a brush! By the time I left school, I had a good training in brush making because I worked here every holiday and after school. My father never pushed me or my brother into it, but it was a natural progression because we got on well with Dad. I was made a partner at eighteen and my brother who’s older than me was already a partner.
When I started, we produced mainly paper-hanging brushes and dusting brushes for painters. We sold them to the kings of the market – the paintbrush makers – and they sold them to decorators. But they are all finished now the paintbrushes are made in China, so we lost our trade. We have gone back to how we were before, we make specialist brushes to order. It’s a niche market because there’s so few of us left. We are a handmade specialist brush maker. We are flexible and we have a lot of experience and we can turn our hands to anything. We made a brush for the National Trust recently, based on an original in a sixteenth century painting. It’s much more interesting although we are not making the money we used to make. We peaked just before the turn of the century, when the Chinese started selling their paint brushes here, and we’ve managed our decline since then. But I feel more confident now than for a long time. People are looking for something different and business is looking up. Meanwhile prices are rising in China and the quality is not always there, and people are prepared to pay for a better brush and they’re the people we’re supplying.
I don’t want to do anything else, as long as I can make enough to live on by doing this. I can’t imagine working for someone else, even though we work long hours here. My wife will tell you, I’d rather be here than spend a day at home decorating. I’m a brush maker. On my father’s grave we put “brush maker” not “brush manufacturer” because that’s what he was, a skilled man.”
Next door, in the office where the brothers prefer to spend the minimum amount of time, Robert, the elder brother, showed me the photographs of his forebears who worked here in the same trade before him. He confided that he and his brother never take a holiday at the same time and while one is away they speak on the phone every day.
Both brothers wore identical white short sleeve shirts with black trousers and white aprons, which were – I realised – the uniform of the brush maker, not so different from their predecessors photographed in the 1930s. After six generations, this pair have become as absorbed as anyone could be in this most unusual of occupations, a life devoted to brushes. And I could not resist asking Alan which brush he would be, if he were a brush, because I knew he would have a ready answer.
At once he came back with this reply -”If I was a brush, I’d be a Badger Softener because it’s something that’s looked after. It does something very special. It’s for marbling, to create the soft texture beneath the veins. It just softens the edges. It doesn’t do much ,but you can’t do anything without it. It’s the sort of brush you’d buy once in a lifetime.”
Alan Russell tucks the bristles into the former - “I’d much rather be making brushes than sat behind a desk doing office work, your mind goes off wherever you please.”
Chess Vale Bowling Club, Chesham c.1910 – Old Bob Russell sits second from right in middle row with the watch chain while his son Stanley reclines in front.
Alan Russell uses his “flapper” to level off the bristles.
Robert & Alan’s grandfather Stanley Russell in the 1920s.
Ann Brett brushes out loose bristles. -“It’s nice to see something with the “Made in England” label on it.”
Robert & Alan’s great-grandfather Old Bob Russell in the 1930s.
Alan Russell checks the bristles are in alignment.
Bob & Stan Russell & a fellow brush maker in the 1930s.
Robert & Alan Russell - “people are prepared to pay for a better brush and they’re the people we’re supplying…”
The factory in the 1960s.
My souvenir, a beautiful handmade brush from R.Russell.
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