The Brickmaking Work Force

What a brickmaking gang did and earned

The Workforce

Making bricks by hand was very labour intensive consequently a brickfield employed a large number of people during the brick-making season, a six month period from April to the end of September. During the rest of the year, autumn and winter, most brickfield workers were out of work and had to eke out an existence on savings or through alternative employment. A few lucky individuals were kept on during the winter period to prepare material for the next season.

Essex had a seasonal influx of men who would arrive from other parts of the country to work in the brickfields; many came from Kent. Even if they were Essex men by birth it is apparent that many of them had a connection with Kent through members of their family, a wife or children may have a birthplace in Kent. Clearly Essex men were attracted to Kentish brickfields, the seasonal nature of the employment gave them the opportunity to seek work elsewhere each new season, including locations in Essex.

Invariably the brickfield manager and foreman were from Kent. The 1881 census returns for South Benfleet and other Essex brickfields provide evidence of this phenomenon; often the wives and children would accompany the migrant workers. Even when the male head of family was Essex born it was common to find a Kentish connection through a wife or offspring. It seems that Essex men were attracted to the Kentish brickfields to find work, often they returned to Essex to work in the growing number of Essex brickfields, A seasonal influx of men from Kent is not all together surprising; the Kentish brickfields had been in operation, producing Stock bricks, since the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1823 George Smeed and other Kentish manufacturers were already supplying “a booming market”.

Many labourers were employed on site for the more menial tasks such as digging brick-earth, unloading chalk, sand and combustible materials from the barges. They constructed Clamps to fire the prepared bricks, dismantled the same after firing, sorted the bricks into grades and completed the production process by loading the finished product into the hold of the barges. Each layer of bricks was separated from the next by straw to prevent damage in transit.

The Brickmaking Gang

A brickmaking gang consisted of six individuals each member had a specific role:

  1. The “Temperer” dug the brick-earth from the Wash-Back and fed it into the Pug-Mill, using a three-pronged fork that had a bar across the tips, called a “Chuckle”. His job was to keep the prepared loam admixture in a workable condition.
  2. The “Flattie” transported the prepared loam, by barrow, from the Pug-Mill to the Moulders table. Here he cut and shaped the pugs as accurately as possible to fit the brick mould, placing the pug on the table.
  3. The “Moulder” would roll each pug in sand, throw it into the mould and strike off the excess clay.
  4. The “Off-Bearer” took each brick from the Moulding Table, placed it on a wooden pallet, tapped it out from the mould and put it onto an inclined page attached to the table.
  5. The “Barrow-Boy or Barrow Loader”, who was generally a boy, would in his turn take each brick, with its associated pallet, and place it onto a Hack-Barrow.
  6. The last member of the team, the “Pusher-Out” wheeled the loaded barrow to the Hack sheds or Hack ground and laid the bricks out to dry, leaving sufficient space for air to flow around the bricks to aid drying.

The Moulder and Pusher-out took it in turns to mould bricks, so in fact there were two moulders in each team although one was more senior; they swapped roles at hour and a half intervals.

It required considerable teamwork and physical effort to produce 900 bricks each hour (a brick every four seconds), every hour of the eight and a half-hour working day. On occasions a gang would compete to produce more than a rival gang, on such occasions the work rate had been known to exceed eleven hundred bricks an hour. Gangs that could consistently produce bricks at the exceptional hourly rates were capable of making more than a million bricks in a season.

It was common to find members of the same family working in the brickfields even in the same gang. The same family names for brickfield workers appear on the Census Returns in Kent and Essex, adding weight to the argument that many Kentish men travelled to Essex to work in the brickfields, returning home at the end of season. This is particularly evident when unusual surnames occur. As an example, the surname Wildish, Kitney and Sidders can be found in Kent and Essex where brickfields are located, including the parish of South Benfleet.

Earnings

The brickmaking gangs were paid by piece work, in the 1850’s a gang earned 4/3d per 1000 bricks, this rate remained static or was even reduced as over production and cheap foreign imports affected the sale of hand-made bricks. By 1900 the rate had risen to just 4/6d per 1000 bricks but this was only after a strike. In October 1901 the rate per 1000 bricks was reduced one penny, in 1906 the rate was again reduced by a penny, giving a piece rate of 4/4d, just one penny above the rate set in the 1850’s; the cost of hand-made bricks had become uneconomical.

If a brickmaking gang worked an eight and a half-hour day, six days a week and produced on average of 900 bricks per hour, 45,900 bricks in a working week, at a piece rate of 4/3p per 1000 bricks they would earn £9 a week. To achieve this level of payment a gang would have moved 136 tons of material per week; not all gangs achieved this level of output.

The work rate was affected by weather conditions, in heavy rain work stopped, in dry hot conditions the Temperer had to continually add water to the admixture to keep it pliable, this could slow down the rate of production. Water had to be collected from the local source usually a pond.

When taken into account that a brick making season only lasted for twenty-five weeks a gang would earn less than £4/10s (£4.50p) per week for a year period. The Master Moulder would distribute the weekly income to the gang members, each receiving a rate in order of seniority and age. With a piece rate of 4/3d per thousand bricks the distribution was thus, the Moulder, Pusher-out and Off-bearer each received 10½d, the Temperer received 8½d, the Flattie had 4d and the Barrow-loader received 3d and approximately 4d was retained by the “Brick-master”.

The Brick-master retained one penny in every shilling earned by the gang, this was paid out at the end of the season. The “Pence Money”, as it was called, required the workers to remain for the whole season. If for any reason a member of the gang left his place of employment the pence money was forfeit. The workers were in this way tied to their employer and peer pressure would undoubtedly have ensured that gang members remained at their post. Pence-money was vital in providing a small sum of money to assist a brickmakers family through the period of the year when there was little or no work.

Brick Prices

The cost of making Stock bricks in 1875 is estimated at £1 per 1000 bricks. In the early 1880’s the Stock trade was at its peak, it is estimated that the Stock producers in North Kent and Essex were producing 450 million bricks a year. However by the 1890’s competition from the Fletton and Cowley (Oxford) manufacturers was seriously affecting the Stock trade. Cheap imports from Belgium were also available, priced at 4/6d per 1000. This strong competition from other brick manufacturers left the Stock producers with no choice, they had to reduce their costs in order to sell bricks. The smaller companies were worst hit by such price fluctuations and often ceased to trade, simply due to economy of scale. The delivered price of Stock bricks to London was reduced from 28/- to 26/- per thousand in 1899, in October 1901 the price was reduced to 24/- per thousand. The 1901 price reduction coincided with the piece rate cuts made to the brickmaking gangs.

In 1907, the “Benfleet Brick Works Limited” finally closed its books, it was the last Limited brick manufacturing company to operate in South Benfleet, presumably it had become impossible to continue the business at a profit. This left Nicholas Stockwell to continue the brickmaking tradition in South Benfleet. As an independent producer he appears to have continued trading at a profit, he had no shareholders and presumably his costs were lower.

The Brickmaking Season

The brickmaking season generally commenced the first week of April but adverse weather conditions could delay the start. In 1881 the census was taken on the 11th of April and a substantial migrant brick making force had already arrived in South Benfleet totalling sixty-six men. At each census the brickfield foreman or manager was listed at South Benfleet. In 1881 it was Alfred Butler (senior), in 1891 Thomas Smith and in 1901 James W. Jemmett. However the returns for 1891 and 1901 had few brick workers listed.

Census Returns

The Census Returns for South Benfleet were consistently taken during the first two weeks of April at ten-year intervals. As brickmaking was largely confined to a spring and summer season most brickfield workers had to find alternative employment or live off seasonal earnings. Most brick workers seem to have moved in to the Village to work at the beginning of April and left during October. It is therefore important to take account of the timing of this census tally when assessing the population changes during the forty-year period, 1871 to 1911, when brick making was a major industry in this small Essex village.

1871 Census

The 1871 Census was taken on the 8th of April, it shows that the village had a population of 537 individuals; two “Brickmakers” are listed. The first was “John Bowley” from “Harrow” in “ Surrey” the other “John Ayeling” from “Middlesex”, the wife of each man was born in Kent. Even at this early date when the first brick makers are to be found in South Benfleet there is evidence of a Kentish connection. Thus far, no evidence of brick making has been found in South Benfleet as early as 1871 other than the inclusion of the two brickmakers included in the census. It may be an indication that brick manufacturing was taking place but the size of operation and its location has not, as yet, been found.

1881 Census

The 1881 Census Returns, taken on the 11th April, appears to show a 14% increase in the population from 537 to 681 individuals, since the last Census. The indigenous population increase appears to be just 45, the numbers are skewed by the inclusion of 66 men (34 wives and offspring) employed manufacture of bricks who are migrant workers; more than half are not from Essex.

The 1881 census returns also provide evidence that many of the brickmakers came from Kent, including the brickfield labourers; the workforce was predominantly from the Sittingbourne and Faversham area. 

1891 Census

The continuing level of a migrant workforce in the Brickfields is apparent from the figures given in the 1891 Census Returns when only 569 people are shown in the Village, this is a fall of 20% from the 1881 returns. Only a few of the brickmakers had arrived in the village at this date, possibly due to inclement weather having delayed the start of the brickmaking season.

Brickmakers settle in South Benfleet

As the brickmaking industry was expanding in Essex the migrants appear on the Census Returns at locations along the river Thames as far as Shoeburyness at the mouth of the estuary. There is no evidence to suggest that it was more lucrative to work in Essex, it may be that they simply liked to move from place to place as the fancy took them. There is evidence that some families eventually settled down in the Village. The indigenous population at the time was somewhat static very likely due to the lack of employment in farming.

South Benfleet of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s must have seemed a small pleasant village. It had tidal creeks, a small fishing industry and even a railway station from which rail passengers could travel to London or to the popular seaside resort of Southend-on-Sea. South Benfleet had woods, hills and a rolling countryside and most importantly for thirsty brickmakers, three Public Houses in close proximity to the brickfields.

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  • What a fascinating article. People might be interested to see a photo taken somewhere in the Hadleigh/Benfleet area around 1900 of a brickmaking team.
    Click here to see the photo.

    By Pat Tookey (10/05/2018)

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