Posted February 1st, 2012
by Richard Savage
Situated at East Quay, on the east bank of the River Parrett between Chandos Bridge and the more northerly bridge where Western Way crosses the river, is the museum dedicated to the Somerset Brick and Tile Industry. It is housed in the buildings adjoining the kiln that once belonged to the brick yard of Barham Brothers, which closed down in 1964.
Inside are displayed the tools, methods and processes involved in making a variety of bricks, tiles, and terracotta plaques, with old photographs of the industry.
The brick industry was already under way in the late 17th century. In the 1720s the schemes of the Duke of Chandos boosted the industry, with the construction of the glass cone and the redevelopment of the castle area with the elegant terraces of Chandos Street and Castle Street intended to attract prosperous tradesmen. Unfortunately the Duke’s schemes did not realize and prosper as he hoped, although the housing development, in line with Bath, was in vogue with the professions and society, as well as merchants.
The brick industry escalated in the 18th and 19th centuries, employing about 1300 men in the 1840s. By 1850 there were many brickworks north and south of the town, and these prospered until the end of the century. You can see the flooded clay pits around Chilton Trinity to the north and between Huntworth and the River in the south. Barham Brothers started manufacturing bricks in 1857. In the 1890s there was a total of 16 brick and tile companies, and 24 million bricks per annum were exported during those ten years. Increased industry led to a dramatic growth in the population of Bridgwater from around 3000 in 1801 to nearly 15,000 in 1901, accompanied by the construction of large Victorian working class suburbs of increasingly high quality. The most modern tile manufacturer to open with advanced technology was that of John Browne & Co on Square Road in Chilton Trinity, later to become the Somerset Trading Company. It was extended in 1933, employed a hundred men, and there was continuous employment until the outbreak of the Second World War.
It was John Board who commissioned the building of Castle House in Queen Street, originally named Portland Castle after the Portland cement used in its construction. Although mostly made of brick, John Board also experimented with the use of concrete, reinforcing it with iron rods.
In 1939 the tile market was divided between 93% clay, 3% concrete and 4% other. There was not the hoped for boom in the tile industry at the end of the war. Cheaper materials were used to repair all the bomb damage, and by 1953 89% of tiles purchased were of concrete, 4% clay and 7% other. Although Bridgwater clay is of exceptional quality, the presence of sodium chloride and calcium sulphate washed in with the clay caused holes and discoloration, and a tumultuous storm on the 16th January 1959 with a deluge of rain followed by severe frost damaged over 5 million tiles.
Firing bricks in the kiln
The brickyards declined in the 1960s and the last one closed in 1964, due to exhaustion of the best clay and availability of cheaper alternatives.
Nevertheless many older buildings around the eastern side of Exmoor are roofed with Bridgwater tiles, and many houses and other buildings around Bridgwater are made from Bridgwater bricks.
A speciality of Bridgwater was the Bath brick, the precursor of modern scouring pads (see separate article). Reject bricks of this material, i.e. slightly flawed or deformed, are found in houses and buildings in various parts of the town, particularly Rhode Lane to the south of Bridgwater.
You can learn more about the industry by visiting the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum on East Quay. It is currently open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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