Posted February 1st, 2012
by Richard Savage
Sunrise over Lower Lakes is a lovely scene. Every morning is different, as you can see from these photos, but each marks the beginning of a new day.
Sunrise over Lodge Lake
Sunrise over Lower Lakes on 1st Feb 2012
This morning, after my visit to the Brick and Tile Museum yesterday, I mused about the beginning and the end of that industrial era in Bridgwater. Probably local people had fired their own bricks from clay for centuries, but records show that from 1683 bricks and tiles were ordered to build and repair public property such as the almshouses, and in 1699 two thousand tiles were ordered for building work at Hestercombe, and probably came from Hamp. In the 18th century Bridgwater supplied thousands of bricks to South Wales. In 1769, Samuel Glover’s brickyard at Hamp supplied bricks at 16 shillings per 1000 and pantiles at 40 shillings. He had his own ships, which not only exported the bricks but also imported anthracite coal dust fromWales to fire the kilns.
The industry flourished during the 19th century. Typical Bridgwater bricks became standardized at 8½ inches by 4 inches by 2 and 5/8 inches thick with 20 holes in 3 rows of 7-6-7 holes, which made them lighter and easier to handle, and also provided a key for the mortar. During the 20th century there were 18 works and factories alongside the River Parrett from Dunwear to Chilton Trinity
There is an account of the end of the end of the Brick and Tile industry in the excellent “History of Bridgwater” compiled by J.F. Lawrence, and completed by his son Dr. Chris Lawrence, which makes very interesting reading. Much of what I write now is taken from this book.
Chilton Trinity brickworks in the 19th century (by kind permission of the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum)
Chilton Brickworks in 2011
In the 1920s the London Brick Company who owned enormous sources of clay in Bedfordshire and had mass production methods giving a uniformity of product that Bridgwater did not have, started to get the monopoly over brick production. Bath Brick manufacture was also declining, being superseded by more gentle abrasive powders. Bridgwater could also not meet the challenge of cheap machine-made tiles imported from France for use in council housing schemes in 1929, although hand-made pantiles were still in demand, being more attractive and no more expensive. However, after the Second World War the introduction of concrete tiles and cheaper concrete blocks led to the eventual demise of the Bridgwater Brick and Tile Industry, plus the fact that much of the best clay was exhausted. One by one the last operating companies closed down, until the last one, Barham Bros., stopped production in 1964, a sad day for the local economy.
The remnants of the wharf at East Quay, where Barham Bros. used to be
As the sun sets over Lower Lakes, and the flooded clay pits conceal what was once a flourishing source of income for the town, we must look forward to a new day and see what the hard-working people of Bridgwater can do next for the welfare and prosperity of our ancient town and community. May what we can learn from the past help to inspire the young people who are our future.It would be very interesting to receive further information from Bridgwater residents who were once involved with the industry, to share their memories of what it was like to work in the Brick and Tile Industry.
Sunset over Lower Lakes
Sunset in the west - with the hope of a new sunrise
Apart from the manufacture of bricks and tiles, the production of scouring bricks was an important part of the industry. During the 19th century the Bath Brick was a popular cleaner throughout Britain, Europe andAmerica for polishing, scouring and cleaning metalwork and cutlery. They were once issued regularly to soldiers in the British army, and hence travelled all over the world, wherever the sun never set over the British Empire.
These blocks were made from the fine alumina and silica particles that were washed down the River Parrett and deposited in specially constructed slime batches built along the river one mile north and one mile south of the Town Bridge, where the slime was known to be of the right consistency, and at Dunball. These consisted of a bed of brick rubble projecting from the river bank with low sides to encourage settlement. When the deposit that had “pitched” in the “batches” was 4 feet thick it would be dug out and deposited on the river bank to allow rain water to wash the salt out. Already by 1896 some 25 batches existed to trap the slime, and bricks were being manufactured under the names of Axford and Sealey. There were ten manufacturers in the 1920s with John Board & Co Ltd being the major producer.
The slime mixture would be taken to a simple horse-worked mixer, shaped in a “pugging mill” and extruded or “obstricked” into 6 inch balls, which would then be pressed into bricks in a mould using a “striker” and turned out onto boards to dry. High temperature firing in kilns would follow a few days later, but only at 500-600 degrees Celsius, the process taking 4-6 days, hence the softer colour compared with normal Bridgwater bricks which would be fired at 930 degrees Celsius for about a week. Finally they would be trimmed with an emery wheel and wrapped in strong paper.
Broken or rejected bricks were ground into a bulk powder.
It was called the “Bath Brick” because of its similarity in colour to Bath Stone. A patent granted in 1827 referred to “a certain composition or substance….. when perfected would resemble in colour the stone called or known by the name of Bath Stone.”
E.H. Burrington wrote a poem “Apostrophe to the Parrett” which included the lines:
“But thou lowest ever beautifully thick,
Leaving the filthy slime to make Bath brick!”
Bath Bricks were advertised as “the most effective and economical polishing material. It is superior to metal polish and does not contain acid or alcohol injurious to metals.” Sadly, after 1918, alternative cleaning materials that were cheaper gradually put an end to the manufacture of Bath Bricks. Now, when you use Vim or Ajax, remember their predecessor – the Bath Brick!
Assortment of Bath Bricks manufactured in Bridgwater (by kind permission of the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum)
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.
Posted January 27th, 2012
by Richard Savage
Not only locally around Bridgwater, but throughout the county generally, Somerset has so much to discover and be experienced by those with an interest in industrial archaeology. This may seem strange for a county that is largely rural, but nevertheless the industries of the past have left their marks on the landscape, right back to prehistoric man in the Mendips when he made tools from flint, antlers and bones. Actually, one must not confuse the term “industrial archaeology”, which describes the systemic study of structures and artifacts as a means of understanding the industrial past, with “archaeological industry” which relates to periods of prehistory characterized by certain types of artifact, and perhaps better described as “archaeological cultures”.
Industrial archaeology has really only developed as a recognized form of study in the past 50 years, previously being regarded as a hobby for eccentric amateurs. But now it contributes a great deal to our knowledge of the past, and the preservation and restoration of different industries has also been of great value to promoting tourism.
The Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society (SIAS) was founded in 1972 for those interested in all aspects of the industrial history and heritage of Somerset. The work of SIAS has included excavations, site surveys, ‘rescue’ operations for old machinery and the listing of significant industrial buildings, along with holding regular meetings. An integral part of their programme is “fossicking”, from an Australian word mean to rummage or search for something. This is a really exciting activity, combining the thrills of exploration, discovery and detection. It was exciting to read on the SIAS website about a fossicking expedition made in May 2010 to North Petherton, a small town hardly noted for any industrial heritage. Although some of the most interesting industrial premises had now been redeveloped (including an acetylene gasworks and Starkey’s brewery) the explorers found a surprising amount of infrastructure surviving from previous industrial activities, including three mill sites with mill ponds or leats, the pre- and post-1822 turnpike roads, a malthouse, and other aspects of social archaeology such as schools and assembly rooms, thus learning much more about the history and development of the town.
On the SIAS website it was exciting to read about one of Bridgwater’s unique buildings, Castle House in Queen Street, receiving £110,000 from English Heritage towards the cost of scaffolding and an architect to draw up plans for refurbishment and conversion to housing, after years of lying derelict and being threatened with demolition. Regarded as something of a “folly”, it was constructed in 1851 by John Board, a local builder and manufacturer of bricks and tiles, who wanted to experiment building with new materials such as concrete. It was way ahead of its time in using a variety of shapes and textures including moulded precast concrete from Portland cement to produce the gargoyles, arches and various decorative features, and the use of iron to make reinforced concrete floors and roof constructions. It may well be the earliest building using reinforced concrete in the world.
Castle House in Queen Street
Pre-cast concrete figures and ornamentation
Concrete ornamental frieze
Another unique industrial archaeological site in Bridgwater is the “Black Bridge” across the River Parrett. Situated immediately north of the Chandos Bridge, where the road known as The Clink, crosses the river, the Black Bridge was a telescopic standard gauge railway bridge over the River Parrett. Built in 1870 to link Bridgwater Docks with the main railway line, it was used originally by horse-drawn wagons pulling trucks. Now it is used by pedestrians and cyclists.
The Black Bridge, formerly the telescopic railway bridge, over the River Parrett
This ingenious telescopic bridge was supported on two large piers, one each side of the river. When ships came up the river, a section of the rail track on the east side of the river, would be slid sideways into an open space alongside the track. There were two independent plate girder spans, a fixed 20 m (66 ft) shorter span, and a movable 40 m (131 ft) longer span supported by skids and rollers which could be retracted into the open space, to allow the passage of shipping. Operated manually at first, steam power was introduced after a year.
Warning notice "rescued" after the closure of the telescopic bridge (by kind permission of the Somerset Brick & Tile Museum)
It was last opened in 1953. The mechanism was removed in 1974, the steam engine is now in the Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum (another ‘must’ for industrial archaeologists, but the skids and rollers can still be seen today.
Who was actually responsible for designing the bridge? Most references on Google attribute it to none other than the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but in Wikipedia it is stated that it was Sir Francis Fox, the engineer for the Bristol and Exeter Railway, with a cross reference to the Sir Francis Fox (1844-1927) who was the civil engineer responsible for the bridges over the Zambesi at the Victoria Falls and Sidney harbour, the Mersey Railway Tunnel, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Simplon Tunnel, and for extending the London Underground. He became the engineer for the Great Central Railway. He was a deeply religious man and in his autobiography “Sixty-three Years of Engineering, Scientific and Social Work”, published in 1924, he wrote about the harpooner James Bartley, who in 1891 was swallowed by a sperm whale. The whale was killed next day, and Bartley was found still alive in the whale’s stomach. He had read this in a newspaper, and saw this as confirmation of the story of Jonah and the whale. Sadly, detailed investigation of the story since have failed to verify the truth of the adventure, although it is perfectly possible. Jesus Himself referred to the story of Jonah and there is much we can learn from it for our own edification and salvation, but faith needs to be built on the word of God and not newspaper stories which may or may not be true.
But was this the Francis Fox who designed the telescopic Black Bridge?There was another engineer of that name who lived from 1818-1914. Not surprisingly with that name, Francis Edward Fox came from a Quaker family and was educated at Friends’ Schools at Croydon and Sidcot. In 1835 he became a pupil of Edwin Octavius Tregelles, the Quaker civil engineer and missionary, and in 1839 became associated with the Cornwall Central Railway Project. In 1846 he joined Isambard Brunel as assistant engineer on the South Wales Railway, and in 1854 he was appointed engineer of the Bristol & Exeter Railway until it was taken over by the Great Western Railway. Amongst other projects he was responsible for the Weston-super-Mare loop, and many fine station designs including Bristol Temple Meads,Taunton, Exeter St. David’s, Weston-super-Mare, Torquay, Teignmouth, all the stations on the Devon & Somerset Railway between Taunton & Barnstaple, and all those on the Exe Valley line between Exeter and Morebath Junction. Some of these projects were carried out after the B&ER amalgamated with the GWR in 1876. He was also one of the chief proponents of the Absolute Block signaling system which allows only one train to occupy a defined section of track at a time.
I would like to suggest that this is the person most likely to have been responsible for the Black Bridge, but would be glad for anyone to come forward with further evidence for one or the other.
That is what makes history and archaeology so interesting, just like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Sometimes the pieces fit perfectly – or we think they do until we find a piece that doesn’t fit, and then we realize the bit we thought had been fitted correctly wasn’t as perfect a fit as we thought. In fact, it was in the wrong place, and now we have found a better solution.
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