Bricks in your wall were made on the doorstep
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IF you live in Cheltenham and your house dates from the first half of the 20th century, there’s a good chance the bricks from which it’s built came from Battledown Brick Works.
The Town Hall, the old brewery in Henrietta Street, the General Hospital, plus many other landmark buildings, are constructed from Battledown’s products and for many years the firm was a major employer.
The enterprise was founded in 1897 when brothers Roland and Harold Webb bought the Battledown Brick and Terra Cotta Company from the Reverend Arthur Armitage.
Thrusting entrepreneurs, the Webbs inherited a thriving coal merchants business in Tivoli from their father.
They diversified by trading in gravel, sand, turf and lime. Then in a separate venture they took leases on the Winter Gardens (where they staged Britain’s first recorded indoor tennis tournament) and Montpellier Gardens.
The 30-acre works site occupied Coltham Fields, that area of town bounded by Hales Road, Rosehill Street, Haywards Road and Battledown Approach.
Today, Queen Elizabeth playing fields stand where the clay pits were – and the industrial estate in King Alfred’s Way stands on what was the works complex.
Backed by the Webbs and directors such as John Haddon (half of the wellknown Cheltenham retailer Shirer & Haddon), the well-funded company invested heavily in new brick producing plant. Soon 30,000 bricks were being produced a day.
The local clay was unusually hard, so to make it workable water was added along with ‘grog’ – a mix of ground, baked clay, ashes and sand.
This gooey blend was then extruded in a continuous line and cut by wire into bricks measuring 4in x 3in x 9in ready for firing.
Battledown bricks had six flat faces, distinctly different from mould-made bricks of other firms that had a ‘frog,’ or recess.
The advantages were greater structural strength and the need to use less mortar.
The disadvantage was that they were more expensive to produce. Webb’s bought all other Cheltenham brickmakers and by 1907 Battledown was the only place producing bricks in town.
By the 1960s the London Brick Company (of which wartime Cheltenham resident Norman Wisdom was a director, incidentally) was the largest manufacturer of its kind in the world and Webb’s simply could not compete.
The local firm went into voluntary liquidation in 1971.
Bricks were being manufactured on a commercial scale in Gloucester centuries before Cheltenham even existed.
In Roman times, the city’s public buildings were made of stone, but brick was used for much of the domestic architecture.
Glevum’s brickworks were found close to the present day site of St Oswald’s Priory, which at that time stood on the south east bank of the River Severn, or Sabrina as the legionnaires called it. When the Roman empire ended, the brickworks continued to function.
Each brick was stamped RPG, which stood for Rei Publica Glevensium, meaning ‘from the public works at Gloucester.’
The spread of brick-built housing in the late 17th century encouraged the growth of brickmaking on Alney Island.
A local businessman named Philip Greene had a works making bricks there by 1659, using clay dug from the Ham, as well as Wainlode Hill.
This was shaped in wooden moulds, then fired in kilns fuelled by coal brought up river from the Forest of Dean.
John Blanch – a rich city draper and benefactor who lived in Barton Street – built an almshouse in Gloucester from bricks made at Philip Greene’s works and wrote to recommend them as “admirable at six shillings [that’s 30p] a thousand”.
In the 19th century when railways arrived on the scene, bricks were needed for the construction of bridges, viaducts and buildings. In Gloucester, brickmakers returned to source clay from much the same spot as Roman slaves had done almost two millennia before.
Digging out this clay resulted, by the 1890s, in a man-made lake known as Tabby Pitt’s pool, which stood adjacent to Archdeacon Meadow on ground now occupied by Gouda Way.
Clay from the pool produced the hard engineering bricks used to build St Catherine’s viaduct.
Gloucester was expanding in the 19th century and new brickworks opened to meet the demand of new housing estates. One of these was Whitfield’s brickworks.
Cheltenham Town Hall
St Catherine’s viaduct, Gloucester
Tabby Pitt’s pool