Although the Romans were the first to make bricks in England, the craft died out once they had left our shores. Following the Norman Conquest bricks were imported from Flanders and the earliest recorded Medieval bricks in England (c1120) are at Coggeshall Abbey in Essex.

Gradually brickmaking became established in England and by 1330 there were at least twenty makers. They were known as “wall-tylers” and were not generally called “Bryke Makers” until about 1430. The “tyle” used for wall construction was based on the dimensions of the Roman “Lydion” brick : 18” x 12” x 2.”

13th Century Brick Makers

Among the earliest references to English brickmaking is “Searching for brick earths on the towne field” at Stow-cum-Quy, Cambridgeshire, 1416.

Because bricks were heavy and with poor roads it made sense to make them near to construction sites. These brickyards used what became known as the “Country System.” All the clay was extracted from pits on site and immersed in water, trod under foot to get it to the right consistency and then shaped in wooden moulds, before being dropped onto open fields to dry. Firing (vitrification) of the bricks would be in simple updraught kilns, made from the same dry brick. Gradually these kilns became a little more permanent and areas near to large towns hosted established brickyards. One of the oldest (dating from the late 16th Century) is still working near Sudbury in Suffolk.

Workbench

Medieval craftsmen were obliged to join guilds in order to protect their trades. Brickmakers (who were also builders) were no exception to this and the earliest such guild, The Worshipful Company of Tylers & Bricklayers, is recorded in London (1416). This year it marks its sexcentenary.

In 1568 this guild achieved a charter from Elizabeth I and by 1600 it was the principle brickmakers’ guild in the land. They controlled wages and apprenticeships and quality of work within 15 miles of the City of London. But in 1666 a catastrophe changed everything and in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, King Charles II decreed that all new houses be built of fire resistant materials. The Guild did not have enough brick makers to do the work, so they relaxed their regulations and trained new labourers from the provinces. Many millions of bricks were made on the fields of Chatham in Kent for the reconstruction of London. After the completion, these new brick makers went back to their villages and set up their own businesses. By 1784 when the Brick Tax was introduced there were in excess of 3,000 brickyards in the United Kingdom. Workers were taken on and taught by example. There were no apprenticeships and no regulation.

Better transport infrastructure with roads, canals and later railways, gave brickmakers the opportunities to establish permanent brickyards and with the development of steam power and engineering, machinery was developed to speed up the process. By 1850 the majority of brick makers used mechanised brick production. The small Country yards, unable to invest in machinery, were either bought out or driven to closure. Itinerant brickmakers could not compete with these big factories as the brick industry was the first to be fully mechanised and the Victorian building boom contributed heavily to this.

Itinerant Brickmaker

By the 1920’s there were no more than a dozen itinerant brickmakers still working and most of those being in Ireland. Post WWII brick manufacture has become streamlined and new technologies have contributed greatly to this. There are now sixteen established commercial brick manufacturers in the UK. One of these is the last Itinerant brickmaker: A.J. Mugridge.