A century ago visitors approaching Upminster from the north down Hall Lane would have noticed several lofty chimneys and other industrial buildings behind what we now call the Strawberry Farm (but then known as Chapman’s or Potkiln Farm). This was Upminster’s brickworks which at its peak in the 1890s employed over 20 men and lasted into the 1930s.
The original Potkilns brick workings were on the north side of Bird Lane. The land there had brick earth to a considerable depth of 25 feet which was ideal for making into bricks, tiles and pipes – said by Wilson to be the best in the neighbourhood. The most distinctive and oldest structure on the site was known as the Dome, and was visible for miles around. The Dome was an up-draught circular brick kiln, 70 feet high and 45 feet in diameter at the base, and 10 feet across the top. It had been built in 1774 by Matthew Howland Patrick, who had married Elizabeth Branfill, soon after the death in 1770 of her husband Champion Branfill (1712-1770), who had owned the site as part of his Upminster Hall estate.
After Patrick’s premature death in early 1777, aged just 37 or 38, it was said that he “had just brought his sugar-mould pottery to perfection”. Sugar-mould pottery was a type of clay product used in the refining of sugar and which needed large quantities of different sized vessels. Patrick had evidently identified this specialist product as a lucrative market and indeed at the time of his death one of his clients was said to be ready to buy his wares to the value of a hundred pounds a year. The kiln’s design was very like those used in the potteries around Stoke, and the up-draught circular kiln was more suitable for firing this type of clay product.
There is early evidence of brickmaking at other nearby sites in Upminster. Wilson refers to a former brick field and the remains of a kiln further north at Brick House Farm, later known as Stony Hills. Field names here included Kiln Field, Brick House Field, Clay Pits and Clay Pit Mead. Just west of Stony Hills, Tylers Hall Farm is thought to derive its name from the Old English words “tigel” and “hyrste” signifying a wood where tiles were made. According to Morant (1768) the best tiles and bricks in the area were made here. There are also references to tile and brickmaking in the south of Upminster around Hacton.
Fields on either side of the Potkilns brickfield had names suggesting former brick production, namely the eight-acre Kiln Field to the east, and the six-acre Great Kiln Field to the west alongside Hall Lane. These brick workings may well have been worked before Patrick’s venture in the 1770s.
Just north of Potkilns, on part of Asp Tree Farm, was the four-acre Little Kiln Field. This farm, named in the manorial records as Columbers and Durrants as far back as 1465 was in separate ownership to Potkilns before it was bought by Champion Edward Branfill in 1817 from the executors of William Pinchon, miller of Gaynes Common. However, no evidence has yet been found when bricks were made here, nor whom the brickmaker was.
According to Wilson, Patrick’s successor at the Potkiln brickworks was a Mr Knight, a Quaker. This is Daniel Knight, the tenant farmer at Potkilns, who died at Upminster in December 1778 and whose burial at Stebbing is noted in Quaker records. His wife Elizabeth Knight succeeded him at Potkilns until her death in 1799, the year in which she is recorded as the occupier of Mrs Patrick’s 115-acre farm and kiln. Elizabeth was probably succeeded by her sons Daniel, who died 1818, and Joseph who died in 1827. David Pinchon, son of William Pinchon, the miller who had owned Asp Trees Farm, had become the Potkilns tenant by 1841.
The first well-documented brickmaker craftsman at Potkilns is Thomas Sandford who was in business there from around 1810 to his death in 1855. Sandford may initially have been engaged by the Knight family to run the brickmaking business as in June 1828 the stock of 52,700 bricks and various types of tiles were offered for sale by auction “by order of the executors of the late Mr Knight”. Sandford may then have bought this stock and gone into business on his own account, separately leasing the seven-and-a-half-acre brickmaking part of the Potkiln site from Champion Edward Branfill. It must still have been a fairly small-scale, seasonal operation, as only two or three brickfield workers appear in each of the census returns between 1851 and 1881.
The basic method of brick and tile making changed little from the Middle Ages until early Victorian times, with clay dug during the autumn and left to weather over the winter, being turned from time to time to expose the whole heap to the elements. Brick and tile making was usually on carried out from the spring onwards, once any chance of frost was over. Bricks were made by hand and left to dry for a few weeks, then fired in the kiln. Roof tiles and floor tiles were made in much the same way but were always made in workshops and needed greater care at every stage as they were likely to crack.
There is evidence that by the 1850s Thomas Sandford had mechanised the brickworks with pug mills and a pipe- and tile-making machine. While ornamental bricks were probably still hand-made in individual moulds, the other bricks were usually mechanically pushed out through a mould and cut on a cutting table. At Sandford’s death a large stock of 37,000 stock, place and paving bricks and 48,000 drain pipes remained to be sold by auction along with his brick- and tile-making equipment.
Sandford was succeeded in 1856 by Samuel Gardner (1802-1885) who carried on the business at Upminster for the next 20 years, and who also traded as a brick and tile maker, builder, maltster and brewer at Havering-atte-Bower from 1848 to 1882. Because of the seasonal nature of brick-making it wasn’t unusual for other trades to be carried out alongside brick-making at this time.
On 11st September 1876 Thomas Lewis Wilson and his business partner William Hook, a local builder and son of the respected Edward Hook, took out a 21-year lease to run the Potkiln brickmaking business on the site formerly occupied by Sandford and Gardner.. It made perfect sense for Wilson & Hook to add the local brickmaking works to their other business interests as it provided a ready supply of raw material for use in their thriving building works.
Wilson and Hook offered “Best red bricks, pipes, tiles and pottery” and the wide range of items that they advertised were:
Building bricks Socket pipes
Paving bricks Drain pipes
French tiles Flower pots
Pan tiles Chimney pots
Plain tiles Kale pots, seed pans
Ornamental bricks and tiles were also available to order.
On 12 November 1885, less than half way through their 21 year lease, Wilson & Hook sold the remainder of their lease. It may be that their lack of expertise in brickmaking meant that they found that running the works in addition to their main building business was too much.
Certainly, in June 1886 Benjamin Branfill wrote to Wilson from New Zealand, probably unaware that he had given up the lease, stating that “I hope your affairs are going more prosperously with regard to the Pottery than they were”. The disposal of their lease took place on the same day as the death of Edward Hook, William’s father, and Hook probably then took on his father’s building business, perhaps then dissolving his partnership with Wilson.
The new lessee at Potkilns was James Brown (1836-1921), a well-established brick and tile manufacturer at Braintree for 25 years and who had added another brickfield at Chelmsford. Brown’s substantial business also included Essex Wharf at Whitechapel and a London office at 103 Cannon Street, EC.
Brown’s decision to take on the Upminster brickyard in 1885 was almost certainly influenced by the opening of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway’s extension to Upminster on 1 May that year. Not only could passengers now reach London from Upminster directly by rail, but it also made the carriage of goods feasible, rather than using road carriers. Brown soon added a horse-drawn tramway that allowed bricks to be transported south from the brick field for over a mile to a siding on the north side of Upminster station. There the goods were transferred to adjacent railway trucks, from where they could be taken further afield by goods train, mainly for use in building the rapidly growing London suburbs.
Brown completely revolutionised the Upminster operation. One year after taking over the lease he surrendered it and took out a new lease on 35 acres, significantly larger than Wilson & Hook’s holding, at an annual rental of £85 plus a royalty of 1s 6d per thousand bricks. He extended the brick workings with excavations in a large field south of Bird Lane, and adding a second kiln known as “The Shaft”. Bricks still warm from the local kiln were used to build the Plain Tile and Pantile cottages in Bird Lane to house his workers. He modernised and mechanised the methods of production on the site, probably spending significant sums in doing so. Although still producing bricks, tiles and pipes, Brown’s main effort concentrated on the sought after and much more profitable ornamental bricks. This proved to be the great strength of his business as he developed a vast range of ornamental bricks at a time when they were in high demand. The Potkilns brick earth was eminently suitable for this type of ornamental brick which allowed the finest detail from the moulds to be faithfully rendered.
It’s probable that the skilled members of Brown’s workforce moved with him to Upminster from Braintree and Chelmsford. The Crosier family is a prominent example: Peter Crosier, who had previously been a brickmaker at Braintree in the 1860s and 1870s, moved to Brown’s Chelmsford brickworks around 1880, and then to Upminster in the late 1880s with many of his large family. The 1891 census shows that Brown also provided a lodging house which had six brickfield workers lodging there, run by Elizabeth Crosier, the wife of Arthur Crosier, a fancy brick moulder.
At its peak the company – by now James Brown (London) Limited – employed over 20 men at the Potkiln works, making them the biggest employer in Upminster. The 1901 census for Bird Lane shows Peter Crosier as the foreman, and there were also four brick makers, three brick moulders, a stationary engine driver, a potter in clay, a brick burner, as well as six brickfield labourers.
It appears that during the early 1890s James’ son Ernest James Brown (1860-1947), one of the company Directors along with his brothers, managed the business. At this time E.J. Brown lived locally and was elected to the first Upminster Parish Council, serving for two years and acting as Vice Chairman and overseer before moving out of the area.
Most of Brown’s Upminster production focussed on the new much larger southern field. The new kiln known as the Shaft, designed by another of James Brown’s sons Arthur Edward Brown, and it was a two-storey building 20 feet high, approximately 100 feet x 30 feet in plan, with a chimney about 80-100 feet high at its west end. This “down-draught” kiln could work continuously and was more efficient for producing bricks and plain tiles than the Dome would have been.
Most bricks were sent outside the area but one notable local building which used Brown’s products was Upminster Court, built in 1905-06. It’s possible that soon after this was completed the best brick earth deposits had been exhausted and James Brown (London) Limited seem to have given up their lease by 1912. The landowner Champion Andrew Branfill then attempted to run the Potkiln works himself, setting up the short-lived Upminster Brick Company in August 1912, taking on all the equipment of their predecessors and almost certainly some or all of the staff. Branfill took on the ownership of the 16 cottages in which the employees lived. Several of the brick workers who had been living there in 1911 were still shown resident in Pantile and Plain Tile Cottages in 1918.
Brickmaking stopped during Branfill’s absence on war service and was no doubt affected by the shortage of workmen away on active service. During this time house building was much reduced and scarce resources were diverted towards wartime production. By 1920 the actual brickfields were said to be derelict, the plant and machinery were in a very bad state and the Upminster Brick Company was wound up.
During the remaining years of the brickworks’ existence a series of short-lived owners tried to revive the yard’s success. A new company “New Upminster Brickworks Ltd” took a lease and were in production by the end of 1920 but this short-lived enterprise dissolved in June 1923. It seems that Foulis Construction Supply Ltd took over but soon went into receivership, succeeded by the Upminster United Brickworks Limited in October 1927. The final business appears to have been established by Arthur Edward Beck, an engineer from Banwell, Somerset, and his son Lyndon Arthur Beck, a brick manufacturer from Worcestershire. The major shareholders were The Gloucestershire Brick Company and The Weston-Super-Mare Pottery, Tile & Brick Company Ltd. Like their predecessors the company met with only limited success and after Arthur Beck died in 1933 that company wound up in March 1934. Another company, the Essex Brick and Tile Company, also seem to have some connection to the same firm.
Visible evidence of the brick works progressively disappeared. The 120-foot-high chimney to the east of the north field was demolished in 1929 and over the next decade other structures were similarly removed. The Shaft was knocked down and the bricks stolen in the course of one night in the late 1930s. The Dome, which was said to be under threat of demolition in 1926, had also gone before World War 2, to the relief of local residents who feared that the prominent structure would attract German bombers. Nowadays the site either side of Birds Lane remains undeveloped with little identifiable hints of its former history.
For a detailed description of the operation of the brickfield under Brown see Burrell’s 1972 article (details below). There is also an excellent display about the lost brickworks at the Tithe Barn, with many examples of local bricks.
Thanks to Andy Grant for his help with sharing his research which has contributed to the content of this article.
R.G.Burrell “The Potkilns – Upminster” (1972) Havering History Review No. 7 p11ff
Adrian Corder-Birch: “Brickmaking in Essex” in Kenneth Neale (Ed.) Essex ‘full of profitable thinges’ (1996)
W.H.Dalton “Note on the Upminster Brickyard, 1890”. Essex Naturalist Vol 4 p186-7
John Drury “The Brickworks of Upminster and Cranham” (1992) Havering History Review No.13 p7ff
Pat Ryan “Brick in Essex: the clayworking craftsmen and gazetteer of sites” (1999)
Thomas Lewis Wilson “Sketches of Upminster” (1856) p116-120
Thomas Lewis Wilson “History and Topography of Upminster” (1881) p190-1
Main Archive Sources
Essex Record Office: Deed of brickfield (1886) D/DU 1330/3
The National Archives: Files of Dissolved Companies
New Upminster Brickworks: BT 31/25769/165974;
Upminster United Brickworks Ltd: BT 31/32867/225113
Upminster Brick Company Ltd: BT 31 20890/123957