Building a history of the glory days of London Brick

Andrew Mortlock with some of the London Brick Company photographs and documents he has collected. Photo: Paul Franks/Peterborough ET
Andrew Mortlock with some of the London Brick Company photographs and documents he has collected. Photo: Paul Franks/Peterborough ET
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WHEN Andrew Mortlock started digging into the history of the London Brick Company for a one-off exhibition he had no idea that he was building the foundations for a much bigger project. Ann Molyneux-Jackson reports.

WHEN my grandad Ted started out as a maintenance worker at the London Brick Company in the 1930s, men would line up for work each day and use their own tools.

London Brick Company Clay Diggers of the early 1900s. Photo supplied

London Brick Company Clay Diggers of the early 1900s. Photo supplied

In the days before cement mixers, he would mix concrete with a shovel, dig, lay foundations, help with bricklaying, repair railway tracks – in fact do anything that would keep the brick making process running smoothly.

One day he would be in Eye Green, the next in Whittlesey, Kings Dyke or Norman Cross, and he got there by bicycle, along with all the other men in his work gang.

He was also one of the early members of the London Brick Company fire brigade, which started in April 1935.

When he retired at the age of 65, he was still doing the same job and still riding his bicycle to work.

And the sulphur smell and brick dust – which if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction would send housewives hurrying to bring in their washing – didn’t do him much harm, as he died just two-and-a-half years short of his 100th birthday.

So I felt a bit like one of the celebrities on the BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? when I visited Andrew Mortlock, who has taken on the role of London Brick Company archivist.

Like one of the experts on the programme, he presented me with a photograph of my grandad standing proudly in his uniform and peaked cap with the rest of the part-time fire brigade in the 1930s.

I visited 59-year-old Andrew at the offices of Hanson Building Products in Whittlesey – Hanson having taken over London Brick in 1984 – where he has spent a couple of days a week working on what has become a labour of love since he took early retirement last year. Before then he had given more than 40 years service to the company, starting in 1967 aged 15 as a messenger boy at the Beeby’s Works in Yaxley.

His job involved cycling two or three times a day from there to Phorpres House in London Road, where most of the administration was done for the London Brick Company in Peterborough.

He took on many different roles in his years with the firm, from working in the ticket office, giving out instructions to lorry drivers delivering bricks, to being the last rent collector visiting houses owned by the London Brick Company in Fletton, Eye and Whittlesey.

He went on to work as a production clerk and then as an office works clerk at the Saxon brickyard, opting for redundancy when it closed last year.

Andrew’s family has links with the brick company dating back even further than his own employment.

He said: “Our family has well over 200 years service with the London Brick Company, both my grandfathers, my father and my wife’s father worked there.

“We are steeped in London Brick.”

The interest has been passed down to Andrew’s 24-year-old son Thomas who works for Hanson as a hopper feeder, feeding clay down into the presses, at the company’s last remaining brickyard, at Kings Dyke in Whittlesey.

But Andrew became the company’s archivist by accident.

It all started a year ago when Hanson was invited by Vivacity to take part in a Peterborough Industrial Archaeology exhibition at St John’s Church in the city centre, alongside the likes of Baker Perkins and Peter Brotherhoods.

In that short time, what began as a few photographs on a display board and one folder of information has mushroomed to an impressive archive of 30 files but it is still only “the tip of the iceberg,” according to Andrew.

“The exhibition created a lot of interest from the general public so we made a decision to extend it,” he said.

“At the London Brick Company offices in Stewartby in Bedford, we found some jumbled boxes and I have copies of the LBC Review, a monthly magazine published by the company, which people have been giving me.”

The files on Andrew’s desk cover all aspects of life at the firm, from every brickyard that ever existed – more than 20 at one time – the equipment used, and the early brick making processes and how these evolved, to the transportation by lorries and its own railway.

There are also records of company employees and the sports days, dances and children’s Christmas parties held at the Phorpres Sports and Social Club in Peterborough.

A search through a file concerned with Phorpres House, which had been a coffee house in the late 19th Century, produced a photograph of my dad Colin, with a group of his colleagues from 1974.

He had become a London Brick Company employee just before his 16th birthday when he started work as an office boy before moving to the costing department.

After working elsewhere for a decade, my dad returned to Phorpres House in 1968 as a wages clerk and then an accounts clerk.

Many other Peterborough residents will be able to find out more about their relatives who were employed by the London Brick Company in the future as Andrew hopes all the information will one day be available online.

He would like to hear from former employees so he can continue to build up this important local history archive.

If you would like to contact Andrew Mortlock, call 08705 258258.

-- Pictured left: Clay diggers in the early 1900s. Photo supplied

THE New Peterborough Brick Company, the forerunner of the London Brick Company, was established in July 1897.

Before that the brickyards were owned by independent companies dating back to the 1880s.

Just after the war the London Brick Company employed more than 3,000 German prisoners of war brought into the works by coach from the various camps in the neighbourhood.

In the early 1950s London Brick began an overseas recruitment drive in southern Italy to bring workers over to meet demand.

Firm had its own fire brigade

THE London Brick Company fire brigade operated for almost half a century before members finally hung up their hoses and helmets in 1982.

At the end of January of that year, the firm announced it was finally retiring its two fire tenders and 13 part-time firemen.

Started in April 1935, members of the private brigade made their first public appearance at the Peterborough Annual Sports Day in September, 1936.

One of its early vehicles was a Dodge car, familiarly known as the ‘Silver Bullet’.

The hundreds of calls it answered over its 47-year history included house and vehicle fires, rescuing people and dealing with chemical leaks.

In the days when many of the big companies in Peterborough had their own fire brigades, there was fierce rivalry between them, so there would be months of hard drilling and practise before annual competitions.

The first Peterborough and District Fire Brigade Competition was held at Plowman’s Yard in Fletton in July 1958 and the London Brick Company faced competition from Peter Brotherhood, Perkins, Hotpoint and British Railways.

“When I worked at Phorpres House we used to laugh at the fire tenders going over the bridge laden with water,” said Andrew.

“They used to be so slow that you could walk alongside them and still keep up with them.”

London Brick also had its own proficiency cup which was awarded each year to the fireman who had made the most progress.

More than a place to work

A SWIMMING pool, bowling green, tennis courts and cricket and football pitches were available to employees of the London Brick Company.

The Phorpres Sports and Social Club opened in London Road, Peterborough in 1938 and sports days were held there as well as social evenings and dinner dances.

Many couples would have set eyes on each other for the first time at a dance taking place within its walls.

Among the many photographs Andrew has amassed since he started work on the project are ones of the people who went to Phorpres Club and those who worked there.

“It was one of the best facilities for sports,” he said. When I was a pupil at Fletton Secondary School we used to go swimming there and the water was always very cold. It’s the one thing most people my age can remember.”

The children’s Christmas party was a highlight of the year, with hundreds of youngsters watching a show by a magician or some such entertainer and at the end receiving a gift from Santa.