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At The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company

May 22, 2023
by the gentle author

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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 over 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 a ninety-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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    May 22, 2023

    Wow! An extraordinary level of knowledge guides this entire lengthy process. Just for starters, I cannot imagine keeping the temperature even in such a huge wood kiln. The temperature must be evenly raised, maintained for the right amount of time, and then evenly cooled. The fires have to be just the right size and use just the right type of wood for any temperature adjustment needed. Just building any old fires would yield cracked bricks.

    I am grateful that such skilled craftsmen continue to keep this business, which is a gift to all of us who will see its product, going.

  2. May 22, 2023

    What a great article, thank you so much. Most enjoyable.

  3. May 22, 2023

    wonderful..the sklls, the work, the knowledge..amazing

  4. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    May 22, 2023

    Every day you are interesting but today is especially stimulating! What a man and what a wonderful business. Very good to see that the skills are being passed on and that the family will keep it going.
    Thank you Gentle Author

  5. Milo permalink
    May 22, 2023

    You do manage to dig out people with the most interesting jobs, lives, views…(sigh)

  6. May 22, 2023

    Great Piece of content. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  7. May 22, 2023

    I had never really considered that bricks could be a work of art, but these are beautiful!

    I imagine it would be cost-prohibitive to ship them across the Atlantic to enhance the facade of our house…

  8. Robin permalink
    May 22, 2023

    Utterly awe inspiring. I love seeing the photos of the actual process and learning about the termimology. “Skinking”… what a delightful word! And to know that some of these terms go back to Saxon invention.

  9. Chiz permalink
    May 30, 2023

    Great article and testimony, thank you. These survivals are essentials parts of our history and conservation, even if the work practices and H&S has been improved from the old levels…

    One small niggle, they weren’t making what we think of as London Stocks at Brick Lane (or anywhere else) in the 17th century. The bricks from Spitalfields were made of brickearth, not clay, and didn’t have much if any ‘Spanish’ added to them to aid firing. That came later in the 18th century with London Stocks made from clay and with rubbish added to help fire the brick from the inside.

    When we excavated Spitalfields Market we found not only the quarry pits that the brickearth was dug from, but the brick kiln, the waster bricks and the wall to what would be the Artillery Ground that was built in the last years of the monastic hospital of St Mary. The brickearth was largely stripped for brick making over large parts of Spitalfields, Homerton and Haggerston, but these bricks were red bricks, rather than the clay London Stock with its addition of ‘Spanish’ rubbish.

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