Cottam Brush reminisces as we welcome the seventh monarch

With King Charles III’s Coronation taking place on Saturday, there’s a sense of nostalgia in the air. Since Cottam’s beginnings, we’ve known 6 monarchs, and are now welcoming the seventh – and it’s got us thinking about our own history. 

We spoke to David Cottam, our previous MD (1980 – 2005) about his memories of the business from his childhood, when he watched his father and grandfather lead the company, to passing the MD role to his son, Ben, in 2005.  

“Ben had always shown an interest [in] the business [so] when he left university, it just seemed natural that he would join the company.  I always swore that I would do exactly as my father had done, and that I would hand over to him soon as he was ready. He took over about 18 years ago though has since relinquished his role as MD of Cottam Brush to Alan Crook in order to lead our group of companies. We were incredibly lucky in finding Alan Crook… he has since proven his worth and is now our very first non-family Managing Director.” 

As well as talking about how he brought Ben into the business, David talked about how his own father took him on: 

“I never planned, and was never pushed, to come into the business. I was qualified and working as a Chartered Accountant in South Shields. By 1976, Cottam Bros Ltd (as it was known then) was relying on outside help for any financial information.  My father was mainly an engineer, but he felt that the firm would benefit from some extra help. So, it was then that I joined the company.” 

King’s coronation is taking place at a time of economic challenge for the UK – David told us about how the strikes of the 1970s, as he started his Cottam career, affected the business: 

“In 1979 there was several major industrial strikes and things got very tough. We had the steel strike first, then the miners’ strike. We’d already been through strikes in the early seventies, just before I came into the business. For instance, in ’73, industrial action had led to the government imposing a three-day week, which was where you were only allowed to have electricity for three days a week. I wasn’t in the business at the time, my father was still running it. But, because we were doing a lot of [defence work], we managed to get an exemption and we were one of the very few factories that were able to work without interruption.” 

David discussed how Cottam Brush, who had been based in Sunderland since the beginning, moved to nearby Hebburn: 

“Early in the new century One North East (a government quango) funded the formation of Sunderland Arc with the brief to improve the central area of Sunderland including Sheepfolds. They came to us in 2006 and said that they had the funds to buy our land, and we would have to vacate no later than March 2007. Our search for alternative premises covered most of the immediate northeast but easily the most suitable was our current factory in Hebburn. It was around this time (December 2007) that we changed our name from Cottam Bros Ltd to Cottam Brush Ltd to better describe the company. We had started as S. Cottam Brushes in Hendon, Sunderland in 1858 and would now celebrate our 150th anniversary in Hebburn in 2008 as Cottam Brush Ltd.”  

We’re lucky to now be celebrating our 165th anniversary. Since our beginnings in the Victorian shipyards to the present day, there have been many changes that have influenced our business: 

“If you go back to my grandfather’s day, it was mainly brooms and brushes that we were making. Wood backs, all made in our wood machining department, filled with natural materials either vegetable or animal hair.  It was really when my father came into the business that we started manufacturing technical brushware… We manufactured various brushes for artillery cleaning from rifles through to tanks and large guns, and that’s how the technical side of the business started.” 

Unfortunately, with such fierce competition, not all brushmaking businesses were able to keep up with the ever-changing demands in industry, environment and requirements: 

“When I first came into the business, there were literally dozens of other brush makers, mostly family businesses, dotted all around the country… it’s very, very different now… (Lots of other brushmakers have closed) but happily we’re still here!” 

Finally, we asked David to sum up his time with Cottam: “My greatest achievement… is keeping the company running. It’s a big responsibility when you’re the fifth generation, more so when so many in the trade were forced into closure.” 

To read the interview in full, click here

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