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The history of bricks

publication date: Sep 17, 2007
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author/source: Brien Walker
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You might be forgiven for thinking that a wet, insignificant lump of clay, burnt to form a relatively featureless rectangular shaped loaf is hardly the stuff of legend, especially when so many billions exist – but you could be wrong!

Common, plentiful, small, dense, compact and individually unprepossessing are apt descriptive words. Why, when combined in numbers the components even become lost to sight within the mass of the structure(s) formed. They surround much of our built environment, have invaded, nay, dominate the constructed domain, but few give rightful credit to this most amazing of inventions. We call them brick and the traditional ‘hand-made’ is the most remarkable unit of them all. These technically perfect innovations combine structural component with durability, ease of use and an aesthetically pleasing warm appearance. Their long history has also had profound social, economic and even artistic impact on our society and they are evocative daily reminders of our past. We can perhaps hate many of the structures formed from the modern mass produced artefact, but invariably find something to admire in the solid rich textured surface and wide regional colour variation belonging to the hand made brick. We can see this even when they form seemingly endless rows of monotonous ‘back to back’ industrial terraced dwellings, the crumbling ivy clad canal arch, redundant railway structures or a towering industrial factory stack. What other almost seemingly insignificant made-made artefacts can you name, that have had such a profound effect on this, our built environ? Why, it has even been designed in size, weight, shape and style to perfectly fit the craftsman’s hand, so that it can literally be utilised hundreds of times within the hours of the working day.

Ancient origins

Socially acceptable, considered aesthetically and artistically pleasing, this simple building block, adapted in form and structure to a very human scale, has been with us since very early times. Some authorities hold that they have been manufactured for 12,000 years, which makes our ancient circa 2150BC Stonehenge a very humble ‘newcomer’ indeed. Incredible! The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the oldest known brickworks as being Samarian, sited between the Tigris and Euphrates. However, if you believe the Old Testament then you might know the Tower of Babel was constructed of brick. So for that matter of fact was Babylon, the Sakkova stepped Pyramid, the Great Wall of China and Bengal’s Paharpur Temple to name but a few other mighty ancient structures.

Historical use, in Britain, is however far, far more recent. It is commonly believed that hard fired bricks here were first introduced by the conquering Romans. These were mainly flat, broad thin sections, not unlike a tile, which is probably why they ‘burnt’ so well, to then last the rigours of the Centuries. The smallest 1 ft. sections were known as Bessalis, the largest two foot square as Bipedalis and the ones between Sesquipedalis. Indeed, it is thought that it was only in the 1400’s that the word ‘waltyle’ (wall tile), was replaced commonly by that of ‘brick’, when Flemish refugees began to settle here. There is little recorded documentation why the art vanished with the withdrawal of the Roman Legions, but the fact remains that British brick making went into decline for nearly 600 years. Some believe that it only began to re-emerge when recycled Roman ‘waltyles’ became exhausted.

European inputs

There are examples of brick use dating to the 12th and 13th centuries which include the Tower of London, but it is possible these materials originated in Europe, having been brought here as ballast in sailing barges. Later again English Knights fighting abroad in France sometimes occupied brick forts and recognised their superiority. It is held this directly led to the construction of Tattinshall Castle (Lincolnshire 1431), Caister Castle (Yarmouth 1432) and Herstmonceux (Sussex 1445). However, there had also been earlier influence due to the Hanseactic League. Originally this was an association of European merchants, which later formed into a federation of ‘low’ Country and Baltic States. It then appears that wherever ‘League’ agents settled in England, brick construction flourished, well illustrated in Norwich, Hull and Kings Lynn.

During Tudor times, brick popularity gradually began to grow due to the increasing shortage and cost of hardwood timber allied to the lack of natural construction material such as stone, in many areas. This also coincided with an increasing influx of skilled craftsman from the Continent, where brick use was extensive. For large important properties, the bricks were often made directly on site; the clay excavated from shallow superficial works. The moulds to form the brick shape were less than regular in size creating irregularity and the firing was a very haphazard process. The kilns were temporary circular constructions known as “claps” and the principal fuel source ‘faggots’. As there was no means of controlling the fire, extravagant distressed shapes were produced, subsequently necessitating thick mortar joints with a “struck” trowel joint finish. However, the Tudors were imaginative and fond of using the over burnt ends (known as headers), subsequently creating the highly distinctive checkerboard pattern so common in their work. By the mid 1400’s brick was even being used for the construction of Cambridge Colleges including Jesus and Queens. Today Tudor brick skills are probably best remembered for their wonderfully elaborate twisted chimney stacks and moulded brick ornamentation. The first brick sizes set by statute were in 1571 and not surprisingly were called ‘statute’ bricks.

Family business

By Elizabethan and Stewart times, brick popularity gained notably with the growing merchant class, with significant sites in Southampton, Berkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. However, the Elizabethans were so taken with the trappings of status, that there were strict ‘Sumptuary Laws’. These not only determined what clothes an individual could wear according to their status and profession, but also controlled architectural design, style and use of materials. This was still a society where timber construction prevailed and when brick was used it still remained common for the clay to be dug and fired on site. It is intriguing to imagine the brick yard actually being created for the construction of a single house in isolation, however large it may have been. As such, the bricklayer, wife and children would all be involved in the family business, moving from site to site, effectively as itinerant artisans, relocating as demand necessitated.

Brick making still remained a very ‘hit and miss’ affair and undoubtedly, many of the worst examples have long since crumbled into the earth whence they came, leaving only the finer holdings for our inspection. As coal was an extremely expensive commodity, wood remained the principal fuel. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that kilns often caught fire and the whole process of manufacture was fraught with difficulty. There was also much mystique surrounding the art. Bricklayers themselves would normally undergo a seven year apprenticeship and little was known about the skill. That is until the official globe maker to the King, also a printer by the name of Joseph Moxon published “Mechanick Exercises of Handy Works” in 1678, revealing the mysteries of the brick layers art to the common people for probably the very first time.

Great Fire of London

Another major boost to their use was undoubtedly The Great Fire of London in 1666. This lasted four days and purportedly destroyed 13,200 homes. Subsequent regulation seeking to prevent further tragedy, dictated that new houses had to be built of either stone or brick and the expanding artisan class tended to choose the latter; the former still proving too expensive for the common majority. The Georgian era was an age of increasing refinement and consistency. Mould sizes were standardised, there was regularity of colour and the manufacturers began to blend clays. Indeed, after The Great Fire of London, it was found, purportedly by accident, that the ash settling in the clay assisted the firing. IE This ‘dunging’ with ash, called ‘Spanish’ for some reason, reduced the fuel requirement (especially expensive coal) and so reduced cost.

Most bricks were laid in Flemish Bond, introduced in 1630 with alternate headers and stretchers in every course, superseding English Bond, which is where there are alternate ROWS of headers and stretchers, although this bond was later to see a re-emergence of popularity in the early 1800’s. The new forms of firing created great heat and those sections at the heart of the furnace, fused together and were known as ‘burrs’. They were still too valuable to be thrown away however and were often utilised as hardcore. Meanwhile the under-burnt sections, on the outside of the ‘firing’ heap, called ‘chuffs’, were usually placed back into the centre or base of the kiln for the next batch. This was the era when skill in manufacture and subsequent use, began to come into their own.

Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger cast greedy eyes on the burgeoning industry and in 1784 imposed an outrageous brick tax of half a crown (two shillings and six pence) per 1,000 bricks. Perhaps this could be put into context by knowing the Mapperley Works, sited three miles from Nottingham recorded the price of 1,000 Commons at 10 shillings, with better dressed facings 17 shillings. The tax was subsequently increased in both 1794 and 1803 and one alternative material used was the ‘mathematical’ tile formed to appear like brick. The repressed manufactures reacted by making larger bricks. In turn, Government turned to taxing by volume instead of number. Indeed I have seen it suggested that the incorporation of the indentation known as a “frog” on the top of the brick (thought to have taken its name from the soft cleft in a horses hoof), was only partly to assist laying and adhesion, but also to reduce the weight of the section and thereby reduce the tax burden.

Boomtime

The real boom however came with the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Impressive introduction of regularity, increasing mechanisation, quick setting mortars and colour standardisation was upon us. It was the heyday of brick production but also the time when handicraft became a mechanised industry. Demand increased substantially for hard clays, often mixed with substances such as anthracite, to produce dense bricks for the bludgeoning canal and later, rail expansion programmes. With the onset of the industrial revolution, the demand for this very basic building material was so great, that commercial necessity dictated the penal brick tax must be abolished. This was regrettably also a time of great exploitation and suffering. Mercantile magnates strove for profitability and very high levels of child labour were utilised, because they were dispensable, readily available and oh so cheap. This was at a time when the average worker was expected to produce a quite staggering thousand bricks per day! Once as a young man, I owned a small reclaimed building material yard in Cambridge. Among the thousands of bricks we lifted, we would often find the small imprint of a child’s hand pressed into the top of a white brick, presumably created in the wetting sheds when the clay was pressed down hard into its timber mould. What suffering those poor children must have endured in that hard, back breaking environment? Occasionally, we would also discover the paw prints of a cat, or other small animal which had presumably passed across the top of the still malleable material, prior to being stacked for the firing.

Mechanised manufacture

By the turn of the century, hand made bricks had increasingly given way to machine processing, the use of ‘stiff clay’ and wire cut bricks, where the clay was extruded through a dye. Colour and brick choice for important dwellings increasing became a matter of fashion. Quick setting stronger lime mortars were introduced, as were modern efficient ‘down draft’ kilns, instead of inferior open air stack burnings and ‘up draft’ claps. Subsequent innovation saw the semi-dry production method introduced, initially a disaster in Nottingham, but later successfully adopted at the Accrington Works, when it was understood that between 75 and 125 tons of massive pressure were required to form the brick.

By 1889, the Fletton Works were annually producing 155,000 units known as Peterborough Knotts every day from Oxford Clay. Fletton is still a much used modern term for a lightweight common ‘frogged’ brick, commonly mass produced by LBC (the incredibly successful London Brick Company). At that early time this was an extremely interesting innovation as the top 10 foot surface of clay had long since been exhausted, but a much deeper layer (between 30 and 60 feet down), was found to be characterised as having a high mineral oil content, generally as much as 5% to 8%. This carbon content was almost sufficient for the firing without the need for much by way of additional fuel and required virtually no drying.

Fashionable colours

Meanwhile stiff northern ‘merles’ and ‘shales’ (particularly in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Northumberland) proved ideal for production of hard engineering bricks, whilst white washed chalk was added to the London clay to produce a good quality yellow brick. Types included the London yellow stock, Staffordshire blues, Lancashire’s Accrington ‘bloods’, Gaults, Tudor reds, Cambridge whites amongst many others. The scale of the manufacture was quite awesome in scale. I find this perhaps best described by relating to sleepy, agriculturally based Suffolk, never best known for its heavy industrial manufacturing, by way of example. In the Burrs, Ballingdon and Bulmer works, all being relatively close to the River Stour, it is recorded that between 1864 and 1866 alone, they transported 3,245,450 bricks downstream to Sudbury. This naturally excludes those bricks for use at the local level. What a massive scale of production! Presumably they were then going to be shipped to London on sea going barges, called ‘brickies’; a name which is now commonly given to the skilled site worker.

Mass production

Regrettably modern times have been less glorious. Although it is still readily possible to buy hand made bricks of quality, our society tends to deal with mass production, best identified by colour regularity, unit conformity, whilst being very cheap. Two horrendously expensive World Wars within thirty odd years, had done their very best to strip our Country of both craftsmen and raw materials. Government was desperate to discover ways to produce quick and low cost properties. They had to build homes ‘fit for heroes’, properties for the returning veterans and the subsequent population explosions, let alone repair the massive destruction created in blitzed buildings. Therefore style was lost to the functional. Standardisation replaced the traditional and brick laying arts and patterns were lost to the universal, characterless stretcher bond linear with fast laying of the machine made brick. Indeed, I have read that in April 1927, foreman William Milnes laid an incredible 1,121 bricks in a single hour. This is put into context by remembering that the highly skilled, adept, Victorian artisan, in an age when perfection was required, would not expect to lay more than 1,500 in an entire working day. Today, to my way of thinking, it is regrettable that the modern brick success story is usually a matter of basic economics, mass production, exacting standardisation and rather boring uniformity. So we come full circle, complete, through to this our current age, but what of traditional practice and the manufacturing process for the original warm, rich coloured, textured hand made bricks that I love so much? Let us examine that a little more.

Quality control

Naturally, traditionally, not all clays were as good as others. Many contained too much calcium, magnesium sulphate, salts or similar, which led to cracking, problems with firing and indeed unsightly surface salt leaching, known as efflorescence. The colour of the brick was predominately determined by the chemistry of that raw material and the subsequent firing. Once the clay was dug, it was then left to weather through the winter (actually laid down in law by statute 1477). The chemical process it then underwent, during this ‘resting’, is not really understood even today, but it definitely improved the clay. Then, when it was ready to use, water was added again to make it malleable and plastic. Originally, the clay would have been ‘walked’ by ‘puggers’ in channels, in order to puddle the material, which must have gifted the workers the dubious benefit of very smooth skin on their feet. Later this very manual process was replaced by the machined Pug Mill. This was usually a contraption with blades on a central vertical shaft, powered by a horse walking round and round in circles. The clay bereft of stones was fed in at the top and would emerge at the base as a smooth dough mix.

Production lines

It soon became common to mix two different clays together, one as plastic as possible for ease of use and the other stronger, to offset shrinkage and distortion. This was rolled out into a large lump known as either a clot or walp. In order to prevent it sticking in the mould, it was then dusted with sand and literally thrown into the waiting wood form. After compressing, the surface was then struck off with a timber bat known as a strike, and later a wire bow, prior to the ‘green brick’ being turned out onto a pallet board. Today we often refer to ‘stock’ bricks as a description for quality facings. The stock was in fact a wooden board, plated with iron so as to form a detachable base. The height of this could then be varied to vary the thickness of the brick and even incorporate a surface ‘frog’ indentation. The green bricks were then air dried for at least three weeks, in structures perhaps unsurprisingly known as ‘drying sheds, when they could shrink by as much as 12%. Therefore the moulds were invariably larger than the required brick size in order to accommodate this. If an old traditional clamp firing was the next process, it would probably have taken place outside, interspersed liberally by layers of wood and coal. The later ‘clamp’ would probably be sited in a long open sided shed, with a grate formed from previously over-fired burrs covering a coke bed. The outer cake is added last with the irregularity of the burning creating natural variation. Once burnt and the process effectively finished, the expert maker would pronounce judgement by selecting bricks and tapping one against another. The distinctive ‘ring’ produced by the perfect handmade would determine the quality of the finished product.

Brickies and dockies

Gone are the days when the Victorian foreman, oft called a ‘ganger’, donned a bowler hat to mark his importance. However, any University student who has slaved for a bricklaying gang during University holidays, knows that come eleven of the clock, the site brickie ‘guvnor’, lays down trowel, bolster and hammer. He, and perhaps sometimes, she, straightens the lumbag’oed back, created by bending to lay numberless thousands of rectangular, hand shaped clay units, to signify the first meal break of the day. In East Anglia, the brickie, knows this as the time for ‘dockie’.

One thousand years ago, Etheldreda (Aethelthryth), the daughter of Ana (King of East Anglia), daughter to Ecgfrith (King of Northumbria), founded a religious house upon the strange granite intrusion, the large rock, protruding up from the surrounding barren waste water lands known as the fens. This was the Isle of Ely. It was to become the site for the massive, imposing structure, later dominating the flat ridden lands for literally miles around. It was the site for the huge Cathedral, known locally as the ‘ship of the fens’.

This wonderful structure was built of stone and precious little by way of brick. However, with nothing suitable by way of material for the cruciform structure at the local level, massive blocks of stone were shipped from Monastery quarries at Banack, possibly also Ancaster, near Stanford and Peterborough. The heavily laden sea going Dutch style barges, navigating the treacherous water ridden fen ways also had to accommodate the tides, because this was long before the expansive wet lands were drained and thereby tamed. It is not difficult for those who know the area to imagine the sailed vessels suddenly appearing at the quayside, through the heavy deep dark fogs and mists which beset the area, even now, during winter months.

The labourers would be waiting for the arrival, at the docks. Their first task was to off load the huge stone sections with simple block, tackle, muscle and sheer endurance. That done the raw material had to be hauled, probably up the most direct route of ‘Back Hill’, to the waiting Masons. Before that task however, it is said they would sit down and eat the first part of their meal. They sat down on the docks to rest. They would replenish their energies and they would eat ‘dockie’.

Myths and legions

Once upon a time, I worked as a totally exhausted brick site labourer, praying for the onset of that early luncheon when I could sit and replenish my force. Today, even now, many years later, I still sense some slight hunger pangs preceding the eleven o’clock break.

There are many myths, legends and anecdotes relating to most other traditional forms of construction, whether thatch, flint oak, elm, wattle and daub, yet little relating to humble brick and its hardworking craftsmen. However, I for one, choose to believe that this East Anglian bricklayers early repast, the brief break, still called ‘dockie’, is truly the throwback to that earlier time, travelling down and crossing the barrier of a mere one thousand years.

BRIEN WALKER BSc (Est Man) FRICS, FNAEA. Building Surveyor in the Saffron Walden, Essex practice of SNOW WALKER Associates. brien@snow-walker.co.uk


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