Heritage: How refined sugar paved the way for brickworks in Pot Kilns

Sugar boiling house, showing clay sugar moulds and urns, from a 1772 encyclopedia.

Sugar boiling house, showing clay sugar moulds and urns, from a 1772 encyclopedia. - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant gets in touch with his sweet tooth for the first part of his investigation into the origins of the Pot Kilns dome.

Proceeding north along Hall Lane from Upminster Station, just before the flyover is a turning on the right called Bird Lane.

This leads to the tiny hamlet of Pot Kilns – once the location of a thriving brickworks that was once Upminster’s biggest employer.

The fields surrounding Pot Kilns have names suggestive of earlier clay working, although no records of this appear before the 18th century.

The earliest records show that in 1774 a funnelshaped, up-draught kiln, nicknamed "the dome", was built there by Matthew Howland Patrick.

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The kiln became a very prominent feature of the landscape, being 45ft in diameter at its base, tapering to 10ft at its top, with a height of 70ft.

Mr Patrick had married Elizabeth Branfill on September 15, 1772, after the death of her husband Champion Branfill in 1770.

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She had owned the site where the kiln was built as part his Upminster Hall estate. A clue indicating the purpose of this kiln might be deduced from a statement made at the time of his death in 1777, that he “had just brought his sugarmould pottery to perfection”.

This may also explain the origin of the naming of Pot Kilns. Large quantities of these clay sugar-moulds were in great demand at this time by sugar refiners. Sugar was an expensive commodity, purchased in the form of cones which varied greatly in size and value.

Small cones of around 125mm in height were the best and most expensive, while those of up to a metre in height were the cheapest. The difference in price resulted from the way sugar was refined.

Raw sugar was boiled in water mixed with lime to remove impurities.

Pot Kiln sketch by B A Branfill, 1880

Sketch of the Pot Kiln from the north east by B A Branfill, 1880 - Credit: B A Branfill

This liquid was alternately reboiled and allowed to evaporate a few times, before being left to cool. During the cooling process, the liquid began to crystallize and was poured into cone-shaped pottery moulds.

Liquid drained from the cone, through an open hole in the base, into an urn beneath it, leaving a cone-shaped sugar loaf. Further refining of the loaf entailed the pouring of a white clay slip onto it.

This slowly percolated through the sugar cone to force out the remaining molasses.

The result of this process was a smaller, almost white cone of sugar that commanded the highest price. After the death of Mr Patrick, it appears that a succession of lessees operated the site.

Daniel Knight evidently chose to produce bricks, tiles, drainpipes and other clay products, rather than sugar-moulds.

He was succeeded by Thomas Sandford around 1810. Although the brickworks was a small scale, seasonal undertaking, Sandford greatly optimised output by mechanising production around 1850.

Using a horse-driven pugmill, pipe and tilemaking machine invented in 1845 by Thomas Scragg, it was rather optimistically claimed that “one man and three boys could make 11,000 tiles a day”.

Scragg’s tile making machine 1845, from a trade catalogue in 1851.

Scragg’s tile making machine 1845, from a trade catalogue in 1851. - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

When Mr Sandford died in 1856, 37,000 bricks and 48,000 drainage pipes were auctioned.

Brick and tile making was a labour intensive, seasonal operation. Clay was dug during the autumn and left to weather until the following spring. After washing and grinding in a pugmill, clay products were moulded by hand and left to dry before firing in the kiln.

Samuel Gardner, who already had successful brickworks in Havering-atte-Bower, took over the works in 1856. Installing John Stone as his foreman, by 1860 the works were annually advertising a stock of 300,000 land drainage pipes for sale.

Mr Gardner continued production at Upminster Brickworks until 1876, when Thomas Lewis Wilson and William Hook, a local building partnership, entered into a 21-year lease for the seven-acre site.

The site was described by Mr Wilson as being “peculiarly adapted for the manufacture of bricks, tiles and pipes, and runs to a considerable depth”.

Ultimately Mr Wilson and Mr Hook decided to relinquish their brick-making operation in 1885, selling the lease of the Pot Kiln Brickworks to James Brown Limited.

Pot Kilns brickworks in 1841

A map showing the Pot Kilns brickworks in 1841 - Credit: Andy Grant

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

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