A Thousand Words on a Brick
Once, as a schoolboy, I prematurely exited a class through a (ground floor) window. My reward was a requirement to produce a 1000 word essay on a brick. I failed. What is there to say?
Scroll forward. I wish I could email stuff back in time to my fourteen-year-old self because now, when I look at the humble London Stock bricks of my Edwardian London terrace house, mottled yellow and ochre, dull streaked with shades of blue-grey, I see the materialisation of the city. In comparison red bricks used elsewhere are gloomy, modern brickwork is just boring and the Scottish and Cornish granite of the monuments and temples of finance is as grim as the people it honours.
Start from the very, very beginning, in the primeval smoothie. Perhaps a few hundred thousand years later it began to cool and matter formed; initially the tiny and mysterious stuff understood only by physicists, but which later coagulated as atoms, the woo of stardust. These disappeared into the mincer and mixer that was proto-Earth, reappearing aeons later in the crust of rocks forming on the molten hellscape, rising and sinking under the oceans and in the continents, topped to taste by violent and abrasive volcanoes, and ice sheets.
The rocks under and around London formed from detritus compressed at the bottom of ancient seas and which later emerged as land, before being eroded and washed by rivers and glaciers into the waste chute that is the Thames Valley. There they became mud, which in most places dried to become clay. Lots and lots of clay in a variety of flavours, the fruit of local earth and the alchemy of billions of years of geological turmoil. It was potentially useful stuff, but it took our ancestors millennia to discover that you could shape and bake it into something that was a tad more substantial as a building material than sticks and cow shit.
And that, really, is all that bricks are. Dried, baked clay. Don’t laugh at the idea of mud-hut living again; you almost certainly live in one, the only real difference being that in the tropics, they can rely on the sun to do the drying and baking.
Initially, for want of decent transport, even in London, most of that shaping and baking was done locally, using the relatively loose and thin layer of ‘brick earth’ clay loess that sits above the deeper, stickier and more solid older stuff. When you dig it up, it is usually a blueish grey. Usefully, it turns brown and hardens in dirty air and with age.
Brick Lane is perhaps the most famous long-lost brickfield but my favourite (sadly, I have one) lies beneath what is now prim and proper Notting Hill, where a fetid morass of brickworks, piggeries and paupers was interspersed with so many pools of sewage that it was known as ‘The Ocean’. At this stage brick making was virtually a cottage industry as you can see from the picture below.
Now, the posh / pleb ratio in the former slum has been reversed, the Ocean is Avondale Park and London’s only surviving ‘Kiln’ is preserved alongside it in Walmer Road.
In 1829, the cartoonist George Cruikshank gave us this marvellous Georgian commentary on the bricks showering into the ‘new’ London suburbs. There was clearly a demand for lots of bricks and slowly, their manufacture began increase in scale and mechanisation. What had been an artisanal activity became increasingly dominated by companies.
As transport improved and the horses were left to turn rural footpaths into mud-baths, finished bricks started to be made and then brought in from further afield. The estuary of Mother Thames in Kent and Essex provided both the raw material and an easy way of shipping the finished bricks into London.
Sittingbourne, situated between the River and the Downs, can make a claim to being the ancestral home of the archetypical and unique London Stock Brick whose colour comes from the yellow and grey sand and an added soupçon of chalk. The country’s largest producer in late Victorian times was Smeed Dean. It is still there, albeit now as a subsidiary of an Austrian firm, making the most of the proximity of the estuarine sand and being able to ship the bricks up the river.
To the north of London, the original ‘London Brick Company’ was one of a number digging up the old sea bed that rose and morphed into Mid-Bedfordshire. They made many of the redder hued ‘fletton’ bricks that you will see and which I think are usually less attractive. The last brickworks there is closed now because it couldn’t meet emissions standards so the area has suffered both the loss of its industry and the indignity of having ‘Mad Nad’ Dorries as MP.
Clay changes colour quite capriciously when baked or ‘fired’ and slight differences in the minerals, origin and manufacture of the brick earths also produce different colours. Two other factors play an important role.
Firstly, the makers used to add in ‘Spanish’, an odd term for what was basically ash and dust. London disgorged mountains of the stuff and filth is part of its heritage and legacy, but in those they both recycled it and exported it, even as far as Russia. Adding it to the clay made the bricks stronger and easier to bake and gave the yellow bricks their characteristic grey and black streaks.
|Sorting Dust & Waste in the 1800's
Secondly, the clay was cut and shaped into the familiar rectangles by ‘hand, helped by boards known as stocks, hence ‘stock bricks’. The laborious process was slowly mechanised over time, but you can still discern cut-off points on the route from the old and variegated stock bricks, every one of which was visibly unique, to the regular and neatly edged 'wire cut' modern bricks, made using material from almost anywhere to give them a photo-shopped authenticity. And somewhere on that journey, the visible connection between London’s story and the humble, mottled, warm, bright Stock Brick is lost.