Wanstead Flats and other local brickfields

Thursday 8 February 2024

Mark Gorman shares his wide-ranging research into local brickfields, significantly featuring the one with remains most obviously still recognisable on Wanstead Flats.

Origins of the brickfield

As London grew in the nineteenth century, house-building generated a huge demand for construction materials. Vast increases in the demand for bricks after 1850 led the brick-making industry to expand productivity, multiplying the number of small-scale brickworks throughout the country, and particularly near the metropolis, close to where new housing was going up. These brickfields were soon producing millions of bricks and tiles annually.

The Pleistocene remains found at the Uphall brick-field in Ilford in 1860 were described as being in sandy gravel which underlay the brick-earth layer. The layers at Ilford were described as “scarlet gravel” (4-6 feet), then brick-earth, then London clay.

In the immediate vicinity of Wanstead Flats there were brickfields in Stratford, Walthamstow, Ilford and Wanstead, some of which dated back at least to the early C19th. An estate map of Wanstead Park drawn up for Lord Wellesley in 1816 shows ‘brick clamps’ along the Alders Brook to the north of the Romford Road (now the eastern boundary of the City of London cemetery). 

Probably adjoining this was another brick field, described as being at the entrance to Ilford, which was established by 1820, and owned by John Curtis, a Stratford builder. Some brickfields, like this one (which occupied 23 acres and produced 2 million bricks annually) were large-scale operations, while many others were short-term exploitations to meet immediate local needs. 

The Wanstead Flats brickfield shown on the 1875 Ordnance Survey map

The area of the brickfield on Wanstead Flats is well remembered today, since the north-west corner of the central (Aldersbrook) area of the Flats still bears the name. Today’s large flat expanse of closely mown grass approximates very closely to the area shown on the 1875 25” OS map, with the unworked area of operations at the western edge of the site now marked by a bank of rough grass which rises up to Centre Road.  There are now few signs of the brickfield itself (apart from the slope to the western end, indicating the depth to which digging went on). 

 Western end of the brickfield, Wanstead Flats, showing the slope

Remnants of possible bricks from the workings can be seen (see below). These should be interpreted with caution however, as brick remnants can be found throughout Wanstead Flats, most dating from various C20th (notably wartime) developments. 

Brick in footpath, western end of brickfield – possibly a ‘burr’ (rejected low-grade brick)

Wanstead Flats was one of a number of brick fields scattered across the area in the nineteenth century. The bedrock geology of Wanstead Flats is London Clay formation with superficial deposits of Hackney Gravel Member, comprising sand and gravel.

It is not clear when operations started on the brickfield, but the OS map, which was surveyed in 1863, shows it to be already established by then, with a substantial area already excavated, and buildings on site to the north of the ‘clay mills’. This fits with evidence given by the east London open spaces campaigner George Burney to the Royal Commission on Epping Forest in 1863 that the brickfield was already in existence Burney claimed that the brickfield and a new farm had been laid out in the previous year, but Aldersbrook Farm had been built in 1856, to replace the farm demolished in the construction of the City of London cemetery. The brickfield may therefore have been on the Flats for several years.

The site was considered an eyesore by local residents. At a garden party for a local Volunteer regiment that regularly practised manoeuvres on the Flats, the host R. Pelly warned of the dangers to Wanstead Flats of the development of ‘unsightly squares, crescents and terraces...Brickfields already poured forth their fragrant scents, and doubtless gas-works would soon be added’.

The lease signed in 1864

Although brick-making seems to have been underway much earlier, the use of the brickfield site was formalised in December 1864 by the signing of a lease, by which the brickfield was rented for a period of 15 years. The lessee was William Hill, senior partner in a firm of London builders, Hill, Keddell and Waldron. The lessor was the Lord of Wanstead Manor, Earl Cowley, cousin of William Wellesley-Pole, who had inherited the Mornington estate in 1863. Cowley was an absentee landlord, being the British ambassador in Paris, where he signed the brickfield lease, and his agents conducted all his local business. 

Earl Cowley, Lord of Wanstead Manor-National Portrait Gallery


William Hill’s building firm was a substantial one, having been involved in major projects in London, including the construction of Holborn Viaduct. They also undertook contracts in the Wanstead/Ilford area, and for Hill acquiring brick fields in the district must have seemed like a natural extension of his building work. Hill had already acquired a brick field at Up Hall, Ilford by 1861 and he had another at Chobham farm on the edge of Stratford.

The Deed of lease indicates the scale of the operation on Wanstead Flats. The site leased was just over 4 acres (1.6 ha), permitting the digging of clay, ‘brick earth’, loam and sand up to 60 feet (18 metres) from the centre of the Forest Gate-Woodford road. Production of bricks, tiles and drainpipes was agreed, with brick production estimated at 375,000 a year. The south and north-west sides of the site were to be enclosed with post and rail fences, and any brick kilns or clamps were to be located on the east side of the site, well away from the road.

The estate expected to make a useful income from the brick field. Apart from the annual rent of £11-00, a payment of 1/6d (approx. 7p) per thousand bricks, and 2/- (10p) for every cubic yard of dug clay was also due (3 cubic yards of clay would produce 1000 bricks). Income from the charge on brick production and annual rent would thus produce an income equivalent to over £17,000 today. The royalty for clay would have produced an even bigger income if the full annual brick production level was reached.

Cowley’s agents clearly realised that local opposition was likely to continue. The lease included clauses indemnifying the estate in case of law suits brought against the brick field by nearby residents. They also permitted Hill to give notice if legal proceedings resulted in brickmaking being prohibited. 

They had reason to be concerned. In the summer of 1865 ‘Sylvanus’ wrote to the London Evening Standard, complaining the ‘filthy brickfield’ on Wanstead Flats was illegal, and was in the process of being extended. ‘Sylvanus’ called for a society to secure the return of all forest land ‘alienated in the last twenty years’. Given that the Commons Preservation Society was formed that same summer with these exact objects, it is reasonable to assume that ‘Sylvanus’ was involved in the foundation of the CPS.

Sale of Wanstead Flats brickfield in 1876

Stratford Times 5th April 1876

Wanstead Flats was probably the smallest of Hill’s local brickfields. Nevertheless, at its height the brickfield operations could have been substantial. In 1876 the brickfield lease seems to have been sold (presumably by the Hill family) and among the assets are listed the building materials for ranges of timber and tiled stables, cart houses, store houses and offices. It seems as though a number of horses were stabled on site, probably for use in operating the clay mills.

Chobham Farm brickfield in Stratford

The Chobham Farm site, located west of the Great Eastern Railway in Stratford (now swallowed up under the QE Olympic Park) employed a substantial workforce of men and women, many of whom lived in or around Temple Mills Lane, which ran along the north side of the brickfield. It is very likely that William Hill leased Chobham Farm at the same time as the Wanstead Flats site, since the tenancy for the former came up in October 1864. Hill died in 1873, and the brickfield may then have been disposed of, but it was still active in the mid-1880s, operated by R.J. Chapman and J. Woodyer. However, this partnership was dissolved in 1885, with J. Woodyer going bankrupt in 1887. A later map (from 1894-6) shows a brickfield operation slightly to the west of the earlier site though Chobham Farm had gone by then.


Hill’s Chobham Farm brickfield at Stratford shown on the 1875 Ordnance Survey map

Hill’s Ilford brickfield at Uphall was also probably a more substantial operation than Wanstead Flats. The brickfield was on the right bank of the river Roding, and bricks could be loaded directly onto barges or sent from Ilford station, which was nearby. An advertisement of 1866 describes the Ilford brick field as ‘the kiln grounds’, indicating that bricks here were fired in kilns rather than using the more basic brick clamps which were probably in use at Wanstead Flats. Uphall also had a 10 hp steam engine on site, indicating that brick making there was a mechanised process.

William Hill’s tenancy of the Wanstead Flats and Chobham Farm brick fields continued until his death in the summer of 1873. Uphall had already been disposed of when its lease expired in May 1873.

Other brickfields in the West Ham area

There is some evidence of other brickfields between Stratford and the river Thames. The OS 6 inch map of south-west Essex shows a brickfield off Water Lane south of the Romford road, the site of a church which for many years was known as the Brickfields Chapel. There were also brickfields off Carpenters Road north of the Great Eastern Railway line, just to the west of Stratford station, and south of the GER where Pudding Mill Lane DLR station is located today. 

The brickfield north of the GER was probably leased by the Carpenters’ Company, since the tithe map shows that they held all this land in 1853. At that time the brickfield site was described as pasture, and was leased to Thomas Geere, a timber merchant living in Stratford High Street. Since Geere was still at this address in the 1861 census, it may be that he was the lessee of the brickfield. This site may have had a relatively brief existence, since the brick-making equipment was auctioned off in January 1865. The site had 4 pug mills when sold, indicating that it was a sizeable operation. “Brickmakers’ hovels” were also offered for sale, which implies that brickmakers were living on-site.

Although the brickfield is still marked on the 1869 OS 25” map it was possibly disused by then. Shortly after the 1865 auction of equipment, the Carpenters’ Company were developing plans to lay out and build what became the original Carpenters’ estate. This was a fairly typical development locally, where brickfields were worked out, closed and developed for housing.

Further south a brickfield is shown on the same map south of the Barking Road on Forty Acre Lane (part of which still exists today). This may have been owned by the West Ham and Barking Brick Co. which advertised a sale of bricks at a site ‘near the Green Gate and Castle Taverns’ on Barking Road, Plaistow in July 1878. No other brickfields are visible on other maps of the area, possible because they were short-lived enterprises.

The name of one local person associated with local brickmaking survives, giving some insights into the brick trade. In January 1848 G.H. Lovegrove auctioned 600,000 bricks at the Greyhound Inn in West Ham. The bricks came from a field described as being ‘within a quarter of a mile of the Abbey Wharf [which would have been on the river Lea near Stratford], West Ham and near to the Eastern Counties [probably Stratford] and North Woolwich Railway Stations, offering both cheap and expeditious water and railway carriage’. This field may have been the one off Water Lane. If so, some licence crept into the description of its being near to transport, but highlights the importance to buyers of ready means to transport bricks elsewhere, since not all the bricks were used locally.

Brick samples and catalogues were available at local pubs including the King’s Head and Yorkshire Grey Inns, Stratford, the Crown Inn, Blackwall, the Abbey Arms, Plaistow and the Old King Henry Inn, Mile End Road. Pubs played an important role as locations for sales and marketing. The brickfield from which these bricks came had clearly been worked out, since Lovegrove was also advertising the 13 acre site to be let on 99-year building leases. The timing of the brick sale was unusual, since bricks were usually sold after being dried over the summer.

George Lovegrove seems to have been a man of many talents. Earlier in life he had been a schoolteacher, a career he pursued for twenty years until he retired due to ill health in 1846. He taught at West Ham National School, but had also been sent all over England to advise on the establishment of National Schools based on the Bell System. He received great accolades from the local school committee on his departure, but significantly had no pension to rely on. This may explain his pursuit of a number of different avenues to gain an income, and his eventual bankruptcy.

By 1850 Lovegrove was listing his professions as “Writing Master, Estate Agent, Auctioneer, Builder & Brickmaker”.  In the 1851 census he and his family were living in Church Street, West Ham, and he had added surveying to his skills. He had also been an insurance agent for the local district of the Royal Exchange Assurance Co. and was a backer of a Bowkett Building Society in the West Ham/Stratford area. Lovegrove was also active in a number of other local organisations, including acting as secretary of an Oddfellows branch, based at the Yorkshire Grey Inn in Stratford 1847. However by 1850 he was heavily in debt, owing £7000 to creditors, having been collecting and keeping rent money.

Working life

Little evidence survives of what life was like for the workers on the local brickfields. They may well have followed working patterns generally used in the traditional brick-making industry, especially for small-scale, temporary enterprises with low capital investment. ‘For most of the nineteenth century, the British brickmaking industry was dominated by small-scale, local producers who relied on an abundance of low paid workers, especially children, to avoid heavy capital investment and, at the same time, to maintain profits in an increasingly competitive market. Despite governmental intervention in 1871 that attempted to control the hiring of child and female labour, juvenile employment persisted for several decades’.

In most areas the brickfield owner (in these fields, William Hill) hired a brickmaster or foreman at a fixed price per thousand bricks. The brickmaster oversaw the site, taking responsibility for the output of the operations. He in turn contracted with moulders to temper, mould and hack the bricks. Each moulder then hired his own "gang" of subsidiary labourers and acted as their employer. In some parts of the country only men and youths were hired for these jobs, but in other places the moulder hired family members, including women and children, to increase his own profits. 

William Barrett, who in 1881 was living in Toronto Road close to the Chobham farm brickfield, is noted as employing 4 men and 8 boys in the 1881 Census, so he may have been a moulder with his own gang of labourers. This system meant that it was not necessary for the proprietor to have brick-making knowledge or skills, and their financial risks were minimized because they were shared with his subcontractors. This would have suited William Hill, as a large-scale builder. 

There were regular criticisms of working conditions in the brickfields, and the excessive use of child labour. Hill seems to have been typical of many Victorian employers in his paternalistic attitude towards his workers. A schoolroom, provided by a local philanthropist, was built at the Ilford brickfield, and evening classes in reading, writing and arithmetic were provided for ‘those in the field who chose to avail themselves of the opportunity’ to learn.   Hill also provided an annual ‘festival’ for the Ilford brickfield workers, perhaps joined by those from Wanstead Flats and Stratford. The ‘festival’ was held annually after 1859 in the schoolrooms of the Ilford Baptist Chapel, where a meal of roast beef, boiled beef, ham, tea and cake was laid out for the ‘men and lads’. Speeches were made praising Mr and Mrs Hill, and the site foreman and his wife, for their concern for the welfare of the workers. All, it was declared, ‘had worked harmoniously together’, and Mr Hill had expressed his ‘entire satisfaction’.

A rather different view of Hill’s relations with his brickfield workers emerges from reports of a series of labour disputes in the mid-1860s. Over the winter of 1864-5 brickmakers in and around London were on strike for nearly 4 months due to an attempt by their employers to cut their wages from 5/6d per 1000 bricks to 5 shillings. By April 1865 a deal was reached and a new rate of 5/5d per 1000 bricks as reached. Ilford brickmakers were among those on strike, and were supported by their trade union, the Operative Brickmakers Society, which many had joined during the strike.

The struggle was not over however. The following winter Hills again tried to reduce wages at Ilford, Wanstead Flats and Stratford. Elsewhere in London that winter brickmakers successfully negotiated a reduction of the winter working week to 10 hours a day Monday to Friday, and a 1pm finish on Saturday, conditions which were probably the same on Hill’s brickfields. In the spring of 1867 there were further attempts to reduce wages, and brickmakers were locked out at Ilford, Wanstead Flats and Stratford, as well as elsewhere in London. These were again resisted, but employers like Hill kept up continual pressure to hold down wages on the brickfields.

Advertisement in the Beehive 2nd March 1867 asking workers not to apply for jobs at Hill’s brickfields 

The workforce at Wanstead Flats

The Wanstead Flats site may have been relatively small; in the 1881 census only a few names are registered as living at the brickfield. (Attempts to calculate numbers of brickfield workers based on census reports are hampered by the fact that the census was taken in March before the large number of summer workers was hired and thus reflected only the permanent winter workforce).                        

James Gramsden (or Granison), the foreman, was born at Borden in Kent, in 1840. In 1871 Gramsden/Granison was a brickfield labourer at Preston, near Faversham, Kent, where he seems to have lived on the brickfield with other families. He moved from Kent to Wanstead with his wife, son and daughter, probably in the early 1870s, as his 9-year old son is listed in the1881 census as born in Wanstead. He was still at Wanstead Flats in 1894, mentioned in a report on the accidental death at the brickfield of a 78 year-old employee. 

By 1891 the Wanstead Flats site had closed, and Gramsden/Granison was living elsewhere in Forest Gate (Field Road) working as a carman contractor, quite possibly in the brick trade. By 1901 he had moved to Ilford (at Borden House in Ley Street) and was once again a brickfield foreman, probably on one of the Ilford sites. A son, a bricklayer, lived next door.

The earliest record of local brickmakers is from the 1871 census. George Hicks, a labourer in the brickfield, was living with his wife and family on Wanstead Flats. Hicks, an agricultural labourer from Essex, had been living in Ilford with his market gardener wife at the time of the 1871 census; by 1881 he had moved to Wanstead Flats. In a memoir his great-granddaughter says that he was forced off the land in the agricultural depression of 1870s; illiterate and landless, he and the family lived in a ‘bothy’ (which on brickfields elsewhere are described as very basic dwellings, often with thatched roofs) on the Flats. 

These huts were built by the employers, and brickmakers could and often were evicted at short notice for misdemeanours such as refusing to work for reduced wages. One of Hicks’ three sons married the daughter of a fellow brickfield worker, whose wife ran a laundry on Wanstead Flats.

Other families living on Wanstead Flats in 1881 included Samuel Gardener, a 55 year-old carman from Chelmsford Essex, with his wife and three children all of whom were locally born in Wanstead. A florist and a monumental mason were probably connected with the City of London cemetery at the eastern end of the Flats. 

There was also a nurseryman and a carman, together with their families. Two ‘Gipsy’ families were living in caravans; the heads of households were both listed as licensed hawkers. It is possible that some of these local residents provided labour or (in the case of the Carmen) services such as transporting bricks off-site.  Family members may also have contributed to the household income by helping with brick-making, a practice common in some parts of the country. The women on the sites may also have been preferred for their greater dexterity in making bricks.

 The brickfields operations

There is little evidence of the nature of the operations at local brickfield sites. As they all existed relatively briefly the likelihood is that they did not (with the possible exception of Uphall in Ilford) have kilns, but used brick clamps to fire the bricks. During the burning process the bricks gave off a sulphurous smell, which may have been what local residents near Wanstead Flats were complaining about during the 1860s (see above). Brick-making was a job for the summer months, when the bricks would dry more quickly and the firing would be less vulnerable to bad weather.

 Advertisement for bricks from Hill’s local brickfields, 1871

Bricks were sold off at the brickfields each spring to make way for new production, but the majority would be transported away to be used further afield. Advertisements from 1871 (above) and 1873 (below) show the range of bricks for sale. Malms were the best quality bricks, used for house frontages; Malm Seconds sold at 70/- (£3-50) per thousand c.1900. Stocks and Place bricks were lower quality, used for places where bricks would not show (interior walls, cellars etc.)  and sold for considerably less. 


Surplus bricks for sale at Ilford – bricks were
 on sale to both large- and small-scale buyers

The Wanstead Flats brickfield ceased operations when its lease expired in 1881. However, brickmaking was to continue in the area. In the 1890s another brickfield opened, the ‘Park brickfield’, to the north side of Wanstead Flats on the other side of Aldersbrook Road. This was operated by East and Barrett, of whom little is known. Thomas and William Barrett were brickmakers living in Toronto Road Leyton, near the Stratford brickfield in 1881, and they may have later acquired or opened the Park brickfield. As we have seen William Barrett was already employing 4 men and 8 boys in 1881. The Park brickfield was still in operation in 1906, but had disappeared from the OS map by 1915.

 Brickfield north of Aldersbrook Road on the OS map 1893-97

The legacy of the brickfield

The end of brickfield operations left a legacy of very degraded ground The works closed in 1881, leaving a devastated site several metres lower than two decades before. The site flooded regularly , and the brickworks pond (now gone) was a local feature for many years afterwards. However, it has left us with more than just steep slopes up to the road. Today, the contours of the site remain but it looks very different. The depressed, flattish area is mown regularly and is set aside for leisure use. It has had winter football pitches until quite recently, and is used by local schools for sports days in summer.

Wanstead Flats c.1910, showing the degraded ground on the edge of the brickfield site - London Borough of Waltham Forest Vestry House Museum


This disturbed ground is valuable for wildlife, notably feeding birds. The unmown fringes of the site have a variety of vegetation ranging from Bramble to Hawthorn, Gorse to Red Dead-nettle and Common Ragwort. The slope at the west end of the site is cut annually to allow the meadow-grass flora to thrive and there is a good sprinkling of Birdsfoot Trefoil here. This meadow has a healthy population of day-flying moths, and on a spring or summer day this is also a good place to look for butterflies.


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