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Creating our canals brick by brick

Brainchild of visionaries like Brindley and Telford, and carved out of the landscape by ordinary working men and women, our canals are a window into a bygone era. But none of them would be here without the humble brick. We caught up with heritage adviser, Elizabeth Thomson, to discover why the birth of our network and the explosion of the brickmaking industry are so inextricably linked.

A brick-built canal bridge

For many centuries, bricks had been the building material of choice in Britain, favoured for their strength, durability and resistance to fire. So when plans were drawn up for the very first canals in the mid-1700s, the call went out for brickmakers across the country. Before long, brick kilns and clamps began springing up along the routes of newly excavated canals.

An advert in a local newspaper

In those early days, canal pioneers like James Brindley were still finding their feet, and many of the traditional skills and techniques we associate with the golden age of canal building were learnt on the job. For those first brickmakers, it was no different. “The bricks would have been handmade with the local clay,” says Elizabeth. “Navvies would dig out or ‘win' the clay from the bed of the canal or from nearby fields and it would then be used to make the bricks.”

At the time, digging was seasonal. Navvies would cut out the line of the canal using picks and shovels, finishing their back-breaking work by November 1, before the frost set in. The excavated clay was left to break down over the winter months, before being tossed into a shallow pit and trodden down by humans or horses. After that, brickmakers would mould the bricks and fire them in kilns or clamps, ready to go into the bank walls, bridges and locks we see on our network today.

A vintage illustration showing people making bricks by hand

“You can walk along the canal network and tell when these handmade structures were built just by looking at the size and texture of the bricks,” says Elizabeth. “The number of bricks that were used to build those early canals is mind-boggling; you're talking millions and millions of bricks, each one of them carefully moulded by hand.”

A brick-built canal bridge at a lock

As the canal network continued to grow, spreading its tentacles across the country, so the demand for bricks intensified. Rudimentary canal-side kilns and hovels gradually gave way to permanent brickyards, capable of producing thousands of bricks a day with a fraction of the workforce. In the space of a hundred years, what had been a relatively small-scale, seasonal trade relying on local materials and itinerant labour, had ballooned into an industrial behemoth.

“The canals were a game-changer for the brickmaking industry,” says Elizabeth. “What began as a hand-made, local trade, over time, and through the Industrial Revolution, became mechanised; factories opened, machines were installed, and you go from rustic handmade bricks to smooth engineering class machine-made bricks.”

By the early twentieth century the hand moulding of bricks was confined to a few brickyards, the itinerant brickmakers and small canal-side yards bought out by the big factories or forced to close. Within a century, the canals that spawned them would suffer a similar fate.

Bridge copings showing makers marks

Today, our canals are once again abuzz with activity, with more boats on our waterways than at any time during the Industrial Revolution. Our towpaths, bridges and locks, enjoyed by millions of visitors every year, still bear the hallmarks of those early brickmakers that built our network, brick by brick.

So next time you visit your local canal, why not pause for a moment to examine their handiwork? There are makers marks stamped on many bricks, particularly on blue-brick copings on locks and bridges. If you look close enough, you might even see the tell-tale fingerprints of those first craftsmen etched into the bricks. These so-called ‘brick kisses' can be found up and down our network, as shown here at Factory Road Bridge stamped with the makers marks J. Whitehouse, Bloomfield, located in Tipton. They are a lasting testament to the men, women and children who were involved in brickmaking for our canals.

Elizabeth is also doing a PhD on the brickmaking industry of the Black Country at the University of Birmingham sponsored by the Black Country Living Museum.

Last Edited: 13 September 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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