Brentford brick-makers and potters, Val Bott

Accessible clay, local labour and excellent transport links enabled brick-makers and potters to conjure profit from the earth. With all of these, and the growing capital city on the doorstep to provide a market, Brentford was a centre for clay industries from the 15th century to the 19th.

Local building materials
Middlesex has no natural stone so most local buildings were constructed from timber. Thatch or tiles were used for roofing so tile-making may have preceded brick-making in our area. Brick began to be fashionable following its use for aristocratic houses like Henry V’s palace at Sheen in the 15th century. However, internal walls, doors, window frames and upper floors were still made from wood.

The will [1] of James Trimmer Jnr, made in 1777, reveals the range of raw materials on one man’s Brentford land. Trimmer directed his trustees to ‘dig and break up [his] land for brickearth, gravel, sand or tile clay’ and carry on his business. As a manufacturer of both bricks and tiles he distinguished between brickearth and tile clay, the latter being a more plastic material, easier to work and suitable for tiles, chimney pots and garden pots.

Sand was used in the brick-making process and, with chalk, was one of the ingredients for creating the lime mortar which contemporary bricklayers used. While sand was found locally, chalk had to be brought up the Thames and processed in the lime kilns by the river owned by the Barratts, the Tunstalls and the Trimmers.

In the 17th century Boston Manor house was rebuilt in brick, as were other local mansions, and the new brick houses of The Butts began to appear in the 1680s. Bricks were also used for walls which are mentioned in local deeds as structures to be maintained, defining boundaries and enclosing gardens. These retained heat on warm days, sheltered nursery stock and kitchen garden crops from wind and frost and reduced opportunities for theft of high value plants.

During the 18th century most local building was in brick – old watercolours of the area show the warm reds of local bricks and tiles. Some late 17th and 18th century walls of a dark plum-red brick survive, in The Butts, on Strand on the Green, at Chiswick Mall and around Hogarth’s House.

By the 1860s [2] average production in the areas west and north-west of London was estimated at a million bricks to the acre, per foot depth of brickearth, and valued at £4,000-£20,000 per acre. Brick production gradually disappeared as the brickearth was worked out and the land became more profitable for suburban development.

Where were the brick-fields?
Brick-making is only occasionally mentioned in connection with New Brentford, a relatively small parish. Old Brentford Field, north of the High Street in the neighbouring parish, seems to have had the most plentiful brickearth. Most of the deposits in our area were found in patches at a depth of between four and ten feet, which were relatively easy to work.

It is difficult to identify the locations of all of these because of the temporary nature of the workings and the fact that worked-out land was usually made up level again and returned to agriculture or horticulture. Descriptions of abutting properties in deeds sometimes show that occupants of neighbouring plots were brick-makers, suggesting the presence of brickearth.

Extract from 1777 Survey of Ealing Parish, showing Church Way and Clay Pond Farm.

James Barratt Snr’s will [3], proved in 1750, gives specific details of his plots and the vendors from whom he had acquired them. Though he described himself as a brick-maker only two appear to be linked to active brick-making. His oldest son, James, inherited half an acre in Matt Kitchen’s Pit in Old Brentford Field ‘abutting east on the Church Way’. His second oldest son, Thomas, received three acres, also in Old Brentford Field, with ‘liberty … to dig and take Brick Earth … at the end thereof leaving the Land level on the surface thereof’.

Field-names offer some clues to land use. For example, in 1769 Thomas Tunstall and James Trimmer were admitted at the Manor Court of Ealing to property which included one acre of land called Pitland in Church Way. And the Ealing Tithe survey of 1840 Clay Pit Field and Strong Pit Field were occupied by George Robinson who also owned Tile Kiln Field.

Some clay pits, however, were substantial excavations. Clay Pond Farm is marked on the 1777 Ealing Parish map; one pond east of the house is circular with a central island, another crescent-shaped pond lies to the south and two larger ponds can be seen to the north. By 1840 these had become ornamental lakes in the grounds of Carville Hall but they were filled to make way for the new municipal housing and sports fields of the Clayponds housing estate in the 1920s.

Sketch of Coles Hole with the kiln in the middle of the group of three pottery buildings, from the sale deed of 1861 (Ealing Council Legal Services).

The large excavation called Coles Hole lay just to the east of these. Richard Goodwin bequeathed it in 1719 [4] to his son-in-law, John Browne, another Brentford brick-maker. It may have been named after an earlier owner, but no brick-maker or potter called Coles has yet been traced. The depth of the excavation and the fact that a works was set up alongside this pit, together with its own kiln, suggests that this provided good quality tile-clay rather than brickearth.

The Coles Hole pottery passed through various hands, including Daniel Roberts of Clay Pond Farm (who was also a distiller and partner of John Thompson in the Chiswick Brewery) in the 1770s, James Ashford in the 1850s and James Collier in the 1860s and ’70s. Eventually it came into the possession of George Robinson whose career saw him graduate from brick-maker to property developer. He sold Coles Hole to the Rothschilds in 1861 to extend their Gunnersbury estate. They used the pit as the Potomac Lake with the tile-kiln disguised as a gothic boathouse, both of which can still be seen in Gunnersbury Park.

Fossil tusk and teeth of hippopotamus from the collection of WK Trimmer (Royal Society, 1813).

The best descriptions of areas of clay extraction in Brentford come from an article by William Kirby Trimmer, one of James Trimmer Jnr’s sons, published shortly after his death, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1813 [5]. The article provided details of the fossil bones and tusks he had collected.

One site lay ‘about half a mile north of the Thames at Kew Bridge; its surface is about twenty-five feet above the Thames at low water’. The finds varied in five different strata – first, a sandy loam six to seven feet thick, secondly, a sandy gravel a few inches thick, followed by a third stratum of calcareous loam up to five feet deep with a shallow layer of peat beneath it. Fourthly, came a layer of gravel containing water, from two to ten feet in thickness and, fifthly, a layer of blue clay, up to several hundred feet thick, but only penetrated locally to a depth of 30 feet. Snail shells and river fish were found in the second and third layers, horns and bones of the ox and of deer were found in the third and elephants, oxen and hippopotamus were found in the fourth. The fifth contained marine fossils and fragments of petrified wood. This was clearly a very deep excavation and is most likely to be Coles Hole. (The blue clay mentioned may be the tile clay mentioned above in James Trimmer Jnr’s will; though described as ‘blue’ it is likely to have produced red wares when fired.)

His second site was ‘about one mile to the westward of the former, one mile north of the Thames, and a quarter of a mile to the eastward of the river Brent; its height above the Thames at low water is about forty feet’. This may refer to land to the east of Boston Manor Road leased in 1769 by James Trimmer and John Clarke [6] ‘with leave to dig for brick earth’. Trimmer states that there were no organic remains in the first stratum of eight to nine feet of sandy loam, but in the second, a layer of sand or sandy gravel of between three and eight feet, were the teeth and bones of elephant, deer and ox, and especially abundant hippopotamus remains over an area of more than 120 yards. The remains were crushed and jumbled but not worn and Trimmer suggests that they must already have been bare bones before they were deposited in this location.

Trimmer had measured and drawn many of the finds, but was unable to preserve elephant tusks which fell apart on exposure. He bequeathed his fossils to his wife so that she could use them to educate their children.

Trimmer was not to know it but he was describing strata which spanned at least 30 million years from the blue clay at the base to the various gravels, clays, sands and loams above [7]. The blue clay, now known as the London Clay, is up to 100 metres thick under London and was deposited in a shallow ocean up to 200 metres deep. The gravels, silts and sands above were laid in a Thames flood plain very much later (up to 250,000 years ago) at a time when proto-Britain was being affected by periods of glaciation separated by warmer periods. One warmer period is clearly indicated by the presence of hippopotamus and elephant bones. The loams, or brickearths, are now thought to be ‘loess’ which is wind-blown material deposited during dry, cold periods when there was little vegetation. [8]

The Trimmers were asked in 1799 to assess the clay at the Isle of Dogs for brick production for the construction of London’s West India Docks and their warehouses. They reported that it was not suitable but were given a contract to supply 20 million stock bricks from Brentford for the warehouses. The East India Dock contract of 1803 required a further nine million bricks; as much of this order was to be manufactured from clay excavated on site, Joshua Kirby Trimmer and his family went to live in Poplar during this time. [9]

Manufacturing bricks
Bricks were moulded and fired close to the site where the brickearth had been dug. Sometimes the excavation for brickearth also provided foundations or a cellar for a new brick structure. Making bricks was seasonal work. The brickearth was dug in the autumn, then processed and left to weather during the winter. From spring to early autumn the bricks were formed in wooden moulds by workers housed in temporary shelters, with each batch of thousands of bricks fired in substantial earth clamps over several days.

Brick-making appears to have been an established trade in Brentford by the 1490s. The Prior of Westminster contracted [10] James Powle of New Brentford and Robert Slyngisby of Hertfordshire to manufacture 400,000 bricks from brickearth on his manor of Belsize in 1496. These skilled men were paid 18 pence per thousand bricks, with pasture for two horses, a lodging house and cooking fuel provided, as well as wood and straw and half the cost of carrying sand to the site. Six years later a New Brentford man won the contract to supply 400,000 bricks for building Syon Abbey. [11]

Thomas, the son of James Barratt, inherited his father’s business in Old Brentford and in 1728 was paid £70 17s for supplying bricks for Lord Burlington’s new villa at Chiswick House. As the accounts in the Chatsworth House archives [12] are not yet fully catalogued, we may still discover that these were not the only bricks he supplied. You can see the handsome brickwork in the vaulted cellar beneath the octagon; constructed by Burlington’s skilled bricklayer, Richard Wright, these support the whole structure. When he died in 1762 Thomas was a prosperous man. His will [13] appointed trustees to manage his property, letting leases ‘to dig Brick Earth and Committ Waste’

A letter of 1777 from Mrs Dorothy Ernst [14], who leased a house in Burlington Lane, Chiswick from the Duke of Devonshire, suggests that brick-making was an unpleasant trade for the neighbours. She wrote

they intend carrying on the Brick making to the end of the ground … and in six months they begin on the piece adjoining which is directly opposite the House I live in, so that what with the sight of the Brick Kilns with the most disagreeable unholsom smell and the dread of such low fellows makes what was once the best situated House now the worst in the whole Parish.

Firing and quality
Small locally grown timber and charcoal would be used as fuel for brick and tile production, and some-times imported coal. In the London area sifted coal ash from domestic hearths was also recycled as fuel in the firing clamps and as additives to the clay to minimise shrinkage. The description in the 1797 Valuation of Ealing Parish of the Trimmers’ premises in Old Brentford includes sheds for ‘Chaulk, Breeze and Ashes’ and a wharf. ‘Breeze’ was the cinders from the recycled ash and this material must have been stocked in large quantities given the scale of the Trimmers’ business.

After the Fire of London brick was favoured as a more fire-resistant material than timber, but brick quality was variable. Ash from the burnt City buildings, described as ‘Spanish’, had been dumped in the fields and incorporated into the brickearth. As this made bricks easier to fire, brick-makers continued to add ash, but their brick was often of a poorer quality.

In December 1713 the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches sought tenders from brick-makers, setting out their prices per thousand of firstly, bricks without Spanish delivered ‘at the waterside in London’, secondly the price at the clamp and thirdly, the price if burnt with six loads of Spanish per 100,000 bricks. Amongst those submitting tenders were some local brick-makers.

Richard Waterman [15] of Old Brentford proposed ‘to make bricks of the Naturall Earth without the use of any Spanish and to burn the same with no other fireing but wood or coales’ and to deliver them anywhere between Brentford and Deptford for the price of fourteen shillings per thousand. James Barratt Snr offered bricks without Spanish at the higher price of eighteen shillings per thousand, but said that if he were permitted to use Spanish, he could make better bricks at fifteen shillings per thousand. Neither man seems to have won a contract and the Commission’s minutes continued to record problems with brick quality well into the 1720s.

Other clay products
Small extra items like fishermen’s net weights, moulded from the same clay as bricks, could be fired in the clamps. Finer quality work required more controlled firing in a kiln. Builders required decorative ridge tiles, flooring tiles and chimney pots, while large estates and the numerous nursery gardeners and market gardeners in this area of Middlesex would have demanded flower pots, forcing jars and garden urns. Potteries and tile-kilns are mentioned in a number of sources.

In the 17th century potters were paying rates in New Brentford – John Robins in 1693 and Richard Yeoman in 1699 [16]. James Barratt Snr owned the ‘pothouse’ which lay behind his pub, The Bull, in Old Brentford at his death in 1750, which descended by marriage to Sir Thomas Edwardes. From the 1760s the Bull Lane pottery was leased from him by the Turners who invested in the business, putting up 14 cottages – Pot House Row – for their workers by about 1780 and running what was described as an ‘extensive pottery’ in a 1797 directory [17]. It is remembered today in Pottery Road.

A plot beside Ferry Lane in Brentford was called Tile Kiln Close in 1679 and a tile kiln is mentioned south of Brentford High Street in 1731, perhaps the same one. One of James Barratt’s plots in Old Brentford Field was described as being ‘behind the Tile Kiln’. Tall tapering tile-kilns are depicted at the Trimmers’ works at Strand on the Green on Leigh’s Thames Panorama of about 1830, and round kilns are visible at the Bull Lane Pottery on the 1890s OS map. Only the kiln at Coles Hole still stands in Gunnersbury Park.

Transport and imports
As bricks were heavy goods they were most likely to have been carried by river. Richard Goodwin, a brick-maker of Sutton Court who died in 1719, left two barges and a half share in a third [18], and Mary Tappin, the widow of James, both of Strand in the Green, who died in 1793 [19], owned a share in a barge. As the Tappins’ son was a waterman he may have owned the other share of the vessel.

At least three local brick-makers had their own wharves. In his 1726 will Thomas Tunstall [20] left his freehold landing platform ‘40 feet east to west’ beside Powell’s Ferry in Old Brentford to his son John, specifying that his widow and younger son, Robert, were to continue his business and have ‘full and free Liberty Benefitt and previlege of Landing Bricks Lime … on both sides of the Ferry … as I myself have used the same’. He also owned a wharf in Ferry Lane beside his Kew Ferry. James Barratt’s will [21] shows that he owned the Bull Inn and Bull wharf in Brentford in 1749, while the Thames Panorama of about 1830 shows a timbered wharf on the riverside in front of the Trimmers’ tile and slate works at Strand on the Green.

Bricks and tiles continued to be imported from the Netherlands where the industry was long established. The Earl of Fauconberg bought 3,000 Flanders tiles in 1688 for his pheasant yard at Sutton Court and 2,000 Dutch bricks for the new stables in 1700. His steward’s accounts [22] also list purchases in the 1680s and ‘90s of ‘fine bricks’ from Mr Wamsley of Fulham, bricks and sand from Mr Goodwin, and in 1698 ‘extraordinary bricks from Hammersmith’, probably for new gate piers.

The Trimmers’ tile and slate works with tall conical kilns, downstream of Kew Bridge, from Samuel Leigh’s Thames Panorama, c 1830

The manufacturers
A number of local brick-makers have been mentioned above; about a dozen families were engaged in the trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The families knew each other, worked together in partnerships and supported each other. For example, Abraham Trimmer, brother of James Trimmer Snr, was one of Daniel Turner’s executors and James Tappin was a witness to James’ will.

Brick-making was rarely their only occupation – William Jones was actually listed in a 1797 directory as a freeholder earning his living as meal-man, corn-chandler, coal-merchant and brick-maker. A number were receiving rents from houses in local parishes, in the centre of London and elsewhere in Middlesex. These included James Barratt Snr, who not only owned the Bull Inn and the Bull Lane pottery but also had extensive property in London and Middlesex. He made bequests to his six children and relatives totalling over £11,000. He had set up his eldest son, also James, lending him £2,500 to invest in the sugar trade; he bequeathed to him this capital sum, wiping out the debt and ensuring James Jnr prospered to the extent of being described as a gentleman in 1740.

In 1703 Robert Tunstall, a cooper, and his son, Thomas, the brick-maker, had together acquired Powell’s Ferry, ferry house and wharf, with six acres of freehold land at The Hollows and a lime kiln. This diversification proved profitable. Thomas’s will of 1726 listed extensive property and business interests, including brickearth in Old Brentford Field. He now owned Kew Ferry as well; this carried horses and vehicles between Ferry Lane further upriver and Kew. He also owned Ferry Lane itself, its wharf and warehouse and an ale-house, the windmill on Brentford’s river-front, a malt-house, lime- and tile-kilns and a whiting house. It was his son, Thomas, who went one step further and built the first Kew bridge.

Brothers Robert, Henry and John Browne inherited their father’s brick-making business in Old Brentford in 1705. John Browne married one of the daughters of Richard Goodwin of Sutton Court and inherited from him the Coles Hole clay pit. Robert and Henry became gardeners. One of the plots Henry owned in Old Brentford at his death in 1724 adjoined land held by James Barratt and Nicholas Goodwin, both brick-makers. If this had yielded brickearth, he may have begun to manage it as a garden once it was worked out. Certainly his son, Gilman, who held property jointly with his widowed mother Christian, was a gardener not a brick-maker.

Others made partnerships to strengthen their businesses. John Clarke and his son Samuel were brick- and tile-makers. They worked in various partnerships with James Trimmer from the 1740s onwards. The partnership ran a tile-kiln [23] from about 1742, which passed from John Snr to Samuel and then in 1807, to John Clarke Jnr, Samuel’s son, before the Trimmers took it on alone.

Brick-makers’ wills made careful provision for the future of their businesses, empowering their trustees and their widows to continue their businesses. Richard Waterman had no children so in 1740 made bequests to James Trimmer Snr, husband of his niece Anne, and also appointed the couple as his executors. Trimmer received a freehold house and garden in Richmond and the leasehold business at Strand on the Green which included a house, tile kiln and malt-house.

Brick-making continued in the Brentford area as long as there was a demand and the raw materials to fulfill it. Some plots with brickearth were worked out and reverted to cultivation. Gradually, some of the families became prosperous and moved away from the rough and dirty work of brick-making into different lives.

References and Sources
1 TNA PROB 11/1220
2 National Gazetteer for Great Britain and Ireland, Virtue, 1868
3 TNA PROB 11/784
4 TNA PROB 11/569
5 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1813
6 Counterpart lease ACC/1360/203 LMA
7 1:50,000 Geological map sheet 270, South London, British Geological Survey
8 London and the Thames Valley British Regional Geology Series, British Geological Survey, 1996
9 Joshua Kirby Trimmer, Greg Finch in B&CLHJ 19, 2010
10 English Mediaeval Industries, John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, Continuum Publishing 2001, pp 224-5
11 VCH Middlesex vol 7, p 141, TNA E315/36/146
12 Chatsworth, Devonshire Mss BAS 442, Aug 16 1728
13 TNA PROB 11/881
14 Chatsworth, Mss LI 14/35 quoted in An Eighteenth Century Resident of Chiswick, Peter Hammond, B&CLHJ \ 1,2002
15 Lambeth Palace Library MS 2723, ff 21v-22
16 New Brentford Mss 17514 p38
17 Wilkes’ Universal British Directory, 1797
18 TNA PROB 11/569
19 TNA PROB 11/1228 and PROB 11/1236
20 TNA PROB 11/616
21 TNA PRO 11/784
22 North Yorks RO, ZDV v 10, Fauconberg accounts
23 VCH Middlesex Vol 7, p 141, Ealing churchwarden’s rates and accounts, LMA DRO/037/V/01, 02

Val Bott is a museum and heritage consultant. She is the author of Flood! The Brentford Flood of 1841, and chairs the organising committee for the West London Local History Conference

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