Historically considered to be an inferior product to ashlar stone, the widespread use of brick within construction throughout Britain did not occur until the end of the medieval period. This boom in brick production and use within buildings was a result of the lack of local stone in many regions of the country (particularly the south-east), and a shortage of high-quality timber, as well as the influence of continental Europe reaching Britain where brick use was more common.
The industrial use of brick is most notably demonstrated at the start of the early modern period when bricklaying became established as a specialised trade separate from, and rivals to, the historically powerful and influential stonemasons. This boom in the study and practice of bricklaying as a trade meant that the unsophisticated initial attempts at creating bricks soon vanished, and they were transformed into the prestigious building material which we know today, as seen in the status attached to ‘Red Brick Universities’ and their widespread use within Victorian Britain, for example.
Historically, there have been many brick manufacturers which all produced distinctive building material that often finds its way into the vernacular of a local area in which they originated. Happily, many of the low-lying parts of Britain that lack high-quality building stone do have plenty of high-quality clay beds suitable for brick-making, and using techniques that haven’t changed much since Roman times, it was possible to create a network of brickworks to supply local areas. Particularly in the south east of England and the English midlands, the clay pits that scar the landscape are still a common sight, helping to fuel the building boom that saw millions of homes, factories and public buildings erected during the Victorian period.
This high point of brick manufacture in Britain that lasted from the late Georgian period to the Edwardian period resulted in a series of unique styles that are very regionally specific, and can even be pinpointed to specific works due to the highly localised nature of brick production. You may even find that the bricks that built your house came from only a few miles away. One of the key features of these bricks is their highly visible local distinctiveness. Historically; initials, colour, density and size vary between regions of the UK, and some bricks are extremely famous, such as the fire-engine red bricks found in Manchester and the honey-coloured bricks made from Kent clay and commonly found in London.
One of the key features of bricks is their local distinctiveness. Historically; initials, colour, density and size vary between regions of the UK. One example of this includes the Peterborough Brick Works of Farcet Brick Co which produced local dark red brick inscribed FARCO (a trade name used by the locals for the brick manufacturer). This brick company operated in Peterborough between 1896 and was owned by the McDougall family from Manchester. The brick works where eventually sold to the London Brick Co in 1921.
An additional local example is seen in Rochdale, from the Newhey Brick and Terra Cotta Co which produced brick moulded with the company’s name ‘NEWHEY’ on the top. This company operated between 1899 and 1930 and produced brick much lighter in colour and density than that of Farcet Brick Co.
Improvements in logistics and infrastructure incentivised the centralisation of brick production over the years, and from thousands of small brickworks all over Britain there are now just three or four large sites that produce bricks in the UK. While this has probably reduced their price, it’s also put paid to a unique and highly localised feature, outside of specially produced small-batch bricks made for heritage purposes. So next time you walk past a historical brick-built building or some old rubble, take a closer look to see if you can identify where and when the bricks came from.
Brick Bond Types
Brick bonding is the pattern in which brick are arranged in order create a structure. The order of the bonding can have a huge impact upon the appearance of the building.
Originally, the type of bond used was a practical choice depending on the needs and constraints of the particular site, and some buildings use different bonds for different purposes: running, or stretcher bond, is a simple bond that removes the need for the bricks to be cut, speeding up construction and making it cheaper. It’s not particularly strong, so it’s typically found in non-load bearing applications such as garden walls and chimney stacks. Flemish bond is an attractive bond that is mostly used for decorative purposes, and can incorporate different coloured header bricks. English bond is also ornamental but stronger than Flemish bond, and was typically used for foundation work in high status buildings.
As you can see, for a purely practical part of a building, there’s a lot you can tell about the quality and intended use of a building, as well as its history and provenance, just by looking at the bricks carefully.
Conservation and Repair
Brick, dependent upon its age, construction and quality or pointing does occasionally require repair works. Manufacturing impurities and defects in the brick are the main result for damage. The weathering process acts as a catalyst that further breaks down the brick at an accelerated rate. Furthermore, the lighter orange clay bricks are more porous than burnt bricks and therefore they decay at an accelerated rate.
In order to best preserve historical brick, ensuring the pointing is in good condition or re-done where needed will prevent moisture entering the bricks and leave less surface area vulnerable to weathering. Bear in mind that should your building be listed, to carry out a scheme of re-pointing, you will require listed building consent and potentially a method statement prior to the commencement of any works.
At Blue Willow Heritage, we provide expert advice on planning, the historic environment and conservation works to historic buildings. If you need support managing your restoration projects or heritage assets then Blue Willow Heritage can help. If you would like to discuss your project or simply need some impartial, no-obligation advice, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.