The production of bricks and tiles in Somerset got under way around the 17th century. Early brick makers used limestone, sandstone and clay, all found in the area. Initially, temporary kilns were constructed close to the area where the raw materials were to be found. Straw and wood, also readily available were used to fire the kilns.
Alluvial clay deposited along the coastline during the Roman occupation, when the area was inundated by seawater proved to be invaluable to brick manufacturers.
In the 17th Century there were many small-scale brickfields and the earliest example of brickwork in Somerset can be seen at the Grays Almshouses, East Street, Taunton, dated 1635. By the 18th Century the localised brickfields were superseded by permanent brickyards and the inexhaustible supply of clay enabled the brick and tile makers to respond to the opportunities of mass marketing during the industrial revolution of the 1840’s and 1850’s.
By the 19th Century the local brick and tile industry was thriving with over 250 manufacturers in Somerset. A trade directory lists nine companies in the Highbridge area in 1859 – Apex, Thomas Basten, Abraham Board, Colthurst & Symons, Cox & Company, John Prior Estlin, Johnson & Griffin, Arthur George Pitts, George and Frank Pitts. The biggest of which was Colthurst & Symons who had six other sites within Sedgemoor.
Working conditions were hard and this led to a number of strikes, the worst being in 1896. Police got heavy and in one incident a man called Joel French was pulled off his bicycle and roughed up whilst returning from picket duty in Highbridge saying “The men are sticking together as tight as those bricks in the kiln down Highbridge”. Due to the strike wages increased, from 12 to 15 shillings per week and hours reduced to 12 per day.
To make ends meet whole families had to work and a bylaw had to be passed to protect children under the age of 13. It was as late as 1947 before this was raised to 15.
In the early days clay was dug by hand with a spade, put into a wheelbarrow (about two cwt); pushed along planks of wood to the clay store heap, that was about twenty to thirty feet high, then left to weather. This process was later replaced with a multi-bucket excavator, which made this stage of production much easier. Different clay was used for different products – hard brown for land drainpipes – soft brown for twenty hole bricks – blue for roofing tiles.
The next job was to load it onto a wheelbarrow again and push it into the millhouse for grinding, two or three shovels of sand were added and this mixture was put into the pug mill. The grinder was steam driven and in the mid- 1940’s a very young worker fell in and was killed, as it was impossible to stop the machine. Electricity was introduced later, which made it much safer. This mix was then cut into pieces for making tiles, pipes or bricks. The cutter and his helper would then load onto a barrow and push to the drying racks.
The worst job in the works was clinkering which had to be done four times a burn and was carried out with a large iron poker and rack. However, in the olden days a young lad (before the kiln was lit) had to wriggle through on the fire bars with a lump hammer and chisel knocking clinkers off as he crawled along.
In the early 1930’s Colthurst and Symonds had two squares and two pinnacle kilns that were replaced over the years by downdraught kilns. These took 84 to 90 hours to burn using ten to twelve tons of coal with a brick capacity of 45,000 to 48,000.
At a later stage Colthurst & Symons were asked by Calor Gas of Southampton to participate in the use of Gas (propane) to burn the kilns, which took seventy-two hours on four and a half tons of gas. The advantages were cheaper burns, with no coal wheeling, no clinkering and cleaner burns.
Originally the goods were moved locally by horse and cart, progressing further afield by road, river and railway. Colthurst & Symons owned three clippers, which used the Highbridge Wharf. A list of tolls, this quotes fees charged for bricks and tiles of 4d per 1,000.
The Somerset & Dorset Railway provided two private sidings, one for Colthurst & Symons and the other for Apex Tile Company. The former eventually bought the latter. The First World War interrupted trade and marked the beginning of the decline of the industry. After employing eighty-five men in the 1950’s Colthurst & Symons finally closed the Highbridge Works making ten men redundant, bringing to an end the brick and tile trade in the Highbridge area.
The durability of the product was illustrated by the discovery of Somerset blue bricks found in the sunken wreck of an old wooden sailing ship located off the coast of the Americas.
This information was obtained from research carried out by the late Tom Cornish, who was employed by the brickyards for most of his working life.