Bucks Bricks and Brickyards

A talk to AiM by Catherine Grigg

We are surrounded by bricks: they provide our shelter from the elements. And yet how little thought most of us give to this fundamental component in our lives. Dr. Catherine Grigg, Curator of Wycombe Museum, talked to AiM on 10 November 2011 about Buckinghamshire’s rich history of brickmaking. While the county has little in the way of stone for building – flint aside – it is blessed with plentiful deposits of brick clay.

We were taken through the process of brick production. The industry had a seasonal pattern. Clay extraction took place during the autumn months, i.e. when the harvesting was over. The extracted clay was then mixed with water and left to season, a stage known as ‘puddling’. The mixing process might use horse power, or be done with the benefit of wind or water power – or even trodden by human feet in the manner of wine making. When brick making did begin, it was an intensive process and twelve hour working days were not unusual. The next stage was moulding the brick when clay would be thrown into a mould lined with sand.

Following the moulding process, the bricks were left to ‘cure’ for about a month in brick stacks before the next stage, the firing. After careful loading of the kilns, the brick furnaces were allowed to burn for a number of days. Too intensive a heat, however, could produce ‘vitrification’, i.e. the sand turned to glass. Such glazed bricks might be used for decorative purposes and those present contributed their knowledge of locations in Marlow, particularly its High Street, where they had been used to good effect – reference was made to bricks called ‘Marlow Blues’. In 2008, AiM published Marlow Bricks following a survey undertaken in the town. We were also informed that a Gazetteer of Brickyards in Buckinghamshire was published by the County Museum in 1995, listing all known brickyards in the County, ancient and modern.

From around 1690, bricks were made with a hollow in the top, known as the ‘frog’, a development which both helped the mortar to settle and saved on clay. Hand scoops in bricks had been known before then too. Roman and Tudor bricks were thin as they were rolled out like pastry and cut, rather than moulded. Tudor bricks were quite uneven in their size ,which is why one sees quite heavy use of mortar in this period to compensate for their size differences. It was the Tudor era which saw a period of extensive rebuilding. Houses were made bigger and often use was made of brick instead of wood in their construction. At this time, to build in brick was a sign of high status. Bricks were expensive and only the owners of high profile structures could afford hand-made bricks. Chenies Manor and the Manor House in Stoke Poges (1655) were cited as local examples of this development. Winslow Hall (1700) had a kiln especially built for it (during questions it was said that owners would search out locations which had good brick clay deposits and build close by in order to overcome the high cost of transporting such a heavy cargo as bricks).

Stone dressing began to be added on corners and windows of brick-built buildings to enhance their appearance, e.g. Marlow Place (1740) and Court Gardens, and (Old) County Hall in Aylesbury (1780).

After their use in wealthy houses and for public buildings, bricks became more widely available and cheaper after the Brick Tax was abolished in 1850. The likes of brick-built terraced houses were then built to cope with the large increase in population which had led to a demand for small houses.

Sometimes brickmaking was a sideline to another trade, such as making roof tiles. After the extraction of brick clay, the ground might be turned into a pond, returned to agricultural use or just left as hollows, e.g. at Brill where bricks had been made for Waddesdon Manor.

The questions session that followed touched on the standardisation of brick sizes; transportation issues (the arm of the Grand Union canal to Slough was built for the benefit of that town’s important brick industry); the significant contribution which this local industry made to building metropolitan London; how kilns were fired, and the decorative art of ‘rubbed bricks’.

By Jeff Griffiths

Bucks Bricks – Calvert and Bletchley by Robert Cook published by Quotes Ltd. in 1996 provides a detailed account of the history and manufacture of bricks in north Buckinghamshire.

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