On Wednesday the 21st of June, the Chilterns Woodlands Project (CWP) arranged a visit to HG Matthews Brick Company which is situated at Bellingdon, near Chesham.
The Brick Works was started in 1923 and the grandson of the founder, Jim Matthews, gave us guided tour of the works. About 50% of the brick production is machine made and the other half are handmade. HG Matthews has made bricks for Hampton Court, Chequers, Mapledurham House and many more.
Jim showed us bricks being made by hand and the kilns in which they were placed before firing. All the clay used for brickmaking is sourced within a few miles of the plant.
The kilns used to be fired by coal and then oil, but escalating costs have made wood an economic alternative. The wood is cut locally and the family business has woodlands close by that they can harvest sustainably.
Apart from bricks of all shapes and sizes, HG Matthews sell a large range of wood burning stoves and fires. They are also agents for larger wood burning boilers which can attract grants from the government.
Following Jim’s tour we had a quick lunch and John Morris (of the CWP) led us around the local woodland explaining how the woods are to be managed. Older and sickly trees have been marked for felling and some overcrowding has been earmarked for thinning. Again there is Government money available to woodland owners to help to access areas for sustainable tree felling.
It seems a historic craft and the sustainable use of renewable fuels are combining to make HG Matthews a very viable enterprise.
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.
We welcomed Michael Hammett on St. Valentine’s Day to talk to us about bricks. Prior to retirement, Mike was a senior architect at the Brick Development Association (which represents UK brick manufacturers) he was responsible for technical guidance on the design and construction of brick masonry. He is currently an active member of the British Brick Society, a history and archaeology group.
Michael explained the Romans’ contribution to building in Brick. The Romans made large bricks which measured about 18 inches square and about 1½ inches thick. So, from 43AD until 412AD, the Romans introduced the use of brick in England, Scotland and Wales. However, after they departed, bricks were no longer manufactured here. Bricks were still used, but only those taken from buildings built by the Romans. You can see even today many examples of Roman bricks in our churches (St Albans Abbey/Cathedral).
Around 1160AD ‘native bricks’ started to be produced. These were known as Great Bricks as they measured about 12″ x 6″ x 4″ (modern British Standard is 8 5/8″ x 4 1/8″ x 2 5/8″ – but now metricated). During the 14th Century, probably due to increased trade from the forming of the Hanseatic League, brick technology was imported into eastern ports in England. Hull and Beverley in Yorkshire became important brick towns with Municipal brickyards being established in Hull in 1303.
In the early 15th century various halls and castles started to be constructed in brick (Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire and Faulkbourne Hall in Essex). Such buildings were often constructed using bricks made on, or near to, the site of the building.
Bricks were being made individually and were expensive and, therefore, were only the domain of the rich.
Clay near the surface was dug up and weathered over the winter. It was then mixed with water and ‘plugged’ (well mixed, often by feet). ‘Pug Mills’ powered by horses replaced this labour intensive procedure and later machines replaced the horses. Clots of the mixed clay were dropped in sanded moulds and the excess removed. The bricks then needed to dry out over 6 weeks, or so, and once dry enough, they were fired in ‘a clamp’, or ‘a kiln’. A clamp was a body of bricks set on a bed of fuel, encased by previously fired bricks to conserve heat. A large numbers of bricks could be fired in a clamp, but once lit, the firing could not be controlled and the quality could not be guaranteed.
A kiln allowed heat to be controlled and the bricks to be fired to a more regular standard. Brick firings used firstly wood, then coal or coke and then oil or gas, as fuel.
Gradually more buildings were constructed in brick, especially following the Great Fire of London in 1666 (wooden buildings were vulnerable to fire). To satisfy the demand, London Stock bricks were made in their millions; additions of ash, or and chalk, to the clay, created their characteristic colouration.
In the 19th century great demand for bricks stimulated the exploitation of deep lying clays and machine manufacture. Clays from Fletton (Peterborough) were discovered to have their own fuel within and, once heated, they fire themselves! This resulted in great cost savings and the working of similar clay in the Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and North Bucks formed a major sector of British brick production.
Today, traditional brickmaking methods are still used by some brickmakers, but the bulk of production uses machines to extract the clay, mix it and form the bricks by pressing or extruding and wire–cutting. Firing is done in huge continuous burning kilns that can complete the process in 3½ days.
So, look up and see the history around us present in our buildings; it may surprise you!
On Saturday the 6th of October, the BLHN had their Local History Fair and Conference at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. Four members of AIM attended this event which was entitled Buckinghamshire’s Industrial Heritage.
The day was split in to three sessions with two speakers giving presentations in each session.
Dr David Thorpe started with an overview of the various industries that had grown (Furniture) and sometimes disappeared (Lace Making) in Bucks over the last few centuries.
We were then treated to a fascinating history of brewing within Bucks, by Mike Brown who took us back to the times when Ale Houses sold the beer they produced, up until the times that the larger breweries took over, and usually closed, their smaller competitors (RIP Wethereds).
After a break, we heard from Mike Hammett who explained the history of brick making from the Romans to the present day. The 100, or more, brick works in Bucks have now dwindled to three, but Dunton & Bovingdon are one of them, and they were demonstrating their craft on the ground floor below the conference.
Mike was followed by Trevor Dean who gave an animated slide presentation on Paper Making in Bucks. The information on Paper Mills was stimulating, with a profusion of moving graphics complimenting the sound content that Trevor had obviously researched so well.
Following a tasty buffet lunch, we reassembled to listen to Dr Clive Edwards who spoke about the Furniture Industry in High Wycombe. The famous photograph of the ‘chair arch’ in High Wycombe started this interesting talk. Of course, more information on Wycombe’s furniture past can be gathered at the Museum in Priory Road, High
John Brushe concluded the presentations speaking on the industrial history of Wolverton. When John’s talk ended, various groups embarked on visits and walks around local places of interest, with ‘Penn village and Tile making’ being the top attraction.
During the breaks between speakers, we were able to see the many exhibitions that were present. Various Local History Societies exhibited, including Marlow Society’s Local History Group.
About 200 people attended this well organised event held in spacious surroundings (and High Wycombe is much closer than Aylesbury!).
18 months ago AIM embarked on its Brick Survey project. During this time nearly 80 buildings and walls in Marlow had their bricks measured.
The object was to date buildings and walls of unknown date by comparing the size of their bricks with brick sizes from buildings of known dates.
On the 22nd of July 2007, we organised a ‘Brick Day’ in Marlow. Members and guests surveyed 25 buildings, with 10 bricks from each structure being measured in order to obtain an average size.
Prior to the AIM Brick Day, and following it, over 50 more buildings and walls were measured.
So, the survey has been completed, the report has been produced and a copy sent to the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) in Aylesbury.
The report will be available to be inspected at AIM meetings, but if you would like your own copy, either bring along £2.50 to one of our meetings, or send a cheque to our Membership Secretary (see membership page), made out to AIM.