Bursledon Brickworks

At our last meeting Bob Marshall from Bursledon Brickworks gave a most interesting talk on bricks and brickmaking.

He began with the history of how bricks were used. Before the Romans there weren’t any.  Stone might be used in anything really substantial, but the vast majority of ordinary buildings were of wattle and daub. When the Romans came they introduced a kind of brick that is very thin, rather like a modern tile. It was used in the walls of Portchester Castle, and recycled examples can be seen in the porch of Titchfield Church.

After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons reverted to wattle and daub, and new brick construction does not reappear until well after the Conquest. Spectacular early examples are the 12th century Polstead Church in Suffolk with its brick interiors and Coggeshall Abbey in Essex where brick was used for the exterior walls. See also the magnificent brick tower of Tattershall Castle (mid 15th century) and Hampton Court.

Then bricks began to be used in less high-class buildings: hearths with chimneys came into use, and these of course had to be fire-proof. The 1666 Fire of London brought a sharp lesson on fire risks. Most of the buildings in the destroyed area were of wattle and daub, and brick or stone began to be used for the replacements, and later for major new builds like the Georgian townhouses.

Victorian times brought great expansion of towns and cities, and the canals and railways involved major civil engineering projects, requiring many millions of bricks. Strangely the modern standard size of bricks (8½” x 4½” x 2½”) was not adopted until well on in the 19th century.

The making of bricks starts with excavation of clay from a deposit of brickearth. The first brickworks were set up to supply bricks for a particular major building project, and were located as near as possible to the building site. As the nearby clay was used up the works was closed down and re-established on a new site, it being far more economic to do this than to try to import clay from a distance. This has always been a feature of brickworks management, and it is unusual for a works to remain on one site for much over 30 years.

In the early 1850s one Edward Hooper moved to Southampton, working as a civil engineer and architect. Ater his brother Charles joined him they began making bricks and started a very successful builders’ merchant business as Hooper & Co., then Hooper & Ashby, selling all kinds of materials including their own bricks. They opened a brickworks at Chandlers Ford, then having exhausted clay supplies at that site they moved to a new one at Lower Swanwick in 1897, changing the name to Bursledon Brickworks Ltd in 1903. The new site was chosen because the particular mix of clay and sand there was ideal for brickmaking. Also a siding connecting to the nearby railway, and a ropeway down to the River Hamble were built to make it easier to remove the finished product. Later the business was amalgamated with the Sussex and Dorking Brick Company, and in 1959 became part of Redland Holdings Ltd.

Unusually for a brickworks, it remained on the same site for 77 years until its closure in 1974. Some of its processes were

modernised down the years. Steam shovels were introduced in the 1930s to replace the laborious manual digging, and Ruston Bucyrus excavators in the 1950s. A disadvantage of mechanical digging was the resulting need to pick over the clay as a separate process to ensure that stones were removed to avoid damage to machinery later in the processing.

The bricks were extruded by a machine capable of making up to 40,000 per day, and then placed in heated drying sheds. After drying they were staked in a kiln and fired for 2- 3 days.

Several things happened in the 1970s to bring about its closure. The diggings were becoming more distant from the works, so that clay was having to be trucked across. Also the planned route of the M27 motorway would cut the site in two. The stopper, however was the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. Much of the machinery and processes would have had to be extensively, and expensively, modified to comply with the Act. This was deemed uneconomic and the works was closed.

Rapid action by the County Council saved the southern part of the site from redevelopment, and that is the part which was established, with the aid of a lottery grant, as a museum whose buildings are grade II* listed, and which is now run by a charitable trust. The part north of the motorway was demolished and the land acquired by National Air Traffic Services who built an Air Traffic Control Centre there.