For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the brick and tile industry provided the financial backbone to the town. Local clay had long been used for making bricks as far back as mediaeval times, but it wasn’t until the end of the seventeenth century that the potential for clay as a commercial product was realised.
The present day police station marks the spot where the first commercial brickyard was formed, the next being at Hamp (1709) and another at Crowpill (1720). The hand-made bricks from these sites can be seen in Friarn Street, Dampiet Street and St Mary Street. More yards sprang up along the river as the demand increased and, by the end of the eighteenth century, brick making was recognisable as an industry. By 1776, the Sealey family had a yard at Hamp. Permanent buildings had arrived with purpose-built up-draught kilns producing bricks. This industrialisation led to improved standards, better quality bricks and a more reliable supply. The demand began to arrive from further afield and brickyards sprang up from Burnham-on-Sea to Burrowbridge.
Clay varied from area to area, the clay at Chilton Trinity being particularly good for tile manufacture. Despite the limited geographic spread, the centre of the industry remained focussed on Bridgwater with the following amongst the recognised manufacturers:
|Colthurst and Symons||Castle Fields, Burnham, Somerset Bridge, Somerset Yard,|
Screech Owl, Puriton and Combwich
|John Browne||Chilton Tile Factory, Old Taunton Road, Dunwear, Chilton|
Old Yard and Pawlett
|John Browne and William Champion||Hamp|
|William Maidment||Parrett Works (Bristol Road)|
|John Board||Wylds Road|
|Barham Brothers||East Quay|
|H J and C Major||Salmon Parade, Taunton Road and Colley Lane|
|W Robins||Parrett Way|
|J B Hammill (previously R Ford)||Chilton Trinity|
The main products were the red bricks and Double Roman roof tiles for which William Symons can take the credit. The kilns for firing these items could take up to 5,000 at a time and the temperature had to be just right if the tiles were not to crack in the firing process. The kilns would be loaded with faggots of wood and around 10 tons of coal. At the end of four days, the kilns would be sealed to extinguish the fire and left for four days to cool. In addition to bricks and tiles, ornamental gable ends were produced and examples of these can still be seen in St John Street. These products ended up all over the world: the Bronx in New York; China; Canada; Australia and New Zealand. So great was the trade that, in 1903, a new wharf was built to take the cargoes.
Life was hard in the brickyards. At one time, half the male population of the town was employed in the industry. During the winter, the ground would be too hard to dig, and half of the workforce would be laid off. The work being so seasonal, winter unemployment levels were incredibly high, hence the need to establish the workhouse at Northgate. By 1840 there were 1,300 brickyard workers in Bridgwater and by 1850 the number of sites within two miles of the town centre had grown to 16. Conditions were so poor that by the end of the nineteenth century, the time was right for trade unionism. Brickyard bosses argued that low wages were essential for the survival of the yards and the workers argued that better wages were essential for the survival of their families – and it was that serious, there being no social welfare, only the workhouse.
In 1886 an unsuccessful strike ended after eight weeks, with the employers refusing to negotiate and hunger driving the workforce back, having achieved nothing except eight weeks with no wages. In 1890, there was a repeat of the industrial action but with much greater effect. Six hundred workers withdrew their labour. Once again the workforce were driven back by hunger, but now they had grown in confidence as a union movement. A further strike in 1893 was followed by two years during which the brickyard workers moved towards the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans