A ‘Box Brownie’ insight into hand-made brick-making… possibly Norfolk ca. 1930

Some positive things have arisen out of Covid 19 such as, in the absence of Conference meetings, the excuse to put this photographic piece together on ‘brick-making’ for the AIMA Newsletter.

Bricks have been part of my life. My Great-grandfather Dick Powell (1859-1940) was a Mason, Foreman Bricklayer and “Builder” in Hereford. His son Ernie, my Great-Uncle was a bricklayer who preferred not to work for his father. Ernie, however, was proud of his trade. For me as a lad not long over from Ireland in the early 1960s and learning to ride a bicycle by pedalling hard behind Ernie on the Herefordshire country roads, he was always pointing out either his good work or the poor work of others that he described as “Jerry Built!” Further, my father was an architect and as children we would end up with small brick samples to play with. After university I had a farmer “grandfather figure” mentor in the Cambridgeshire Fens who unusually for his area had a brick barn on his farm. The bricks were not from the nearby industrial Whittlesey or Peterborough brickyards but had been made and fired on the farm. In the 1800s, clay had been dug out from below the fenland peat; then worked, formed into bricks and “clamp” fired on the farm in order to build the barn. So intense was the firing that many of the bricks were vitrified and glaze covered. Years later in 1990 I began working at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (now W&D “Living Museum”), Singleton, West Sussex, where the brickmaking displays and demonstrations associated with the Museum’s brick drying shed and “pug mill” really enhanced my knowledge.

Therefore, I will credit the Weald & Downland Living Museum for my ability to recognise the content in the “Box Brownie” photos used in this picture-based piece which reflects the hand-made brick making process. I purchased the “snaps” cheaply from a well-known on-line auction site where no-one else was interested. Unfortunately, there is no specific provenance for these photos other than the vendor was in Norfolk. In line with this, the brick drying shed as shown, which is like the peg-tiled one at the Weald & Downland, is roofed with pantiles that primarily I would associate with East Anglia and therefore, Norfolk may be a reasonable assumption. Further speaking with my horseman pal, Mike Flood (born 1937) from near North Walsham, Norfolk, he recalled that as schoolchildren they were taken to such a brickyard for a school visit. Checking Kelly’s Directory for Norfolk for 1937 there was then about twenty brickmakers in the County.

Note: As these are “snaps” from a basic camera, the quality is not great; especially as some images were faded. However, they have been Photoshopped to maximise the content detail.

Fig. 1: Setting the scene or this could be the final picture? On the right is a ramshackle shelter where the bricks were moulded by hand. Outside the shelter is a wooden wheelbarrow and spade undoubtedly used for bringing the clay to brick makers. The long, low, pantiled building is the ‘Brick Drying Shed’ where nearly dry ‘green’ bricks from a ‘hack’ may have been herringbone stacked to remove remaining moisture before firing. Any residual moisture in the bricks during firing could cause them to blow apart. On the left may be seen the cones of two brick kilns for firing the bricks. The latter may be a clue as to the brickyard’s location.

Fig. 2: A great photo of the horse-powered wooden ‘Pug Mill’, a coopered cylinder that is fed at the top with freshly dug brick making clay. As the horse, clearly seen in Fig. 3, walks around, the sweep arm it is hitched to turn a paddled screw that works or mixes the clay to a malleable consistency and downwards until it is forced out of the square aperture at ground level. After this process the clay can be barrowed to the brick moulding area.

Fig. 3: With the ‘Pug Mill’ situated near the brick moulding area, the whole arrangement can be clearly seen; including the horse hitched to a somewhat dodgy looking sweep arm. The duty of the man on the left is to feed the pug mill with clay. The horse almost certainly works automatically to voice commands. The two men centre and right are brickmakers as defined by the wooden brick moulds that they hold in their hands.

Fig. 4: This vernacular, ramshackle hovel is the brick making shelter. The brick maker is stood behind his bench that is heaped with clay from which he will cut enough to, with a well-aimed throw, fill a brick mould before striking it level. The bucket in front of him probably held sand with which he would sand the moulds before filling them.

Fig. 5: In this better view of the brickmaking shelter the man on the left is holding a brick mould. The single wheel barrow in front of the men is a ‘Hack Barrow’ onto which are loaded the newly moulded bricks that have been turned out on to individual boards that are slightly larger than the mould. From here the wet bricks are barrowed to a ‘Hack’ where stacked, they begin their air drying process in advance of firing.

Fig. 6: Here the brickmaker is unloading the newly moulded “green” bricks from the hack barrow at the hack where they are stacked in a long narrow line in layers so as to let the air pass through and slowly dry them. To protect the bricks from the weather, pitched roofing sections made of thin boards called ‘Hack Covers’ are placed over the top while the drying takes part.

Fig. 7: Although not the clearest photo, the brickmaker is stood with the hack barrow beside a new hack that he is building. Behind the ongoing hack is a completed one with weather protection hack boards sat on top and to the side. After initial drying in the hack the bricks might have been taken to the long, low brick drying shed (Fig. 1) where now dry enough to be stacked in such as herringbone pattern with ventilation breaks, they would remain to finish drying until deemed ready to be fired in the kilns. © Bob Powell, Kingussie

Author: Bob Powell

Editor’s Note: Article originally published in AIMA Newsletter N°17, reproduced here with permission of the author.