Brickfield Newham is a community research project that questions clay and its importance to the urban landscape by connecting people literally to the earth beneath their feet. Communities from across the borough are coming together to make bricks, build and fire a kiln on a construction site in the Royal Docks. They are investigating themes of dwelling, living and claiming the earth through performance and brickmaking. Rooted in Newham’s history of industrialisation and habitation, Brickfield Newham will provide a hearth to share experiences of living in Newham and to listen to each person’s vision of its future.
An outdoor brickathon will engage a variety of community groups in brickmaking workshops. The Brickfield Makers, a community collective, will explore the history of brick in Newham. Students from the University of East London have devised a series of new performances about Newham’s brick heritage which they’ll share at the end of May where they’ll perform in front of the kiln as it fires our first bricks.
Brickfield Newham is a collaboration between the Victoria & Albert Museum, Brickfield and University of East London. We have been generously supported by Newham Heritage Month and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Arts Council England.
Take yellow clay dug from behind Plaistow station and mix it with black clay from the Royal Docks. Slake it with some Thames water and knead in a handful of strengthening aggregate (made from crushed up demolished buildings) and some calcium carbonate which is a by-product of sugar whitening at the Tate & Lyle factory to give it a chalky colour.
Thank you to Tate & Lyle, RMS Recycling Company, Vistry Partnerships, Telford Homes, Populo Living and Notting Hill Genesis for helping us source the material for our bricks. All these materials are waste products. The two clays are dug to form the foundations of new affordable housing in Newham.
Brickfield Newham is a live community research project which is bringing people together from across the borough to ask a series of questions, which all begin with the object of the brick. These questions include:
At Brickfield Newham, we are creating a space where the borough’s architectural heritage can be explored through the body. By getting people together to make bricks and to make performances we hope to research together the labour of making and the preciousness of raw materials which are both necessary to build our homes, our factories, our shops and our docks.
Visitors to Brickfield Newham will connect to brickmakers of the borough’s past by re-enacting the traditional techniques of their trade. We are using wooden brick moulds that have changed little in design for the past 5000 years and are building a traditional clamp kiln. Performance is another way to understand the past and to think about our built environment today. It can give a voice to histories that are now hidden from us and help us understand the people whose lives we have very few records about. Theatre can also transform the future of our cities as it develops our tools to advocate for housing justice and imagine better places for us all. Brickfield Newham is inspired by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop that was based in Theatre Royal Stratford East where she imagined how communities could co-create. In her words: ‘I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that’s not romanticism, d’you see?’
When making a brick you need to consider where you’ll get raw materials, labour and fuel.
Let’s start with raw materials and the word ‘brickfield’. Is London clay a crop? The name makes it sound like clay can be harvested. To make a brick you need to mix raw materials to form brick earth. Brick earth is made up of true clay (alumina silicate) which gives plasticity. But clay would loose its shape during firing. So you have to add sand, aggregate or other chemicals to make it hold its shape and these can also change a brick’s appearance too. London clay deposits are from the Holocene period and are found in topsoil. Each brick tells a story of the place from where the clay was dug.
Bricks are made by people. In Britain, fired clay bricks were first made by and for the invading Roman empire. At the end of the occupation, the Roman’s took their brickmaking skills with them. For over 700 years no new bricks were made. The medieval ‘brekemen’ were seen as hugely skilled craftspeople who were in high demand. As bricks became more common, the labour that went in to them became devalued. By the nineteenth century, the labour conditions in many brickfields was dire. Brickfield’s operated with a precarious workforce with many child labourers. The Victorian campaigner against child labour George Smith of Coalville wrote that:
‘As a child and lad I have myself gone through what thousands are going through to-day. It is the very bondage of toil, and a home of evil training. When seven years of age I was employed in making bricks. At nine years of age my employment consisted in continually carrying about 40 lb of clay upon my head from the clay heap to the table on which the bricks were made. When there was no clay I had to carry the same weight of bricks. This labour had to be performed, almost without intermission, for 13 hours daily. Sometimes my labours were increased by my having to work all night at the kilns’.
The bricks in our city today are pieces of their labour.
Brick earth is transformed into bricks when it is fired. The use of wood, turves of heather and bundles of gorse bush (furze) were gradually replaced by coal. Today, one of the environmental concerns about brickmaking is the amount of fuel used, which is a problem exacerbated by the short life spans of buildings and the waste that they produce.
Rosanna Martin is bringing her expertise of brickmaking from Cornwall to Newham for this project. Rosanna has set up Brickfield in a disused china clay pit on the outskirts of St Austell. Her experimental participatory brickworks is supported by Whitegold, St Austell’s arts and regeneration project. Brickfield explores how our heritage can inspire and generate contemporary approaches to waste materials that are a result of the china clay extraction. At Brickfield Newham, we are wanting to find out what it means to set up an urban brickfield which is using waste materials generated by the construction industry in London. Forging this connection between Newham and Cornwall is an exciting way to see how both places have been transformed by their industries and populations.
Newham is home to extraordinary examples of nineteenth-century brick architecture, from Joseph Bazelgette’s Abbey Mills Pumping Station to James George Buckle’s Stratford East Theatre Royal building. And brick is still a fundamental building material found across the borough: from the 70s design of the Stratford Centre by Ravenseft Properties Limited to Peter Barber Architect’s radical reworking of “back of pavement terraces” and “back to back” house types on McGrath Road. We look forward to hearing about your favourite brick buildings and their histories.
Local historian Mark Gorman has been doing some important work looking into the histories of the brickfields In Newham. His research has brought some fascinating material to light that he has kindly agreed to share with us.
As London grew in the nineteenth century, house-building generated a huge demand for construction materials. Increase in the demand for bricks after 1850 led the brick-making industry to expand productivity, multiplying the number of small-scale brickworks throughout the country, and particularly on the edge of London, close to where new housing was going up. 
These brickfields were soon producing millions of bricks and tiles annually.
Near Stratford there were brickfields in Walthamstow, Ilford and at Wanstead Flats, some of which dated back at least to the early 19th century. For example, one brick field, described as being at the entrance to Ilford, was established by 1820, and owned by John Curtis, a Stratford builder.
This site (which occupied 23 acres and produced 2 million bricks annually) and some others were large-scale operations, but many were short-term exploitations to meet immediate local needs.Because they were often short-term sites, very little evidence of them survives today. The site on Wanstead Flats is still remembered because its location is still called the brickfield. Today’s large flat expanse of closely mown grass approximates very closely to the area shown on the 1875 25” OS map, with the western edge of the site now marked by a bank of rough grass which rises up to Centre Road. There are now few signs of the brickfield itself (apart from the slope to the western end, indicating the depth to which digging went on).
Remnants of possible bricks from the workings can be seen (see below). These should be interpreted with caution however, as brick remnants can be found throughout Wanstead Flats, most dating from various C20th (notably wartime) developments.
The Chobham Farm site, located west of the Great Eastern Railway in Stratford (now under East Village in the QE Olympic Park) employed a large workforce of men and women, many of whom lived in or around Temple Mills Lane, which ran along the north side of the brickfield. A London builder, William Hill, leased Chobham Farm and Wanstead Flats at the same time. Hill died in 1873, and the brickfield was probably sold, but it was still active in the mid-1880s, operated by R.J. Chapman and J. Woodyer. However, this partnership was dissolved in 1885, and Woodyer was declared bankrupt in 1887 . Brickmaking may have continued however, as a later map (from 1894-6) shows a brickfield operation slightly to the west of the earlier site, though Chobham Farm’s buildings had disappeared by then.
There is some evidence of other brickfields between Stratford and the river Thames. OS maps of south-west Essex show a brickfield off Water Lane south of the Romford Road, the site of a church which for many years was known as the Brickfields Chapel. There were also brickfields off Carpenters Road north of the Great Eastern Railway line, just to the west of Stratford station, and south of the GER where Pudding Mill Lane DLR station is located today. Further south a brickfield is shown on the same map south of the Barking Road on Forty Acre Lane (part of which still exists today). This may have been owned by the West Ham and Barking Brick Co. which advertised a sale of bricks at a site ‘near the Green Gate and Castle Taverns’ on Barking Road, Plaistow in July 1878. No other brickfields are visible on other maps of the area, possible because they were short-lived enterprises.
The name of one local person associated with local brickmaking survives, giving some insights into the brick trade. In January 1848 G.H. Lovegrove auctioned 600,000 bricks at the Greyhound Inn in West Ham. The bricks came from a field described as being ‘within a quarter of a mile of the Abbey Wharf [which would have been on the river Lea near Stratford], West Ham and near to the Eastern Counties [probably Stratford] and North Woolwich Railway Stations, offering both cheap and expeditious water and railway carriage’. This field may have been the one off Water Lane. If so, some license crept into the description of its being near to transport, but highlights the importance to buyers of ready means to transport bricks elsewhere, since not all the bricks were used locally.
Brick samples and catalogues were available at local pubs including the King’s Head and Yorkshire Grey Inns, Stratford, the Crown Inn, Blackwall, the Abbey Arms, Plaistow and the Old King Henry Inn, Mile End Road. Pubs played an important role as locations for sales and marketing. The brickfield from which these bricks came had clearly been worked out, since Lovegrove was also advertising the 13 acre site to be let on 99-year building leases. The timing of the brick sale was unusual, since bricks were usually sold after being dried over the summer.
George Lovegrove seems to have been a man of many talents. Earlier in life he had been a schoolteacher, a career he pursued for twenty years until he retired due to ill health in 1846. He taught at West Ham National School, but had also been sent all over England to advise on the establishment of National Schools based on the Bell System. He received great accolades from the local school committee on his departure, but significantly had no pension to rely on. This may explain his pursuit of a number of different avenues to gain an income, and his eventual bankruptcy.
By 1850 Lovegrove was listing his professions as “Writing Master, Estate Agent, Auctioneer, Builder & Brickmaker”. In the 1851 census he and his family were living in Church Street, West Ham, and he had added surveying to his skills. He had also been an insurance agent for the local district of the Royal Exchange Assurance Co. and was a backer of a Bowkett Building Society in the West Ham/Stratford area. Lovegrove was also active in a number of other local organisations, including acting as secretary of an Oddfellows branch, based at Yorkshire Grey Inn in Stratford 1847. However by 1850 he was heavily in debt, owing £7000 to creditors, having been collecting and keeping rent money.
Little evidence survives of what life was like for the workers on these brickfields. They may well have followed working patterns generally used in the traditional brick-making industry, especially for small-scale, temporary enterprises with low capital investment. ‘For most of the nineteenth century, the British brickmaking industry was dominated by small-scale, local producers who relied on an abundance of low paid workers, especially children, to avoid heavy capital investment and, at the same time, to maintain profits in an increasingly competitive market. Despite governmental intervention in 1871 that attempted to control the hiring of child and female labour, juvenile employment persisted for several decades’.
In most areas the brickfield owner hired a brickmaster or foreman at a fixed price per thousand bricks. The brickmaster oversaw the site, taking responsibility for the output of the operations. He in turn contracted with moulders to temper, mould and hack the bricks. Each moulder then hired his own “gang” of subsidiary labourers and acted as their employer. In some parts of the country only men and youths were hired for these jobs, but in other places the moulder hired family members, including women and children, to increase his own profits. William Barrett who in 1881 was living in Toronto Road, close to the Chobham farm brickfield, is noted as employing 4 men and 8 boys in the 1881 Census, so he may have been a moulder with his own gang of labourers. This system meant that it was not necessary for the proprietor to have brick-making knowledge or skills, and their financial risks were minimized because they were shared with his subcontractors. This would have suited William Hill, as a large-scale builder.
There were regular criticisms of working conditions in the brickfields, and the excessive use of child labour. However, it seems that Hill was considered a good employer by his workers. A schoolroom, provided by a local philanthropist, was built at the Ilford brickfield, and evening classes in reading, writing and arithmetic were provided for ‘those in the field who chose to avail themselves of the opportunity’ to learn. Hill also provided an annual ‘festival’ for the Ilford brickfield workers, perhaps joined by those from Wanstead Flats and Stratford. The ‘festival’ was held (as it had been since 1859) in the schoolrooms of the Ilford Baptist Chapel, where a meal of roast beef, boiled beef, ham, tea and cake was laid out for the ‘men and lads’. Speeches were made praising Mr and Mrs Hill, and the site foreman and his wife, for their concern for the welfare of the workers. All, it was declared, ‘had worked harmoniously together’, and Mr Hill had expressed his ‘entire satisfaction’.
The Wanstead Flats site may have been relatively small; in the 1881 census only a few names are registered as living at the brickfield. James Gramsden (or Gransden), the foreman, was born at Borden in Kent, in 1840. In 1871 Gramsden was a brickfield labourer at Preston, near Faversham, Kent, where he seems to have lived on the brickfield with other families. He moved from Kent to Wanstead with his wife, son and daughter, probably in the early 1870s, as his 9-year old son is listed in the 1881 census as born in Wanstead. By 1891 the Wanstead Flats site had closed, and Gramsden was living elsewhere in Forest Gate working as a carman (a van driver0 contractor, quite possibly in the brick trade. By 1901 he had moved to Ilford and was once again a brickfield foreman, probably on one of the Ilford sites. A son, a bricklayer, lived next door.
George Hicks, a labourer in the brickfield, also lived with his wife and family on Wanstead Flats. Hicks, an agricultural labourer from Essex, had been living in Ilford with his market gardener wife at the time of the 1871 census; by 1881 he had moved to Wanstead Flats. In a memoir his great-granddaughter says that he was forced off land in the agricultural depression of 1870s; illiterate and landless, he and the family lived in a ‘bothy’ (which on brickfields elsewhere are described as very basic dwellings, often with thatched roofs) on the Flats. One of Hicks’ three sons married the daughter of a fellow brickfield worker, whose wife ran a laundry on Wanstead Flats.
Other families living on Wanstead Flats in 1881 included a ‘carman’ from Chelmsford in Essex, with his wife and three children all of whom were locally born in Wanstead. A florist and a monumental mason were probably connected with the City of London cemetery at the eastern end of the Flats. There was also a nurseryman and another carman, together with their families. Two ‘Gipsy’ families were living in caravans; the heads of households were both listed as licensed hawkers. It is possible that some of these local residents provided labour or services such as transporting bricks off-site. Family members may also have contributed to the household income by helping with brick-making, a practice common in some parts of the country. The women on the sites may also have been preferred for their greater dexterity in making bricks.
There is little evidence of the nature of the operations at local brickfield sites. As they all existed relatively briefly the likelihood is that they did not (with the possible exception of Uphall in Ilford) have specially built kilns, but used brick clamps (stacks of unbaked bricks) to fire the bricks. During the burning process the bricks gave off a sulphurous smell, which caused complaints from local residents near Wanstead Flats. Brick-making was a job for the summer months, when the bricks would dry more quickly and the firing would be less vulnerable to bad weather. The end of brickfield operations left a legacy of very degraded ground, and often the sites were sold off as building land wiping out all trace of brickmaking activities.
 D. Cufley, Brickmakers by name and location (unpublished typescript).
 East London Observer, 15 October 1864.
 Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 25 July 1885.
 OS London London sheet XXXII, Middlesex sheet XIII.
 Essex (1st Ed/Rev 1862-96) LXXIII.3 (Leyton; Wanstead) Surveyed: 1863, Published: 1875
 Ordnance Survey six inch: Essex LXXIII (surveyed 1863, published 1873).
 Stratford Times and South Essex Gazette, 31/07/1878.
 Chelmsford Chronicle, 21/01/1848.
 Add note
 Chelmsford Chronicle, 13/03/1846.
 Chelmsford Chronicle, 25/01/1850.
 Essex Standard, 02/01/1846. The Bowkett societies were based on the socialist principles of Thomas Bowkett, an east London physician and political activist who promoted the idea of decent homes for London’s working classes.
 Essex Herald, 12/02/1850.
 K. A. Watt, Nineteenth Century Brickmaking innovations in Britain, p.184.
 K. A. Watt, p.31.
 D. Cufley, Brickmakers by name and location (unpublished typescript).
 Watt, p.181.
 Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 November 1863.
 I. Alexander, Maid in West Ham (Winchester, 2001), p.4.
 K. A. Watt, Nineteenth Century Brickmaking innovations in Britain, p.31.
 Ibid, p.182.
Below is a slideshow of Newham Brickfields, researched and photographed in Newham Local Studies Room by Dr Georgia Haseldine. Use the arrows on the side of the image to toggle left to right.
Brickfield Newham is inspired by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gate’s who is working with the V&A museum on a research project about clay. Brick and urban transformation is a big part of his practice. Check out his work here: https://www.theastergates.com/
We are inspired by organisations like Estate Watch: https://estatewatch.london/
We’ve learned lots from amazing histories such as this film ‘The Making of Bricks’ which is free to watch at the BFI website:
And performances such as Icon by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui performed by GöteborgsOperans Danskompani which you can see below.