TILE-MAKERS OF SOMERSET
Bill Laws reveals how the Somerset town of Bridgwater was once the epicentre of a worldwide trade in roofing tiles
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