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Brick Boating

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2017

Christopher M. Jones

Chris M. Jones examines the craft used in west London’s brick-making industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Brick-laden narrowboats plied the Thames as well as wide-boats, as seen here at Teddington on the northern Middlesex bank. The boat is most likely Rebecca Ada, owned by Francis Newell Junior and built in 1888, a year before the Western Lock suspension footbridge on the left. This location is at the furthest extremity of the tidal Thames, as the bridge connects the town with the tidal lock, which is behind the photographer. Francis Newell Senior was a brickmaker, sand and gravel merchant and publican at Hamborough Tavern, Southall, while his son was a farmer, boat-owner and horse-dealer. The neat stacks of bricks above the gunwale are clearly visible – one stack for each room of the hold. The boat was sold to brick-maker Albert Odell of Cowley Peachey in 1903.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Long before the canal age, buildings in London were largely constructed of bricks as there was no stone quarrying in the region. This encouraged a local brick-making industry to develop, exploiting large clay deposits in Middlesex, Kent and Sussex. The expansion of London and the building of the Grand Junction Canal were catalysts for increased brick production, with the canal providing an ideal means for transporting the finished bricks into London, and also taking away waste materials that could be recycled in the brick-manufacturing process. Brick-making expanded further after government excise duty on bricks was abolished in 1850.

Brick-making was a seasonal trade and took place in the summer months. Brick-makers would work as agriculturallabourers during bad weather and in the winter, while women workers would take on laundry and cleaning work.

The main ingredient required for brick-making was brick earth, dug out to a depth of some 4ft, which was then mixed with coal dust, chalk, road sweepings and sieved household ashes collected by dustmen. The mix was left over the winter as the frost prepared it for use, before being pressed into wooden moulds during the spring, left to dry, then fired in ‘clamps’ during early summer. These clamps were makeshift brick kilns (themselves constructed from bricks) and were fuelled by ‘breeze’ (cinders of coal and coke) collected by dustmen. The workers were paid piecework rates set at the beginning of each brick-making season, but there were industrialdisputes: for example, in 1891 a strike closed many of the Cowley brick fields for 17 weeks.

Cowley was one of the first areas to be exploited for brick-making, and the bricks were given the generic name of ‘Cowley Stocks’. Stock bricks were used primarily for internal structural work, with more attractive facing bricks, used to adorn the outside of buildings, being made elsewhere. During the following decades brick-making sites opened at Hayes, Botwell and Yeading, as well as at Norwood, Northolt, Southall, Dawley, West Drayton and Yiewsley, all within the vicinity of the canal. The Grand Junction’s 5-mile Slough Arm was completed in December 1882, built specifically for the transportation of building materials, and more brick fields soon appeared along the line. As well as back-loading with breeze to fire the clamps and ashes to mix with the brick earth, canal boats also carried manure from the city’s stables and streets to be spread on farmland.


Chalk was important for the brickmaking industry and local supplies in Middlesex came from Harefield and Springwell in Hertfordshire. Here, below Springwell Lock 83 on the extreme right, are loading chutes from a large chalk pit a few yards from the canal. A tramway was laid to the chute before World War I, but the quarry was disused by the mid-1930s. R&CHS Collection

Brick-making required chalk and sand. Large deposits of chalk were found in the Thames Estuary at Purbeck and West Thurrock in Essex and had been exported from there for many years, although production declined in the 1850s. Chalk was also extracted at Harefield and Springwell, and these sites became the main source of this material. Sand was also obtainable at Harefield, but large quantities were sourced in the Thames Estuary andtransported into London in Thames barges before being transshipped into wide boats and narrowboats to complete the journey into the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire brick fields via Brentford.

To better access brick earth deposits, canal arms and branches were dug into the brick fields. As the brick earth layer quickly became exhausted, the gangs of workers would move to another parcel of land to exploit the deposits there. It was impossible for new canal arms to be built quickly enough to keep up. Tramways were therefore constructed to run from the canalside to the newly worked ground, which could easily be relaid when the time came to move on.

This is one of the best depictions of brick carrying by wide-boat in the late 1890s. The couple are John and Martha Halford with their children Jane, sitting on the bricks in front of her father, baby Jack in Martha’s arms, Esther (left) and Alice standing by the mast. Mast, beams and planks were all the rig required for brick, chalk and sand carrying, together with any back-loading with ashes, breeze, manure or rubbish. Chris Herridge/Alan Faulkner Collection

Brick-makers and boat-owners

Like many industries, brick manufacturing relied on good transport links. The Thames and Medway rivers provided a route for bricks from Kent and Sussex using Thames spritsail barges, but bricks from west Middlesex reached the capital along the Grand Junction Canal and its Paddington branch.

Originally, many brick-makers were builders who made bricks mainly for their own use, or farmers making more profitable use of the land. Later brickmakers sold their product wholesale to builders’ merchants, who supplied the building trade. This period also saw the emergence of competitive tendering by building contractors, who provided all the different craftsmen and materials for complete building projects. Previously, craftsmen and builders had been hired piecemeal. The contractors worked on the many large-scale building projects of the age, including docks, warehouses, railways, sewers and large institutions like hospitals, workhouses, and public and government buildings.

Until the abolition of brick duty in 1850, only a small number of brickmakers and brick merchants were also boat-owners. Boats needed to be in full-time use to be economically viable, and brick-making was only a seasonal trade, so boats were hired or carriers engaged as and when needed. However, brick-maker Stephen Watkins of Irongate Wharf, Paddington, and brick merchant Richard Stapleton of Paddington Basin (also a coal and ash merchant, and dust contractor respectively) did have their own craft. Both used narrowboats, but others, such as brick-makers and merchants John Rutty and George Very of Paddington Basin, used wide boats.

After 1850 more brick-makers and contractors began to buy their own boats. Most were wide boats or narrowboats, but some, like brickmaker and dust contractor Henry Dodd of City Wharf, Hoxton, north London, used Thames sailing barges.

In the main, the wide boat was the all-purpose delivery vehicle of the brick trade in Middlesex. During the 1850s several brick manufacturersand merchants became boat-owners, and their names were familiar on the waterways during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th. One early family partnership was William & Joseph Studds of Cowley Lock, and among its first craft was the narrowboat Industry, acquired early in 1854. At that time William was a beer retailer and Joseph a gravel contractor, but by the end of the century they were farmers and brick-makers at Iver, and brick-makers at Langley Marish on the Slough Arm.

Another partnership that bought its own boats was James & Alfred Stroud of Stoke Newington. In the early 1860s the partnership owned the narrowboats Telegraph and Despatch, and in 1866 acquired a Thames sailing barge named Harriet. This was to exploit the company’s brick field at Western Road, Southall, near the Grand Junction Canal.

These were not the only brickmakers to use both Thames sailing barges and canal craft. One of the most well-known brick-makers was Eastwood & Co Ltd. The family business was established in 1815 and by early 1860 John and William Eastwood, based at Lambeth, had several spritsail barges. By 1884 the company had a brickworks at West Drayton and later brick fields in Shoeburyness in Essex, Rainham, Sittingbourne, Newington and Faversham in Kent, and Arlesey in Bedfordshire. To serve its West Drayton works the company built up a fleet of 11 craft named after months of the year. The first, narrowboat January, was registered at Uxbridge on 27th April 1886. Ten more craft followed, both wide and narrow, ending with November, registered on 26th March 1901. However, just a few years after acquiring its last boat, the company began to dispose of them, with a number going to brickmaker Albert Odell of Cowley Peachey in 1907. Eastwood’s large businesscontinued to expand in other counties and went on to become one of the largest brick manufacturers in Britain.

Some builders’ merchants also set up as brick-makers and bought their own boats to transport them. One example is the business of Broad, Harris & Co of Paddington. Brick and lime merchant Clement Burgess Broad and builder George Harris set up in business together in 1882 with two second-hand boats, one narrow and one wide, adding more craft in the last decades of the 19th century. They had an open river barge named Victoria in 1898, and the last craft they bought was the wide boat Opal in August 1907.

In 1884 Broad and Harris took over a brick field at Starveall, West Drayton, to begin their own production. The business was incorporated in 1896 as Broad & Co Ltd, and became a builders’ merchants, specialising in sanitary fittings and fire goods at Paddington, in addition to the brick-making at West Drayton and cement manufacturing at Cliffe in Kent. The company was still a brick-maker in the 1930s, and the builders’ merchants continued to trade even after World War II.

Bricks travelled north from the brick fields as well as south to London, as demonstrated here at Uxbridge Lock 88, where a heavily laden horse-drawn wide-boat loaded with bricks exits the lock while the horse is feeding from its nose bag. Behind is the turnover Bridge 84. Note the raised combings, washboards and towing timberheads at the bow, which are attributes of river barges and show that this particular craft was intended for work on the Thames. The bricks could be heading to a merchant’s wharf or industrial premises anywhere in the Home Counties. T.W. King Collection

Others combined working as farmers with brick-making. One of the best examples is William Mead & Co Ltd of Iver, Acton and Paddington. While some brick-makers had one or a few boats, Meads built up one of the largest carrying fleets in the trade. William Mead & Co started buying boats in the late 1860s, and through the 1870s acquired a number of second-hand wide boats, many from Thomas Ferguson, a road contractor of Paddington Basin, and brick-makers Tildesley & Minter of Southall. By January 1880 the company had 14 wide and narrow craft, and others followed, including two secondhand steam tugs Antelope and Buffalo, bought from the London & Birmingham Carrying Co in 1900 for towage work. From January 1893 a series of new wide boats were built at Meads’ Tring Dockyard and given water bird names; the last was Grebe, built in 1901. The last boat purchased by the company was the wide-beam Tiger in spring 1912.

The Mead family had many business interests in the Hertfordshire and Middlesex area, including Tring Flour Mill on the Wendover Arm. Thomas Mead was the miller there, and was succeeded by his son, William Newman Mead, early in the 20th century. In this view looking east, some of the wide-boats owned by William Mead & Co Ltd are moored on the offside and have probably brought stable manure from their wharves at Paddington for local farmers. William Mead was also a farmer near the Slough Arm at Iver, and used his boats to carry away bricks from his substantial canalside works there to Paddington and elsewhere. T.W. King Collection

Middlesex-made bricks were frequently delivered to destinations along the River Thames, as seen here on the southern bank at Richmond in Surrey. The wide boat Petrel, shown here loaded with bricks, would have entered the tidal Thames downstream at Brentford and been towed to the town wharf at the bottom of Water Lane. The boat has been winded before resting on the mud bank and, judging by the tow-rope from her timber heads onto the stern of the boat in front, it may have been one of several craft. Petrel was built, along with other craft, by and for William Mead & Co Ltd at Tring Dockyard in July 1898, to work on the tidal river. Note the raised combings around the hold, and bulwarks or washboards around the bow, designed to prevent the boat shipping water aboard when under tow. There’s also the rare sight of a river anchor hanging over the forward beam next to the long shaft.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

There were extensive brick and gravel works at Iver on the Slough Arm, shown here between Thorney Lane Bridge and Meads’ accommodation bridge in the distance. This view west shows Edward Baron Reed’s landing stage on the right, which appears to be a floating decked jetty chained to the bank, upon which are numerous wheelbarrows used to bring the bricks down the bank before each was stacked by hand in the boat. Further along the cut are other wide boats and one narrowboat being loaded or awaiting loading. The offside bank here had at least five such landing stages, mostly used by William Mead & Co Ltd whose large brickworks was by the bridge, along with a wharf, winding hole, various outbuildings and a small gasometer. Christopher M. Jones Collection

William Mead & Co was a large concern operating as a dust contractor at several wharves on the north side of Paddington Basin, brick-makers, gravel and sand merchants at a large brickworks at Acton Vale and at Iver, and also farming at Iver. It was incorporated as a limited company in 1887, but in the years just before World War I the business contracted sharply and was dissolved by 1916. The fleet was sold with many craft, including the two steam tugs, going to Western Cartage Co Ltd, gravel merchants and contractors for the disposal of St Marylebone Borough Council’s waste, which also took over several of Meads’ wharves at Paddington.

Independent carriers

Owner-boatmen and other boatmen contractors in the area also became involved in the brick trade. This was welcomed by the manufacturers, as these men provided both boat and crew, saving the brick-makers trouble and expense, as they could be hired as and when it suited them. One of these men was Edward King, assisted by hissons, one of whom was Harry King of Apsley End, who in later years carried for several brick-makers using his own narrowboats Hannah and Four Brothers between 1892 and 1898, and later his wide boat Chesham from 1898 to 1903.

Men like King carried bricks for Ralph Ratcliff of Harlington; Coles, Shadbolt & Co of Harefield; James Day Burchett & Son of Cowley Peachey; Edward Baron Reed of Iver; Broad, Harris & Co of West Drayton; Thomas Yirrell of Leighton Buzzard; William & Joseph Studds of Iver and Langley; andWilliams & Wallington, William Willett, William Smith and Edward Athelstan Cave of Langley, Slough. In addition they served several builders’ merchants and other businesses receiving or supplying raw materials. All these brick-makers owned boats of their own, either one or a small fleet, yet still needed to sub-contract work out.

The Kings carried a variety of cargoes in addition to bricks and brick-bats (half-bricks), including ashes, chalk, gravel, clay and breeze for fuelling the clamps. Ashes and breeze were calculated in chaldrons, a measure of capacity not weight. The carrying information recorded by the Kings gives us an idea of what the brick-makers carried in their own craft.

Numerous wharves around the Middlesex brick-making district took delivery of bricks, including Batchworth Wharf, Rickmansworth. The tenant was Colin Taylor, who was principally a corn, coal and salt merchant, but also received bricks by boat from Edward Reed’s brickfield at Iver. Taylor’s seed grinding and crushing mills can be seen behind the neatly stacked bricks with a partially unloaded wide boat, Florence, in front. Other brick merchants at Rickmansworth were boat-builder William Henry Walker at Frogmore Wharf and local merchant Daniel Bone, both of whom received bricks by boat. Christopher M. Jones Collection

Bricks were not only carried in boats owned by manufacturers, they were also transported by numerous contractors working in the general building trades. One such example was John Abrahams of 20 North Wharf, Paddington Basin, who started to build up his small fleet of new wide boats from March 1903, all most likely built at W.E. Costin’s yard at Castle Dock, Berkhamsted. One craft was owned by a relative Charles H. Abrahams, which later passed into John Abrahams’ fleet in 1912. John Abrahams’ Wedmore was built during December 1904 and was named after his address at 1 Wedmore Street, Upper Holloway in west London. He was described as a ‘carman’, a little used word today meaning a road haulier and carter. By 1910 his business had been incorporated as John Abrahams Ltd and continued into the post-WWI years. Perhaps the most well-known carman and contractor was H. Sabey & Co Ltd, which took over several of Abrahams’ boats in the early 1920s including Wedmore. This image clearly shows the attractive fine lines of wooden wide boats such as this, moored on the offside at Southall, together with another wide boat. The men appear to be engaged in some bank repair work.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

In some instances specific destinations were recorded. In 1895 construction started on the London extension of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, and in the late summer Harry King carried bricks from Buckinghamshire and Middlesex to Paddington Tunnel, where the new railway crossed the Regent’s Canal alongside the Metropolitan Line south of St John’s Wood Road Station, which opened in 1868. The bricks Harry King carried were on the account of brickmakers James Day Burchett & Son, and H. & J. Nash Ltd of Slough.

In 1898 Harry again transported bricks for Burchetts, this time taking them to the substantial Paddington Workhouse, situated on the offside of the Paddington Arm between the famous Lock Hospital and Carlton Terrace, the bricks being unloaded at Carlton Bridge.

Carrying bricks

Transportation of bricks by boat called for great care. Although bricks were strong under compression, they could easily break when handled roughly. They were loaded aboard by hand and built up in stacks to trim the boat correctly.

Once underway, boats had to be gauged to calculate tolls, which was problematic as their weight differed for a number of reasons. Bricks are porous, so when newly made and dry from the clamp, they weighed less than those that had been left out in all weathers in the brick field and had become saturated with water. Typically, just over 400 bricks made a ton, and on the lower Grand Junction Canal a horse-boat could carry about 32 tons (13,000 bricks), and sometimes more. A pair might be loaded with different types of bricks: one boat loaded with quality stocks, and another with inferior, poorly made stocks known as ‘grizzles’, or perhaps brick-bats or brick rubbish. So bricks were calculated per thousand, irrespective of weight, but the boatmen’s pay depended on gauged weight. There could be a difference of as much as a couple of tons, meaning that the boatman might carry the same number of bricks on each trip, but earn a different amount. Boatmen could sometimes earn extra by helping with unloading.

Although not the same as the open-field brick-earth quarrying in much of Middlesex, this image of Coles, Shadbolt & Co’s substantial brickworks at Harefield in the early 20th century gives a view of the large-scale operations in the county. This works had its own canal arm called St Ann’s Dock and was later developed into a cement works, with the firm becoming part of British Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd. The history of this site and the company’s boating activities is covered in ‘Famous Fleets’ in the Winter 2017 issue of NarrowBoat.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Although gravel extraction had long been part of the general trade as brick earth deposits became worked out, it formed the mainstay of local carrying work in the west Middlesex area, along with dust, ashes and rubbish from the Paddington wharves after World War I. One of the main carriers of gravel was William Boyer & Sons, an old established business of sand, ballast and gravel merchants, which, by the time this photo was taken in the mid-1920s, had ten sand and gravel works, three of which were based on the Grand Junction Canal. This busy scene at Alperton on the Paddington Arm shows Boyer’s wide boat Pelican, built late in 1899, having just unloaded gravel or ballast. The boat was recorded as transporting dust and ashes to old brick workings and taking gravel to various local wharves with an occasional load of timber.

R&CHS Collection

Bricks were not only manufactured and loaded onto boats at a multitude of docks and wharves, they were also taken to a wide variety of destinations, not just in Paddington or elsewhere in the city. They might be carried north to Leighton Buzzard and beyond, up to 43 miles from the brick fields. In later years one of the longest transport distances for bricks noted by the Grand Junction was from Cowley to Birmingham, by one of the last brick manufacturers in the region: Hunziker (Great Britain) Ltd, of Cowley Bridge Works.

Competition and decline

Brick-making was a financially risky business as the land exploited by the brick-makers was not owned by them and had to be leased by paying a groundrent to the owners. A royalty was also paid based on brick production; if the bricks were broken or damaged in transit the royalty could not be refunded. Brick-making was also very prone to fluctuations in demand caused by an unpredictable construction industry, economic downturns, industrial disputes and the speed at which brick fields could be exhausted. During the 1880s there was a depression in the trade that lasted until the mid-1890s, but by the turn of the century demand for bricks outstripped supply.

Competition from brick-makers in north London started to have an impact during the late 19th century, and their products were brought in by rail. Bricksfrom Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire followed from the 1880s onwards, and dominated after World War I. By then, gravel extraction from depleted quarries had taken over from brick transportation as the main boating activity, and when those quarries were worked out they became landfill sites and the city’s rubbish was deposited in them.

Many of the former brick workings became exhausted and new building developments appeared along the Grand Junction Canal, especially at Southall at the western end of the Paddington Arm, and along the main line of the canal towards Yiewsley. New roads lined with factories and houses were built in Southall, Hayes and Dawley, and the arms and docks formerly used by the brick-makers found a new use serving different industries. Despite the changing times, the Middlesex brick-makers struggled on, albeit with reduced production, into the middle years of the 20th century.


Thank you to Peter Hounsell and the King family for their help in compiling this feature.