Here's History Kent - Return to What's New page.
Architecture of Kent / Brickwork in Kent

Brickwork in Kent

Today brick is the most common building material, but this was not always so, since fuel has to be burned to make bricks and this ensured that at first they were very expensive. The process of manufacture is not simple and skill is required at each stage. Suitable clay has to be found, dug and left to weather. It is then very thoroughly mixed and often fuel added, shaped, usually in a mould, and allowed to dry until it is safe to be fired (or burnt). This can take place in a kiln or a clamp, basically a long, low pile of bricks, built up over a layer of fuel and sealed with clay. The colour of the bricks produced can vary considerably, especially from a clamp. Usually it is red from the iron in the clay, the undercooked bricks being pinker and the overburnt ones being blacker. Iron salts exist in two forms: ferric which are red and ferrous which are blue, giving grey bricks. By careful control of the gases during firing it is possible to produce bricks where the ends (or 'headers') are blue-grey and the sides (or 'stretchers') are red. Different clays, often with the addition of sand or chalk, can give buff or brown colours.

Roman Brickwork

The Romans brought brickmaking to England and we are very fortunate in Kent that their bricks may be found not only in excavations but also above ground, in bonding courses in the stone rubble walls of Richborough Castle and the Pharos at Dover. They may also be seen alternating with stone in the ruins of the church of Stone near Faversham, which Col. Meates showed had been a Roman mausoleum, later converted into a Christian church. Usually Roman bricks were square, larger and flatter than modern bricks, a size of 11" x 11" x 2" being common. The manufacture of bricks left Britain with the Romans. The Saxon invaders did not make them but were happy to use any they found, as in the chancel walls of the Church of St. Martin at Canterbury or the nearby ruins of St. Pancras' Chapel at St Augustine's Abbey, to give two examples containing a large number.

Medieval Brickwork

Bricks seem to have returned to England along the east coast from Yorkshire to Kent, in the thirteenth century. The early brick in Kent is buff in colour and is used for voussoirs of the relieving arches over the windows both at Grange Chapel (1378), near Gillingham, and at Solomon's Tower at Allington Castle, where other lancet windows in the west range have brick surrounds, which have dated to the work of Stephen de Penchester, commenced in 1281. At Horne's Place, Appledore is a chapel built in 1366 in Kentish Ragstone. This was damaged when the house was otherwise burnt down by Wat Tyler's rebels in 1381. Sometime later this was repaired and a vaulted undercroft inserted using buff bricks (8" x 4" x 2"). The fine, square gateway with corner towers at Garlinge, Margate has horizontal courses of buff brick and flint, with the badge of Sir John Dandelyon, who died heirless in 1445. The buff brick continued in use in Sandwich well into the sixteenth century. The top of the Fisher Gate is dated 1571 and in Delf Street is a house with a frieze of brick and flint in a geometric pattern. Buff brick was used for the inserted chimney of the hall to the east of St. Mary, Northgate, Canterbury, while just over the border at Rye is a fine external chimney with crow-stepped gables and a four-centred cellar doorway on the end of a house in Church Square. At Salmestone Grange the buff brick has a pinkish hue and appears in repairs to the early fourteenth-century building.

Red brick is found in Lincolnshire and Norfolk in the fourteenth century. Its first use in Kent is at West Wickham, where Sir Henry Heydon built a square house with corner turrets, gun loops and an internal courtyard, after he acquired the manor in 1469. He was Recorder of Norwich. In 1486 John Morton was translated to Canterbury from Ely and in 1493 was created cardinal. In celebration he built on to the Angel Steeple to form the Bell Harry Tower and he used red bricks, 480,000 of them, with only an outer skin of stone. (The later Christchurch Gate is similar; a large brick arch can be seen in the restaurant next door). He also built the great Gate Tower at Lambeth and this uses the darker, over-cooked bricks in all-over diaper patterns. Later Archbishop Warham built the palace at Offord and Parker added a brick gatehouse to the Palace at Canterbury. With such excellent examples prominent lay men followed in the early sixteenth century. Two cases will suffice. William Roper, the son-in-law of Sir Thomas More, added a gateway with diaper-work and crow steps to his house in St. Dunstan's Street, Canterbury. At the other side of the county, Lullingstone Castle was rebuilt in brick and the outer gateway survives. It has two polygonal turrets and uses specially moulded bricks for the gun loops.

Post-Medieval Brickwork

The ready availability of bricks had two important effects on smaller houses. They enabled chimneys to be built in brick and this meant that it was safe to bring cooking indoors, and to floor over all of the old open hall. The acquisition of such a chimney was clearly a cause for pride, as the decorated examples at Ightham Mote or the magnificent stack in West Street, Cliffe-at-Hoo show. By the beginning of the seventeenth century a new house type had evolved with a central chimney, with fireplaces on each side and both floors. Usually the front door opened into a lobby in front of the chimney, with a door on one side to the hall/kitchen and on the other to the parlour. Good examples are Marle Place, Brenchley (1619) and Honeywood, Lenham (1622). Brick was also used to fill the panels of the timber frame more permanently than with wattle and daub. In this position it had no need to bear load and could be arranged in fancy patterns. Good examples occur in the house opposite the tower of Speldhurst church and also in a house in Church Street St. Mary's, Sandwich. Fireproof brick walls are found early in the seventeenth century as at The Abbot's Fireside at Elham.

There are a number of larger Elizabethan brick houses, like Hollingbourne Manor, East Sutton Park (1570) and Franks, Horton Kirby (1590) and two, Ightham Court (1575) and Cobham Hall (1594), have porches which are towers of the orders. There is earlier classical detail at Sissinghurst where the tower has a doorway of c.1560 with a four-centred arch and Tuscan pilasters. There are several Jacobean houses in brick - Chilham Castle (1616), Godinton (1628), Chevening (attributed to Inigo Jones before 1630, but much altered since) and Broome Park (1635). This has very ornate brick gables and a giant order of pilasters. Two smaller houses, Charlton Court, East Sutton (1612) and Quebec House, Westerham have respectively curved and straight gables. All of these are in English Bond, where a row of headers alternates with a row of stretchers. Flemish Bond, where each row has alternate headers and stretchers, arrived at Kew Palace in 1631. This bond is very effective with the bricks with blue headers (and red stretchers) and was even used in Headcorn as late as 1866. (Arthur Percival has written about the continental connections of these styles in East Kent).

Charles II came back from exile in 1660 from Holland, a brick country, and soon red brick became very fashionable. Symmetrical houses with hipped roofs, like Groombridge Place (before 1674), the central block of Cobham Hall and Squerries Court, Westerham (1686) are good examples of this period. The quality of the bricks had improved and they were now mostly kiln-fired. Special soft bricks were made to be rubbed together to give fine joints or shaped voussoirs and to allow cutting in place. The peak of such brickwork occurs in buildings like the west front of Bradbourne, East Malling (1715) and West Farleigh Hall (1719) and good example occur in small towns like Yalding, and West Malling and outside Westgate, Canterbury (1751).

Mathematical tiles and The Brick Tax

Red brick suffered an eclipse in the late eighteenth century when it was regarded as uncouth compared with stone or stucco. When Colonel Montresor, a retired engineer with the British Army in North America, bought Belmont, a red brick house near Faversham, he engaged Samuel Wyatt to remodel and extend it (c.1787-92), using buff-coloured gauged mathematical tiles for the main elevations of the house. These are a form of tilehanging which closely resembles brick. There are more examples in Kent than any other county and they are especially seen in towns, like Tenterden and Faversharn.

There was a tax on bricks from 1784 to help to pay for the wars in America and with France. Levied on a hundred bricks, irrespective of size, it caused some very large bricks to be made (and some remain in a wall in Bordyke, Tonbridge), until in 1803 the present standard size was fixed and larger bricks were taxed at double rate. Bricks for agricultural improvement were exempt provided they were marked 'DRAIN'. Some of these were used-up in the wall around New Romney School, erected after the tax was repealed in 1851.

In the early nineteenth century a great industry flourished in the Sittingbourne area, producing brown bricks, often referred to as 'London Stocks' and particularly used in the terraces growing up all around the capital. Fleets of Thames Barges ferried them to London, bringing back the household rubbish which fueled their manufacture. They were also very popular in Thanet and the whole of Kent north of the Downs. These were often made in clamps and sometimes the temperature rose too high, resulting in misshapen bricks, fused together. These were sold cheaply for garden walls, although there is a block of cottages in Westgate built of them.

Red bricks never dropped out of popularity in the Weald and a group of architects revived their use for country houses (and incidentally also the use of English bond). George Devey rebuilt Betteshanger House in 1856 in a revived Elizabethan style and Norman Shaw built his first major house as an addition to Willesley, Cranbrook in 1865 for J C Horsley, the artist of the first commercial Christmas card. That master of good brickwork, Edwin Lutyens, built The Salutation at Sandwich in 1912, perhaps his finest house.

However this century the brick industry has changed utterly, with the discovery of how to make bricks from the Oxford Clay in Bedforshire. The clay is oil-bearing and needs no added fuel and the resultant savings have more than covered the transport costs, gradually dominating the industry and causing the closure of many local yards. Luckily some still survive, producing a range of facing bricks and specials (and preventing new houses from becoming a monotonous pink colour).


Ken Gravett