English medieval brickwork has an extraordinary beauty. The texture of bricks worn down by centuries of battering by wind and rain has a fabric-like quality, which is further emphasised by diaperwork the decorative patterns of black bricks against red in diamond, zigzag and lozenge patterns so beloved of the period. This is the brickwork of Queens’ College, Cambridge, or Wolsey’s Hampton Court, and its use in these grand buildings is a reminder of the prestige once attached to it. Today, we take the material entirely for granted; an attitude embodied in the acres of ill-designed and monotonous brickwork erected every year across the country.

Bricklaying is hard manual work, and, perhaps as a result, it has always been associated with immigrant labour in England. Today, we think of the Eastern European bricklayer, but it was the Roman army that originally brought brick technology to this country in the first century bc. When the army left, the demand and the know-how almost disappeared. Only small pockets of production remained in areas that had poor building stone particularly along the Eastern seaboard.

But in the early 15th century, an architectural revolution took place. In a clutch of buildings patronised by the king and the royal family, brick was revived as a material for fine architecture. Inspiration for this revival almost certainly came from the architecture of northern France and the Low Countries, where brick was in widespread use. Crucial to it was the ability to mass-produce millions of bricks at an identical size to create regular masonry. That expertise was borrowed from the Continent, and ‘brickmen’ from the length of the Baltic were employed in many major English building projects.

Thereafter, the English grew to love the material, and, by the 17th century, even dwellings of the middle classes were being built from it. Farmhouses with Dutch gables dating from this period can be found all over southern England, and brick towers became a common addition to the village church, for which red brick was preferred. The red colour comes from iron in the clay, which oxidises during firing. Perhaps early brickmakers thought that redness was associated with good bricks, but, if so, they were mistaken it actually confers no particular advantage. Whatever the reason, red remained the preferred colour for bricks up until the middle of the 18th century, even if that meant bricks had to be shipped in from elsewhere, adding greatly to their cost.

It’s a common misconception that the size of bricks is closely related to their age, and some claim to be able to date bricks this way. The size of bricks is, in fact, very variable, and could be influenced by commercial concerns. Because bricks, from the Middle Ages onwards, were priced by the thousand, it paid manufacturers to make them as small as possible: they had to dig less clay and use less fuel for firing. Early regulations, therefore, set a minimum size for bricks (but no maximum), to try to prevent brickmakers short-changing their customers. To complicate matters, statutes relating to the size of brick only appear to have been applied successfully in London, and even there the enforcement was haphazard.

Although bricks were usually made as small as possible, a tax between 1784 and 1850 on each brick made had the reverse effect. It encouraged brickmakers to produce larger and larger bricks, until finally, Parliament had to decree that very large bricks would be taxed at a double rate. On the repeal of the tax, bricks reverted to their natural size, based on a human hand so that they can be laid easily with one hand. Sadly, modern machine-made bricks are sized to meet the British Standard (215mm by 102.5mm by 65mm). The result is a brick that is aesthetically too tall in proportion to its length. The 17th-century brick, some 8in–9in long and 2in high, is altogether more satisfactory.

The proportions of modern bricks may be a matter of taste, but nobody would disagree that the main problem with brickwork today is the lack of interest in the patterns in which they are laid, or, to use the correct term, bonded. Bricks can be laid either along or into the plane of the wall at right angles to it. The former, called ‘stretchers’, show their long sides, and the latter, ‘headers’, show only one end. Most brick walls today are made up of expanses of unrelieved stretcher bond, but the most common bonding types used in England before the 20th century were English Bond and Flemish Bond. Strangely, the latter, although common on the Continent throughout the Middle Ages, only became fashionable in England in the 17th century. However, once here, it was soon the most common bond for façades of the better sort of house, and remained so until the 1930s.

The 17th century saw widespread use of rubbed and gauged brickwork. Soft, sandy red bricks, mostly from Kent, were specially made to be carved into decorative mouldings. The simplest examples of this extraordinary craft are the flat arches of cut bricks above the windows of every Georgian townhouse, but the most skilled artisans could carve Corinthian capitals, flamboyant swags and angels’ heads. In the best houses, whole façades were made from rubbed and gauged work, every brick being cut exactly to fit its neighbours, with joints so fine that they were barely visible. With the death of apprenticeships, there are very few bricklayers who’ve had the chance to acquire these skills today, but there are craftsmen who can still perform the work.Brickmaking has also changed.

The manufacture of brick has always involved mass production, but it was not mechanised until the mid 19th century. Even then, handmaking still predominated until the First World War, when labour shortages made it uneconomic. Now, the skills are kept alive by a few dedicated suppliers. The bespoke handmade brick is, in every way, superior to its machine-made counterpart and, correspondingly, more expensive.

The skilled brickmaker working to a particular specification will choose clays with care to suit a particular purpose. Each batch of bricks will be made to order by a moulder, who can exactly control the texture, density and creasing of the final product (machines produce poor simulations of these effects, by embossing imitation textures onto a surface using rollers). Finally, the bespoke brickmaker will take great care in drying and firing the brick, using small kilns that create a richer variation in colour across the batch. The result is a product that could never have been made by a machine, each brick being unique, but carrying the imprint of its maker and designed to fit its purpose.

The final element that needs to be considered in brickwork is the mortar. Here, the colour and profile are crucial. The cement used for most 20th-century building is actually stronger than the bricks it binds together. Therefore, when walls weather, it’s the bricks, not the cement, that are eroded. Incredibly, repointing of old brickwork using Portland cement still goes on, although the irreparable damage that can be caused has long been understood. Poor-quality builders unfamiliar with lime mortar are chiefly to blame. Thankfully, most building owners now know about the importance of using lime, and traditional lime mortars are making a comeback, not only for repair work, but also for new design. Not only do they look better particularly when finished flush or with a penny-struck joint they also negate the need for expansion joints.

With new requirements for insulation, architects are once again looking to bonded brick walls. The brickwork of the Opera House at Glyndebourne is an excellent example of what can be achieved, and history has shown that good solid brickwork such as this, correctly looked after, will last for centuries. James W. P. Campbell is a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and author of ‘Brick: A World History’, published by Thames & Hudson at £42

Britain’s 12 Best Brick Buildings

1 Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex, 1441

2 Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1448

3 Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, 1482

4 Hampton Court Palace, Surrey, 1520

5 Layer Marney Tower, Essex, 1520

6 Kew Palace, Richmond, Surrey, 1631

7 Kensington Palace, London, 1689–96,

by Christopher Wren

8 Holkham Hall, Norfolk, 1734–64, by William Kent and Matthew Brettingham

9 The Prudential Building, High Holborn, London WC1, 1879, by Alfred Waterhouse

10 Keble College, Oxford, 1867–83, by William Butterfield

11 Folly Farm, Sulhampstead, West Berkshire, 1906–12, by Edwin Lutyens

12 New Glyndebourne Opera House, East Sussex, 1991–93, by Michael and Patty Hopkins

  • Thornton Kay

    The UK produces around three billion new bricks a year and demolishes around three billion old ones, of which around 300 million are salvaged by reclaimed brick dealers for reuse. So, yes, I agree with you.

    Each 12 bricks embody the energy equivalent of around a gallon of petrol, so we waste a lot of energy by crushing old reusable bricks.

    We run a free online marketplace for reclaimed bricks, as well as a uk wide directory or reclaimed brick dealers (as well as other salvaged materials) here:

    http://www.salvo.co.uk

    We also run an annual Salvo Fair at Knebworth House (which is usually advertised in Country Life btw)