23/05/18 - Member outing to Bulmer Brick Works

For our first outing of the year we visited a local hidden gem we had been pondering for some time, though because we thought it might not interest the ladies as much as the men, it had been placed on the back burner. Happily, following discussions with members it became clear there was a demand, and what an experience it was, stepping back in time to another very different but very satisfying world. As Peter says in his excellent book (The Brickmaker’s Tale):

The brickyard and its surroundings have long provided a magic for those who live and work here but it can equally create its spell for the casual visitor ….. to visit the brickyard is like going back in time, yet much has changed over the short span of my life. The men I was brought up with would find it hard to recognise much of what is here today, yet people who know the place comment on its timelessness. On arrival, one is struck by the quality of the light and, even in these times, the tranquillity, yet the yard is a hive of activity and noise. Cars, vans and lorries are parked where, not long ago, not even a bicycle would have been found.

A lovely view of the brickwickworks, one kiln ahead and the 'backs' to the right

Bulmer brickyard sits in its own small valley mid-way between Sudbury and Hedingham, and I can certainly attest to the quality of light referred to by Peter. As well as its clay, it has a good supply of water and good moulding sand. The only way in/out is by road, which in times past would have been a limiting factor, requiring movement of goods by horse and cart to either the river Stour at Sudbury or the then new rail connection at Sudbury and Hedingham; the effort and cost of this would have made it hard to stay competitive, but they found a way.

A hand flint axe provides the earliest evidence of man on the site, and the structures of the brickyard are built on what was the clay bottom - as clay was extracted, new buildings could be erected on the cleared earth, and as the pit face moved back, the making area moved with it. Bronze age burial urns some 3,000 years old signify direct involvement in the use of clay on site, along with later sherds of Roman pots, roof tiles and bricks - the site being quite close to that of the Roman Villa at Guestingthorpe. Saxons followed and in the 1960’s, when reclaiming another part of the site, Peter discovered what are some of the earliest bricks in the country, dating from the mid fourteenth century. Deep ploughing close by brought up quantities of burnt sand, which later investigation showed was the site of an early tile kiln, and carbon dating techniques gave a date of 1450. A discovery of bricks from the foundations of Peter’s own house, on site, date from the early 15th century, so the brickyard’s roots certainly go deep.

The brickworks is the cumulative creation of just three families, the Hurrells, who can be traced on site as far back as 1596, the English family who are recorded as owners in 1795, and of course the Minters - Peter’s father having bought it in 1936 from builders following completion of their developments around Shenfield and Mountnessing. As noted in his excellent book:

Much of my present knowledge comes from observing the old craftsmen, talking to them, playing around them as a child (he was just three when the family moved in) and later asking questions, but unfortunately I can still only claim a fraction of their skills. I have reinvented much, but the knowledge is tainted with modern ideas and techniques, and I suspect that there are numbers of tricks we have lost for ever.

I for one believe that Peter’s modesty vastly understates his own skills & knowledge, which were evidenced in his encyclopedic knowledge of every facet of brickmaking, from digging the clay through mould making to mixing the clay, then firing and onto hand finishing an already hand made product for specialist uses, it really was an incredible tour de force.

The tour began where we had naturally congregated - the carpenters shop where new brick moulds are made. Incredibly we were advised the company now has some 7 to 8 thousand different moulds, some of which may only have been used to make a very small number of bricks, but which nevertheless are sensibly retained for future cataloguing and preservation. He then explained some of the finer features - multiple section moulds and those with removable parts to permit more complicated shapes - along with the timbers used, which includes modelling board when faces or shapes are to be incorporated into terracotta. Lastly, he reminded us that allowance always had to be made for a 12% shrinkage of the clay, which had to be taken into account before the moulds were made.

The tour begins with Peter (front left) introducing himself and the brickworks site

Peter shows us some of the brick moulds - they now have more than seven thousand!

A 'Green Man' mould

And the resultant terracotta image

A rather nice gothic shaped mould

We then went through the clay washing area, where impurities are removed in order to produce the purest clay for the finest bricks for their most important building renovation projects such as Hampton Court Palace, St Pancras Station and Layer Marney Towers in Essex. As with just about all machinery on-site, the large impressive filter press was obtained second hand and just about fits into its shed - see pic. Clay is first thoroughly mixed, then washed twice in a large ‘blunger’ - a tank in which clay and water is mixed - before being pumped as a slurry into the press; it is then squeezed very slowly, 60 to 90 minutes. This releases some of the water without putting too much pressure on the clay, which otherwise would result in inferior bricks. A hi tech process is then used to ensure that the clay is ‘just right’, before individual ‘leaves’ from the press are removed and the washed / partly dried clay extracted; this comprises a jug and beaker, to measure separation of the clay components and to undertake a slump test!

The clay washing machine, needed to make the finest quality 'Rubbers'

Hi Tech testing equipment

The Blunger

On leaving this washing shed, we passed the working area, which every day prepares clay for the brickmakers. A years worth of clay is dug over winter and placed in a very large pile, from which digger shovelfuls are carefully removed. Clay naturally differs throughout the on site seam and it is important to pick the right clay for each job: the right colour and the right texture. The requisite amount is then placed in a large circle in the working area with its ‘pug’ bed, a preparation of wet roughly mixed clay for brickmaking.  The skilled craftsman doing this - the temperer - aims to ensure the moisture and mix is constant, to facilitate production and helping to control shrinkage. Material is then either taken to the washing area, for making rubbers, or placed into a ‘pug mill’ for ‘extruding’ through to the men making more typical bricks. This item was originally a Berry brick making machine which Peter adapted; it is loaded with clay at the rear and then slowly mixed and moved down the barrel by a series of large blades, from where it is drawn down by each maker as required. It seems the resulting pug - a preparation of wet mixed clay for brickmaking - is a huge improvement on the old process, speeding up the making and enhancing brick quality. Then we were on our way to view the clay seam, now a bit of a walk away, reflecting just how much clay has been dug out over the centuries.

The Pug bed

A years supply of clay

At a guess the working face of the seam ranges between 15 and 20 feet, though Peter did advise they have now ‘gone through’ the thickest part as they are getting to the edge of the clay. There is topsoil to be removed before reaching the clay proper, which is dug out vertically from the top down and moved to the edge of the working area once a year, about 1,000 tons! The process is now largely done by machine, but we were regaled by stories from times past when this was entirely manual. Being done over winter, the wheelbarrows with their iron wheels would often get stuck in the clay, so required two men - one to push as normal and one to pull from the front with a rope - sheer backbreaking work. Of course this was the easy bit when they were working at ground level - all other work involved barrowing loads of extremely heavy clay along thick but narrow planks, just 11 inches wide, many feet in the air, with ‘passing places’ to permit two or more barrows to work continuously. It sounded dangerous, and Peter admitted that kids often played on the planks, trying to make each other fall off, but it seems the soft squelchy clay always ensured there were no injuries.

Our route back to the main site took us to the finishing area, where bricks of the finest quality, called rubbers (*), are cut into many shapes and, if necessary, glued together to form more complex patterns. The reason for this skillful, labour intensive and therefore expensive process, is to ensure absolute consistency of brick size, something otherwise impossible because of the vagaries of shrinkage - refer earlier - in order to facilitate minute and consistent mortar joins and shapes that just cannot be moulded. Bulmer also create brick arches bonded on top of metal formers which can then be inserted as one piece into the finished product - see pic. Interestingly, bricks may be cut quite easily by a simple bow saw using ordinary garden wire twisted round and round and then stretched a little, it looks like it has saw teeth but doesn’t. Being an ex physicist I just had to feel the saw ‘blade’, which of course was not at all sharp and in fact felt quite soft to the touch, so how does it work? Peter spilled the beans, telling us that it was the sand particles within the brick that actually did the cutting, they were picked up by the wire, held within the twists and then simply cut through the softer clay, even after bricks had been fired. Incredibly intricate shapes can be obtained, and were for St Pancras station, see pic; consistency of angles when many bricks are involved is ensured by first creating individual angled former templates in order to make accurately ‘gauged’ brickwork - see pic. It was all amazing stuff, apparently very basic but incredibly skillful, and we left much impressed by just what it is possible to achieve through the oft taken for granted humble clay brick.

(*) Rubber: A brick that can be cut and rubbed. The best quality rubbers should be fully washed to remove all extraneous matter, to provide a ‘clean’ or smooth brick, which can be cut or carved. The finest rubbers come from the London and Reading bed clays.

A bonded brick arch

How to cut a brick

Cut and bonded brick shapes

Gauged cut bricks (all exactly the same size and shape)

What can be achieved by cutting - incredible shapes that look amazing when incorporated into the finished product

On our way to the main brickmaking area we passed the ‘Backs’, where fresh bricks are dried before being fired. These comprise a series of long, low and narrow open sided sheds with just a roof above, where the bricks are very carefully placed in rows two wide and perhaps six or seven high, depending on how wet they still are. Fresh bricks are taken from the making area on special ‘off-bearing’ barrows, 30 at a time, being handled between two pieces of ‘pitching board’, to prevent finger marks and other damage - they are incredibly fragile at this time. The bricks are then turned over time, a bit like champagne bottles, to ensure even drying; they are also often ‘skinked’, when they are set at an angle to each other - see pic.

Bricks drying under the 'Backs'

'Skinked' bricks, angled to hasten drying

From the back end of the extruding machine, which is in a separate back-to-back lean to shed, a lovely pile of wet clay forms a mound from which each brickmaker takes handfuls for throwing into an open mould on the working surface, previously prepared with just the right amount of sand. On the wall behind the makers sit two dozen different moulds which create different sized and thickness bricks. Excess clay is removed and bricks carefully removed from the mould and placed onto the hand crafted off-bearing barrows for removal to the ‘backs’ drying area - very skillful work all round - apparently its critical to get into the proper brick makers rhythm. At this point Peter told us the tale of Long Tom, a brickmaker who for years outperformed all other brickmakers - making bricks is piecework after all - and no one could work out why. Years later during a refurb, it was discovered that his barrow was longer and could hold 32 bricks, so every trip he made to the backs contained an additional two bricks, which over the course of a shift added up. Peter’s grandson, also interested in the business, was so impressed, he made his own barrow to Long Tom’s specification.

A lovely drop of clay

Peter explains how to make  abrick

An 'off-bearing' barrow

We were now off to the kilns - the focus of every brickyard as Peter says - but first had to pass through a special insulated drying shed where the drying process can be better controlled - no heat is used, apart from that generated by the continuously operating dehumidifiers - and a wonderful place to stop on a cold day. Bulmer has two ‘down draught kilns, where heat is drawn into the top of the chamber and sucked down through the bricks stacked within, named Frank (rebuilt in 2008) and Tom (built new around the same time), in honour of two previous burners (the men responsible for firing the kiln over 50 years). To untrained eyes, Frank particularly looked ramshackle and a bit broken down, but wouldn’t you be if you were taken up to 1100/1200 degrees C every 3 or 4 weeks, but casual looks belie the sheer strength of these marvellous creations, which each contained around 40,000 bricks - they are massively thick and strong.

Our first view of a brick kiln - wonderful

Bricks loaded inside prior to sealing the entrance, by bricking it up

Another view of the kiln

A close up of the hot kiln - look through the spyhole and see it glowing red hot

Kilns are loaded / unloaded in special kiln barrows that carry approx. 60 bricks and distribute their weight over the wheel, see pic, and when full, the kiln entrance is bricked up, leaving just two small holes through which the colour temperature of the kiln can be judged, see pic. Peter told us it takes 4.5 tons of Scottish coal to fire each kiln, with their 12,000 bricks inside. The whole process takes about 2 weeks, 2 to 3 days to load, 4 to 5 days to fire, 2 to 3 days to cool down and another 2 to 3 days to unload, and during firing, they are manned constantly by ‘burners’, who are the men responsible for the firing. Besides adding more coal as necessary, the men gauge the internal temperature through the spy holes; this needs to be as consistent as possible from top to bottom and throughout the process, and various fire dampers require adjustment to modify the separate airflows to top and bottom to achieve this - another very skillful job.

A kilm barrow (museum example)

We were then shown a series of open fronted sheds containing many samples and examples of their endeavours, including some amazing terracotta plaques, before moving into the last shed where more special shapes can be made for clients. Bulmer bricks now go to an extensive variety of properties, ranging from small cottages to large houses and halls, castles, churches, cathedrals, palaces, stations, aerodromes (e.g. Mildenhall, Stradishall and Duxford), and even bridges and canals. Some of their most prestigious clients include Hampton Court Palace, Layer Marney Tower, St Pancras Station, Oxboburgh Hall, The Royal Courts of Justice, Norwich Cathedral, Holkham Hall and Framlingham Church, among many others.

Peter explains some technicalities

Some extremely fine terracotta (with apologies for being 90 degrees out)

The birds of Holkham Hall

A selection of moulds: Royal Courts of Justice and Framlingham Church

Interestingly shaped bricks

Another working area

Their single largest project was to supply all of the red rubbers (refer definition above) for the restoration of the station, which was to become the new Eurostar terminus. Despite being grade I listed, it had been agreed that the west side could be taken down and rebuilt larger, to accommodate the new service; of course, this had to be built in exactly the same style and form as the original. Research showed the original bricks came from R A Allen of Ballingdon, not very far away, and Bulmer already had in place a system to produce fine quality rubbers and the corresponding cutting and rubbing service necessary to supply pieces for building into the work. Their biggest problem however was convincing the contractors they had sufficient capacity to carry out the work, but throughout the project they remained ahead of schedule, and this with just two makers and two craftsmen cutting! The workmanship involved was simply incredible, as the following photos clearly illustrate:

It was a truly incredible experience which everybody enjoyed tremendously, constantly asking questions as we manoeuvred round the site; happily Peter was most generous with his time, which perhaps explains the 2.5 hour tour time, somewhat above my 90 minute estimate, but absolutely fantastic.

 

Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

13th June: The Battle of Waterloo

Allan Manning, one of our members, will re-create the stages of the battle on a large map for all to see and really appreciate the many events that happened on the day – the interaction between forward and reserve units, between British and Prussian armies, and of course between Napoleon and his generals, along with commentaries on why the parties took the actions they did.

19th September: Frauds of the 19th Century

Martin Hedges will take us through the panics, failures and frauds, which have always been with us. From Tulipmania and the South Sea Bubble to recent dotcoms and TSB, there are always con merchants to spin a yarn; so cheer for the days when bankers were hanged for playing fast and loose with our money.

 

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.

Andy Sheppard                                                                                                        26th May 2018

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