The last Walkern Brickmaker
The last Walkern Brickmaker
By Bob Bruce, from the September 1974 issue of the Walkern Journal
Back in the Mid 19th Century, it seems, a Brick Field operated in Walkern, and I talked to its last Brickmaker, Mr Fred Warner of Elmside Villa, Stevenage Road.
Fred worked for 3-4 years on the site with Mr. Estwick, who rented the land from Miss Cotton Browne. “I remember my grandfather working there when I was a boy” said Fred. “The bricks were made by hand – piece work”. Bricks, tiles and land drains, were the main products.
Fred described the operation. The clay was first dug from the bank and then laid down and left throughout the winter. It was spread out into a Pug Mix 40 foot square, for the frosts to break down. ?We don’t get the frosts today to do this job? said Fred. When the pit was full, washing commenced. Two horses were used, the pit was first drained. A shaft with four blades was used as a miller, and it was turned by a pony walking in a circle, the ground being levelled and scraped for its walk.
Ready in the morning after grinding was a soft and pliable clay and brick making started after breakfast. Put into barrows which emptied at the bottom, the clay was taken to the tables where moulding took place. A special tool like a shovel with a hole in the middle put a lump of clay into the mould. A striker made of wood took off the surplus top and bottom, like topping ice cream. The moulds, lifted from the table onto flats, placed on a specially shaped wheel barrow, holding 26 bricks, were then racked, starting on the floor, building upwards 2-3 racks, going on at a time.
After drying and turning (one day) the moulds were packed into kilns for burning. “The art of brickmaking is in the burning”, said Fred. A nice fire took a couple of days to build up, and one had to see all red, no black, in the kiln, which was then covered with earth. When the pile was red hot to the top, the fires were let down and left for cooling, two days later earth being removed from around the Kiln, and bricks stacked.
At Elmside Villa (built 1901) in Fred’s sitting room I examined the fire place, made of bricks from the brick site. They were smooth, and colourful, though not quite so uniform as modern bricks. The Villa, and all the similar houses in the row, are in fact constructed using bricks from the Estwick Brickfield, as are also many other houses in Walkern today.
The Brickfield ceased to operate in 1936 due to the economic fact of mass production, though an incident occurred which may have also influenced the closure. One night as Mr. Estwick was burning the bricks (an all night operation) he was attacked by an intruder – a Gypsy – probably after the pony. Mr. Estwick managed to crawl home to his bungalow in High Street, badly beaten, though the gypsy didn’t get the pony.