Based on my sample of three and a half months, a PhD is mostly reading. Now, I love reading, but there’s only so much academic-style concentration one can take in a stretch so I’ve been breaking it up with some preliminary data collection, downloading census reports at my local library (free in Dudley!). Even in the barest and most problematic of information like the 1841 census, some characters already begin to emerge – my favourite so far is Elizabeth Cope of Beaumont Street, Wolverhampton. A Staffordshire native, she has reached the age of 70 and is still listed as a brickmaker, and is living with a man of 40, also a brickmaker. What we read into that, I don’t know…
You wouldn’t mess with a 70 year old brickmaker. It was hard, physical work dominated by female labour – someone like Ms Cope would probably have arms the size of tree-trunks. Later in the nineteenth century, brickmaking became a much more industrial process leading to the large numbers of significant brickworks that show up on old OS maps of the region. But in the first half of the century production tended towards the small-scale: this report shows that typical shops employed 10-15 workers, mostly women and often children, pumping out around 2,000 bricks per day.
I’m no expert on individual industries – in fact, Brownhills Bob had to correct me yesterday that someone listing their occupation as Ring Forger actually has nothing to do with the Lord of the Rings at all. You can find more info on the Black Country brick industry at Distinctly Black Country, the Bugle, and in John Cooksey’s book.
What does interest me however, is how this history fits into the landscape that surrounds us. When we moved into our current home we set about decorating and that, as you do. For instance, we took out some skirtings and pulled out the nails – these are not modern, milled nails, but machine-cut ones – it’s very likely that they were produced nearby, perhaps Lye or Dudley.
Likewise when my dad, a builder, came to visit the area he was thrilled by the bricks – apparently houses around here use extra large bricks, bigger than in most of the rest of the country. You never know what’s going to excite some people, do you? That suggests that the bricks were produced locally, to local specification, and of course that’s borne out by the colour of the bricks – the distinctive deep red that stems from the rich and exceptionally varied local geology.
The shape of this part of the Black Country is a result of sand and pebble deposits 250 million years ago, when the area was arid or semi-arid. Later glaciation provided the profile of the landscape, but it’s the sandstone that lies under the houses and gardens. There’s a hundred different ways of making bricks, but they all boil down to a basic mixture of clay and sand. When your road or river transport isn’t up to much (as was the case in the Black Country until the late 1700s), then if you wanted bricks, you had to dig these out of the ground and make ’em yourself. The era of brick buildings really took off in the seventeenth century, and it wasn’t long before innovations like adding iron and lime (both of course found in abundance around here) became established procedures. The bricks are then shaped and burned in a kiln (ever noticed the mass of roads called Brickklin or Brickhouse something? I spy them in Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Dudley, Quarry Bank and Willenhall, I’m sure there’s more), before being used to build houses, factories and other things.
To me, it seems a great shame looking on at new housing developments in the region and seeing yellow-y, small bricks everywhere. This is globalisation in action: it’s cheaper to import bricks, tiles etc. from China or elsewhere than to make them in this country, therefore local tradition and character is eroded. Elsewhere in the country, for instance the Cotswolds, it’s illegal to build using anything other than the famous local stone. I’m aware of the impracticality of insisting on locally-made bricks when building in the midlands, but I find it sad that the townscape of this area is not considered of equal worth to the overly twee, chocolate-box villages of the Cotswolds.
The debates surrounding heritage in the built environment are way beyond my payscale, so I’ll not get involved. Perhaps it’s enough to give a nod every so often to the likes of Elizabeth Cope, those who slogged their whole lives at hard physical labour, to give the ordinary people, the vast urban majority of nineteenth century Britain, somewhere to live.