Mulberries

The Mulberries and the nature reserve are on the site of the former Newdigate Brickworks and were earlier known as New Barns or New Barn Land. The brickworks were started in about 1928 to provide employment for ex-servicemen and local lads by Fred Corroyer, an orphan who grew up at the big house called Hatchetts, one field away.

The site was originally one of the farms created in about the eleventh century out of the oak woodland of the Weald. It is a neat, almost square block of land of 47 acres, bounded on three sides by a stream. The fourth side is Hogspudding Lane, which was probably one of the ancient access tracks along which settlement of the Weald occurred.

Farming on the heavy clay was always hard work for little return (one of the original fields was called Mud Field in c.1840). A farm of this size was probably viable as a family farm. However, if the man of the family died or suffered a long-term injury while his children were young, it was too small to support paid labour as well as the family. It was then sold and incorporated into one of the adjacent farms.

Rather unusually, the farmhouse was not close to the road. It was sited in the middle of the land, beside a deep, spring-fed pond which provided a secure water supply for both humans and animals. This was where the island in the main lake is now. Redundant farmhouses were used as housing for one or two families of farm labourers. Many of them eventually disappeared, either in a fire or due to lack of maintenance, especially in the desperately poor eighteenth century. As the thatch on an old house deteriorated, water seeped in and rotted the ancient oak timbers which made up the frame of the house, until eventually the house collapsed. We do not know how long the house at the Brickpits survived, but it had gone by 1840. However, two big barns remained until the 1930s, and the last remnants of the farmstead were still visible until work on the Mulberries removed them.

The original farm ceased to be independent so long ago that even its name has been lost. The first name recorded for the land is Southland; it probably dates from before 1731, when the land was farmed with Parkgate Farm (now High Trees, on Parkgate Road). But it was not a profitable piece of land, and was sold separately several times. By the 1790s it was called New Barn Land, and was farmed with Dean House Farm, on Church Lane. A century later it became part of the estate belonging to the Red House, on Partridge Lane.

The Red House Estate was sold at auction in 1920. Lot 8 was New Barns, and was described as a compact freehold estate with fine sites for the erection of one or more gentleman’s residences. But Newdigate had no gas, electricity or mains drainage, the roads still had a rolled stone surface (although tarring started about this time), and New Barns was nearly three miles from the nearest railway station. It did not attract any gentlemen bidders, and was bought by the owners of Hatchetts, the nearest big house.

Two friends, Miss Leighfield and her friend Mrs Aspland Jones, had rented Hatchetts for some years, and they bought their house at the auction, together with New Barn Land and some more farmland. They raised five orphans at Hatchetts, one of whom was Fred Corroyer. He is thought to have been a nephew of Mrs Aspland Jones, and they were clearly very fond of him. Some time between 1924 and 1928 they gave him the land to build a house (originally named Kingston and now Killips), close to Hatchetts. They also gave him the land called New Barns.

Hatchetts c. 1920
Hatchetts c. 1920

The Depression was at its height, and there was widespread unemployment. Fred Corroyer wanted to do something to relieve the unemployment, and after first trying a small timber business, he decided to set up a brickworks on the land. Newdigate Brickworks opened in about 1928.

Land fronting several roads in Newdigate was sold for housing in the 1930s, and there was considerable local demand for bricks. The brickyard became a thriving business, employing local men both as skilled and unskilled labour. Most of the present houses on Hogspudding Lane were built in the 1930s and 1940s, and several of them were owned or rented by workers at the brickworks.

Weald Clay is of good brick-making quality, and Newdigate brickworks must have been one of the last works to be opened with the intention of making bricks by hand. The clay was dug from what is now the shallow southern lake, and moved on a narrow-gauge railway to the brickmaking area near the south entrance to the site. The remains of a few rails and the frame of a skip can still be found on the far side of the lake. The bricks were burnt in open clamps.

The burning clamps glowed red, and blackout regulations ensured that Newdigate brickworks were closed for the duration of the second world war. Sites using open-topped kilns were also closed, and the closures must have contributed substantially to the shortage of building materials. German prisoners of war were housed in nissan huts on the site for some time.

The works were reopened after the war, but were sold shortly afterwards. Thereafter they became part of a much larger company. Digging was mechanised, and as the original workings had flooded, a new pit was dug. Water had to be pumped out of it continuously, and the original spring-fed pond was carefully left in case the spring flooded the workings; its site is now the island in the main lake. The two long, narrow ponds towards the west of the site were dug as trial workings. The site continued to make bricks by hand, and these became sought-after for specialist work, allowing the works to remain open until about 1974.

After the closure of the brickworks, the site was left derelict and became a haven for wildlife and much appreciated by locals. It changed hands several times, and although there were attempts to use it for various purposes, including as a tip for household, commercial and industrial waste, it was not until 2000 that agreement was reached that houses could be built on the site of the former working area, with the remainder of the site becoming a nature reserve.