Friday 30 January 2009

Wood block for roads - what happened to them!

A factory on the Greenwich Peninsula was once the home of the manufacture of wooden tarred blocks - much used in all roads in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. A correspondent writes:

"I remember when most of the wooden paving blocks were removed when the roads were re-paved after WW2, in fact we used them for fuel since coal and coke were in such short supply; they were huge producers of smoke because they had asphalt laid on top of them, London justified it's nickname, "The Smoke". I don't know why they removed them, they seemed to do an adequate job, perhaps it was to provide work and improve the infrastructure at the same time. There was avery cold winter just after the war, it was the winter of 1946/1947 in fact, and I seem to remember burning the blocks that winter. We moved from Princes Square to Connaught Square in the January and my dad hired a coster to move the fuel on his barrow. He didn't arrive and was still missing hours later, we thought he had stolen our fuel, but it turned out that the police saw him with it and assumed that he had stolen it. When Dad reported it, the problem was sorted out but he had to pay the man for the extra hours he spent on the job.
Lest you think we were rich, the house in Princes Square had been converted into single rooms with my mother as housekeeper, we lived in the basement; the house in Connaught Square had been requisitioned by the council and converted to flats. I remember that the blocks were removed from Edgeware and Harrow Roads in Paddington but must have been taken from other places as well.
If it's of any interest, wood blocks were used as flooring in factories where heavy, localised, loads were moved around. A few years ago, I was designing the refit for a building in the Philadelphia Navy Yard for civilian use. The building had been used to make the heaviest parts of the drive systems for the biggest ships, huge propellers and prop shafts, the lathe beds were about thirty feet long. I was told that it was pretty standard practise to use the wood blocks so you might find some in old factories in London. The wood has an elastic modulus that allows the load to be spread, even over high spots without causing permanent damage.


Anonymous said...

Wood blocks were still visible in the New cross Road in the early 1950s.

Anonymous said...

I remember the wood blocks being replaced at Regents Park Road in Finchley, by Henleys Corner in about 1957. We burnt them on our fire at home in Church End, Finchley.
They also replaced them at Golders Green at the crossroads by the bus station.
At the same time the trolley busses were being replaced by the Routemaster Double decker bus

Anonymous said...

In the mid 1990's I was in the workshops of a Ford main Dealer in East Dulwich Road (Hartwell Ford, but previously known as Gordon's of Dulwich) and part of the floor was made from tarred wooden blocks- I had never seen them before or since. They had clearly been there a long time as some were missing and others badly worn.

Anonymous said...

There was a severe cloudburst one June in the early '50's. The wood block road in Woolwich High Street (outside Woolwich Arsenal) floated away. several trolley busses on the 696 & 698 routes were stalled, shorted out.
The surface was replaced with concrete shortly after and the blocks sold off by local street vendors.

Block paving said...

Its right that Nowadays, Wood blocks are still disappeared. But I think that I am lucky, Because I have furnished my parking portion with a wood brick pavings.

Anonymous said...

Back in the 1980s, the city of Pensacola, Florida was redesigning Old Palafox St. downtown. They dug up the street and found layer upon layer of the old road materials from centuries ago. Once they got under the layers of modern materials, there was a layer of brick and below that a layer of wood blocks with pitch. My mom and I collected some of them and used them in her backyard as a border for an area of stepping stones used to extend the patio. The sickening thing was they weren't saving any of it for something special to commemorate the history of the city (the oldest settlement in the U.S.). They were transporting it all to a location in Gulf Breeze across Pensacola Bay. We rode over and she asked the foreman what they were doing there (lots of contruction equipment, etc). The guy's answer infuriated her. He said, "We're building a cemetery." She said, "A cemetery?" He replied, "Yep. We're going to bury Palafox Street." And they did, too. They buried every bit of what was left of Old Palafox there and built a condo on top that's still there to this day...just to the left after you come off the bridge from Pensacola as you enter Gulf Breeze.

Sad, but then that's typical for this area...or at least it used to be. Thankfully, we've gotten a few more people in office around here that actually care about preserving history rather than dumping it in a landfill. said...

My name is Norm Kaswell, and I'm in the colonies of the USA! I don't remember when I first found this blog, and I should have written sooner, but perhaps you're still out there and interested in my comments. The Kaswell Family has been in the end grain wood block flooring business since 1946. Its a long story that I won't go into now, but suffice it to say, when he came home from WWII he got into this business, and all his customers were industrial machine shops, factories, foundrys etc., and most all he sold was creosote treated southern yellow pine blocks. The SYpine came to us from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. And all the blocks were treated with creosote oil. The first piece of equipment I learned to run was the company tar kettle. I learned how to break up a keg of coal tar pitch, put it in the kettle, heat it to about 425 F, and use the hot pitch as the adhesive below the blocks and the surface binder or coating over the surface of the blocks. The floor was rugged, but ugly. And, it gave off an odor.....forever. A blind person could tell he was in a factory paved with creosoted blocks becuase of their odor. In any event, I know creosote treated blocks were first used a street pavers in the USA, and I gather also in the UK. I recently replaced the only wood block street still remaining in Chicago. If you go to google, and ask for "Wood Paver Alley" you should see several articles and photos of both new and original "Wood Paver Alley". We removed and replaced it with new blocks, and I have over 50 photos of the removal and replacement. If you go to you can read more of the history of wood block paving, more about us, and you can see what we've done with end grain in the last 4 years. The industrial market continues to diminish, and so we are always on the lookout for new species and new places to use them. Floors, walls, ceilings, and I know I guy who makes end grain doors. I have some great photos of old streets, and would enjoy hearing back from someone. I am in the USA. Thanks for reading.