When Parliament authorised the use of steam locomotives on public railways in 1824, the scene was set for railway mania. The Stockton & Darlington opened in 1825, the Canterbury & Whitstable in 1830. London came later on the scene, probably because of the difficulty of forming routes to the centre through heavily built-up areas. Its first venture was the London & Greenwich, opened in stages between 1836 and 1838.
Greenwich, with its Park, its views over London, and its rowdy Fair, was a good destination to choose. The big problem was that to reach it the railway had to traverse the spider’s web of narrow streets and lanes, many unsavoury, which had developed in Bermondsey and Deptford. To build at grade, with level crossing after level crossing, would have been suicidal. The only alternative was to ‘fly’ the railway over this intricate fretwork. It could have been done, perhaps, with a combination of embankments and bridges, but the line engineer had a better idea. He would simply build one long viaduct all the way from London Bridge to Deptford. So, starting on 4 April 1834, this massive structure began to take shape. There were 878 arches in all, and there still are - as you may know, if you travel over them daily as you commute to Cannon Street. Four hundred men were laying 100,000 bricks a day, and every one came by sailing barge from Faversham, landing at Deptford Creek. Never before had so many bricks been used on one job.
This must have made the name of the local product, for as the 19th century went on more and more brickfields opened in Faversham, till it was virtually encircled by them on east, north and west. Even between Preston Street, London Road, St Ann’s Road and Cross Lane, on the town centre’s doorstep, was one vast brickfield - Kingsfield. The exponential growth of Victorian London could never have taken place without Faversham brick.
The secret was not just in the brickearth, though this was of high enough quality. It was in the process. For facing bricks the fashion was for yellow; and someone had discovered a century earlier than if you mixed chalk, also readily available, with the brickearth, the end-product came out yellow, instead of the natural red. Even more important, someone had discovered at about the same time that if you mixed coal-ash with the brickearth and chalk, you ended up with a brick which was self-firing. No need for kilns. You simply stacked the ‘green’ bricks in huge ‘clamps’ (the same word as ‘clumps’, really), lay kindling below, and lit it. The ash still had enough energy left in it to burn, and bake the bricks. These were the famous ‘London’ stocks - in fact mostly made in Faversham and the Sittingbourne area.
The process was also energy-frugal. The sailing barges which delivered the bricks to quays and wharves in London returned laden with domestic refuse, bought from the ‘vestries’ (local authorities) for a farthing a ton. Discharged in Faversham, this cargo was sifted for ash and the residue used to strengthen sea defences. Hence 150 years later these became pot-hunters’ paradises, until their digging and ‘treasure’-hunting became a nuisance.
A re-cycling dream and example to us all today, then? Not quite. The sifting - filthy work - was done mainly by women and children for miserable pay. The bricks were all made by hand - which ensured that they looked better than the bland machine-moulded products which superseded them in the 20th century - but the labour was literally sweated. Making was only possible from April to September and you had to look for another job for the rest of the year - if you could find one. You were paid piecework and only if you were very strong could you earn a reasonable wage - if you could make 50,000 bricks a week (and not many could), you would have handled several tons of brickearth. It was very hot work and a fair bit of your money needed to be spent on beer at the pubs strategically sited close to the brickfields. And the brickfield-owners operated a cartel to ensure that wages did not vary from field to field.
The local industry began to decline when the fletton brick came into production. Fletton is a village near Peterborough and in 1881 it was discovered that the lower Oxford clay, found underneath a layer of ordinary brickearth there, was oil-bearing. This meant that a brick could be made largely self-firing without having to have ash added to it. The fletton, pink and machine-made, became ubiquitous in London and elsewhere in the home counties. One by one, most of the Faversham brickfields closed in the early 20th century - some had exhausted their brickearth, anyway.
Just one survived - Cremer and Whiting’s, between the railway and Bysing Wood Road - and this eventually turned over to the production of specialist red bricks. It remains busy today, with several years’ reserves of brickearth. Bricks are still moulded by hand, but some other processes are mechanised, and kilns fired by propane gas are used for firing. Appropriately, in an historic town, much of its output consists of high-quality facing bricks supplied to architects’ specifications for prestigious conservation projects. The rest of its trade is mainly in ‘specials’, bricks of unusual shapes and sizes required for applications such as copings and quoins.
Local brickmaking skills have left their mark on the town itself, happily. As long as supplies of oak were plentiful, the timber-framed house remained supreme. When they dwindled, and particularly after the Great Fire of London in 1666, brick came to be the only acceptable material. The Catholic Church Presbytery in Tanners Street is a ‘Queen Anne’ style building put up well into the reign of George II and sports superb bright red brickwork of the period. Further down the Street are three dourer houses, in a plummier shade of red, put up by the Board of Ordnance in the early 1760s. Between them, the Gospel Mission Hall (1889) - yellow stock brick with red dressings - is both characteristic of its period and a legacy of the local industry, since the money for it was mostly raised by brickfield workers who wanted to worship in their own independent way.
For those who care to look, rather than just see, all the other ancient town centre streets are rich ‘galleries’ of varied brickwork. Here and there are to be spotted medieval houses modernised in Georgian times with suave fronts of mathematical tiles - ones hung vertically on laths and designed to look like bricks. Look out for once-fashionable ‘white’ bricks at Cooksditch and Ospringe Place. For fine examples of the yellow stock, the Victorian streets are the best places to go. Admire how even on the humblest properties arches are beautifully shaped, and corners elegantly turned. Bricks and brickwork of this standard are seldom found today, even in plush ‘executive’ homes. The pointing is often a study in itself. On older houses it will consist of bright white lime mortar, not dirty yellow ‘cement’. It may be tinted to match its brickwork: using a range of brick and pointing tints, the brickie had a huge palette from which to draw, and knew how to make the most of it. Here and there, and best seen in oblique sunlight, are even ancient brick graffiti - not the crude vulgarities of the 21st century, but relics far more tasteful.
Text and picture courtesy of Arthur Percival
Sources and further reading
(*on sale at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre)
John Freeman, special report in SE London and Kentish Mercury, 1988
Edward Dobson, A Rudimentary Treatise on the Manufacture of Bricks and Tiles (Weale, 1850)
*Syd Twist, Stock Bricks of Swale (Sittingbourne Society, 1984)
John Woodforde, Bricks to Build a House (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976)
Faversham Society archives