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Peter Minter, Brick Maker

October 6, 2021
by the gentle author

The kiln

Brick Lane takes its name from the brick works that once filled Spitalfields and I always wondered how it was in those former times. So you can imagine my delight to visit Bulmer Brick & Tile Company in Suffolk, where bricks have been made since 1450, and be granted a glimpse of that lost world.

My guide on this journey through time was Peter Minter who has been making bricks in the traditional way for seventy years. He began by taking me to the hole in the ground where they dig out the mud and pointing out the strata differentiated in tones of brown and grey. ‘You are looking at the Thames Estuary thirty-six million years,’ he declared with a mild grin of philosophical recognition.

At the lowest level is London clay, deposited in primordial times when the Thames flowed through Suffolk, used to make familiar stock bricks of which most of the capital was constructed in previous centuries. ‘Each of the strata here offer different qualities of clay for different purposes,’ Peter explained as he pointed out dark lines formed of volcanic ash that fell upon the estuary a mere twenty-five million years ago. ‘We have another fifty years of clay at this site,’ he admitted to me in the relaxed tone that is particular to an eighty-eight-year-old brick maker.

“My father, Lawrence Minter, took over this brick works in 1936 when he was thirty-five. It had been here for hundreds of years, with the earliest evidence dating from 1450, and it was a typical local brick works. His uncle, FG Minter, was a builder in London and my father was brought up by him as a surveyor.

Before my father could get established, the war came along and shut the place down. There were thirty-five or thirty-six people working here but a lot got called up and we went down to about six or seven men. We made land drain pipes for the Ministry of Supplies and that was what kept us going. Those men were old or infirm but they kept the skills alive.

I was taught by those skilled men who had been born in the nineteenth century and brought up as brick makers. Without realising, I learnt all the old secrets of brick making but it was only when I knew that this was the direction of my life that I decided I had to save it, and started using the old techniques that had been forgotten rather than the new. This is what makes us unique. I have spent my whole life working here and I probably know more about making bricks than anyone alive. The business has changed and yet it has not changed, because the essence is the same.

When my father reopened after the war, everything was already beginning to change. There was so little trade in brick making that he got into the restoration business. When conservation started to develop, I was the only person in the country who knew how to manufacture bricks in the traditional way. Other people have theories but I am the only one who knows how to do it. There is no-one with our philosophy and the way we go about it.

We start backwards. We look at an old house and its history. We do not think simply of the profit we can make from selling you a brick. We work out why the bricks were made the way they were and how they were made, what techniques were used at that time. When I look at a building, I can tell you everything about its history this way.

In London, they were manufacturing what they called the ‘London Stock,’ the cheapest brick they could produce and they used all sorts of waste material in it as well as clay. They did not think about it lasting but it turned out to be one of the finest bricks of all time. That is what they would have been making in Brick Lane in the seventeenth century.

The clay is the secret because whatever have got beneath your feet is what you have to use, its characteristics dictate what you can make. We are digging out the clay for the next summer, we always do it at the end of September and try to catch the end of the good weather, which we have just done. We want it dry and crumbly, we do not want it compressed into mud. It needs to weather, so the salts and minerals in it liberate into the atmosphere, and you avoid getting salt crystallising upon the finished bricks.

When father was running the brick works, he simply dug the clay out but gradually we have become more precise so now we select layers of clay for different jobs. In his day, you bought a brick from Bulmer – father only did ‘Tudor’ – but now we make bricks specially for each particular job. More and more of our work involves some kind of experimentation. We no longer make generic bricks, everything is specialised now. We make over one hundred and fifty different kinds of bricks in a year. We look at our clay for its degree of plasticity, the grey clay is more plastic whereas yellow clay is more sandy, so we blend the clay as necessary for each order of bricks.

We are currently making around 30,000 bricks for Kensington Palace and another 30,000 for the Tower of London. We have been making bricks for Hampton Court since 1957. For thirty years, we supplied the clay for the moulds at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and the ‘bell bricks’ which were the radius bricks upon which they placed the mould.

Our bricks are laid out to air dry before firing in what are called ‘hack rows’ on the ‘hack ground’ or ‘hack stead.’ These are Saxon words. Once the bricks are dry enough, we set them up in ordered lines which is called ‘skinking.’ We have covers to ensure even drying, by keeping off the sun and the rain. If they get wet, they just turn back to mud.

Once a fortnight, we fire the kiln for three days. Someone has to stay to stoke the fires continuously. I rebuilt one of the kilns myself a few years ago. I have been responsible for the construction of four of these domed-roof kilns. I could not find an expert to tell me how to do it, so I worked out how to do it myself. I did not use a wooden frame for the dome, I built it in concentric circles of bricks so it was self supporting. As a child in 1936, I remembered the original kiln being built and the man looking down through the hole in the roof without any former supporting the dome, so I knew it was possible. He was obviously very proud of what he had built, he took me outside and drew a diagram in the dust with a stick to show me how he had built it. He said, ‘When you want to rebuild it, this is what you do.’

It is a down-draught brick kiln with seven fires around the outside to heat it, the heat is drawn up to the domed roof and down through the bricks to escape through the floor. It reaches about 1200 degrees centigrade and some of the brick lining has turned to glass. 

Each aspect of brick making requires different skills and we are continually honing those skills and training new people. It takes five years to train a brick maker. I have two sons in the business here and one of them has two sons, so in time they will be taking over.”

Peter Minter, seventy years a brick maker

Thames mud used for London stock bricks

Making a shaped brick in a wooden mould

Jack has been a brick maker for two years

“He’s coming into quite a good brick maker’

Marking a batch of shaped bricks

Setting the bricks out to dry on the hack ground

Stacking bricks in this way is called ‘skinking’

The hack ground

The rough cut pieces of timber around the kiln that allow smoke to escape are known as ‘skantlings.’

Seven fires heat the kiln

Store for brick moulds

The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company, The Brickfields, Bulmer, Suffolk CO10 7EF

30 Responses leave one →
  1. Rob Cassels permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Quite astonishing, both the subject matter and this gem of a blog.

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Absolutely fascinating story. Great pictures. Thank you.

  3. annette fry permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Some years ago, I think it was 2004 or 5, I was commissioned to create work for a new children’s centre in East London. I had read about this brickwork in a ceramics book in the old Foyles in Tottenham Court Road and dreamed about working there. My proposal was a brick panel which would be created at this brickwork, fired and then transported to the centre. I contacted Peter Minter and he was very positive about the idea. The charity really liked my proposal so I moved to Suffolk for a while and travelled to the Bulmer Brickworks daily to make the work. It was a real education for me, trained in ceramics at Goldsmiths and Central St. Martins, it was a very ‘art and craft’ background, and suddenly I was immersed in the beauty of the basics of the construction of so many of our ancient buildings. The kiln was a work of art in itself and watching it being packed by the ‘kiln dogs’, was another work of art. The level of skill I saw was an absolute joy, at that time, a part of their work was for the rebuilding and repair of St. Pancras station. The panel was created by me, the blocks made by the workers there, and there were many stories in its making. I really loved that commission, it was the most blessed one I ever completed.

  4. Tim Molloy permalink
    October 6, 2021

    A comfort and a delight, thank you.

  5. Judie permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Fascinating!

  6. October 6, 2021

    The Thames flowed through Suffolk?….. What a fabulous post. I want to visit!!! Love the write-up and the photographs. All absolutely fascinating!

  7. October 6, 2021

    It was a great pleasure to read this and to look at the photos. The reference to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a dagger to the heart.

  8. Roger Button permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Thank you for the fascinating article. This is how life should be.
    I link to my past as I worked at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in my Gap Year, so probably handled some of their bricks.

  9. sarah permalink
    October 6, 2021

    This is extraordinary I had no idea and had never thought about how bricks were made and the individual nature of different bricks made from the varying clays. I will see buildings in a different way and how much they are part of the earth. What a wonderful place.

  10. Barbara holliman permalink
    October 6, 2021

    How interesting and what beautiful bricks.

  11. October 6, 2021

    There are bricks and bricks, and these are magnificent bricks. Real bricks. You’re going to laugh, but I am moved. And the kiln… Peter rebuilt himself, that’s a real feat. Thank you so much.

  12. aubrey permalink
    October 6, 2021

    A very instructive article which could (or should), in my opinion, be used as a teaching item. I wonder whether a brick making and construction course is taught in technical education in to-day’s teaching venues. Commercial brick making seems to have segued into pre-fabricated panels where they are placed as a whole unit. One rarely sees brick layers plying their skills on construction sites nowadays.

  13. Milo permalink
    October 6, 2021

    It is so cheering to hear about the people and the places and the skills that are still around us. Turn practically any one of those photos into an etching and pass it off as hundreds of years old and you’d scarcely have to leave anything out. What is it about these peoples lives that makes one ache to join them?

  14. Peter Smith permalink
    October 6, 2021

    A delightful blog. I have always admired the new brickwork at St Pancras and it is good to know that the makers are such traditional craftsmen.

  15. October 6, 2021

    We had to demolish three storeys of the front wall of our 1820 four storey house some years ago – 14inches thick at the top and 28 inches thick at the bottom. A flying bomb about 20 houses along the terrace had sucked out the outer layer of brickwork and produced a big bulge. We only needed fewer than fifty extra second hand bricks when we built the wall back. Those out of the ground beneath us London stocks are phenomenally tough and will probably outlast all the newer brick buildings around us.

    Very pleased to see you are still going strong and apprentices are learning this skill.

  16. October 6, 2021

    I so enjoyed this post today — and the added comment by reader Annette Fry was the cherry on top of the sundae.

    The photos made me want to amble through this unique work environment (staying out of the way of production, ‘course!) and I loved reading the specialized terms (“skinting” and
    “skantlings”)………downright musical.

    GA, have you ever considered publishing a Dictionary of Specialized Terminology?
    I’d be at the front of the line to buy such a gem.

  17. David Antscherl permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Brilliant! I had no idea that traditional brick-building was still alive and the skills handed down. I enjoy reading about these arcane, ancient arts and those that practice them. Thank you.

  18. paul loften permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Thank you for bringing todays blog to us . The importance of fine bricks has been brought to my attention recently. We have had building work carried out at home with and the builders informed us that since our house was built in the 1920’s the walls were now detiorating and needed attention. The choice they gave us was complete replastering, skimming the brickwork , or putting up new plasterboard. The simplest choice seemed to be the new plasterboard . Now they have finished and gone. I have been left with the tasks of getting things straight . I chose to do the easiet jobs by myself . I had the plan to mount 8 shelves in the empty wall alcoves. I purachsed some heavy duty pine planks from a local timber yard 3cm thick . The job required drilling 32 deep holes in the new walls . I thought it would be an easy job . The plasterboard was only so thick and the drill bit went all over the place once it entered the brickwork. In parts it was solid an in other parts it was like mush. I have only just finished mounting the shelves, a job that took much longer than I expected. I had to develop my own technique for getting the holes right so the wall plugs would stay in place . My dad once showed me an old trick from the days before plastic wallplugs, where match sticks were sharpened to a point and shoved in the hole until it become solid. It worked very well with the plastic plugs but I dont know what I would have done without the matchsticks. I guess i would have had to refill the holes and start again

  19. October 6, 2021

    GA, thanks for the great piece about Peter Minter and his brick making works – I learned so much. And to think that his product is supporting the maintenance of Kensington Palace and the Tower of London, not to forget the molds at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Wonderful pictures too.

    Good luck to Jack and any young folks entering this noble tradition.

  20. October 6, 2021

    Wonderful that this ancient tradition of craftsmanship continues. All the best to Peter Minter, the Brick Maker, and to his sons!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  21. Teresa Clark permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Thank you for continuing to enlighten us about many fascinating trades, especially those still in production. It is quite amazing to read about Mr. Minter and his brick making!

  22. Sonia Murray permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Brilliant! Thank you, GA! There should be a tour so visitors can watch the brick makers performing this ancient craft. It’s good that the old ways are not forgotten. The Lion bricks are beautiful, and would surely sell well in a gift shop – I’d love to have one in my home.

  23. Pence permalink
    October 6, 2021

    Fascinating. Thank you. Such beauty

  24. Robin permalink
    October 6, 2021

    What a fascinating post. I would love to visit and see Bulmer Brickworks in action. Living in an 1820s building with a walled garden (mostly original bricks, partly replacements after WWII bombing), I have come to an appreciation of brick manufacturing standards and the real strength and beauty of those old bricks. I stand in awe of craftspeople like Peter Minter, and am so glad to hear that others are following in his footsteps.

  25. Paula Peters Marra permalink
    October 6, 2021

    What a fascinating read! Loved the photos, loved the history. Thank you so much for this lovely story. Sharing it with my history loving friends.

  26. Peter Holford permalink
    October 6, 2021

    I usually read the blog and don’t comment but this post is absolutely fascinating and I would just like to say thank you, GA.

    I became aware of the different bricks in Newport, Isle of Wight. The houses vary in colour from yellow through red to a grey-blue, some glazed and also bonded in different ways (Flemish, English, English Garden and Header are all there). It’s good to see from the comments that I’m not the only person who looks at bricks!

  27. Sue Mayer permalink
    October 7, 2021

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It was educational and I am pleased to see bricks are still made in the traditional way. I found it comforting to know that the younger generation will carry on the tradition.

  28. October 7, 2021

    Very beautiful piece of writing, thank you, and wonderful subject (reminded me also a little of cutting peat, or for that matter of ‘making’ a poem). Thanks.

  29. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 8, 2021

    This is a fascinating blog and wonderful to see all the traditional skills still being used, and more importantly being passed on to future generations.

    There are several references to brick making in our area – Brick Kiln Lane, The Brickmakers Arms pub etc – but nothing left of any actual brick works, so this is a very interesting insight into what might have been happening just down my road. And in Brick Lane of course!

    Perhaps you could do a follow up story about the brick panel which Annette Fry made? It sounds very special.

    Thanks GA yet again for another brilliant blog – much appreciated and enjoyed!

  30. October 12, 2021

    I loved this post! More especially so because I recently traveled to Uganda where I learned about local brick-making. It’s interesting — though perhaps not really surprising — that the methods are very similar in both places. You can learn more about brick-making in Uganda here: https://jennymichael.com/2021/09/20/making-bricks-by-hand/

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