The Isle of Wight Society

March 2023

The humble brick – part 1

We take bricks for granted.  Many houses are constructed of bricks, or at least have brick cladding. We see bricks every day.  But when did you last look closely at a brick?  

A permanent brick display has recently opened at Whippingham, in the Church Hall car park.  It is free to view at any time.  Here the history of brickmaking on the Island is described, using many different bricks and artefacts.  The youngest brick on display is 50 years old.  The oldest brick shown is 320 years old.

The exhibition is called The Brick Hack.  A Brick Hack is somewhere that freshly made bricks were left to dry before firing.

Laying bricks to dry in open air

Often damp bricks were just laid out upon the ground in long rows, perhaps eight high, with gaps between them to allow the wind to blow through.  Sunshine was useful to help the drying process.  In case of rain, wooden roof covers were made to place over the bricks.  These were called lews.  The sides of the rows of bricks were protected by hurdles of coppice wood, usually hazel.  If it rained before the lews could be put in place, the bricks would be spoilt.  If there was a sudden frost, the brick-maker could lose all the bricks in the hacks.  So brickmaking was a primarily a summer occupation.

At larger brickyards, permanent roofed structures were often erected with semi open sides.  It is these hacks that our exhibition seeks to copy, to shelter the display.

Laying out bricks to dry at Ryde with hacks in background

To make good bricks, a source of clay is required.  This was abundant in the northern part of the Island, and around the river valleys.  In the display, a 3D map shows the sites of over 100 brickyards known on the Island since 1800.

Men living here 2,000 years ago found sources of clay and made the earliest bricks on the Island.  Brading and Newport Roman Villas both have examples of under-floor heating systems – hypocausts – using many bricks and tiles.  Slaves or servants would keep an external fire alight adjacent to the room that was to be heated.  The hot air was drawn under the floors and up hollow brickwork in the walls.  This was an attractive system when wood was plentiful, but possibly the start of global warming as CO2 was blown to the skies! 

The Romans would have had either simple kilns to fire their bricks and tiles, or have fired the clay bricks in open clamps.  Bricks would have been piled up, leaving air holes and firing holes.  The bricks would have been fired for two or three days.  Often there would be incomplete burning.  This resulted in perhaps a red outside but a grey inside to the tile or brick.  

A clamp at Chale ready for firing

Open clamps were still used to fire bricks well into the age of photography.  The Brick Hack shows  photographs of Island brickyards.  We need more photographs as we intend to write a book about Island Brickmaking.  Could you loan us any Island brickyard photographs?

Contact East Cowes Heritage Centre, 280310, or their website.

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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