Village brickmaking

Another story about my grandmother's life in the Norfolk village of Necton.

My grandmother's mother died a fortnight after giving birth to her fourth daughter in 1890, probably of puerperal fever and Eliza, at eight, the oldest of the girls, found herself trying to look after her father and younger sisters. In her own words, she ‘didn't think much to that'. Her father employed a housekeeper for a time, but in December 1891 he married again. The poor woman was probably trying to do her best for the young family, but Eliza saw her as a usurper and when another girl, Rose Ellen, was born in June the following year, she decided to run away from home. Taking nothing with her, she walked the four miles to Necton to put her case to Grandmother Brown.

Her grandfather was a brickmaker and had his home and premises on the Dereham Road. He agreed she could stay with them on condition, she earned her keep working in the brickyard and they would give her a shilling a week for herself. She never went to school again. Her grandparents must have told her that if anyone came asking questions, she was to say she was thirteen and she was to stick to that however hard she was pressed because otherwise she would be sent back to her father and everyone would be in dire trouble. She must have been a very young looking thirteen, and one can only suppose that no attendance officer appeared in those early years, or he would surely have been suspicious. Hard work and better food soon put some flesh on her as she was forced to leave her childhood behind and grow up. Childhood games were forgotten as she set to work, learning the business of brickmaking.

Before the coming of the railways, most small towns and large villages had brickworks, often as a sideline to farming, based at the nearest pit where suitable clay could be extracted. Bricks were always wanted for dwellings, farm buildings, breweries, maltings, warehouses and suchlike, there was a steady demand and brickmaking a fairly sure means of making a living. The finished bricks were transported to their destination by horse and cart and so it was sensible for builders to buy locally and keep transport costs to a minimum.
The advent of railways meant the bricks still had to be taken to the railway terminal in the time-honoured way, but once there, they could be sent almost anywhere. This was both a curse and a blessing. In the late nineteenth century, there was a huge demand as the entrepreneurial Victorians embarked on expansion, which in its turn fuelled a demand for bricks for churches, chapels, schools, hospitals, town halls, public houses and railway stations. For a time brickmaking flourished.

The Necton brickworks occupied three acres of land not far from the house and close to a large clay pit. As soon as breakfast was over, Eliza put on a huge sacking apron that came down to her boots, covered her hair with a mob cap and accompanied her menfolk down to the pit to help shift the clay, known as ‘gault’, as it was dug from the pit and piled up for the winter frosts to break up.
Digging was seasonal, starting in autumn and continuing until February. The piles of clay were turned periodically and this must have been a backbreaking job. I doubt whether Eliza was expected to do this, but there were other things she could do. The actual brickmaking began in the spring when the clay was 'puddled', which meant wetting it and stirring it to make it like dough. In earlier times it was done by workers treading it and turning it with spades but by the time Eliza was working, it was put in a pug mill, a kind of barrel with an upright shaft down the middle with sharp blades sticking out of it, rather like an oversized dough mixer. It was worked by a horse harnessed to a beam attached to the shaft which was led round and round to turn the blades.
Other things were added to get rid of impurities and make exactly the right kind of mix. Every brickmaker had his own ideas about what should go in; it was like making a giant cake with a secret recipe. It was why some bricks were a different colour from others, why some were harder than others, some more porous. Experienced brickmakers could tell where a brick came from just by look and feel. The final mixture was shaped into bricks by a machine that cut and ground the clay and then forced it out through a hole the shape of a brick, so it came out like toothpaste.  This was cut into separate bricks by wires on a frame. The brick was made the size of a man's hand so that he could pick it up easily.

The clay was pressed into a mould and leveled off using a stick called a strike. The bricks that came out of the mould were called green bricks. They were spread out on a flat wheelbarrow and taken to the drying ground where they were arranged in a herringbone pattern on wooden racks, row on row, up to ten feet high. The stack was called a hack and the bricks were left like that to 'cure' meaning dry enough to be fired. The firing was started in April and went on all summer until all the clay had been used.

The kiln was like a big oven with holes along the bottom for the fuel and an opening opposite the holes called a wicket. There were more holes at the top which controlled the amount of air to the fire, which was lit at the bottom, so that the heat gradually drew up through the bricks. Stacking the bricks in the kiln was a skilled job, making sure not too many were spoiled by under or over burning. Early fuel was ling (heather), furze (gorse) or bracken, but by my grandmother’s time they were using coal, though furze and bracken were still used to light the fire and it was one of her tasks to collect it. The fire was left to burn slowly for three days and then the fire holes were opened and the top of the kiln removed to let in more air in and make it burn faster. After two or three days fast burning, all the holes were blocked up and the fire left burn itself out. The bricks had to be left to cool for another week before they could be handled and removed and the kiln made ready for the next batch.

Her work was dirty and physically demanding, but she stuck it out, fetching kindling, carrying green bricks to the kiln and fired bricks to the stacks to be sent to their customers, throwing out those that were too burned and those that were not burned enough, stacking bricks, and leading the horse in its endless perambulation, working from six in the morning to six in the evening. Working outside in the summer was one thing, working outside in the winter, when feet became numb and hands chapped with being continually wet, was quite another, but Eliza, stubbornly determined, would not complain. She became strong and sturdy and independent, traits that carried her throughout her long life.

The brickmakers were proud of their skills and they used to demonstrate this in the building of their own homes. My picture shows the house that my great great grandparents lived in. It was originally two cottages but as the family expanded they took over both homes. It clearly shows how bricks can be used to embellish even a humble dwelling and it is now listed. In the alcove in the middle is a statue of a small boy holding a bird's nest. He only has one arm and the story goes that he fell while climbing a tree to reach the nest and broke his arm so badly it had to be amputated. Who the boy was, I have no idea, but according to my grandmother it was made by the brickmakers as a salutary lesson not to steal from the birds.

If you would like to know more, it's in my biography of Eliza's life, THE MOTHER OF NECTON, ISBN: 978 1 904006 48 0, published by The Larks Press