Heritage: The family who revolutionised the Upminster brickworks

Bricks from the Upminster brickworks

Various brick types from the Upminster brickworks – type 290 copings were 10s 6d per 100. The JBU stamp signified James Brown, Upminster. - Credit: Andy Grant

In the second part of a series exploring the history of Upminster's brickworks, historian Andy Grant explains how the successful business revolutionised its operation.

By 1880 the brickworks benefitted from the building of a purpose-built brick kiln and drying sheds on the northeast corner of the site.

The new down-draught kiln enabled greater quantities of bricks of better quality to be created, being more effective and easily controlled than an up-draught kiln.

The extension of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway to Upminster in 1885 allowed easier transportation of finished goods and ready access to coal supplies.

The new lessee from 1885 was James Brown, an established and very successful brick manufacturer from Braintree.


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As early as 1877, Mr Brown had published his highly acclaimed Brick Ornament and its Application, a catalogue of the hundreds of different decorative bricks manufactured by the company.

Mr Brown’s chief assistant, renowned architect George Sherrin, illustrated each different brick type, the catalogue serving as a definitive guide for the fashionable Victorian use of decorative bricks by architects and builders.

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The company already had offices in Cannon Street and Essex Wharf (Durward Street), with brickworks at Braintree, Boreham, Chelmsford, Writtle and Brentwood, all connected to the rail network.

Although one and a half miles from Upminster Station and its goods yard, Brown had identified that the clay underlying the site was eminently suitable for producing ornamental bricks.

In 1886 the brickworks site was extended to 35 acres, appending fields to the south of Bird Lane.

His sons, 22-year-old Arthur Edward Brown BSc, and 25-year-old Ernest James Brown, were appointed as managing directors to run the site.

Arthur, as consulting engineer, completely revolutionised the site. To facilitate transportation to Upminster Station and enhance the conveyance of materials within the site, a horse-drawn tramway was constructed.

The younger Mr Brown was a great innovator and inventor, designing a new type of kiln at Upminster and mechanising to the site.

New vertical pugmills were used to plasticise the brick earth prior to moulding, using both mechanical and hand moulds.

A 45 HP Shanks-Caledonian steam engine supplied by a Field vertical boiler powered the local site through a series of windlasses and chains, with a 300-meter, 12mm steel cable running the equipment on the north field.

In the south field, Mr Brown’s new design of a horizontally-fired kiln was built and nicknamed "the shaft"; it was a two-storey 30x10-metre building, seven metres high, with a three-metre square chimney stack, around 35 metres high.

The advantage of the new kiln over the dome, was that it could work continuously and it was considerably more efficient.

The company employed a number of skilled workers, moved from its other sites, and at its peak became the biggest employer in Upminster.

New cottages were built on-site and along Bird Lane to house their workers.

Occupation of the on-site bungalows to the north of Bird Lane continued into the late 1960s, but they have since been demolished.

In 1905 James Brown (London) Ltd issued £12,000 of debentures secured against their freehold and leasehold properties in Brentwood and Upminster, but by 1912 appears to have surrendered the lease of its Upminster works in favour of concentrating production at the Brentwood works in Kavanagh Road.

During World War One, Arthur Edward Brown became managing director of a munitions factory, supplying Stokes bombs to be used in trench mortars for the war effort.

Between October 1915 and June 1916, three contracts were awarded, but by July there was a severe shortage of bases for the bombs.

Mr Brown devised a plugin order to complete the bomb heads they had in stock, avoiding a delay of three weeks before new bases would be received.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Munitions considered that the unauthorised modifications were contrary to official specifications, which might lead to premature detonation if fired.

Accordingly, he was charged with an offence under the Defence of the Realm regulations and received a six-month jail sentence.

Read the first part of the brickworks series here.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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