The Craft of Brick-making
The Babylonians knew how to make bricks from clay, but it was the Romans who first brought their brick-making skills to Britain. After they left, the craft almost died out but a revival took place in the East of England in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. By Tudor times brick-making and brick-laying skills were recognised as trades to rival that of masons. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 there was a great demand for bricks resulting in brickworks being established all over the country wherever there was a supply of suitable clay.
Houses in Newdigate were timber-framed so demand was pretty small except where there was a need to use them for infilling between the frames. A good example of this can be seen at ‘Wirmwood’ in Village Street.
Demand increased with the building of new houses in Victorian and Edwardian times.
The brickworks at Beare Green started just before the Second World War and after several changes of ownership it is now owned by Ibstock Brick Ltd. Ibstock takes its name from the Leicestershire village where the business was founded and still has its headquarters. Brick-making had been taking place on the site since 1830 but by the end of the nineteenth century the companies main activity was coal-mining and clay-quarrying. Gradually the emphasis changed to brick-making and today the company has 24 plants, employing over 1900 people manufacturing in excess of 900 million bricks annually.
The Newdigate Brickworks was 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’. The brickyard became a thriving business employing local skilled and unskilled labour. The works closed during the war, as the light from the kilns acted as a beacon for enemy aircraft, but was re-opened when peace was declared. After several changes of ownership the works finally closed in about 1974. There was a proposal to use the site as a land-tip but there was much local opposition and the area remained derelict until an agreement was made in 2000 that allowed houses to be built. This is the area now called ‘The Mulberries’.
Bricks were made by hand and in 1988 the late Peter Higgs, who worked at the Beare Green Brickworks for over thirty years, told us about his working life as a hand brick-maker.
“The clay used for brick-making was excavated after the topsoil had first been removed. It was then left to weather, allowing the salts in the clay to be washed away. The clay was spread on to pans and griddled, then passed through two crushing rollers and into a skip. The skip travelled on rails and its contents were spread into soaks by the ‘hommiker’ (this word was used by the old brick-workers at both Newdigate and Beare Green) who used a hoe for the work. Water was poured over the top and left to soak in. Finally breeze, consisting of finely ground coke was smothered over the entire length of the soak, unless red bricks were required, when sand was substituted for breeze. The hommiker then continually placed the clay into a stream-driven mill which operated like a giant mincer. Following this operation the clay was ready for brick-making.
The brick-maker worked from 7.00 am until 5.00 pm with a fifteen minute break at 10.00 am and forty-five minutes at one o’clock.
The ready clay would be placed on a bearing-off table and using a cockle, he cut a length approximately the size of a brick.
He would roll it into a mould called a wort. He carefully and skilfully placed it into the mould, which fitted over a base that was raised in the middle, taking care to expel any trapped pockets of air. The base was called a frog and bore the initials of the works. i.e. N for Newdigate or BG for Beare Green. The brick-maker dusted the mould with sand to stop it sticking and washed it out every so often and cleaned the frog. He pulled a bow across the mould to remove the surplus clay and then used a strike for smoothing the surface of the brick. He placed a pallet on top like a lid and swiftly turned the whole upside down, extracting the mould, but leaving the pallet underneath. Having produced about thirty bricks he then placed them on a trolley. Two people would take a fully loaded trolley to the drier where the ‘green’ bricks were laid out for three weeks under a tunnel which had a slatted cover. The dried bricks were then carefully placed into the kiln at the rate of 25,000 per firing, and in a temperature of 2,200 deg. F (1,200 deg. c) the bricks would be hardened off. At Newdigate clamps were used, which explains the variations in colouring, caused partly by the brick’s position in the kiln.
A skilful brick-maker could produce up to 2,000 bricks per day and he was paid purely on the basis of the number of bricks he produced. Examples of Newdigate bricks can be seen at ‘Sundown’, ‘Ferneyfields’ and ‘Homelea’ on the Parkgate Road. The Society has examples of the brick-makers tools which were kindly donated by Peter Higgs.
Today, of course, the majority of bricks are made using an extruding machine and the drying process is continuous, Peter, would no doubt, have been amazed to see Ibstock’s modern process at Beare Green.
John Callcut (with thanks to Jane Lilley for providing information concerning the Newdigate Brickworks)
Beare Green Brickworks