Brickmaking families


Deposits of glacial clay, sand and gravel exist close together across the eastern coastlands of Suffolk. Evidence of their use as a local resource is evident from the distribution of disused pits in the valley of the Easton River marked in green on the 1883 map O.S. map.

A 1965 book for an Exhibition and Flower Festival in Frostenden parish church contained a short article by the Rector, A.H.N. Waller entitled Frostenden Yesterday and Today in which he recounts "that Handmade bricks, tiles and pots were made for many years in Frostenden. Tradition has it that the Romans made bricks here, but we have no proof of it. Bricks were apparently being made in Frostenden in 1775 as we find this record in the church burial register in 1755. 'Robert Bird killed by a large quantity of earth falling in a clay pit.'

In the 1844 Whites Suffolk Directory, Jeremiah Aldous is listed as a brick, tile, and earthenware manufacturer.

In the 1851 census there were 6 brickmakers and 3 bricklayers in the village and in 1901 the following people were associated with the brickyards.
1 proprietor
1 manager
1 foreman
12 brickmakers
3 bricklayers
4 labourers in brickyard

brickkilns.jpgThis map of 1783 by Hodskinson, shows the positions of three brick kilns marked in red, together with Lime Kiln Farm in Wangford. The latter was the site of an operation to produce lime from limestone and coal imported through Southwold Harbour and unloaded at Wolsey Bridge or Reydon quays. This was probably the way coal was obtained for firing the brick kilns in Frostenden and South Cove.

According to Rector Waller, in the 1960s, "there are four brickyards connected with Frostenden, three belonging to Messrs Collings and Rous who still work one (Cove Bottom), and one in the borders of Uggeshall (Clay Common) owned by Lord Stradbroke. White as well as blue clay was used at Clay Common. The oldest yard was on Frostenden Corner, said to be the oldest in Suffolk. The yard still working is just across the border at South Cove. The others closed in 1939. The wood used for hacks (drying sheds) was 'pickled wood' i.e. wood from ships picked up from the beach at Cove".

The three brickyards referred to above were those marked in red on the map; from left to right at Bloomfield Green, Frostenden Corner, and South Cove. The Boomfield works together with the one at Uggeshall Clay Common were sited along the shared parish boundary which follows a band of clay (see map above showing the distribution of ponds.

The first medieval bricks were made in clamps close to the place where they were needed probably by gangs of itinerant brickmakers. Brickearth is a mixture of clay and sand which was dug from pits. Frostenden has deposits of both materials of glacial origin. By the 19th century brickmaking began to be concentrated in certain places in relation to the investment needed for mass production. The death knell of Frostenden's brickmakers sounded with the development of the massive Peterborough shale fields. Here, clay could be obtained mixed with coal which reduced the cost of manufacture to the point where the smaller works could not compete in price.

The following tables using census information gives an idea of the scale of brickmaking in the Frostenden area in the second half of the 19th century when there was a large-scale building with bricks to replace old timber-framed houses and for new buildings to accommodate a rapidly increasing population.


Brickmakers 1851
Bricklayers 1851
Brickmakers 1901
Bricklayers 1901
South Cove
*includes 2 brickcarters

After 1885 the number of brickyards fell rapidly. After the Second World War the South Cove kilns were the only survivors of a former local craft. They continued to operate into the 21st century, still using local clay and handwork to meet a specialist market for quality bricks until closure finally came in 2006.


gg_frobrickponds.jpgAccording to John Holmes, of White House farm, Frostenden, who owns the sites of three old brickworks, there were three operations on his land. Two of the sites are marked on the sketch map to the left. The oldest site is to the west of Bloomfield Wood, which is marked on Hodskinson's 1783 map above. It is actually in Uggeshall because the parish boundary between Frostenden and Uggeshall follows the road at this point.

John Holmes writes, "The Uggeshall brickworks was the old Henham estate brickyard, The Clay Common one (Gough's Farm) on the NW side of the plan produced a greyish brick and the Frostenden one produced a red brick and is purported to have been used in Roman times. All the yards closed before 1939"

Paul Scriven, a Frostenden local historian, in a newspaper article on the topic of horse-powered clay mills, states that the mill at the Clay Common brickyard had an overhead drum which, by using the horse, pulled the three-wheeled wheelbarrows by a hawser up the wood and metalled ramp with the newly-dug clay from the pit. On reaching the mill this was then liquidised to extract the stone and the liquid released into the basins to solidify before being again dug out to take to the moulding sheds for bricks and pipes.

The brickyard to the south of Gough's Farm began operations around the end of the 19th century. Most of the ponds, labelled 1 to 11, were clay pits and the two sites are now managed as a farm nature reserve.

The other brickworks site on John Holmes' land is at Frostenden Corner. This is shown on the next map, together with the brickworks across the river in Covehithe at Cove Bottom.

The following newspaper article by Colin Chinery describes a clay horse-mill which was the central element of pre-industrial village brickmaking.

'Memory Lane'

The small photo on the right is of Fred Carter outside his work shed, holding a brick mould filled with clay. By the time he makes his appearance in the picture on the left he has been promoted to foreman, hence the trilby. The larger photo shows the clay mill powered by the hourly circular movements of the horse, the clay having been dug from a pit in front of the mill, and then filled into wheel barrows which were taken to the mill by rope-assisted man power. The yard, which was owned or leased by a Mr Rouse, was closed at the outbreak of the second world war.

The pictures were submitted by Peter Carter of Carlton Colville, who recalls that his father was paid 28 shillings a week. "When the kiln or as he would say `kell' - was filled with the dry clay bricks, he would sleep at the kiln to keep the fires stoked with coal all night. This went on for seven to ten days, for which he would receive an extra shilling a night."

The caption to the photograph is "Scenes from the brick yard at Clay Common, Frostenden near Beccles in the 1920s" but according to Paul Scriven (referred to above) it refers to the works at Frostenden Corner.

It seems that the three Frostenden/Uggeshall businesses were closed in the late 1930s.


The area in and around the parishes of Frostenden and Covehithe is riddled with pits which were dug for clay, sand and gravel. Just across the Easton River from the Frostenden Corner brickworks was another operation belonging to the Gooch Benacre Estate. From map evidence it seems to be at least as old as the Frostenden and Uggeshall enterprises.

As the last commercial operation in the area, the writing was on the wall for the Cove Bottom works by the mid 1970s when Sydney Rous the brickmaker was the subject of the following newspaper article by John Fisher.

'Fight is on to save Cove Bottom brickworks'

Tucked away at Cove Bottom is a tiny corner of England that is strongly redolent of Cornish mining country.

Long, low, open-sided storage sheds, a large brick kiln, ant-hills of excavated material . . but where are the tin mine headings?

They do not exist. At Cove Bottom the only mining is strictly open-cast, and the yellow gold the earth yields is not gleaming metal, but solid, damp clods of glacial clay.

Cove Bottom is so tiny as hardly to warrant a place on a map, but once there was a thriving cottage industry there until the brickworks, which at their peak were producing more than a quarter-of-a-million bricks a year, were forced to close towards the end of last year.

Just a few days ago the last few piles of bricks were still standing awaiting collection from the works; they will provide a lasting memorial to the skill of the brickmaker, but sadly may be the last bricks ever to be fired at Cove Bottom.

In the drying shed hoppers there are still many ochre bricks, as yet unfired, which are perhaps doomed never to be transformed into the rich reds of the finished articles.

One thing is certain: no one wants to see the centuries-old brickworks fall into disuse and decay. Mr. Lawrence Monkhouse, Waveney's chief planning officer, has expressed his interest and no one concerned with Suffolk's rural heritage can afford to be indifferent.

The Benacre Estate, which owns the brickworks, does not want to see it go. Said resident agent for the Benacre Estate, Mr. David Mitchell: "It is our intention to keep it going."

The problem is finding someone to run it.

There is no community wish to lose the brickworks; it provides jobs without nuisance and is attractive in its own right. It also attracts tourists; people will come to see a disused brickworks - but many more will come to one which is still working, especially as it is now such a rare feature of the Suffolk landscape.

Mr. Sidney Rous doesn't want to see it go; his interest is deeply personal.

ggrous_brickmaker.jpgSixty-seven-year-old Mr. Rous has worked boy and man as a brickmaker - for the last 30 years at Cove Bottom. He lives in a cottage just a stone's throw away. Understandably, he has conceived a great affection for the brickworks and, although now too old himself to continue running it, would love to see a younger man take over.

He learned his trade more through the experience that comes with failure and success than by any formal instruction.

The Frostenden brickworks - closed since the war - were his training ground in the 'twenties when a brickmaker could expect to earn ten shillings for a thousand bricks.

"My family took over the brickworks (Cove Bottom) in 1932, with my grandfather in charge and my brother helping him. After the war it passed on to me and my brother. When I first took over there were six of us; at the end we were down to three," he said. His brother, James, died last year.

Good sales
"We have never had any trouble selling the bricks. Just recently I could have sold thousands. The other week I had to refuse an order for 20,000.

"In 1974 (before the slump in the building trade) they used to come and tney were so desperate to get them.

"Our market is local, Norfolk and Suffolk; we never had to advertise. The bricks are ideal for old colour; they match -up in colour and everything."

The chief reason why the brickworks enjoyed local popularity lay in its nature as a small cottage industry making hand-produced bricks. Bricks could be produced to order - a batch of two-inch Tudor bricks, or, say, of arch bricks. Customers requirements varied enormously.

Many brick types have strange-sounding: bullnose, splay, splint, egg and tongue. A brickworker is not a stonemason, but his trade language nonetheless conveys a certain esotericism.

Small orders were the life-blood of the Cove Bottom brickworks - and there was no type of brick it could not produce.

The brickmakers also made pantiles from the stronger clay seams; the glazed pantiles so typical of many of the older properties in East Anglia and such an attractive feature of local landscapes.

Their strength is remarkable. Several pantiles remain on the old brickworks site and Mr. Rous demonstrated just how strong they were by standing on one, concave side up, and rocking it from side to side. Not a sign of it cracking. "You wouldn't believe tiles would do that," said Mr. Rous, with a touch of pride.

There is no gain saying that a brickmaker's life is a hard one but it is satisfying, too. The maker sees the process through right from getting the raw material to selline the finished product.

How many people can say that of their jobs? It's a rare quality in the civilised seventies.

Hewn wood
The clay - brickearth - is dug on the site. Mixed with a little sand (to take away the stickiness) it is put through- the pug-mill and emerges with "plasticine" consistency.

It is then put in a mould and later transferred to the drying-shed hoppers. Any type of brick, Mr. Rous said, can be made providing you have the right mould.
The sheds are open-sided and the drying takes place naturally. Two centuries and more old, they show in the cross beams beautiful examples of hewn wood, untouched by carpenter's saw or plane.

After drying, the bricks are fired in batches of 30,000-plus in the coke fired kiln, at temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. They stay in the kiln for about two weeks, altogether, and emerge a rosier or darker red according to their position while being fired.

Brick-making takes place only for eight months because the clay will not dry in winter. It is then that the brickmaker puts in the really hard work - digging the clay ready for use come the spring. That is damp,unrelenting work even when, as at Cove Bottom, much of the labour can be done mechanically.

What will happen to Cove Bottom brickworks?

All the machinery is in excellent condition, the setting is beautiful, (idyllic on a hot summer's day) the market is ready-made.

But a brickmaker needs to be sturdy, hard-working and, above all, experienced. Where will you find the man to match up with those requirements - and assistants, too?

One thing is certain; if a suitable candidate does- emerge his craftsmanship will live on in his bricks.

Look around you, as you go through our villages. How much of the brickwork in that cottage, that house, that church was made at Cove Bottom? How much took shape at the hands of Sidney Rous, or his brother James?

Where will the bricks be found to make repairs to the region's old properties if Cove Bottom goes? For that reason alone - and because Cove Bottom is one of the last examples of East Anglia's once-thriving brick-making industry - it deserves the community's respect.

'Tragedy to lose this gem'
Waveney council members certainly do not want to see the Cove Bottom brick kiln fall derelict.

The brickworks was "a little gem of its kind," Mrs. June Wren told Waveney council's district development committee on Tuesday.

"It's an absolutely fascinating place in immaculate order," she said. "It would be an absolute tragedy if something like this should fall into disrepair."

The council would like' to see someone take over the running of the brickworks but if this fails may try to get the brickworks "listed" as worthy; of preservation.

The Cove Bottom brickworks was still operating at the turn of the millennium when the following pictures were taken. It finally closed in 2006.

scove_brickyard.jpgPart of South Cove Brickworks, 2001, showing stacks of newly made bricks and an old disused kiln.

scove_brickyard2.jpgClose up of an old drying house.

Hand crafting bricks: the last generation!