Everything you need to know about bricks

Bricks for history article'Brick paving beside the path near Alexandra Road
Bricks for history article'Brick paving beside the path near Alexandra Road

The basic material for brick-making is clay, though other materials can be mixed in with it, either in its natural state or by art.

The clay is hard and dry when dug. It then has to be broken up small, mixed with water and worked until it becomes plastic. You probably remember doing this at school.

The pugged clay is pressed down into a frame, then the upper surface is finished by drawing a straight edge, called a strike, across the top of the mould.

In the oldest bricks, the top and bottom were flat, though they often became distorted in firing. But in the 19th century, bricks began to be made with a frog, often incorporating the maker’s name. Usage varied widely, thus the board on which the brick was made could be called a moulding board, a stock board or a pallet. If a frog was required, the moulding board had a ‘kick’, or former, built onto it.

In one place, the moulder knocked a clot or clod of tempered clay into roughly the right shape, and dusted it with sand to stop it sticking. A boy wetted the mould and passed it to him. He then threw the clot into the mould, kneaded it into the corners, and cleaned off the surplus clay with the strike. The boy then carried the finished brick in its mould to the drying shed and released it carefully onto the ground.

In other places, the assistant was a woman. She made the clot and it was the moulder who carried the brick to the drying shed and performed the skilled task of releasing the brick. It was done very quickly, and my source, Dobson’s Rudimentary Treatise, gives the rates of production for the different methods of working.

• If you walk from Alexandra Road up towards Gladstone Street, you’ll see on your left a patch of informal brick paving. The white brick to the right of the red brick in the middle has on it the letters ‘ontagu’. This is clearly Montagu.

There were two Montagu mines, both in Scotswood. Montagu Fireclay worked from the 1860s to 1916, and Montagu Main Colliery, which also produced fireclay, until 1959.

Our other photograph shows a small collection of bricks that I’ve picked up in different places, as often as not on Alnmouth beach. There’s something personal about them. They perhaps weren’t all made by hand in the way described above. Machines were invented to do some of the work, one of them by Swinney Bros. But they all represent sweat, toil, investment, and the need to sell at a profit.

The coping brick at the top is pretty obviously a Bedlington product. There’s no name, but the colour gives it away. I needed a few to rebuild a collapsed wall, but a neighbour was demolishing his wall so I took all they had and still have some in the back yard.

The ones at the top left are Broomhill bricks, one with a frog, the other plain. The one at the bottom right-hand corner also appears to be from Broomhill.

Broomhill Colliery opened in 1849 and closed in 1961. A second shaft, New Pit, was opened in 1866, and Chevington Drift in 1882. It was a big mine. Employment fluctuated from 1,778 in 1914 to under 700 in 1921, but over 1,600 again in 1940 and 1947.

It produced steam coal, household coal, clay and fireclay. The bricks are very pale, and must consist mostly of fireclay. The top one contains a small amount of red clay, probably from the glacial drift that overlay the coal-bearing strata.

Although Chevington Drift was opened in 1882, the village named after it was only built some time between 1897 and 1910. It was demolished to make way for the opencast, the residents being re-housed in the new village of Hadston, so Chevington Drift existed for less than a hundred years before becoming one of the lost villages of Northumberland.

The top right brick reads ‘Lumley Brick Co/Fencehouses/Durham’. It is very heavy, and bigger than most bricks, and I think it must also be denser. Whether this is purely down to the raw material, or whether it was moulded under pressure to make it denser, I cannot say.

Either way, it was a quality product. The body is white with a fine white glaze on two sides. It’s the sort of thing you would find in a hospital, or in the kitchen of a stately home, or a swimming pool, or even a public lavatory, anywhere, in fact, where a hygienic surface was required.

I have no information about the Lumley Brick Company, but it was clearly related to the Lambton Collieries. There was a Lumley Clay Quarry, but that would probably be for ordinary brick clay. Fireclay, also called seggar clay, occurs only in thin bands beneath coal seams.

Lumley Colliery was first opened in 1776 or before. Twelve different pits are recorded, the last one sunk in 1907. It closed in 1966. Their most famous owner was the 1st Earl of Durham, ‘Radical Jack’, but in 1898 the then Lord Durham sold the Lambton Collieries to the Joiceys. It was one of this family, James, Baron Joicey, who in 1919 gave Morpeth Corporation the money to buy the Town Hall.

The next brick down, H. Carr & Co, is another white brick. I can find nothing about this firm, but the website www.penmorfa.com has photos of a brick by John Carr and Sons, ‘found by the River Tyne, Newcastle by Mark Cranston’, and T. Carr of Scotswood. One of the owners of Radcliffe Colliery was called Carr, but I do not know if any of these was connected to H. Carr & Co.

Of the next two bricks down, the left-hand one is clearly marked Radcliffe. This almost certainly refers to the village of Radcliffe just south of Amble. The colliery there was begun in 1836 and closed in 1896. A search of the Durham Mining Museum website shows that the Radcliffe Coal Company was also a manufacturer of firebricks.

The right-hand one appears to read G.B. Mitford, but the initials are doubtful. Again, I can find nothing about this brickworks. It may have been a small local one on the Mitford estate.

Our last brick clearly says Pegswood, and is interesting for being pinkish rather than yellow. Pegswood Colliery began in 1868 and closed in 1969. A typical number of employees was 700 to 800, but in 1921 it had a workforce of 1,039. The colliery produced steam coal, household coal and fireclay, but there was also a Pegswood Brickworks, which was presumably operated in conjunction with the colliery.

SPECIAL REQUEST: Does anyone have any information about Swinney’s brick-making machine? I would be especially grateful for a picture of it for a future article.