Birmingham’s Brickworks – The legacy of the forgotten industry that built the country

Birmingham’s Brickworks – The legacy of the forgotten industry that built the country
Birmingham’s brickworks and brick making heritage is a prime example of a city’s industrial reaction to nationwide expansion and growth.

With a surging demand for property and infrastructure, both to house the country’s growing population as well is it’s booming commercial industries, the need for brick and mortar was at its peak. The legacy of this includes the remnants of opencast quarrying.

Pits that, following the eventual decline of the industry due to cheaper importation, were either left open or simply backfilled. These once industrious and hazardous areas have, in recent years, been subject to redevelopment. Vast housing estates now sit upon what were once large, deep excavations dug to extract rich local clay deposits.

Brickworks and Brick Making: A Lost Skill

The art of making bricks by hand is one thought to have originally been brought over by the Romans’ occupation of Britain. Some suggest they may have even stamped or marked their bricks as a way of tracking where they came from and who made them. This tradition is something that has been carried on through time and still exists today, for the remaining few artisanal brick makers in the country, continuing to work to traditional methods.

The process of brickmaking in the 1800s all started with finding an appropriate source of clay and so location was key. Another thing to consider was your proximity to things like water and transport routes, as well as being able to source enough timber to fire your furnaces. With the introduction of the Birmingham Canals, access to water and transport needs were often met without a problem.

After the clay was quarried from the ground it was left exposed to the elements in a process called weathering, once this was complete it was ready to be moulded into oblong bricks with the help of individual wooden moulds. The bricks at this point would still contain a high moisture content, something that would likely cause them to explode in the 1000 degree heat of the kilns. So they were left in stacks to dry, sometimes for months at a time. Once dry it was time for the firing process to begin. The bricks were stacked and essentially baked at extreme temperatures, with the help of a wood fire. After a couple of days in the kilns the bricks were cooled before being dismantled from their stacks and prepared for transportation to wherever they were needed.

The process was lengthy and involved a lot of manual labour. Like all skilled crafts there was an inevitable drive towards increased productivity with rising demands for the end product. In response to this a push was seen in the early 1800s to invest in new machinery capable of doing the job of several men, more efficiently and with great accuracy, these new innovations produced thousands of bricks per day. It was no wonder that the smaller independent tradesmen fighting to keep the traditions of hand made bricks alive, slowly drifted from existence.

Urbanisation on Birmingham’s Brickfields

Many areas throughout Birmingham have been subject to mass re-development in recent years. With the growing demand for additional housing as well as the need for land set for commercial units and industrial growth. Areas previously worked for brick clay have, perhaps been less than favourable in days gone by, but with potential development land getting harder and harder to come by, it seems only a matter of time before these sites will be swept up by property developers and put to a better use.

Of course, some of these areas have already been developed. With many cases being developed into residential housing, some examples have been transformed into green spaces and public recreational areas, others have been used for metal salvage yards or car breakers. The crucial thing to consider when looking at how these once industrious brick works are being used in the modern day, is the growth of the pits or quarries themselves. Historic Ordnance Survey records help to paint a picture as to how these sites expanded. Indeed some of the mapping is detailed enough to give you the individual family names of the people behind the operations, or in some cases the names of the operators such as a brick from Parkfield Brick Company seen below.

What we also see is stages, the varying editions show how the face of the pits grew as demand began to peak but they also show the reverse. When operations wound down, we begin to see in a number of cases, periodic stages of backfilling. This is critical in the understanding of the true extent of these workings and also highlights the importance of having a complete suite of historical data when assessing this kind of risk. If we relied solely on later editions of mapping, there is the potential to miss a stage of quarrying that was subsequently infilled on a later map. An easy thing to overlook, but one that could carry severe consequences for the modern homeowner.

The examples below show exactly that, on the left hand side is an extract from the Ordnance Survey 1:500 scales Town Plan dated 1889. The extent of the quarrying activity is clearly visible in the centre of the image, notice also how close it is to the surrounding houses. To the right is an extract from a 1:10,560 map dated 1920 of the same area. You can see how much of the quarrying seen on the 1889 image has since been backfilled or levelled to some extent, leaving a much smaller quarry face in its place.

This area has since been developed and includes a recreational ground in the south as well as a number of houses on the northern extent of the once quarried land. Borehole data across the site shows a layer of fill that in places reaches nearly 17m deep. The records show this fill consists of brick rubble, ash, gravel and slag. Typical leftover waste material from a former quarry and brick making operation.

For houses built upon these former quarry sites, potential in-fill and remnant quarry faces may be a settlement or subsidence risk. It is crucial therefore that potential homebuyers have a thorough assessment carried out by industry professionals. This is recommended to fully address the potential risk from settlement and subsidence from historic quarrying activity.

It is clear that critical to understanding the development of this area in full is to have a range of sources at your disposal, this should include a comprehensive and complete historically mapping dataset where stages of the quarry’s development can be studied and interpreted accurately.

The Brickworks Black Country

Groundsure’s GIS Data Archivist Matthew Blewett, looks deeper into The Black Country, how it might have got its name and the importance the brick works held in the region.

He says: “The origin of the name The Black Country is somewhat reputed. The etymologies relate to industry, specifically coal and pollution: One such theory is that it stems from the black soil, caused by higher levels of carbon indicative of coal rich areas.

Another common idea is that it comes from the pollution of the area. Elihu Burritt, an American visitor said it was “black by day and red by night”, referring to the smoke, visible by day and the fires, visible by night. The fires and smoke were because of the many forges, furnaces and brick works found throughout the region.

The abundance of sand and clays meant that over 200 places had brick works in The Black Country during the nineteenth century. Birmingham was a crucial contender for its brickworks, so much so that during the Second World War Brick making was made a protected industry to highlight the importance and demand.

During his travels to the Midlands Charles Dickens described The Black Country as “a cheerless region in which tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same, dull, ugly form poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light and made foul the melancholy air.””

The infographic below highlights the various non-coal mining risks found in Birmingham:

Find out more about the Hidden hazards of non-coal mining by downloading our free white paper now.


References for Birmingham’s Brickworks blog:

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Apr 21, 2022

Tom Harvey-James