Brickmaking in South Benfleet

An overview of the industry during the late Victorian Period

Hay Barge
Peter Gillard collection
Map from 1895 showing two brickworks overlaid on modern map.

Population growth leads to demand for bricks

The growth of a railway network during the early Victorian period provided a relatively cheap and ready means of travel for the population of England. Many country dwellers took advantage of this new technological development and left their roots in hamlets and villages to seek a better life through employment in the growing industrial centres. The exodus of people from the countryside was so great that by 1851 the majority of the population had become urban dwellers. The population of London and other industrial centres such as Manchester and Birmingham continued to expand throughout the century. The census taken in 1841 shows that London already had a population of 2,239,000, by 1901 this figure had climbed to 6,586,000. As towns and cities expanded the adjacent countryside became a part of the urban sprawl. London, already the largest city in the world by the nineteenth century created the biggest demand for building materials. By the end of the century it had quadrupled in physical size.

Agriculture decline

The county of Essex had been a major producer of cereal crops until the 1860’s when the farmers were dealt a double blow to their livelihood. Advances in technology allowed growers in the prairies of the United States of America to export large quantities of grain by steam-ship to Britain at a price that under cut the English farmers, this particularly affected Essex farmers who relied heavily on earnings from cereal crops. Adverse weather conditions also affected the English producers; persistent wet weather made it difficult to plough the heavy clay soil of Essex. The prevailing damp weather reduced the crop yield and made it difficult to dry the grain, as a consequence the output was low and of poor quality. The weather continued to be unusually wet through the 1870’s and 1880’s, many farmers suffered the humiliation of bankruptcy and the loss of their farm. So landowners sought alternative ways to make a living from the under utilised land. Brickmaking was one solution to this plight, London needed bricks, and Essex had clay or “Brick Earth” in abundance, Thames Barges and the river Thames provided the means of transporting this produce.

Scots set up dairy farms

Landowners were also affected by this situation as their tenants’ business failed. Some farms were let to Scots who moved south and seemed able to sustain a living from the farms abandoned by the English. Dairy farming provided another viable alternative to cereal growing; many acres of farmland were laid to pasture in the County. South-east Essex had the advantage of local rail links to London so that milk and other perishable goods could be speedily transported to meet the demands of this growing urban centre.

Brickmaking is also a solution

The demand for building materials also provided an alternative use of land; the largest user of this commodity was again London. The population of the Capital quadrupled during the nineteenth century and the need for building materials for housing, industrial and cultural development was continuous, although the demand fluctuated at times.

Demand for “Yellow Stock” bricks exceeds supply

George Smeed, the Kentish brick manufacturer produced millions of the hand made bricks for the London market every year. The type of brick that he produced was known as the “Yellow Stock”, a brick with a distinctive rich yellow colour flecked with black spent combustible material. The bricks were transported from Smeed’s Sittingbourne and Faversham brickfields by “Thames Barge” and delivered by water to the numerous riverside wharves in London. The brick became known as the “Yellow London Stock” during the nineteenth century due to its extensive use in the capital. As the century passed it became clear that a few large suppliers could not meet the increasing demand for bricks, inevitably other entrepreneurs would venture into this thriving trade.

Thames Barges provide a convenient route to London

Over the centuries the river Thames had provided a convenient highway for transporting of all kinds of produce from the countryside to London. During the nineteenth century it had already provided a solution to the extensive use of horse transport in the Capital. By 1901 London had an estimated 3,276,000 horses being used as a cheap and efficient means of transportation, It was called the “new and expanding demand for horse labour”. However horses needed to be fed and they produced a lot of waste, so a convenient marriage of needs was adopted. Essex farmers had an abundance of hay; they supplied huge quantities of fodder, by barge, to feed the horse population of London. The name “Haystack Barge” was coined to describe this particular load. On its return journey the barge would be loaded with horse manure to enrich the soil used by farmers and fruit growers. This two-way traffic of materials ensured that a barge rarely sailed with an empty hold. The stomach of London’s growing horse population was satisfied and Essex farmers had a constant supply of manure for use on their land.

London household waste provides fuel for brickmaking

The disposal of London’s household refuse was another growing problem; it was collected by private contractors and stored in great mounds. The “King’s Cross” mound was said to be one hundred feet high and spread across five acres. It must have been a stinking, festering health hazard. One of the necessary raw materials for the manufacture of Stock bricks is combustible waste material. This by-product of urbanisation was delivered to riverside wharves, loaded onto barges and transported to the brickfields and deposited, the barges were then loaded with bricks for the return journey. The disposal of waste material continued to be a problem for the growing urban society in Victorian Britain, to have it collected and delivered to the countryside for re-cycling was a suitable marriage of needs. London disposed of its waste and the demand for this raw material at coastal brickfields was satisfied.

London “Yellow Stock” bricks build London

The majority of bricks used in London were of the “Yellow London Stock” variety; twenty-five percent of this type of brick consists of combustible material. Millions of Yellow Stock bricks were manufactured each year; most of the output from the Essex and Kent brickfield provided bricks for the development of London. They were used on many projects including sections of Buckingham Palace, Crystal Palace; King’s Cross railway station, railway tunnels and bridges, the underground railway, the London sewerage system and London Bridge. They were also used to construct some of London’s docks including West India, St. Catherine’s and the Royal Albert. More mundanely but essential to the expansion of London they were used extensively to build residential accommodation. Even in the most expensive areas of London such as Kensington and Mayfair where the facades of building are constructed with costly ornate stone features, out of sight on the sides and back of the buildings the humble Stock brick is often found. This was simply Victorian prudence to cut the cost of construction, where it did not show a cheaper material was used, it was a common practice and can be seem on many Victorian buildings.

Brickmaking and South Benfleet

A micro view of the changes affecting the county of Essex can be seen in the Village of South Benfleet. During a sixty-year period, 1831 to 1891, the population of the Village had been almost static with fewer than six hundred people in residence. Agricultural depression had affected the demand for local labour; the Village appeared to have stagnated.

The first successful brick manufacturing enterprise in 1879 began to drawn labour back into the Village and swell the population. The outsiders also began to inject much needed capital into the local economy. Local businesses that directly supported the brick making enterprises gained the most, the Blacksmith’s, Carpenters, Wheelwright’s, Sailmakers, Barge and Wharf owners. The Hoy and Helmet Inn provided accommodation for brick workers The householders who took in lodgers also benefited financially as did the local shopkeepers who had more customers.

The full impact of brick manufacturing can be seen from the 1881 Census Returns when sixty-six brick workers swelled the local population. They either lodged or lived in rented property, the process of brick making, by hand, was very labour intensive. However given the seasonal nature of the industry the majority of workers moved in to the Village during early April and departed by the end of October.

South Benfleet Brickmakers in the Census

The exact number of brick workers in South Benfleet in any one year is difficult to assess other than 1881, the year of the Census. The Census Returns for 1891 and 1901 only list a small number of brickfield workers, adverse weather conditions may have delayed the start of the season. In each census the brickfield manager and foreman are listed, this tends to suggest that they had arrived before the main workforce to begin site preparation and take on labour for the season.

The Parish Register’s for births and marriages provide further evidence of the brick workers and their families in the Village. The Weslyan Methodist register includes baptisms for the offspring of a few known brick workers but unfortunately it does not include the trade of the father so does not provide new information. The Poll Books, unfortunately do not include the householders’ trade, however a few men are listed at “Marsh Brickfield” in the cottages available to some of the employees. The Poll Books unfortunately do not include people who are in lodgings, which very likely accounted for the majority of the seasonal workers judging by the number of brick workers listed as lodgers on the 1881 Census Returns.

Water supply and South Benfleet

The population of South Benfleet expanded significantly during the 1890’s, the Essex Chronicle commented that the population had doubled during the decade but a shortage of bricks was hindering building work. This seems to be a contradiction when two companies were producing bricks locally; no doubt the manufacturers were intent on selling their produce at the best prices, in London. The population expansion had a further fundamental effect; the Village wells could not meet the demand of such a growth in population. There was also a constant demand for water by the brick manufacturers, at times this put them at odds with the community. The 1890’s were a period of dry weather, even draught. In the summer of 1899 water had to be ferried into the Village by rail tanker. The Village needed a clean and sufficient water supply, roads and footpaths maintained, street lighting, waste disposal and a sewerage plant. By 1906 the Benfleet Parish Council was also looking to create a means of sewerage disposal for the Village.

South Benfleet becomes a commuter town

South Benfleet was maturing into a small town by 1903 as Victorian’s reign drew to a close. The sale of land had allowed growth and an influx of new residents; the once rural Village was embracing change. Brick making was still providing employment and income to local businesses. However, the make up of the resident population was beginning to reduce the importance of this industry. A new railway station was eventually built in 1903 to replace the original wooden structure. A growing population of commuters living in the Village and no doubt a sense of local pride now influenced local demand. The community was becoming more affluent and worldly; it was no longer reliant on land-based employment.

The end of brickmaking in South Benfleet

Brick making continued at South Benfleet well into the twentieth century. “The Benfleet Brick Works” continued to produce bricks through the efforts of “William Jemmett”, the company’s last site manager who was in post till 1906. The company went into liquidation during 1906 and the business was finally wound up by the summer of 1908. As the price of hand-made bricks fluctuated the smaller speculative producers were adversely affected, in South Benfleet all the Limited Companies had eventually failed. This may be through poor management but is more likely to be due to varying demand and price-cutting; the result proved catastrophic.

The Master Brickmaker Nicholas Stockwell had no shareholders; his was a family business that made use of local labour as required. On his death in April 1916 brick making ceased in South Benfleet; it had provided a timely stop-gap of income generation after the failure of local farming. The Essex Chronicle reported, in 1899, that “Benfleet was fast becoming an important town”. South Benfleet had overcome the difficulties of change faced by a village in the late nineteenth century as it moved away from a land-based and rural economy to that of a rapidly expanding town.

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  • Is the author of the Brick Making in South Benfleet article the same Peter Gillard born about 1946-47 and is the same as Peter Gillard who attended Benfleet Primary, and subsequently King John Secondary School between 1958 and 1963?

    The Peter Gillard I knew of for all my time at the schools in the Benfleet area lived in Clifton Avenue. Peter was affectionately known as ‘Mouse’, as another school friend was known as ‘Frog’, who is still known by that epithet; Michael Walsh, currently residing in the south of France.

    By Christopher Davis (28/03/2017)

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