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About bricks and Suffolk

In his book, Pevsner notes on page 17 that “for English brick, Suffolk is exceptionally important”. In the book Brick Building in England, author Jane Wight notes in the introduction that “overwhelmingly the most important counties for old brick are Norfolk and Essex, followed by Suffolk”. This is because of the wealth in East Anglia in late mediaeval and Tudor times and the lack of local stone for building (flint is also well known as a substitute) - as well as the interests of an early duke of Suffolk.

It is generally accepted that the English lost the art of brick making after the Romans left and the Dark and Middle ages were characterised by other materials as well as some re-use of Roman brick. Brickmaking continued on the continent and with the proximity of East Anglia to the continent it is always possible that bricks were imported, notably from Flanders.

Pevsner says (p17) that “In the standard literature there is in fact no reference to home-made bricks earlier than those at Little Coggeshall Abbey in Essex of c1225. But Suffolk possesses at Polstead a church with Norman brick arches inside which are not Roman, and can in all probability be considered of English make.... These bricks are followed by those at Little Wenham Hall of c1270...and at Herringfleet Priory of c1300 - still extremely early dates as far as England is concerned”. The footnote about Oxford Castle need not concern us here and in any case it is dismissed by Wight in 1972.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Suffolk and Norfolk were the most prosperous industrial counties in Britain. Wealth poured into Suffolk, first from wool and then from cloth. Suffolk has no building stone but until Tudor times was rich in oak forests. Thus the need for bricks was driven by a lack of other materials and the wealth to afford them.

Pevsner also notes (p17) that “Suffolk is one of the best counties in which to enjoy Tudor brickwork” and (p18) that as well as red bricks some parts of Suffolk produced white bricks. Some can be seen at Little Wenham Hall and many more from 1525 - 1538 at Hengrave Hall“. “But the heyday of white bricks was the C19, when an important centre of production was Woolpit; a great many can be seen in the Ipswich neighbourhood”.

On page 224 of Wight is a list of surviving buildings with brickwork of before 1450. It is headed by 1160, Polstead, Suffolk: Parish Church (arches), two entries for Little Coggeshall, Essex followed by 1270 - 1280 Little Wenham, Suffolk: Little Wenham Hall and then C13 Ashby, Suffolk: Parish Church. Other entries for Suffolk are: Herringfleet: St Olave’s Priory; Cowlinge: Parish Church; 1320 Butley: Butley Priory Gatehouse; mid C14 Wingfield: Parish Church; C14 Little Waldingfield: ‘Priory’ Undercroft; 1369 Beccles: Parish Church (charnel); late C14 Leiston-cum-Sizewell: Leiston Abbey; late C14 Levington: Parish Church - 10 out of 40 entries on that page which are the earliest known (9 for Norfolk and 7 for Essex). After Wight (and Pevsner) was published this was later swung in favour of Norfolk when the county boundaries were re-aligned so that Herringfleet and St Olaves went into Norfolk.

There is an interesting connection between bricks and the Dukes of Suffolk found in Jane Wight’s book Brick Building in England. From p52... “The concentration of brick in Hull made it the one brick-built town of the Middle Ages in England.... Holy Trinity Church, sole survivor of Hull’s early brickwork, was the focus of attention in the mediaeval town.... The leading
merchants concerned in building the church and in the whole development of Hull were the de la Poles (earlier called Rotenherring), whose money came from sheep and trade and who had their own brickworks. At first Holy Trinity was to provide its Lady Chapel (later rededicated) as their family chapel and burial place but they later transferred to the (lost) Charterhouse”.

On p57 (really more relevant to the Dukes than to bricks and repeated there): Ravenser (which disappeared through erosion) was declining and “Edward I persuaded its most influential merchant William de la Pole to come to the new town of Kingston”. (Hull being Kingston-upon-Hull is known in various forms)... The Manor of Myton was granted to William de la Pole. the end of the Thirteenth century there were several periods of growth...based first on fishing, then on ship-building and the wool trade (the de la Poles acting as distributors of Cistercian wool). In the mid-fourteenth century the de la Poles engaged in money-lending to the Crown. Edward III reneged on his debts in 1350, which affected the family’s prosperity, but by this period their interests were shifting southwards to London and then East Anglia, centred on Wingfield in Suffolk.”...

... and then continuing back to bricks and the building of Hull: de la Pole himself ‘builded a goodly house of brick again (i.e. against) the west end of S Maries Chirch, lyke a palace, with goodly orchard and gardein at large, enclosed with brike (i.e. brick)’. Michael became earl of Suffolk in 1385, and his Hull Street courtyard-plan mansion came to be known as ‘Suffolk Palace’. The site is that of the Head Post Office. The de la Poles had their own brick kiln, north of the town at Trippett, from the fourteenth century.”

The family knowledge of bricks must have continued into Suffolk as Pevsner notes on p492 about Wingfield Castle that “licence to crenellate was given in 1385” and “Brick battlements’.

Pevsner notes on page 18 that “... the heyday of ‘white’ bricks was the C19, when an important centre of production was Woolpit; a great many can be seen in the Ipswich neighbourhood.

There was a paper published in the Suffolk Review, Vol 5, 1980 - 1988 on ‘Suffolk Brickmaking’ by Robert Malster. (Suffolk Local History Council, Summer 1983, Vol 5, No 4).
Extracts follow:

At Woolpit, particularly fine white bricks were made from a darkish bluish-grey plastic clay and the area enjoyed an excellent reputation from an early date, it being said in one nineteenth-century account that Woolpit produced ‘a very white and durable kind of brick, equal in beauty to stone’.

In a manorial survey of 1573 - 1577 (of Woolpit) it is mentioned that the holdings of Edward Duger and Richard Reynolds each contain a brick-kell (kell still being common East Anglian usage for kiln, be it a brick-kell or malt-kell).

From 1658 we have the will of Henry Farmer, alias Oxer, brickmaker of Woolpit, who left his son-in-law and daughter his ‘brick-kells and pot kell and 5 acres of land next adjoining the messuage wherein I now dwell and a licence from Gardiner Webb esq to me for the digging, taking and carrying away earth for the making of bricks, pots, tiles and other uses out of a copyhold piece of land...’. The son-in-law Thomas Hudson, doubtless did carry on the brickmaking business, for in 1675 we find reference to ‘land lying next to le kiln called Hudson’s kiln’.

Ipswich, as befits the County’s largest commercial centre, also has a long history of brickmaking. Among the Ipswich probate mentions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries published by the Suffolk Records Society in 1981 is one relating to Henry Wiseman, brickstriker, dated 1589 (the action of cutting off the waste clay, or pug, from the top of the brick in the mould is known as ‘striking-off’). Among his effects were both burnt and unburnt brick and ‘pavements’ as well as loads of logs, brushwood and whins which were presumably to fire the kiln.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the brickmaking industry in Suffolk had achieved a more than local significance, because with the advantage of convenient water transport and later by making use of the railways, some of the County’s larger brickmaking concerns played a large part in supplying the needs of builders outside the region.

It is well known that brickworks in the Sudbury area, notably that at Ballingdon owned in the earlier part of the nineteenth century by Robert Allen, sent bricks down the Stour by lighter from which they were transhipped at Mistley quay into sailing barges for the coastwise journey to London. There they were used in the construction of many large buildings including the Royal Albert Hall and the South Kensington museums.

(As well as Ballingdon) brickworks in Sudbury included the Victoria Brickworks off Bulmer Road, the California Brickworks on Gallows Hill and the Alexandra Brickworks in Newton Road at Chilton.

Brickworks made good use of the railways. Elmswell, the Grove Brickworks at Ipswich and Dukes Brickworks from a line at Westerfield (Dukes was in production until 1959). Valley Brickworks in Foxhall Road (later Celestion and Bull Motors, now residential) also had sidings of its own as did the brickworks at Leiston.

There was a Trinity Brickworks in Ipswich between Fore Hamlet and Back Hamlet.

‘Suffolk Whites’ were not exclusive to Woolpit. In the 20th century some were made by the London Brick Company at Worboys in Cambridgeshire.