Brickmaking: history and heritage

It is always interesting to find a new book about bricks. Often ignored, these little marvels need to be celebrated, and, for this reviewer at least, there can never be too many opportunities to do so. The ability to manufacture sufficient bricks to meet demand underpins the industrial history of our country, and it is difficult to see why this story has been so neglected over the years.

As the title suggests, Johnson’s book is an overview of the subject of brickmaking. It begins with a look at how the geology of the UK determines where brickmaking first appeared and the differences in the approach to both extracting and using the material. As he points out, all clays are not the same. For example, some are more suited to manufacturing fire bricks and others regular house bricks. The UK has abundant supplies of suitable clays for making bricks, and these are mainly located towards the south-eastern half of the country on a roughly diagonal line running from Hull to Bristol. Another source was obtained via colliery workings located more in the north and in south Wales. As bricks only require approximately 50% of clay, the waste slag from the mines could be conveniently used to help pad out the mix. Alluvial clays were some of the easiest to use. He also mentions a few of the non-clay-based products, but not in any depth.

There follows a short chapter on the history of brick buildings. This is rather glossed over, but in fairness the title of the book is clear, and the main subject is manufacturing history. Likewise, the book does not go into detail about early brickmaking: the section on extraction and processing mainly concentrates on the late 18th to 20th centuries. It provides an outline of the various methods adopted in brickyards around the country, but if you want more detail as to what makes a Fletton a Fletton, this is not the book to choose.

There is more information on the history of kiln development. Starting with Scotch kilns, it outlines how they were designed to work before moving on to describe variations including a Lincolnshire type and Suffolk kilns. The unusual Newcastle kiln is looked at in some detail, with supporting photographs. Beehives and bottle kilns all get a mention, but what would have been hugely valuable for the lay reader is a diagram of how the different kilns operated. The progression from updraught to downdraught via horizontal draught is difficult to explain in words – a diagram would have helped.

Two chapters are devoted to continuous kilns and there is a good description of the development of the 19th-century industry leader: the Hoffman kiln. The discussion then progresses to variations on the Hoffman theme. Again, there are excellent photographs in support of the text. The final chapter on kilns has a quick look at the tunnel method of firing. Tunnel kilns were introduced early in the 19th century, but really found their place in the 20th century with the availability of appropriate fuels.

The final chapter is the most poignant, especially as the reviewer runs a museum set in an old brickworks. Johnson outlines the historic lack of interest in the industry and the tragic loss of brickmaking heritage that has happened all over the country. There is now so little left that anything remaining needs to be seen as special and some way of protecting it sought. I do applaud the inclusion of so many brickyards in the book. We need to record as much as possible if the history of the industry is not to disappear completely. I am not sure that quite so much emphasis on kilns to the detriment of some of the other aspects of brickmaking was the right choice. The problem with kilns is their complexity. Having spent ten years trying to describe to visitors how the Staffordshire kiln at Bursledon Brickworks once worked, I am confident that they much prefer finding out about the steam-powered brickmaking machine.

Review by Carolyne Haynes.
Brickmaking: history and heritage, David Johnson, Amberley Publishing, £15.99, ISBN 978-14456994000.