Brick fields and tile kilns

The view north from Maiden Lane bridge in 1835 (E.H.Dixon, 1835, courtesy of Islington Local History Centre) shows fields and market gardens stretching up to Holloway, with a large mansion, Copenhagen House, on the crest of the hill. The land slopes east to west down to the valley of the River Fleet. The property boundary of Counsellor Agar, who fought protracted legal battles with the Regent’s Canal Company over the canal alignment, is clearly marked by the wood. It includes a parcel of land reached via Somers Bridge (a little further to the west), rural tracks connecting this parcel with Elm Lodge, his mansion.

But the features are not all rural. Large areas had been let for brickmaking from 1808. The first track off Maiden Lane to the east was William Street, now Copenhagen Street. Beyond that is the nearer pair of tile kilns, Randall’s kilns, which moved from Battle Bridge in 1828 as London expanded. The northern pair of tile kilns, Adam’s kilns, is at Belle Isle, where modern day Tileyard Road (formerly Tile Kilns Road) recalls their presence. Between the two pairs of kilns and their associated settlements of houses, can be seen the ‘4 acre field’ that is being excavated to extract brick earth and clay for brick and tile making.

With the opening of the Regent's Canal, industry was already competing to spread into the nearby fields. Small settlements had grown up on the east side of Maiden Lane based on brick making, in parts of what is now Barnsbury, as early as Elizabethan times. Stone was always expensive in London as it had to be imported from a distance. Wooden buildings had been outlawed since the Great Fire, which massively increased the demand for bricks. The rapid growth of the city placed a heavy demand on building materials. Fortunately, London had suitable clay in abundance. The Thames flood plain is overlain by a geological formation known generally as ‘brick earth’, and this weathered material, rather than the intractable London clay, provided the basis for the ubiquitous stock brick from which much of Victorian London was built. Brick earth seams were shallow, no more than 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) deep, and hence were used up quickly.

Brick manufacture involved digging up fields for the brick earth beneath and then firing the slabs in tall purpose-built kilns. These structures rose dramatically against the skyline, attracting artists, but polluting the environment. The area around Battle Bridge and north to Belle Isle was conveniently close to the City but far enough away for land to be cheaper and the environmental degradation less evident. It was ideal for brick and tile manufacture until nearby residential development made these activities increasingly unpopular.

Workmen in the brickmaking trade invariably worked by the piece, labouring sometimes from three in the morning till nine at night in the height of summer. They could earn extravagant wages, sometimes three or four guineas a week, which they would spend as extravagantly in one of the many local public houses. They were often reduced to dismal straits in the winter, when they could not work.