Publication covering bricks reveals fascinating history

Looking up one of the towers at Layer Marley, Essex, which dates from the 1520s. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Looking up one of the towers at Layer Marley, Essex, which dates from the 1520s. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

‘English Brickwork’ is 40 years old this year. One of its authors is still probably quite well known, at least to older readers; he was Alec Clifton-Taylor, who in late life became a television star with his series about ‘English Towns’, and was also celebrated as the writer of the seminal (and not superseded) ‘The Pattern of English Building’.

Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorkshire - started c1610. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorkshire - started c1610. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

His co-author was Ronald Brunskill; not a household name, except among devotees of vernacular buildings, as he wrote the equally-respected ‘Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture’. Brunskill was an architect and a lecturer at the University of Manchester.

Together Clifton-Taylor and Brunskill produced their slim (160-page) volume on brickwork. In the Introduction they say that ‘recent books have either dealt with brickwork as one among a number of building materials [no doubt a reference to Clifton Taylor’s own ‘Pattern’] or have been confined to one period or aspect of the subject, usually with the needs of the prospective architect or apprentice bricklayer as the primary consideration.’

Their agenda is different. They want ‘to show how bricks have been used from the earliest times up to the present day... it is hoped that this book will be read with enjoyment at home.’ You may remain sceptical; how can so dull a subject as bricks be made interesting? Yet somehow these two writers manage it.

The first third of the book deals with the history of bricks, and there are some interesting facts that soon come to light. Did you know, for example, that the word brick wasn’t in use in England until the 15th century? Earlier builders certainly had bricks, but they were known by English builders as ‘waltles’ – that is, ‘wall-tiles’.

Victorian brick ' The Midland Hotel, St Pancras. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Victorian brick ' The Midland Hotel, St Pancras. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

This reminds us that the earliest bricks in Britain were made by (or for) the Roman invaders, and were as thin as today’s roof tiles; we can see them in Roman ruins, like those in York, or re-used by later ages in structures like St Albans Abbey, where the builders used the nearby Roman town of Verulamium as a quarry. The Romans knew them as ‘tegulae’ – and the word ‘tegula’ was also used in English until the more prosaic ‘brick’ became the norm.

Bricks were used in medieval England, especially in areas where there was no good building stone or sufficient timber. So most of the earliest brick buildings were in the east of the country – we might think of the impressive brick portions of Hull’s Holy Trinity Church (now Hull Minster), built in the very early 14th century, or Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire of a century later. By the early 15th century brickmakers and bricklayers were very skilful; the twisting staircase vaults at Tattershall and at the later Layer Marney Tower in Essex are exercises in very complex geometry.

The book takes us on a quick dash through the increasing use of brick by the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans (Burton Agnes Hall is one of their examples) and their successors. They note the change in decorative style to the classical, and see that manufacturers of bricks were increasingly called on to provide special shapes for pediments and columns in brick. The Georgians had a phase of covering their bricks in stucco (so they could use cheap bricks) whereas the Victorians seemed to glory in the nakedness of brick, both for churches (like A W Pugin’s St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham, completed in 1841) and for new types of structures like viaducts, mill chimneys and railway hotels – none greater than Sir Gilbert Scott’s Midland Hotel at St Pancras.

The book’s survey takes us into the 20th century, with mention of the use Edwin Lutyens made of brick in both his houses and his war memorials like that at Thiepval in Normandy, and of cinema architecture; the former Odeon in York gets a special mention for its unusual brickwork.

Part Two of ‘English Brickwork’ is a Glossary. No, don’t turn over; this is fascinating. It lists and describes all the ways of laying bricks – the various ‘bonds’ that give both strength and variety to a wall. You may know of ‘English bond’ (the strongest) and ‘Flemish bond’, but what of bonds called ‘Monk’ (a variation of Flemish which is also known as ‘Yorkshire bond’) or ‘Rat-trap’, ‘Dutch’, Sussex or ‘Dearne’s bond’?

Then there are the names of bricks – can you define a ‘grizzle’ or a ‘gault’, a ‘king closer’ or a ‘pamment?’ If you can’t, a quick browse in the glossary will bring you up to speed with these and with terms like ‘racking’, ‘tile-creasing’, ‘tumbling-in’ and ‘weepholes’.

It’s a joy for architectural historians, lexicographers – and Scrabble players.

The final part of this modest book is a photographic survey of the use of brick through the ages, from the 11th to the 20th centuries. Yorkshire examples include Beverley’s North Bar of 1409, Burton Constable house from the late 16th century and Hull’s Wilberforce House (c1630), as well as York Odeon.

An appendix deals with the most-familiar of all brickwork of today – the wall made up solely of ‘stretchers’ (bricks laid with their longest side outwards). This came into general use after World War One – it was cheaper to build as it used fewer bricks.

There are still buildings being constructed that use bricks in imaginative ways that Clifton-Taylor and Brunskill would no doubts have celebrated – the Brick Development Association’s Brick Awards for 2017 names, for example, the Victoria Gate Arcade in Leeds as a winner, being a good example of using brick in an ‘intriguing and exciting’ way, while Marks & Spencer’s food hall in Northallerton is commended.

Reading ‘English Brickwork’ will open your eyes to the use of what you may have hitherto regarded as something so humble as to be beneath your notice.