THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION?

Posted by Admin on Wednesday, 26th October 2011, 11:51

At the start of the nineteenth century, with the Island’s seaside resorts in an embryonic state of development, there was an unprecedented demand for building materials, and before the end of the century no fewer than thirty brickyards were in existence.

 

Many of the brickyards have completely disappeared. Others may be located by their clay-pits. One of the former was sited in Baring Road, Cowes, near Egypt Hill, and for a number of years Kiln Cottage perpetuated its memory, as did the adjacent clay-pits within the wall of Northwood Park.

Uffa Fox recalled Werror (Werrar) Brickyard on the west bank of the Medina, from whose drying-sheds he used to collect swallows’ eggs. And in Harry Guy’s book “Memories of a Cowes Born Lad”, we are reminded that what became the Minerva boatyard at East Cowes was formerly Tommy Langley’s brickworks where Harry and his father spent many hours working on the machinery.

Nineteenth century ordnance maps and the “Victoria History of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight” (1912), produced by the extremely helpful staff at our County Library, enabled the writer to locate others: Alverstone; Ashlake (Ashlodge in 1862) between Fishbourne and Wootton Bridge; Atherfield; Bierlay (Berelay) at Beech Copse, Niton; Bouldnor near Yarmouth; Lower Hamstead; Ningwood (one near Dodpits Farm, another near Ningwood House and Warlands; Ryde; Sandown (in Venney’s Farm, Fort Place; Skinner’s Grove, Newchurch; and at Staplers (near Staplers Farm).

Also near the Medina, Shamblers Brickyard was in operation; its owners taking full advantage of the river to solve transport problems – always a major factor when horse-drawn carts had continuously to bring coal for the kilns and to carry products to their destinations, where it was not unusual for a carter with a load of a thousand bricks to be unable to traverse the soft ground of a building-site.

In his informative book, “The Making of Bricks and Tiles” (the main source of the facts contained in this article), Francis Joseph Pritchett states that in 1798 rebate tiles used for the first Parkhurst Barracks were made near Kitbridge Farm, eastward of Forest Road. These tiles, employed to cover the outside of timber buildings, gave the appearance of solid bricks. The author discloses also that an ancestor worked at the Berelay Brickyard, Niton.

Between 1830 and 1840 ‘white’ bricks were in great demand, not only for local work but for new buildings at Brighton. These were manufactured at a Ningwood brickyard. At Ningwood, too, the Island’s first machine-made agricultural pipes were produced – a great improvement on the previous method of hand-moulding ‘horse-shoe’ drain pipes in two separate parts.

The Pritchetts, although God-fearing people, never lacked an eye to the main chance, and when in 1850 a building estate in Gurnard came into being Edmund (a Non-Conformist local preacher) started his Elim Brickyard beside the Luck on Gurnard Marsh. This enterprise, by all accounts, was short-lived, but during its existence an enquiry from a contractor responsible for building one of the forts at Freshwater induced its owner to open his Jordan Brickyard near another stream that flowed into the Solent. A quay was built, thus enabling goods easily to be shipped to the West Wight. Today a diminutive trickle close to the Woodvale Hotel is known as ‘Jordan’, and a nearby building estate has been named ‘Jordan Close’.

In 1856, governmental regulations stipulated that all agricultural land be adequately drained and, influenced by a steward of the Ward Estate (whose dominion extended from Cowes to Freshwater) the Pritchetts created Hillis Brickyard near Marks Corner, and for the next ten years these works supplied the required drainpipes.

Circa 1866 two more brickyards were commenced – one at Sandford and another at Cranmore.

As year succeeded year, it became increasingly evident that in spite of many improvements the remoteness of Hillis Brickyard from the railway was a disadvantage that could not be overcome. An opportunity to lease the Gunville Brickyard, therefore, was seized without hesitation by the Pritchetts, who then formed a limited company and proceeded to install an up-to-date plant capable of making 3 million a year. Mr F. J. Pritchett makes a naively proud reference to their having a telephone.

It was the brick-makers’ heyday. The Royal Naval College Hospital at Osborne, the Isolation Hospital at Fairlee, the new Parkhurst Barracks – all required many thousands of bricks: while numerous chapels and private buildings absorbed even more.

Having succeeded with roofing-tiles, ridge-tiles, and quarries (square paving slabs) in red and white, the clay-workers at Hillis turned their attention to garden pottery, some of which found its way to Osborne House. Flower-pots in large quantities were distributed over the Island, and cargoes of them were exported to the Isle of Guernsey.

Then, a short time before the Great War, unexpected troubles arose, and the company went into liquidation – a serious blow for many small investors. The writer’s grandfather, a Cowes builder, lost £80.

Following a gap between 1914 and 1919, the activities of our leading brick-makers recommenced at Northwood. There was little money. Turves cut on the site built the first kiln. Poles from an adjacent copse and straw thatching provided materials for primitive drying-sheds which, incidentally, were still in use in 1952 when the writer visited the works for the last time.

Made under adverse conditions, agricultural drain-pipes and roofing-tiles were turned out in steadily increasing numbers until eventually good fortune in the shape of the Government’s Addison Housing Scheme brought a spate of orders, and once again set the firm on the road to prosperity.

In 1924 the firm entered the final stage of its career by adding to its possessions the Rookley Brickyard, beginning in a modest way with a downdraught kiln, an open-air drying-shed, and a stable for the horse that worked the pug-mill, and by concentrating on bricks while leaving Northwood to manufacture tiles and pipes.

When acknowledging his brother’s artistic gifts, Francis does not state when Henry Edmund Pritchett began to contribute the terracotta sculptures which in many Island gardens and on numerous gables still delight the eye. In the nineteen-twenties the writer became well acquainted with Harry’s work, in which a strong feeling for the grotesque had produced some effective gargoyles. Much of what he did was inspired by ancient civilisations, and he specialised in huge vases patterned with coloured clay – a method as old as pottery painting.

The story of Rookley Brickyard is one of ever-increasing success, and by 1939 its annual production had reached five and a half million articles, among which were facing bricks for Newport’s County Hall and for public works in Portsmouth. To achieve this figure, a modern plant had been installed which included a light railway to move the clay from operation to operation, a Bennett and Sayer power press for repressed facing bricks, pumping machinery to keep the clay-pits from flooding, two downdraught kilns (one 15ft and one 19ft in diameter), a Hoffman continuous kiln with sixteen 15ft x 11ft x 9ft chambers, a Belgian continuous kiln with twenty-two 9ft x 9ft x 9ft chambers, and a battery of drying tunnels that were heated by gases from the kilns.

The importance of those artificially heated drying tunnels cannot be too highly stressed. Before their introduction the essential drying-out prior to burning was governed by the weather – a method that restricted the actual production of goods to eight months of the year. During the other months only the digging of fresh clay could be done.

The day of the horse was over. Power generated by oil engines drove the pug-mill, and four Bedford 3-ton lorries conveyed three million bricks a year to pre-war building-sites and shipping quays.

After the application of so much industry and ingenuity, it seems a pity that brick-making on the Island could not have continued indefinitely. The writer has been told that, to be able to compete with mainland firms, the Island Brick Company would have found it necessary to spend many thousands of pounds on an entirely new plant. This they were not prepared to do, and since they stopped production some fourteen years ago, it would appear that no bricks have been made on the Isle of Wight.

Thanks to the courtesy of Mr Peter Miller, of Messrs Hooper & Ashby, the builders’ merchants, the writer learnt in 1980 that most of the bricks then used on the Island were supplied by the London Brick Company, of Bedfordshire. Other supplies were sent by the Redland Brick Company, of Sussex, and smaller quantities by a firm in Dorset. The above firms, despite transport charges, were, by employing mass-production methods, able to sell at competitive prices.

If Harry’s gargoyles were sentient they would, no doubt, look down in sorrow.

T. C. Hudson

Links

Isle of Wight Brickmaking History – Isle of Wight Industrial Archaeology Society.

© T. C. Hudson.

If this article is reproduced please acknowledge the author.

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