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Ben Bosence, brick and tile maker and plasterer

Ben Bosence, brick and tile maker In 2020 Ben Bosence of Local Works Studio was awarded funding through the Endangered Craft Fund for his ‘Winning the Clay’ Project, a historic term for finding clay materials suitable for making bricks and tiles.

The Endangered Craft Fund Grant was used to purchase a Roller Pan Mixer to enable the processing of materials sourced from site. These materials could include waste clay excavated from foundations, utilities and site works, crushed waste brick, concrete and other aggregates, waste glass, local chalk and other materials.

Ben speaks of how he used to work for a Sussex based brick making company, and has witnessed the craft decline in this area and also (very dramatically) in Stoke on Trent in the early 2000’s.

“We are keen to tell the story of the craft – how buildings and landscapes were built using local materials, often very local, as brick making and the firing ‘clamps’ were located at the construction site. Rather than mine for raw materials, there is a huge opportunity to tell the story of collecting local raw clay and sand materials that are being excavated and removed from the area, whilst new bricks and tiles – often transported from other countries – are being used for buildings and landscape projects in Sussex.”

Community Brick Making, The Exchange (photo credit Ben Bosence)The first of many projects to benefit from this was the Exchange Erith. This is a community owned project that seeks to engage the local community in wide range of activities and workshops around making and developing crafts skills. As part of this they are creating a garden space designed by Sarah Price with handmade brick paving by Local Works Studio. These bricks were made using waste materials from site and Crayford Brickearth clay. Erith was once at the centre of the brick making trade that used Crayford Brickearth, a rare, locally occurring sedimentary deposit containing a blend of clay, chalk and sand particles. It was the material used to make the majority of Victorian London’s famous yellow stock bricks. By the 1960s a diminishing supply of clay, led all local brickyards to close.

Community Brick, The Exchange (photo credit Ben Bosence)The bricks themselves were made by local people in a series of community engagement events.

“Many people came to the brick making session because they had relatives who worked in the local brick trade. They were full of stories of their parents or grandparents who had made bricks.”

Local Works Studio is now using the Roller Pan Mixer on a range of other projects including grinding chalk plaster for a listed building in Plumpton and a chalk-clay plaster for a new build in the South Downs.

 

Project outline

  • Project funding: £2,000 from the Heritage Crafts Endangered Craft Fund
  • Project aim: To develop and make bricks and tiles from waste clay and other materials that have been excavated locally.

 

  • Top photo: Ben Bosence, brick and tile maker
  • Middle photo: community brick making, The Exchange (photo by Ben Bosence)
  • Bottom photo: community brick, The Exchange (photo by Ben Bosence)

Nine new grants awarded to help save endangered crafts from extinction

Monica Cass. Photo copyright Katherine Mager.

Monica Cass weaving a ‘tau tray’ using skeined willow in Norfolk. Photo copyright Katherine Mager.

A chair seater, a concertina maker and a brick and tile maker are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.

The Heritage Crafts Association, which is due to publish the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts in May, has awarded a further nine grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.

This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The nine successful recipients are:

  • Duncan Berry, from West Sussex, to buy tools to enable him to pass on his skills as a flint waller.
  • Ben Bosence, from East Sussex, to develop and make bricks and tiles from waste clay that has been excavated locally.
  • Monica Cass, from Norwich, to train a chair seat weaver in skeined willow techniques, and document the process.
  • Collette Davies, from Monmouth, to help revive the craft of lipwork straw basketry.
  • Tom Frith-Powell, from Cumbria, to develop a gelatine sized paper as part of his commercial handmade papermaking charity.
  • Bob Green, from Brighton, to buy tools to enable him to develop and pass on his skills as a flint waller.
  • Jake Middleton-Metcalf, from Buckinghamshire, to be trained in making the critical working components of the English system concertina.
  • Tony Millyard, from Northamptonshire, to pass on flute making skills and to develop a new model of flute.
  • Dominic Parrette, from East Sussex, to build shave horses to allow him to teach trainees how to make Sussex trug and Devon stave baskets.
A hand made Anglo-German Concertina by Jake Middleton-Metcalfe. Photo copyright Jake Middleton-Metcalfe.

A hand made Anglo-German Concertina by Jake Middleton-Metcalfe. Photo copyright Jake Middleton-Metcalfe.

These nine projects follow 18 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making, coppersmithing, withy pot making, disappearing fore-edge painting, plane making and kishie basket making.

As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.

HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:

“The impact of COVID-19 in the last twelve months has only compounded the pressures on those at-risk craft skills that were already on the verge of being lost, but have so much to offer a post-COVID future, as productive and fulfilling ways to rebuild a sustainable economy. These projects will realise some of that potential.”

The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds. The forthcoming 2021 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts is funded by the Pilgrim Trust.

The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time.

Brick making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Brick making

 

The making of clay bricks by hand or in small batches.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Clay
Historic area of significance All of England, Lowland Scotland, Northern Ireland
Area currently practised England and Northern Ireland
Origin in the UK Roman and then in continuous use
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
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
1-5
Current total no. of leisure makers
6-10
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

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). Today there are no itinerant brickmakers remaining. 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.

Bulmer Brick and Tile Co Ltd – Site and clay pits have been worked since the 1450’s. Both Roman tiles and bricks fromthe 1350’s have been found on land surrounding the yard. They continue the traditions of East Anglian brick making handed down over many generations, using fine London and Reading bed deposits.

Cambridge Brick and Tile Ltd – The business was restarted some 28 years ago to provide peg tiles and fittings to repair the historic roofs in Cambridge, Ely and the surrounding area.  They now produce a range of peg and pan tiles along side gault clay facings, floor bricks and various cappings and specials.  The gault clays are extracted from the original Burwell brickyard pits.

 

Techniques

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.

 

Local forms

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

Sub-crafts of brick making are:

  • Brick gauging
  • Brick rubbers
  • Red-Masonry (which also covers brick sculpting – i.e. shaping fired bricks)
  • Brick carving
  • Brick cutting

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.

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

individual craftspeople:

Crafts businesses employing two or more makers:

Other information

 

 

References