David Cufley is President of North West Kent
Family History Society and has been to talk to GIHS on a couple of
occasions. However he is really the
local authority on bricks and building materials. So – when GIHS was asked
about by Mr.P. about local sustainable materials for the built environment we
put the enquirer in touch with David.
First David asked “What do you mean
by sustainable?Let me know your definition of sustainability and I’ll think
again of materials. As a starter:-
Include Clay used for bricks and tiles.
Sand used for mortars and other industrial purposes.
Gravels used for concrete
Chalk for plasters, mortars and Cement. Thus, cement for concrete.
Chalk was also used as a fertilizer and is not therefore your built
I assume for the built environment you are including roads, bridges
Mr P replied. “As there are different interpretations of the term
'sustainability' I will start with that used by the Alliance for Sustainable
Building Products (ASBP): "...building products that are low embodied
carbonnatural, non-toxic, locally made and healthy in use." Another
definition is "... a material that will be available for future
generations and has the lowest impact on human health and the
It can also include renewables such as timber, straw and wool if an
equal amount is replacing the amount being used but I will focus mainly on
All of the materials you mentioned - clay, sand, gravel, chalk -
will get a mention as locally available resources, regardless of their
sustainability, not least because there is some research going on into the use
of existing buildings as a 'material bank' for future construction (part of a
design for deconstruction idea).
Any thoughts on sources of info I could search regarding the
historic use of clay, sand, gravel etc in the London/Kent/Surrey area? I want examples
of historic as well as contemporary use.
Also, you mentioned the use of chalk as a fertilizer; any links you
can suggest to find out more about this?
Thanks for the explanation of sustainable. I like the ‘building
products that are natural, non-toxic, locally made and healthy in use (not
always i.e. limes). Don’t like ‘low embodied carbon’ and ‘material that will be
available for future generations …” Example, historically the use of timber and
later coal to burn bricks means that they were known for fumes and smoke coming
off the clamps and you can find newspaper references (see British Newspaper
Library online) to deaths of tramps that slept on or close to the clamp for
warmth and in the morning were found dead. The other example that once
materials are excavated or quarried for buildings they are not available again
except in their new form and not as originally manufactured. The pits once
depleted may return to farmland or fishing lakes but the landscape will have
I struggle with the following.The renewable element is fine but such
as clay and chalk once used are no longer available, unless you apply your
‘material bank’ idea. One of my fellow MSc students did her dissertation on
reclamation of building materials and this is with the Weald and Downland
Living Museum (WDLM) as a York University dissertation in the museum’s library.
A problem with bricks and their reuse is their original
classification as taken out of the clamp and their use depended on their
burning. Bricks used originally only for internal walls and temporary works are
not good for use as facings because they will quickly deteriorate when
weathered and the structural quality will not accept loads that modern bricks
will take. They are too soft. The use of modern mortars will also cause them
problems. While they are okay with lime mortars, OPC mortars can be too strong
and don’t allow them to breath.
There are other reclaimed and demolition materials that react to
modern materials and it’s a case of knowing your materials and where and in
what combination they can be used.
Jerry building is not a new phenomenon and can be found in 18th
c references. I’ll leave it to you to research the use and misuse of building
Let us consider clay, sand, gravel, chalk, timber and straw/reed in
Clay pits used for brick, tile (roof) and chimney pots were all made
on the brickfields. See my map produced for a talk to Greenwich Industrial
group]. I’ve done similar maps for LB Bexley, Dartford, Swanley and at present
Eynesford and Farningham for a talk in 2021. Historically brickfields served
approx. 5 miles radius (one horse and cart load, out and back in a day). Until
canals and railways changed the landscape. However, Greenwich was slightly
different as it has the Thames, which allows heavy materials to be carried not
only in larger quantities but also further. Example Vanburgh Castle on Maze
Hill used bricks from the Medway towns and Fulham areas, only needing carting
up to the site from the river. See history of Vanburgh Castle and its accounts.
The North Kent brick industry using clay and chalk mix to form
London Stocks was killed off by the fletton brick industry from late 1800s. The
threemain factors being, land values for housing becoming higher than returns
on brickmaking, industrial manufacturing mechanisation and then labour shortage
part of the WW1 factors.
Between the wars people like Stephenson the developer of housing in
the Welling, Bexleyheath, Barnhurst, area [See Bexley Library publication].
Bought up the sites of building materials i.e. sand and gravel pits as well as
brickfields. Not only did he have sources for his building materials, he could
manage costs and deliveries. Not a new idea as Durtnals, builders since the
late 16th c to 20th century had sons that not only
followed their ancestors’ carpentry/building trade but also ran the brickfield
at Sevenoaks, Otford, Kent.
Dawson family at Plumstead, East Wickham, Woolwich and previously
Dartford produced not only bricks but also a wide range of clay products; i.e
chimney pots, sugar moulds, tiles and drain pipes. The East Wickham brickfield
that Stephenson eventually took over also had a chalk mine that extends under
Rockcliffe Gardens and Alliance Road. OS Maps of this brickfield will show you they
also had a lime kiln. OS maps are very good for locating and discovering the
structures used on the sites. The maps are freely available from the National
Library of Scotland.
Henry Ward a civil engineer did a paper with illustrations on the
East Wickham brickfield (known then as the South Metropolitan Brickfield)
describing its equipment and process as an article in the Institution of Civil
Engineers proceedings c1890.
For chalk mines see Kent and East Sussex Underground by Kent
Underground Research Group. The East Wickham mine they call Plumstead Chalk
Mine. The Dartford mine was owned by C N Kidd who was also a brickmaker and a
brewer. You will also discover from the historic maps details of the sites along
Thames Road to Crayford and Erith area that had chalk, sand and brickfields.
Stephenson owned some of these eventually.
Now you have to travel down to Faversham area to find a brickmaker
trading under the old ‘Smeed Dean’ name for their London Stocks. See George
Smeed book published by Meresborough books (I’ve attached my brick bibliography
for the references) that tells of his business including barge building to
carry bricks he made up to London. London refuse was brought back to the
brickfields on the return journey to be used to temper the clay and fuel the
You might also like to read ‘Bricks and Brickies’ by F G Willmott
that talks about Eastwoods and transporting bricks into London and Refuse out
to the brickfields. Willmott also wrote ‘Cement, mud and muddies’ the history
of APCM barges and the cement industry. The ‘Blue water’ shopping centre is
built in the old chalk quarries used for cement manufacture. The prices for the
clay in the 20th c are given by Willmott in this book.
Because of the link of the Medway and Thames to the brick and cement
industry it was easy to transport materials into London and most of these sites
are now developed as industrial sites or housing.
You might like to read Jim Preston’s book ‘Industrial Medway an historical
survey’ that talks about all the industries that used the Kent materials that
found their markets in London and further affield. The period covered is up to
the 1940s. The same can be applied to the Thames and I expect you have seen
Mary Mills book on the Peninsular down river as far as the Thames Barrier. Few
of these were sustainable industries but might give you a glimpse into their
I’ve mentioned above sand and gravel pits on Thames Road but there
was a very fine sand used for cleaning among other things in the 18th
and 19th century excavated at pits on the Woolwich Road, near Marion
The geological OS maps gives the head materials and some areas’
materialsthat have provided for industries. The gardeners at Hall Place, Bexley
mentioned in a personal conversation some years ago they had used the spoil,
which is sand and gravel, from foundation trenches mixed with cement to form
the concrete of their structures and it was returned to the trenches. You can
still see sand and gravel being extracted as you travel between Crayford and
Sidcup by rail adjacent to Bexley, Hall Place and the Black Prince area. I’m
not certain the company name but it might be ‘Bexley Sand and Gravel’.
In regard chalk as a fertilizer it was used on the fields around
Wilmington, Joydons Wood and Birchwood. In fact the Birchwood Road was known at
one time as fire pit lane. The chalk pits having fires in them to break up the chalk.
The book by Bexley Library publications on Dene and Swallow holes, (sorry
cannot remember its author) talks about their excavation of chalk for
fertiliser and other uses.
Timber as a sustainable home grown material is no longer a large
part of the British Industry, now most of the woodland areas have been cleared.
However, there was a resurgence of planting trees for softwoods some years ago;
they are quick growing; because of the grants (EU?). I’ve got no references for
this for you. Certainly nothing within 25 miles of Greenwich.
I seem to remember part of the decline of the Wealden iron industry
was the lack of fuel (timber) and expense of transporting coal in addition to
the decline in the iron ore quality and quantity that moved the industry into
Thatch and the use of straw and reed was never a big part of
construction in London; and Greenwich; after the Great Fire of London when
building regulations required tiles, slatesand bricks in favour of replacing
more combustible materials.
A discussion I had with a thatcher at the WDLM mentioned most of
today’s thatch is imported from Europe although some is still produced in East
Anglia. He was very busy working in Sussex and south Surrey area, but I’ve not
seen many buildings closer to Greenwich that use this material. Most have been
reclad with slate or tile.
Finally, I should mention ‘conservation’ and ‘Building Conservation
Philosophy’ by John Earl published by Donhead. There are a couple of pages (P34
etc. ‘Guarding resources ‘Green’ issues) that you might like to read.
A quote by Michael Cope, Head of Planning, English Heritage 2002
leapt out of the page when I first read it. “If sustainability means anything
at all our mentality has to change … … we need a mindset where we think carefully
before we knock things down and don’t always blame the buildings for problems’.
With that thought I hope I’ve given you the information you want.