They come in colours ranging from red, purple, brown and various shades of yellow and can be laid in soldier, sailor, stretcher, English, Flemish, header and rowlock bonds there must be a dozen ways to lay them.
With their unrefined pock-marks and crinkled
irregular contours, dappled grey by smog they form the landscape of Georgian London. Because they were handmade no two are the same.
Cheap to produce using London’s vast clay resources, these iconic bricks were produced by craftsmen who lived in poverty to provide wealthy private developers with the materials needed to expand London to an astonishing rate.
Brick Lane, Spitalfields; Pottery Lane, Notting Dale; Kiln Place, Gospel Oak all bear testament to the manufacture of the ubiquitous London Brick.
London clay is a compact anaerobic material ideal for brick making. Once dug the clay was mixed with water and cinders, both in plentiful supplies in Victorian London, it was a perfect solution for house building using materials readily available. The ash imbued the brick with porous pits that allowed for water drainage, making it well suited for London’s weather.
Between six and eight men would carry out the entire process, digging the clay, mixing it and pushing the mixture into a brick mould, once dried on-site kilns would fire the bricks hard. Incredibly a single gang of labourers could produce a million bricks in an annual summer season sufficient to build 30 houses. Once the area was developed the kiln was dismantled, the brickfield would be levelled and the whole operation would migrate elsewhere.
I know of only one kiln left in London dating from about 1824 in Walmer Road. In the area once called the Piggeries and Potteries, known today as Notting Dale it belies the truth that once it was a notorious slum. Pig-keepers who were forced from Tottenham Court Road moved to this now salubrious area. The community expanded, but with little sanitation or fresh water, the pig owners shared the hovels with their animals. With the arrival of the brick-makers ‘notorious types’ known for their ‘riotous living’ and described as being ‘no wiser than the clay they worked on’, it wasn’t long before rubbish and effluent ended up in the holes where the clay had been dug. One stagnant pool was so big it was known as ‘the ocean’.
In 1849 a report described most houses as ‘merely hovels in a ruinous condition’ and ‘filthy in the extreme’. A medical officer reported that it was ‘one of the most deplorable spots, not only in Kensington, but in the whole metropolis’. Life expectancy was just 11 years 7 months compared with the London average of 37.
With the coming of the railways, by the 1840s London bricks had lost their domination and vernacular architecture died. The yellow hues of the London stock were abandoned, and pre-fabricated bricks rolled in from the Midlands, bringing in the bright red stock we recognise today.
Photo: Old Kiln, Notting Hill. Robin Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)