A new book on the social and economic history of 19th-century London’s brickmaking industry recounts how most bricks were handmade by small family gangs
With its distinctive yellow hue, London stock brick is well known as the building material that fuelled the massive expansion of the capital in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a huge industry. Output roughly doubled in the half-century to 1886, and at the peak of housebuilding at the very end of the 1890s, demand in the Greater London area stood at 1,470 million bricks a year.
Bricks of Victorian London: A social and economic history, published by University of Hertfordshire Press, delves deep into the hard, messy and surprisingly low-tech brickmaking production behind the ubiquitous brick that still dominates the capital’s residential streets. If you, like me, live in a house of that era, it’s something of a surprise to learn that its bricks may have been handmade by small family gangs of seasonal workers, part of a relatively low-tech model of production that contributed to the London brick industry’s later decline.
According to the author, Peter Hounsell, the role of the brick industry hasn’t much figured in histories of this time. His highly detailed account redresses this. Before considering the Victorian era, there’s some historical context: the demise of brickmaking after the Romans left, the revival in Medieval times followed by the first great age of English brickwork in the 15th and 16th centuries, fuelled later by edicts to only build in brick or stone, notably after the Great Fire.
For a long time, industrialisation passed the industry by. Bricks were produced from ‘brickearth’ clay dug typically 4ft deep, which was found on alluvial terraces bordering the Thames. By the mid-19th century, the addition of chalk added both durability and the yellow colour. Other raw materials in the brick recipe included ash and sand to dust the brick moulds. We learn about the intricacies of the production – clay was dug out in late autumn and left to season before being moulded and then fired in open kilns (clamps) during spring and summer. Although some parts of the process were mechanised, Victorian brickmaking was still considered ‘most antiquated’ by one architect writing at the end of the century.
It offered a handily local production. Some of the most elegant garden squares, including Berkeley and Russell Squares in London, were the site of messy, polluting brickworks, with what is now the central garden the site of excavation for the clay used to make the bricks for the newly constructed surrounding houses. Lamb’s Conduit Fields and Red Lion Square were both brickfields, and as for Brick Lane in the East End, the clue’s in the name. It was renowned as a busy thoroughfare for bricks made further out. As London expanded, it was accompanied by brickfields to supply its growth both on the periphery of the capital from Enfield to Croydon, and Brentford to Ilford, and further out.
There is copious detail on land leasing, rents, taxes, output, competition and transport by road, canal and rail as the brick business, which evidently attracted entrepreneurs from all walks of life, became more formalised. Brickmakers included the architect John Nash, who attracted criticism for selling his own products to the tradesmen he employed on Buckingham Palace. One of the most successful manufacturers was George Smeed of Sittingbourne, whose wealth was equivalent to that of a multimillionaire today.
I found the book rather more interesting on the social impact of the industry, including the dynamics of the family gang – typically six people including women and children as well as men – and the life of the workers, who endured working days from 5am to 8pm. To cope with the seasonal fluctuations, some grew vegetables or kept pigs, known as ‘brickies banks’, or found alternative sources of work. Brickfields had a reputation as dangerous places for crime and accidents. Homeless people were drawn to them because of the heat from the kilns. Drunkenness was rife, with employers allowing the supply of beer on site in large quantities. Some brickmakers owned public houses and cunningly paid workers in their pubs, sometimes in tokens. Perhaps it’s no surprise that temperance missionaries were attracted to the brickfields.
By the end of the century, brickmakers were dealing with wage disputes and restrictions to child working hours – although production changes had already reduced the need for child labour. But the biggest threat to the London brick trade was the advent of Fletton bricks from the Peterborough area following the discovery of an extensive seam of clay suitable for mechanised brick production rather than hand moulding. These machine-pressed bricks were both cheaper and stronger, and so offered stiff competition to the London stock, even with the extra transport costs. They were, however, initially used internally rather than as facing bricks, and in time for non-street facing exterior use. Over the next few decades, Fletton bricks became dominant, and their manufacturers continued to increase market share until the 1970s, while the number of brickyards in Britain fell from 3,500 in 1900 to 350 in the mid-1970s. In 2022, there were 12 members of the Brick Development Association, accounting for most of the country’s brick production.
While the capital’s brickfields may be long gone, there is still a healthy trade in reclaimed London stock bricks more than a century after their heyday. Meanwhile, the built legacy is all around us.