The Bricks that Built Britain
The earliest records to show brick making and bricks being used in construction, belong to the ancient civilisations of the world. Mesopotamia, India, and China can show still standing evidence of brickwork from some 10,000 years ago.
In the chilly northern climes of Britain, it was the Roman Empire that introduced kiln fired bricks. The legionnaires who supervised the great roman road projects, used mobile kilns to ensure uniformity, and brick making crossed the country as quickly as the roads were built.
As with many things, when the Romans left Britain, the industry stopped. Buildings were constructed from stone, timber, flint, wattle and daub, and some measure of recycling the hardy roman bricks, but the humble brick didn’t return as recognised building material until Tudor times.
Probably with the growth of the wool trade with the low-countries, Flemish bricks and their associated craftsmen brought renewed use of the building material to Britain.
The making of bricks was somewhat haphazard, with the air dried clay blocks being fired in clamps, domes stuffed with wood, with wildly differentiating temperatures, resulting in differing colours and exact shapes, pretty much every time.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 resulted in a huge rebuilding programme, requiring non-flammable stone or brick, in place of what had been timber, daub, and thatch and the popularity of brick began to rise.
Although the production methods remained unregulated, and manufacture tended to spring up next door to the construction site, some 120 years later the government put the brakes on bricks.
Raising taxation to fund wars against France, anything vaguely popular took on taxes, and bricks were hit very hard indeed. This muted its use, but within 50 years, the industrial revolution started to gather pace, and the country’s need for this basic building material was greater than its tax requirement and it was taken off.
The building of the canals demanded bricks for bridges, tunnels, locks and quays, and enabled cheap and effective transport to take bricks into areas that would turn into towns and cities.
The birth of industrial centres demanded houses built quickly and uniformly, and brick production soared. As with many processes at this time, production became partly mechanised, but the process still employed a huge number of people.
As the C19th moved into the C20th, automation began to take over and advances and innovations in the processes allowed permanent manufacturing sites to grow, often with their own railways, and earthmoving machinery.
Consolidation has seen the number of sites today as a fraction of its heydays, and modern building with timber frame, blocks, glass and concrete use many less bricks, but all around us stand a multi- billion brick legacy!