The making of clay bricks by hand or in small batches.
|Historic area of significance||All of England, Lowland Scotland, Northern Ireland|
|Area currently practised||England and Northern Ireland|
|Origin in the UK||Roman, then re-introduced in the 12th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||16|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||Included in the above figures.|
|Current no. of trainees||21 – 50|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Brick making was brought to Britain by the Romans, but fell into decline after their departure and it was not unusual for bricks to be reused from rundown buildings or excavations. The earliest known post-Roman bricks date from the early-thirteenth century, when Flemish bricks were imported. The quality of British brick making rose to an adequate level and the numbers of imported bricks declined. However, it was not until the early-fifteenth century when a large number of Flemish and Dutch craftsmen came to settle in England that the quality of English bricks increased. During this period, all brickmakers travelled to the construction site to make bricks from the local clays.
From the 1380s, the craft was regulated, at first by church guilds and then later by specific guilds of tylers (or brickmakers). The oldest of these which still survives is the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers, founded in 1416 and Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1568.
Following the Great Fire of London 1666, Charles I designated that all new buildings in the city be built of fireproof materials. The Tylers’ Guild did not have enough members to undertake the work, so relaxed their admission regulations and trained people from the provinces to make bricks. After this, there was an explosion in the industry and many hundreds of new brick makers and builders set up business around England as itinerant brickmakers.
Mechanisation came to the brickmaking industry in the 1820s and with improved transport infrastructure – first canals and then railways – permanent brickyards became established which could produce many thousands of bricks per day with a smaller workforce than was needed to produce them by the old hand craft system. By 1850 the majority of brickmakers used mechanised brick production. The small country yards, unable to invest in machinery, were either bought out or driven to closure, and itinerant brickmakers could not compete with these big factories.
By 1914 there were probably no more than fifty travelling brick makers in the British Isles (including the whole of Ireland). Prior to World War Two, this had dwindled to half a dozen and today there is only one, Tony Mugridge. The other itinerant brickmaker, Noel Pycroft of North Hayling Island, Hampshire, retired circa 1990. Today, all other brick manufacture is carried out in established permanent brickworks.
Although the sizes of bricks altered across areas and through the centuries, by the early-nineteenth century bricks were manufactured to a statute which required that they should be twice as long as they were broad, normally being 8 by 4.5 inches or 9 by 4.5 inches.
Brick clay, having been dug from the selected ground and tested for suitability, is picked clear of unwanted matter and then mixed to the right consistency for brick making. Historically, the clay would be tempered by the weather and water under foot in open pits for two to three days. The clay is then thrown into wooden moulds to form the shape of the brick. When moulding a brick, it is vital that no air is trapped inside the clay. Excess clay is removed by running over the mould with a wire.
The moulds are then turned out onto barrows and taken to a flat, south-facing field and laid out to dry for two days and two nights, being turned during that time to assist initial drying, then turned again on edge and stacked in rows, one on top of the other, to dry for a period usually extending between one and three months depending on the weather and time of year.
When the bricks are deemed dry enough, they are fettled (trimmed of “flash” and stacked to form a kiln in order to bake them. Flues are set into the kiln and fuel is then prepared (usually timber) or in Ireland turf (peat) is used. The fires are lit and the bricks are “burnt” in kilns containing between 800 and 1,000 pieces. The firing usually takes two to three days (including the nights continuous firing and reach a temperature of around 1,040 degrees Centigrade. The kilns are then allowed to cool naturally and after two days cooling can be dismantled and the bricks sorted and stacked ready for use.
The colour of the brick is determined by the chemical composition of the clay, the fuel used to fire the bricks, and the levels of oxygen available during the firing process. Iron oxide give the brick a red colour, very high levels of iron oxide give a blue colour, limestone and chalk added to iron gives a buff/yellow colour, magnesium dioxide gives a deep blue colour, and no iron or other oxides gives a white colour.
Colours and textures of finished bricks depend on the type of clay in an area and the weather conditions and fuels used to fire them – different regions have different traditional bricks which depend on the local clay.
Historically, bricks varied in size depending on the moulds used by the travelling brickmakers who made them.
Sub-crafts of brick making are:
Red-Masonry (which also covers brick sculpting – i.e. shaping fired bricks)
- Brick carving
These are practised and promoted by around a dozen craftspeople in England, the most notable being Dr Gerard Lynch of Woburn Sands, Bedfordshire.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Supply of raw materials: Finished bricks are very specifically connected to the clay source – different regions have different traditional bricks which depend on the local clay. Some clay seams are at risk of disappearing.
- Use of coal for firing: Some heritage bricks require coal firing and coal is getting harder to source in the UK due to a move towards low carbon energy.
Supply of other materials: Certain types of brick are coal-fired to achieve the right finish and there are currently issues in the supply of coal
Market issues: Handmade bricks cost more than mass manufactured bricks
Market issues: The rise of brick facades, where foreign bricks are imported and cut up to create thin slices of brick which are then applied to the front of a concrete building, is reducing the demand for brick. It would be more than possible for UK brick manufacturers to produce thin bricks specifically to be used in facades, rather than important and cutting up foreign bricks.
Different regions have different traditional bricks which depend on the local clay – conservation officers don’t always understand what they’re doing and use foreign bricks rather than specifying the local brick
Business issues/legislation: Health and safety legislation can be problematic for small businesses. Issues are exacerbated by government regulation in the sustainability and resilience of field moulded bricks (traditionally country made clay bricks).
Legislation: UK and European Government legislation has made itinerant brickmaking a lot harder and it is necessary to tie up clients with weighty contracts in order to protect the craftsperson from litigation.
Market issues: Demand for the product is always critical but at the moment it is healthy
Availability of allied skills: Availability of good skilled brick layers and appropriate traditional mortars is also very important to the survival of the handmade brick.
Craftspeople currently known
- Tony Mugridge (A.J. Mugridge) was the last travelling brickmaker in the UK, making and supplying field-made bricks. He has now retired from brickmaking.
Crafts businesses employing two or more makers:
- Bulmer Brick and Tile Company
- Coleford Brick and Tile
- Furness Brick and Tile Company
- H G Matthews, Chesham, Buckinghamshire
- Northcot Brick, Blockley, Gloucestershire
Status: While the craft of brick making is considered to be endangered, that of itinerant/travelling brick making is considered to be critically endangered, with only one craftsperson (Tony Mugridge) currently practising in the UK. Since 2017 Tony received no brick orders for about a year and a half so decided to stop. However, at the beginning 2018 orders returned and he recommenced production. At the beginning of 2019 he is negotiating to establish a new brickyard on an old site on the Shropshire/Wales border and a couple of former employees have indicated that they would like to come in with him if he can secure enough work. There is sufficient clay on site to continue production for 30-40 years.
- Lynch, Gerard, The History of Gauged Brickwork
- The Regency Town House, Brick making
- Tony Mugridge
- ‘Suffolk heritage brick maker cements reputation with national accolade’, East Anglian Daily Times (28 November 2018)