The Brickworks

Brickworks Painting by Glenn WrightBrickworks 2 Glenn WrightPaintings by local artist Glenn Wright. See more of his work here

Phoenix Brick Company, Barrow Hill.
By Mike Chapman, Chairman British Brick Society.
This article is re-printed from ” British Brick Society Information” Issue 125

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The Phoenix Brickworks in February 2013.

A Phoenix that arose from the ashes of a former brickworks has now sadly been permanently laid to rest. Heaving heard about this closure, which took place at Christmas 2012, I was given the opportunity to visit the site, prior to its demolition, to record some of the history of a works, that in its day, was a small but significant part of a mighty industrial complex.

The works was built by the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, whose history goes back to 1786, on the site of the former Campbell Colliery, and thus was named Campbell Brickworks, It commenced operations in the mid-1930s. Its original function was to provide the Staveley Coal and Iron Company with a source of high-quality pressed engineering bricks for the continual expansion of its industrial operations.

The works is recorded as operational in the 1942 Ministry of Works Brickworks census, as the Staveley Coal & Iron Company’s Barrow Hill Works, and again in the 1949 and 1962 Directories o f British Clayworkers as the Staveley Works of the Staveley Coal & Iron Co.

The Hoffman kilns were designed as a variation of the annular Hoffman concept, in that they consisted of two parallel arches, with cross over flues at each end, allowing “the fire” to travel down one side of the kiln and the return up the other. Each tunnel was divided into ten nominal chambers, with each wicket entrance being the dividing line. The kiln draught was provided by a brick built stack, 38 m (124 ft 7 in) high, connected to its kiln by an external flue, with control through a manual plate damper at the foot of the stack. In recent years, a week’s production was achieved by having four chambers in the firing cycle, top firing temperature being 1010 C, with ten chambers being “turned around” in each week.

The site was chosen as it was adjacent to a large and easily accessible supply of Carbonaceous Shale. With this reputation for good quality the demand for Campbell bricks opened up new markets throughout the Midlands with the “Staveley Pressed Brick” being used in many large building and civil engineering projects.

The original layout of the works comprised a steam navvy for clay winning, crushing, screening, and mixing equipment, a “Stiff Plastic” press for shaping, direct manual setting into the kilns with drying and firing being a combined process in two barrel-arch continual Hoffman kilns. Coal, for firing the kilns, came from the nearby Ireland Colliery.

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The two Barrel Arch Hoffman kilns: No.l in the background, No.2 in the foreground.

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Internal view of the barrel arch.

At its peak the works was producing ten million bricks per year and employed sixty people on day and night shift working. It appears to have remained operational throughout the Second World War employing local female labour and latterly prisoners of war to maintain output.

By 1961, with a decline in the traditional “common” brick, competition from “Flettons”, and the increasing demand for good “facing” bricks, together with a need to improve productivity and yields, an ambitious plan was drawn up to modify the process. To ensure the best clays were sourced from the quarry new excavating equipment was introduced. A Smith No. 7 face shovel and Russton Bucyrus 33RB dragline were deployed to achieve both quality and quantity. The 33RB replaced the original 1930 steam navvy.

Improvements to the clay grinding and brickmaking equipment were made, with the latter process now comprising two Bradley and Craven 9ft dry grinding pans, and associated screening, with the clay fed to a Bradley and Craven de-aired extrusion machine, replacing the original Stiff Plastic process. Whilst the two kilns remained coal-fired, automatic stokers were installed, with heavy oil supplementing the heat required for the chamber dryers.

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Railway sidings, part of the Barrow railway yard complex.

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An old Staveley Pressed brick found on the site.

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A tight squeeze through the wicket.

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Hand selecting and packing.

Whilst these improvements raised quality and reduced wastage and manpower, the demand for facing bricks could still not be met. This problem was overcome by the introduction of separate dryers, heated by “waste” hot air from the kilns. This important development ensured that with the drying process now separate from the overall kiln firing cycle, kiln speeds could be increased, with improved quality achieved.

Ultimately modifications were made to the brick handling process, involving installation of a “Bason” brick setting machine, thus automating the handling of the extruded bricks and by use of fork lift trucks to move the packs of bricks to the dryers and then into and out of the kilns. These changes ensured that the works remained profitable and used a process that had much in common with other works in that era.

With these improvements completed, the Brickworks Department at Staveley continued to investigate opportunities for further investment, with a plan drawn up to install a modern tunnel kiln, other new manufacturing equipment, and increase the output to fifteen million bricks per year by 1965.

Whilst such schemes were becoming a reality in other parts of the brick industry —Nottingham Brick Company at its Dorket Head Works being a good example where two Gibbons Tunnel Kilns were in operation by 1965 —the Campbell scheme did not proceed, instead relying on the most effective operations of the existing plant to take it forward. In part, this decision was no doubt influenced by the background changes taking place at Staveley itself, as having been taken over by Stewarts and Lloyds, and then merged with another local company, Stanton ironworks, to form Stanton and Staveley Ltd. The entire business was then nationalised to form part of the British Steel Corporation.

Their policy was to divest any non-steel activities to third parties. In common with chemicals and plastics, the brickmaking assets, including Campbell, were being sold off. In 1971 Campbell was sold to Innes Lee Industries, who combined it with their other brickmaking operations. Subsequently, in 1988, Inness Lee sold their two operating brickworks, Belton near Scunthorpe and Campbell, to Tarmac Building Materials Lds, part of the Tarmac Group.

As a result of the recession, which hit all brick manufacturing in late 1989, and suffering increased costs, Campbell was closed, with the loss of 52 jobs. However, a Phoenix arrived, in the form of a management buy-out and the works reopened in 1993. Coincidentally, a new form of energy was available in the form of “landfill gas”. This is methane generated from landfill operation which was the method by which old quarry workings were restored. In an innovative scheme, the kilns were successfully fired with this gas, with Natural Gas providing a supplementary backup.

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Product range from Phoenix Brick with a Phoenix Re-pressed brick as an alternative to a wire-cut.

This enabled the cost of production to be greatly reduced, and with much lower overhead charges and crucially the development of a premium product range of 73 mm “Imperial Sized Bricks”, both extruded and extruded re-pressed bricks, the factory once again operated successfully. The latter re-pressed bricks carried the Phoenix logo and once again introduced pressed bricks back into the range.

With history repeating itself in the form of the 2008 recession causing an on-going lack of demand, requiring a reduction to one kiln working, operations once again seemed to be in doubt. The final blow came with the loss of the landfill gas supply, the high cost of using 100 per cent natural gas making the process unsustainable.

The Phoenix finally ended on 31 December 2012, with the remaining twelve jobs being lost.

Acknowledgement and thanks to Owen Thompson who allowed me access to the site and has provided the historical photographs, and to Peter Betts for the initial introduction to Owen.