BRICK & BLOCKS AT CUPID GREEN
by Peter Ward
(first published August 1998 in Chambersbury News.)
It would seem that sometimes local brickfields were put to unofficial recreational use, and on one occasion at least there were tragic consequences.
On a hot July day in 1897 five lads from Hemel Hempstead went out on a Sunday afternoon stroll up to Bennetts End Approaching Mr Norris's brickfield they decided to take a dip in one of the flooded clay pits, as they had done before. One of the youths, William Everett a general labourer aged 18, who could not swim, got into difficulties and drowned. He was the only son of widow Jane Everett of Queens Place, Hemel Hempstead (The Hemel Hempstead Advertiser).
A brickfield of which 1 had no previous knowledge appeared in an advertisement of an auction sale in the Gazette in May 1894. It read as follows:
"Next Wednesday Bricks, Bricks, Bricks
Malins Wood Brickfield, High Street Green, Hemel Hempstead, Herts. about a mile from Godwins Siding on the Midland Railway with easy access, good hard road to ,North West Railway and Grand Junction Canal Boxmoor, and only 5 miles from the City o St. Albans.
Messrs Woodman & Son are favoured with instructions from Mr. Wm Ellingham to sell by auction at the above brickfield in convenient lots on Wednesday May 16 at 2 for 2.30 o'clock in the afternoon 130,000 brick, - comprising red bricks, second-v, greys, moulded bricks etc., also clearance large number of flowerpots, fancy vases and ridge tiles, etc..
Can be viewed and catalogues obtained of Mr William Ellingham, High Street Farm, of T F Woodman, Surveyor, St Albans, and of Auctioneers, Hemel Hempstead, Herts."
The Kelly's Directory of 1890 lists Wm Ellingham, High Street Green, as a brickmaker.
The map of the period does not show a Malins Wood, but 1 conclude this must be Maylands Wood, which was near the Wood Lane End brickfield. The High Street Green Farm presumably owned by Mr Ellingham was close by the water tower now at High Street Green.
In the Cupid Green area between the water tower and Swallowdale Lane is Widmore Wood. It is open to the public. Near the entrance off High Street Green road is a largish pond and throughout the wood are many shallow pits, indicating that at some time it has been well worked for clay. "The History of Hemel Hempstead" records that when the roundabout near Swallowdale Lane was constructed the remains of a tile kiln was found. Perhaps it, was here rather than near Wood Lane End that the Saunders family made bricks.
On the other side of Swallowdale Lane, bounded roughly by Redbourne Road on the west and north and by Three Cherry Trees Lane to the cast, was Claydales Brickworks, and it is so named on a 1922 map.
1 have not been able to establish exactly when brickmaking started at Claydales. Apparently it was not before 1877, since the survey of that date shows no brickmaking of clay digging activity there. That same year in July the Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden Railway opened, and the track ran through the Claydales site, but according to "The Nicky Line" by James and Hedley Cannon it was not until 1898 that a railway siding was constructed to serve the brickworks, thus giving access to the national rail network. The brick company offered to carry out the necessary earthworks and to contribute £ 1 000 towards the estimated cost of £ 1 30'j
The 1902 Kelly's Directory has an entry "Hemel Hempstead Brick and Tile Co., Brickmakers, Alexander Swinney". His home address was 30 George Street, but by 1906 he was at Eversfield, Alexander Road.
Alex Swinney of 61 Newgate Street, Morpeth, described as an engineer, applied for a patent (No 18160) for an "Automatic Separating Tank for Brick Machine" in 1899, which was accepted in July 1900. His application stated 'My invention has for its object the automatic separating of the rectangular blocks of damp clay after they have been pushed from the wire cutting table of a brickmaking machine, and the deposit of same on to a special pallet board ready to be dried without further handling."
About 1907 the name of the firm changed from "Hemel Hempstead Brick and Tile Company" to "Hemel Hempstead Patent Brick Company" with Alex Swinney named as manager, and he was listed as such in the directories until 1917. Tom Mortimer joined the firm about 1913 and by 1922 had replaced Mr Swinney as manager.
Claydales Cottages on the Redbourn Road are said to have been built just before the Great War, and it was there that Tom Mortimer and his family lived. His son Denis lived there at number one as a boy, and 1 am grateful to him for his recollections of brickmaking and blockmaking on the site. He recalls that at one time his sister and her husband, who was the kiln setter and burner, lived in the cottage next door. The pair of semi-detached cottages are still there opposite the entrance to the new adventure playground for Woodhall Farm, but boarded up.
Tom Mortimer was born and brought up in West Bromwich. His father lost a leg in an industrial accident and Tom was obliged to leave school at eleven to help support the family. He found work at Hampstead Colliery Brickworks. His first job was clearing topsoil to expose the brickmaking clay. This was mixed with waste materials from the colliery to make bricks.
In the early days the Claydales brickworks had made bricks and tiles of conventional type, but the change of name of the firm to "Patent Brick Company" came about when production switched to making hollow clay bricks (see diagram). The specimen in my possession, sadly broken, is 10 inches by 8 inches and 10 inches high, and along one edge is the impression BCM / HEMPSTEAD. The outer walls of the brick are about an inch thick. The hollow brick is open at top and bottom. They were made in a range of widths from about 3 inches to 1 0 inches. The outer sides were grooved to give better adhesion for plaster or cement, but some had plain faces so they could be decorated without further preparation.
1 am informed the blocks were made with a 1 0% admixture of sawdust to the clay, which reduced the amount of fuel needed to fire it. The blocks were slightly porous, reasonably soundproof, with good heat insulation.
The machine for making the patent bricks was made bySwinney Bros of Morpeth and I understand the patent of the special brick was theirs.
The manufacture of clay patent bricks ceased in 1948 when the New Towns Commission compulsorily purchased the works and land, approximately 52 acres, for £20,000. The clay pits were infilled by various contractors building roads in the New Town.
About the same time in 1948/9 Tom Mortimer's son Denis, just after being demobilised from the army, began to manufacture clinker blocks on the site. At first he used two hand-operated machines from Winger of Rochester, the only type available at the time. Later he purchased two semi-automatic Tranco machines. The materials used were powerhouse clinker and cement, which bonded to-ether to produce a reasonably light block, so being made in Hemel the trade name Hemelite was adopted.
In 1958 a minority interest in the firm was sold to C A E C Howard of Bedford, a company that was under contract to clear ash from a major powerhouse in Nottingham. About this time Denis Mortimer went to Frankfurt to see a Schallser fully automatic machine processing bomb damage material. One of these machines was installed at Claydales in 1959. When the blocks came off the machine they were put into Steaming Kilns for curing, a process which took only a few hours. At that time it was the most up-to-date blockmaking machine in the UK. The majority holding was sold to C A E C Howard in 1961. Hemelite went on to become the largest blockmaking company in the UK in its heyday.
After the Second World War the use of the Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden Railway by passengers and goods traffic rapidly decreased, so that eventually Hemelite was the sole user transporting clinker via Harpenden to the plant. This was not a profitable operation for the railway authorities, so they offered the line to Hemelite, who accepted, and on 30 April 1968 it reopened as a private mineral railway operated by the C A E C Howard Group.
In 1984 a new building costing £750,000 was opened by the Housing and Construction Minister Mr Ian Gow. Solar energy was used to "cure" building blocks, and the plant had a potential capacity of 1600 tons of blocks per week. No doubt the hope was that this hi-tech unit would ensure the future of block production on the site well into the future. Alas, it was not to be. Today the only real tangible links with all this brick and blockmaking activity are the forsaken Claydales Cottages, and very soon 1 fear they too will be demolished,
Finally, a snippet for film buffs: in 1959 the MGM / Du Maurier-Guinness film The Scapegoat starring Bette Davis and Alec Guinness was released. Some of the scenes were shot at Claydales.
I acknowledge with thanks the help of Denis Mortimer and the Dacoum Heritage Trust, also "The Nicky Line " by James and Hedley Cannon published by Barracuda Books as a useful source.