Bill Laws re­veals how the Som­er­set town of Bridg­wa­ter was once the epi­cen­tre of a world­wide trade in roof­ing tiles

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Bill Laws re­veals how Bridg­wa­ter was once the epi­cen­tre of a world­wide trade in roof­ing tiles

The old vil­lages of the Som­er­set lev­els, their walls of white­wash set against sedge-lined ditches and green pas­tures, are as dis­tinc­tive as those on any of our wet­lands. The poet Wil­liam Wordsworth, who once wrote that vil­lage homes seem “to have grown than to have been erected,” liked the Lev­els enough to set up home nearby in the 1790s.

But when he and his sis­ter Dorothy de­parted in 1798, the Som­er­set scene was chang­ing. The moul­der­ing thatch that once cov­ered the cottage roofs was dis­ap­pear­ing un­der a sea of ter­ra­cotta. The new roofs were made from ‘Flan­ders Tyles’ – not the neat plain tiles of Kent and Berk­shire, but big, broad pan­tiles.

Too large to ac­com­mo­date chintzy dorm­ers or plung­ing val­leys, the pan­tiles sim­ply swept across the roofs. It was as if an army of Dutch house builders had de­camped from the Low Coun­try and set up shop on the Lev­els and Bridg­wa­ter es­pe­cially. In a sense, they had.

While Ital­ians mas­tered the man­u­fac­ture of clay roof tiles in Ro­man times, it was the

re­source­ful men of Flan­ders and the Nether­lands who, in me­dieval days, turned to the clay roof tile. Lack­ing good roof­ing stone, they dug out the lo­cal clays and used them in­stead. They were soon trad­ing their sur­pluses abroad.

The Dutch tile trade had reached Bri­tain al­most by ac­ci­dent. The wool ships from the Low Coun­tries car­ried tile and brick waste as bal­last and ini­tially it was left to re­source­ful for­agers to sal­vage ser­vice­able tiles from the dock­side and sell them on. How­ever, a grad­u­ally im­prov­ing English agri­cul­tural econ­omy trig­gered a wave of ru­ral re­build­ing from the 1500s into the early 1700s. What his­to­rian WG Hoskins dubbed the ‘Great Re­build­ing’ saw a rash of freshly tiled roofs spread­ing across the farm­steads of Lin­colnshire, York­shire, East Anglia and the South West ports of Bris­tol and Bridg­wa­ter.

Bridg­wa­ter was a spe­cial case. Here was a town, set on the high­est nav­i­ga­ble point of the River Par­rett, which had been trad­ing with sea­ports since An­glo-Saxon times. Bridg­wa­ter did well out of the wool trade and the ubiq­ui­tous Dutch tile was soon spread­ing out along the Par­rett and its nav­i­ga­ble trib­u­taries where they are still to be seen to­day.

Fam­ily tile-mak­ing busi­nesses started up and by the early-1700s there were com­mer­cial yards listed at Crow­pill and Hamp. In 1776, Ed­ward Sealy (some­times spelled ‘Sealey’) started a brick­yard at Hamp. It was com­mon prac­tice to stamp the wet clay with the maker’s name and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions have since un­earthed Sealy’s prod­ucts as far afield as An­gle­sey in North Wales and Bal­ti­more, Mary­land. Men such as Sealy were soon em­ploy­ing half the town’s work­force.

A grow­ing em­pire

The base ma­te­rial for th­ese grow­ing em­pires came from the lime-rich, al­lu­vial mud of the Som­er­set Lev­els. ‘Stools’ or gangs of six to eight men and boys, with cu­ri­ous-sound­ing trades like earth-mak­ers, tem­per­ers, moul­ders, strik­ers, off-bear­ers and crow­ders, would dig out the clay from un­der the top soil. Mounded up and weath­ered for six to 12 months, the clay would be kneaded or pugged to re­move air and then pressed into a range of wooden or plas­ter moulds dusted with sand (fine Burn­ha­mon-Sea sand was judged the best) to pre­vent stick­ing.

Fir­ing the fa­mous Bridg­wa­ter pan­tile was a se­ri­ous un­der­tak­ing as kilns built to hold up to 5,000 tiles were loaded with fag­gots of wood and around 10 tons of coal. In scenes rem­i­nis­cent of the industrial

Pot­ter­ies, the kilns would burn for four days be­fore be­ing sealed to ex­tin­guish the fires and left to cool for an­other four.

The tile-mak­ers spawned a host of an­cil­lary trades such as James Wens­ley of Mark’s spe­cial­ist two-wheeled cart man­u­fac­tury. Then there were sand col­lec­tors, tim­ber cut­ters, kiln builders, clay barrow mak­ers, moul­ders and crate mak­ers while the women and chil­dren fetched and car­ried, cleaned and filled moulds, or led the pony around the horse­pow­ered pug mill.

Most of the tile­works were con­cen­trated in Bridg­wa­ter, Burn­ham-on-Sea, High­bridge, Nor­ton Rad­stock, Taun­ton and Yeovil. How­ever, Brian J Mur­less in his book­let Som­er­set Brick and

Tile Man­u­fac­tur­ers lists more than 260 brick and tile com­pa­nies spread across the re­gion from Sedge­moor to Yeovil.

Busi­nesses con­tin­ued to grow as the Vic­to­rian age pro­gressed and in­creased mech­a­ni­sa­tion saw the old ‘yards’ evolve into industrial ‘works’.

Com­pe­ti­tion was keen. In the 1820s, John Browne and Wil­liam Cham­pion jointly patented the Bath Brick. Made from fine clay dredged from the River Par­rett, the Bath Brick proved as handy for scour­ing floors as it was for sharp­en­ing kitchen knives.

Aside from Sealy and Browne, other trade names in­cluded Stuckey and Bage­hot, the Barham Broth­ers, HJ and C Ma­jor, Wil­liam Maid­ment Mer­rick, Mar­leys of Mine­head and Nor­man of Glas­ton­bury. In Bridg­wa­ter, how­ever, it was dif­fi­cult to ri­val the big houses of Colthurst and Sy­mons. Wil­liam Sy­mons who was cred­ited with designing the orig­i­nal Dou­ble Ro­man pat­tern tile (see panel on page 73) joined forces with his ri­val Colthurst in 1857.

Tile and brick­mak­ing was a sea­sonal af­fair. Tra­di­tion­ally, the sea­son’s end was 21 De­cem­ber or St Thomas Day when the for­tu­nate work­ers would re­ceive their ‘over-money’ to tie them into the next sea­son. New tech­niques such as di­vert­ing waste heat from the kilns into the neigh­bour­ing dry­ing sheds ex­tended the sea­son, but when the win­ter bite came and the ground was too frozen to work, the men were laid off – many will have had to fol­low sev­eral oc­cu­pa­tions to make ends meet.

Ef­forts to form trade unions were re­sisted by fam­ily busi­nesses that re­lied on a flex­i­ble work­force and low wages.

In 1886, em­ploy­ers held out for eight weeks to break a strike, but four years later 600 of their work­ers once again downed tools. Although that strike was also bro­ken, in 1893 a Dock, Wharf, River­side and Gen­eral Work­ers Union was fi­nally formed. For those who were un­able to work there was al­ways the Bridg­wa­ter Poor Law Union – the work­house.

It served 40 parishes as well as Bridg­wa­ter’s 7,800 cit­i­zens – 1,300 of whom worked in the in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to the 1887 West­ern Gazette the in­mates were “per­fectly happy”. Yet when the work­house opened one re­port re­vealed just six beds to ev­ery 19 chil­dren. Per­haps the im­prove­ments were in­sti­tuted by Ed­win and Catherine Mur­rant, the mas­ter and ma­tron who took charge in 1861 and who, years later, were re­vealed as the par­ents of Boer War folk hero Harry ‘The Breaker’ Mo­rant, who was ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad.

Even as Catherine re­signed in 1882, the town’s tile trade was in trou­ble from its main com­peti­tor – Welsh slate – which was mak­ing the most of the new rail­way net­work.

Bill Laws is the au­thor of Home Truths: An Al­ter­na­tive His­tory of Ev­ery House pub­lished by The His­tory Press

Kilns built to hold 5,000 tiles were loaded with 10 tons of coal

Cut­ting off dabs of clay and stack­ing ready for the tile moul­der’s use at Colthurst, Sy­mons and Co

Work­ers load tiles onto a steam driven wagon c1930

A group of work­ers load tiles onto a boat at Bridg­wa­ter docks for ex­port c1950

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