Brickmaking in Sprowston

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Brickmaking in Sprowston

A brief introduction to the industry.

Brick making in Sprowston stopped in the 1950`s, bringing to an end an industry that started at least two Centuries ago, some of the buildings in the City of Norwich, Norfolk and quite a few in Sprowston, were built using handmade bricks known as “Norfolk Reds”, some of the buildings dating back to the 18th Century still survive. Many of these buildings used flint as well as brick in their construction, the terrace of cottages, opposite St. Cuthberts Church, Wroxham Road, were built from bricks made in Sprowston. Well over 100 years ago there were many Brickmakers and Brickworks operating in Sprowston, the name given to the best bricks, Norfolk Reds, a good looking brick (Red) and frost hardy. These were much in demand and can still be bought today, but not made in Sprowston unfortunately. The brickyards were labour intensive businesses in the 19th century employing people of all ages, men, women and boys from the age of six many working in their bare feet. Towards the end of the 19th Century there were nine Brickworks and a total of 11 kilns or clamps in Sprowston. The early part of the 20th Century saw the closure of many Brickworks, the last one closing in 1955, on Sprowston Road. These yards gave way to new dwellings, many residents are unaware their property has been built where the ground is suitable on land that was once a Brickyard. Some of the brick earth quarries were infilled so were unsuitable for housing development. The Five Aside pitch and commercial development on School Lane mark where a large pit was infilled although this practice ceased in the 1960s.

List of Sprowston Brickmakers


BACON and GRAVERS, One Kiln.









MASON. JOHN, One Kiln.








Lime Burner. WILLIAM EDWARDS. Lime Kiln.

Brick making - the process.

Obtaining the materials.

Clay or Brick earth

Most areas in Norfolk are able to provide the clay locally known as “brick earth” from which it is possible to make bricks. Almost exclusively these brick earths produced bricks of a red colour although there were one or two deposits producing a far lighter coloured brick. Sprowston certainly was blessed with a considerable quantity of the brick earth suitable for the production of the red bricks which throughout Norfolk were given the name of Norfolk reds. In the early days of brickmaking the deposits nearest the surface were exploited what the ever growing need for bricks as Norwich expanded required the removal of an ever increasing overburden to access the clay. From photographic evidence there appears to have been little mechanisation in this process although early maps show that small narrow gauge railway lines and hand propelled skips were used to transport the clay. The clay would be left spread on flat ground to weather, this used the rain wind and frost to make the clay more friable. This process could take several months and with frosts being a factor clay extraction would be seasonal.

This left only three other requirements to make bricks, water, sand and fuel with which to fire the kilns. In the earliest days this would probably have been wood but would no doubt have changed to coal as a fuel with the advent of the coastal coal trade. Even this supply via Great Yarmouth and then by river to Norwich would be superseded in the first half of the 19th century by railway transport.


The clay now weathered would have been of no use for brickmaking being hard and unable to be moulded. Prior to the introduction of pugging mills the weathered clay would have been spread on the floor and with the addition of some water, be walked upon until the whole batch was malleable and smooth. The men who did this were easily recognisable as they normally went to work barefoot and with their trouser tied up at the knees. Memories of older residents gathered in the 1960s would suggest this practice was still in operation in the 20th century at the smaller brick yards. Photographs would seem to suggest that in the larger brick yards this work had already been taken over at the end of the 19th century by a horse driven pug mill which could quickly prepare far greater quantities. There was one drawback with this mechanisation any stones or foreign bodies which would be felt by the person with bare feet and consequently picked out would remain and inconsequence be embedded in the bricks.


Brick moulds usually consisted of two parts, the stock and mould both would normally be made of a suitable hardwood. If the brick was of a complex pattern there could be several sections to the mould. The mould and stock would be coated with sand to act as a release agent for the clay. A quantity of clay would be thrown into the mould which had been placed over the stock. Having been compacted by hand or a piece of wood for intricate bricks, using a strike any excess would be skimmed off level with the top of the mould with a tool. The brick would be removed onto a thin board and taken to the drying shed.


The bricks in an unfired state were known as “green” and would require several weeks to dry. In larger brick yards there were special shed for this purpose but in smaller enterprises these might take the form of moveable covers or even a layer of straw as thatch.

Firing the bricks.

Prior to the introduction of brick kilns all bricks would be fired using the clamp principle. A bed of fuel would be laid on a flat surface frequently sand directly on top of this the bricks would be stacked leaving small gaps between to allow the heat to permeate through the stack. The outside would be covered with old or malformed bricks the outside being covered in clay with an aperture left at the top for the heat to escape and small apertures around the base for the fuel to be lit. Once the burn had taken place after a period to cool down the clamp would be broken open and the bricks sorted. With such a basic burning process there would be a percentage of the bricks over fired and at the other end of the scale many bricks that had not received sufficient heat and would thus be unsaleable. These rudimentary clamps gave way to more permanent structures of both the Scotch and Suffolk brick kilns both of which seem to have been used in Sprowston. Until the Second World War for the smaller companies these would have been quite sufficient for their production requirements there was however a good deal of light came from the group and tops of these kilns hence with the blackout restrictions on their use was banned. Already many brick yards had made use of the latest kiln technology as many photographs show that Hoffman brick kilns were much in evidence. The advantage of this design or one of its variants instead of intermittent firing of a kiln it became a continuous process by using various chambers within the same kiln in rotation. Although no photographic evidence exists, prior to the introduction of the Hoffman kilns in the memories section is an account of what would seem to be a down draught kiln in use. Although also of intermittent instead of the continuous process of a Hoffman kiln the firing was more even reducing the amount of spoiled bricks.

Notes by Eunice M Sandle.

In Norfolk nearly every large estate had their own brickyard in Tudor times, many of which were still working in the 1930`s, in those Tudor days the bricks at least on each estate were made of a uniform size in a wooden mould and the bricks were turned out to dry on a bed of straw before burning – hence the old saying “ You cannot make bricks without straw”. It was not until the arrival of the Fleming’s in England in the 15th Century that building in brick really became popular. This naturally occurred chiefly in Norfolk and Suffolk where the foreigners first settled and where there was good brick earth. From then onwards bricks were increasingly used for most types of buildings largely because they were made from local materials and thus saved the difficulties and cost of obtaining stone, except in the case of Ecclesiastical buildings. Bricks became more or less standardised in the size at least in each locality, and it is generally accepted that the 225mm x 113mm x 65mm brick was of a convenient size for the bricklayer to handle. During the 19th Century and the Industrial Revolution the Brickyards of Sprowston came into their own when homes were needed for the artisans working in the various factories in Norwich, many of whom migrated to the City from work on the land, and rows of rows brick terraced houses grew up in streets outside the City walls, among others those in the Magdalen Road area were built with bricks made in the Sprowston Brickyards.

The Brickmakers year progressed as follows:- January – April. The clay was dug. - May – August. Making the bricks.(When winter frosts were over). - September – October. The burning time. During the winter (before the days of the Welfare State) the Brickmakers went to work in the Norwich Breweries.

A frequently asked question “Where were the Brickyards”.

Sprowston Road. One at the back of the old Black Horse PH. (Owned by a Mr Howes.)

Sprowston Road. One at the bottom of Shipfields.

Sprowston Road. One City side of Sprowston Post Mill. (Owned by a Mr Tilney.)

School Lane. One at the back of the Elementary School.

School Lane. One next to the school. (Owned by Mr Wrench.)

School Lane. One each side of School Lane before you get To the Woodman PH. (Owned by Charles Cunnell.)

The memories of Brickmaking in Sprowston.

The memories come from three sources. An interview of Albert Ward a Sprowston resident recorded by Liz Matthews in 2002 First extract taken from an interview with Albert Ward by Liz Matthews, the interview took place in 2002. The second extract comes from the Mill Archive and the Harrison family. Horace J Harrison. Last miller at the Post Mill, 1927. Then Landlord of Brickmakers Arms. 1928. The final extracts are from, Mr Jack Tusting, Mrs G Clarke, Mrs G Kent and Miss C L Mann. Which appeared in “Brickworks and Brickmakers of Sprowston” an article written by Eunice M Sandle, then President of the Sprowston Women`s Institute.

Albert Ward’s memories

Starting at the top of Allens Lane, near North Walsham Road, the first excavation is Dovedales on the right as you go down Allens Lane, you now look on the roofs of houses, which was where the earlier brickyard was. Then down School Lane, where Tusting Close and the Scout Hut is, that is part of the excavations, at the top end, Neville Road. The hole was 80ft deep, and it was filled up with all the bomb debris from the 2nd World War. Hundreds of lorry loads went into there to fill it up, this is pre 1930`s. and this is also where the deepest well in Norfolk was. You could drop stones down the well and it took ages for them to reach the bottom. On the other side of Neville Road you will see a small excavation, you will see back gardens which are very long, they in fact back up to the hole which is not very far from Wroxham Road, and there are remains of one of the earliest excavations that is still there, it is slowly being filled. In Lusher`s yard there was one chimney, and it was demolished just before the start of the 2nd WW. Coming down before School Lane you see a large area, which was worked out mid 1930`s, Norwich Sack & Bag Company took the whole site over and built a large factory, which processed sacks and they used to hang out on wire or linen lines, out the back. The next big area was the Priory Football Ground, that was a very big area, which had one and possibly two chimneys, and this was worked till the 1930`s, they then put down a grass pitch, which was then mostly waste ground. One feature was the tower like mounds, like islands, which was left by the brickworks, this was because the mounds had no brick earth, and some of these mounds were 15 to 20ft high. It was a marvellous place to play cowboys and Indians as a boy. Just at the corner there was a small road and a Slaughter House, there was another Slaughter House (Chapman's) just into Neville Road, the house where the owners lived is still there. Every day you would hear the pigs being slaughtered. Coming down the road there is another area which is where Shipfields is, there was a huge brickyard, which was turned into allotments and is now developed with housing, there was one chimney which was demolished in the 1930`s. Crossing Sprowston Road the area marked as the Greyhound Stadium, it is now Templemere, used to belong to the Pine family, and it was built just before the 2nd World War. That was the first of that area to be used up, the other three areas where the Maclarens Handbag Factory (now Startrite Ltd) is, were worked up to the 1950`s. The last chimney to come down at Lacey & Lincoln was in 1957/8, and that was the one area with a deep seam of brick earth, and I don`t think they finished working all that area.

After the 1st World War the Peterborough Brickworks started, it was very mechanised, and this caused the eventual demise of brickmaking in Sprowston. Lacey & Lincoln made tiles and bricks; they had one or two depots, where you could buy in there. These brickyards, when they first started, they had the brick earth, which made the “Norfolk Reds”, it was a special type of brick earth. Lacey & Lincoln produced what were called Flettons, but that was one of many products that they sold, other brickyards produced the “Norfolk Reds”. A Horse and cart, no rivers in Sprowston, delivered all these bricks, either direct to the customer or to the railway station at Thorpe. A gentleman that Mr Ward knew, came to Sprowston with his family in about 1850, his name was Mr Blanch. He was seven years old when he had a dispensation to go to work some days, in the brickyards. The first job he did was “Jamming” the clay, the brick earth was barrelled into a kind of shallow vat 10ft x 20ft, the sides about 2ft high, it was thrown in there and pails of water were thrown onto this earth. A gang of boys with their arms round each others waist, with their bare feet and bare legs, just walked up and down, marched up and down, Jamming the brick earth to mix it up, that was how it was done in the 1860`s, this was the first process.As he got a little older he came off that, and he was then helping with the shovelling and barrowing, as all the brick earth was dug out by hand and it was then barrowed to where these vats were. When he got a bit older he was allowed to fill the wooden moulds, these moulds made the shape and size of the brick, into which the wet and sticky clay was thrown. The moulds were then taken to what I can only describe as long shovels (sheds), of which there were many, they had corrugated iron roofs, and they were about 4ft high. The moulds were stood there for 4 to 5 days till they had dried out, they were then taken out for further drying, after that, which sometimes took four to ten days, depending on the weather really. They had to be taken under cover to stop the rain getting to them, they were then taken to the kiln and stacked, and the kilns were huge constructions about the size of a bungalow, 50ft to 80ft long. The bricks were stacked to the roof, on a floor with holes in. Underneath the floor was where the fire was, it was a fierce fire, because the height of the chimney determined on the amount of draught you could get through, and they roared away for four to five days. You used to see the black smoke coming out of the chimneys, they were fired for several days, the foreman would determine if everything had been cooked and baked. They had no specialist temperature gauges in those days; they just knew by experience how long it would take. The bricks at the bottom were obviously over baked and they were called “Flint Bottom” bricks and you can see some occasionally which were used, because some of the firing used to come through and stick to the bottom of these bricks and fuse with the brick. These bricks were inferior, but people bought them, it was always the bottom layer that received the most heat. The heat worked its way through the stacks of bricks, and I suspect, though I never saw it, they had a special way of stacking these all in, so that the hot air could work through them, I do not think that they were packed in solid. There the bricks laid and remained until they were cold enough, which of course took some time, these bricks were removed and the kiln was readied for the next batch of bricks, this went on more or less all through the year. In the wintertime, the bricks in the moulds did not dry very quickly, so the whole process was slowed up. The kiln was like a great brick dome, which went to a height of 15ft to 18ft, it was solid brick construction and the archways were open, there were no doors on them, the bricks were stacked up to the front of the arches.

Horace J Harrison memories.

In my school days the main industry was handmade bricks, the sub soil was and still is clay. A Limekiln was on Sprowston Road; Chalk was dug out, then burnt in a kiln for several days with coal dust. This then became Lime, for the building trade, it was then mixed with sand and damped down in heaps, this became very hot, in fact one could cook an egg in it. When cool the heaps were mixed with water, to make mortar for bricklaying and for plastering the inside walls. mortar was laid out in the yard where the building was to be built, and watered down, it was then mixed with Cow hair and dung, then hand raked, this was also left for several weeks before using. Brickyards were all over the place, three on Sprowston Road, four in School Lane and several in Old Catton. The work in these brickyards was all done by hand, and it was an all year job for these men. In the winter they dug out the clay, which was in seams some 20 to 50ft down, the clay was put into large lumps ready for the brickmaking process. The brick maker would dig a hole about 4ft square and about 3ft deep, the top of this hole would have a wooden board, 18inches wide, the brick maker would then stand in the hole and make the bricks. When brickmaking started for the day, the “Clay Jammers” would feed the brick maker, after first jamming the clay with their bare feet, these men went to and from their homes in bare feet. The brickmaking process was done at a terrific pace, and the men would work from dawn to dusk, the bricks were red in colour and there were various grades, according to where they were situated in the brick clamp and also how much heat the brick received. The best were red facing bricks, then the softer ones, which were called “Salmons” owing to their colour; these bricks were used for internal walls. The bricks that got the most heat were very hard and were sometimes misshapen, these were known as “Blisters”, these were used in the foundations or footings of buildings.

Henry (Froggy) Thurston a Sprowston connection.

Henry Thurston, a young brick maker, who was working in a brickyard in Cambridge, invented the Frog that went into the top of the brick, this hole in the brick, meant less clay was required for each brick, and it also made for stronger brick courses when used in the building trade. Henry received a large sum of money instead of royalties; he retired from the brick trade shortly afterwards. With his money he purchased some Fair rides and vehicles and travelled to the various Fair sites around the country, he was given the nickname “Froggy Thurston”.

Memories of Mr Jack Tusting.

Recorded on July 30th 1973. by Eunice M Sandle Jack Tusting was the last owner of the School Lane Brickyard. “The first job in the morning was for a boy labourer to fetch a gallon jar of beer for the brick maker. The pubs were open all day long in those days and brickmaking and brick burning was thirsty work. Brickmakers nearly always took Monday off to get over a hard weekends drinking after getting their pay at 12.30pm on a Saturday. The bricks for many buildings locally and in Norwich were carted on a tumbrel from Tusting`s yard in School Lane. Clem Tillett (Well over eighty and still employed part time at Builders Direct Supply, Mile Cross Lane) remembers taking a tumbrel of bricks to the Jenny Lind Hospital, Unthank Road, Norwich when he was only nine years old. In 1937, when the clay in Sprowston was worked out, Mr Tusting employed two Gypsies to `drop` the chimney of the obsolete Kiln. They were paid £25.00. They put explosive at the base of the five legs of the kiln and after several abortive attempts managed the job just as dusk was approaching. The rubble fell in a straight line and formed the foundations for Tusting Close. 2 ½ cubic yards of clay make 1000 bricks, it took one ton of good quality coal to burn 1000 at a temperature of 1120 degrees. The burners were paid by the hour. The bricks took four to five weeks at the beginning of the season, five to six days in August. Bricks were known as “green” before firing. Winter work for Brickmakers was turning Hops in the Norwich Breweries. The last chimney came down in June 1956.

Memories of Mrs G Clarke. Recorded by Eunice M Sandle

From memory I can recall the work going on at the brickyard behind the old school (Neville Road). Work was started early in the morning. Many men did not bother to wear boots but walked in bare feet to their work, the corduroy trousers were either rolled up over their knees or tied with string. Usually they carried frail baskets which contained their dinner and also a bottle of warm tea, if not a bottle a billycan of tea. Some men (Jammed) treaded the clay mixture with their feet and then it was barrowed to the round shallow pits where other men worked at moulding the clay into bricks. The moulds were made of wood – a lump of clay was lifted on to two metal plates, held, one in each hand, working the clay about a bit and then put in the mould – a flat piece of wood was smoothed over the top of the mould and they were turned out and stood on trays all around the pit. In the process very few were broken – the men having the knack of turning them out. They were then loaded on barrows and taken to the outside of the kiln where they were left to partially dry. When sufficient bricks were ready the kiln was prepared. A large quantity of straw was placed inside the kiln near the centre. Bricks were then stacked row upon row, working from the farthest edge leaving gangways, which were also tightly strewn with straw as was also each row of bricks. This straw was then ignited, all the entrances sealed, and the bricks were then left for about three weeks to make sure that they had been burnt properly and were fit for use. One of the workers was my next door neighbour and on most afternoons, after school, I used to take him his “fourses”- a bottle of warm tea and often some cakes which my neighbour’s wife made from dough with sugar and currants added and fried in fat. I thought they were lovely as I usually had one given me. For their dinner they would take their frail baskets to the “Pub” nearby and eat it the dinner with a mug of beer. I do not think the wages were big – if the weather was kind they could make more bricks as I think they were paid on a quantity basis.

Memories of Mrs G Kent. Recorded by Eunice M Sandle

When I was about 8 years old in the early 1920`s, my greatest adventure during the long summer holiday, was to take “fourses” up to the brickfield on Sprowston Road, to my friend’s grandfather, Mr Morris, who worked there as a brick maker. It always seemed to be hot in August in those days, and we felt very excited at the thought of going somewhere even hotter! We would collect the basket of short cakes, and bottles of tea from the house, and go up a narrow lane leading from Sprowston Road, through a wide wooden gate, and onto the brickyard. The men working there were barefooted, and wore long aprons of either sacking or leather. I can remember seeing an old horse working there too, but can't recall exactly what it did, perhaps it worked the treadmill water pump, because there was always a lot of water about even in high summer. Our greatest joy however was to play round the great kiln, with its tall chimney. This was circular and continuous in action. It was fired from either end, I believe, and we would peer in to see which kiln was firing. Some would be empty and cold, ready for stacking, the next would be cooling, then would come the hot ones that were being fired, they were sealed up with clay, and the heat coming from these was really intense. We used to dare one another to see how close we dare approach them, then we would run races round the whole kiln until we were told in no uncertain terms to clear off, so that the men could get on with their work. I cannot remember seeing many fired bricks standing about so I would imagine that these were taken away on flat horse drawn carts to builder’s yards, or straight onto the building site. Not long after this, things got very slack and the men only worked a few days a week, we used to look at the chimney each day to see if it was smoking. If it was only sending out wisps of smoke it was no use going up there, but whenever we saw black smoke billowing out we knew that they would be firing and then granddad would want his tea! This brickyard was owned by Mr Lincoln, and later by Lacey & Lincoln. The two brickyards in School Lane were owned by Mr Tusting. One of these latter yards continued working long after the others closed down.

Memories of Miss C L Mann. Recorded by Eunice M Sandle

We also had a lot of brickfields in School Lane, one having the Kiln for roasting the bricks, its tall chimney being quite a landmark. The chimney was blasted and the kiln and the brickfields removed and abandoned many years ago, so we saw no more of the Brickmakers as they went home after work, though I’ll always remember them with their bare feet and legs covered in sand, as were their rolled up trouser legs, tied up with string just below their knees!