History of Bricks: the United Kingdom

We’ve had a whirlwind tour of lands that are now Iraq, India and Italy. The humble brick drove these civilizations, whether it was fired or unfired. We turn now to the United Kingdom, where the Industrial Revolution was born. I came across a stellar article on Wikipedia which gave some background information which I’ll use in my post today. I was astounded to learn that from 1550 to 1820, Britain’s population swelled 280%! The changes were monumental, affecting culture and landscape. Textile mills sprang up in the north and vulcanization made the rubber industry sky-rocket. The newly invented steam-driven engine paved the way for locomotives and ships. Bricks were used every step of the way. I am a fan of industrial art and appreciate the lines of a good brick smokestack. At the same time, I can be repelled by knowing its emissions likely damage the environment. I am reminded of my grandmother’s friend, Ellen, a businesswoman. The stench of paper mill emissions in Frenchtown, Montana, would flow down the valley and pollute the air in Missoula. When grandma complained and held her nose, Ellen stuck her nose in the air, took a deep breath and said, “It smells like money!” This exchange exemplifies the trade-offs that were part of the Industrial Revolution, too. But, on to our subject, the lowly brick, the anomalous brick, the important brick. The aforementioned article informs us that in 1824, bricklayer cum builder Joseph Aspdin, developed and patented a process for making portland cement, which was named after a natural resource on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. His success changed bricklaying forever, as the cement dried quickly and withstood more compression. Portland cement was used to build the Thames Tunnel. Opening in 1843, it is the world’s first underwater tunnel. An amazing feat of engineering, the tunnel was originally meant for pedestrians and later used for rail lines. London’s sewage system was another huge project and 318 million bricks were used to build it. The largest building in Europe is Battersea Power Station, with itsbrick-clad exterior. Redevelopment is an issue with these old brick structures dotting England. Many are torn down, while many remain as eyesores. The power station may have closed its doors in 1983 but, this month, news of its redevelopment was announced and it appears it will be reformed into a multi-use area, while retaining the basic structure. Another basic structure. Reported last year, one of Prince Charles’ favorite architects took on the job of saving Highgate Manor, the largest private residence London, which is, of course, made of brick. Building materials for all these projects were made at brickworks like The London Brick Factory. Winding up, I just want to mention that, today, remnants of the Industrial Revolution are being gentrified for private homes and people have also found ways of insinuating cool old industrial artifacts into home design. (Note: Tomorrow, I’ll post the last story in the series, focusing on present day North America. After the series ends, I’ll move on to claymation. Wallace and Grommet, here I come!)

A map of the world, showing the British Empire, late 19th century

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About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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