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London Brick Company in Stewartby


Stewartby was effectively the creation of the London Brick Company and its inhabitants worked almost exclusively for that firm. Stewartby was, in many ways, a Bedfordshire version of Bournville in Birmingham, a model community established by a large manufacturing company for its workforce.

A steam crane excavating clay in the 1920s [X306/78]
A steam crane excavating clay in the 1920s [X306/78]

The London Brick Company: formative years 1889 to 1923

The London Brick Company, which came to dominate British brick production for much of the 20th century, was initially a combination of two businesses which benefited from the expertise and financial capital of one and the land already owned and worked by the other. They emerged from the Peterborough and Bedford areas, which had the same Oxford Clay natural resource, and throughout production the company maintained interests in these areas. However, Bedfordshire remained the base of production and administration.

Founded in 1889 in Fletton, Huntingdonshire by businessman J C Hill, the London Brick Company began to acquire land in Bedfordshire, which would provide Oxford Clay the raw material, for the production of bricks. There were already several brickyards throughout the county. London Brick capitalised on this and bought the company of James Randall in 1900, operating in Wootton Broadmead, shortly followed by a further 450 acres of land at Wootton Pillinge in 1905, which was to become the mainstay of the brick production industry in the county. The Wootton Pillinge Brick Company, founded in 1901, was finally bought out by LBC during the slump of the early 1920s.

The company that was to merge with London Brick, B.J.H.Forder & Company Limited, emerged in a similar way.  A small operation at Westoning producing bricks from Gault clay, it expanded in 1897 to open works at Elstow. In 1900, Halley Stewart (1838-1937), a noted businessman, acquired B.J.H.Forder & Sons, as it then was, in partnership with his son Percy (1872-1951) and Liberal associates in the Peterborough area, notably the Keble brothers. This was then sold and became a public company by 1903, B.J.H.Forder & Company Limited, financed by £280,000, most of which had been provided by Halley Stewart. The overall interests of the firm were the production of building materials: lime, cement and bricks. The lime & cement concerns were sold in 1912 to British Portland Cement manufacturers, another firm in which the Stewarts had considerable influence and interests.

The Westoning works were closed in 1906 to allow concentration on the production of bricks from Oxford Clay at Elstow, and from 1920 at land acquired at Wootton Pillinge. Percy Stewart became a managing director, and it was he who oversaw much of the modernisation of production: the purchase of the American Brick press in 1902  and the commissioning of a purpose built steam driven crane navvy in 1908, moves opposed by the other managing director, Arthur Keble. As Chairman, Halley Stewart remained in charge of brick production and in financial control. He aimed for steady growth and the long-term benefits this would offer. The Keble Brothers disagreed with this, wanting more immediate profits so the partnership was dissolved. No dividend was paid on ordinary shares until 1915 - the initial profits were ploughed back into the business, modernising and expanding it.

During and immediately following World War One the brick production industry generally faced poor trading conditions, but B.J.Forder & Company’s profits were maintained whilst other brick companies closed down or were forced to sell. Between 1900 & 1930 the number of brickworks nationally declined by two thirds, but as a result of their cost advantages, Fletton brick types superseded other stock bricks.

An aerial view of the brickworks in 1939 [Z41/LB10/1/2/24]
An aerial view of the brickworks in 1939 [Z41/LB10/1/2/24]

The Merger: London Brick Company and B.J.H.Forders & Company: 1923 to 1939

In 1923 the two companies merged to become London Brick Company and Forders. Halley Stewart became the first Chairman of the company for the first year, then in 1924 Perry Malcolm Stewart succeeded his father as Chairman. As an employer, Halley Stewart was noted for controlling firms that paid relatively high wages. In 1928 LBC & Forders took over the Arlesey Brick Company (Bearts) Limited.

One week's holiday with pay was introduced in 1930.

After relinquishing chairmanship Halley Stewart continued as Deputy Chairman, and materially assisted the building of the company village at Wootton Pillinge. In 1932 he was knighted, and died at Harpenden [Hertfordshire] four years later in 1936. Wootton Pillinge, and Wootton Broadmead along with part of Kempston, were renamed Stewartby in his honour, and became a civil parish. The company name was shortened to London Brick Company. With the take-over of the Bedford Brick Company works in a corner of Stewartby civil parish, renaming it Coronation Works, Stewartby was recognised as being officially the largest brickworks in the world, employing over 2000 people and manufacturing 500 million bricks each year.

Like his father, Percy Malcolm Stewart, granted a Baronetcy in 1936, was concerned with the welfare of his workers. Stewartby. In his obituary in 1951 the Bedfordshire Times noted that “Sports and social facilities were for many years one of Sir Malcolm's first considerations".This included the building of staff canteens, sports ground, a swimming pool and a village social centre. There were also various welfare, pension, and profit-sharing schemes.

 Women at work on the brick production line at London Brick Company's Stewartby Works about 1950 [Z50/113/1]
Women at work on the brick production line at London Brick Company's Stewartby Works about 1950 [Z50/113/1]

The Second World War: 1939 to 1945

During the war, despite labour shortages production continued, as did the expansion of the company with the gradual take-over of Franklins of Marston. Richard Hillier notes that "...during the last four months of 1939 substantial government brick contracts for shelters, airfield buildings and other official buildings were awarded to London Brick". Like in other heavy industries, women were employed to make up the labour shortfall. These government orders declined from late 1941, and by March 1942 one of the brick yards in Bedfordshire and eight in the Peterborough area had ceased production.

There were fears that the brickworks would become a target for bombs, but it was London Brick’s main competitor, the Marston Valley Brick Company, who suffered a direct hit by a high explosive bomb on 24 September 1940.  The engineering works at London Brick assisted the war effort by manufacturing parts for machine guns, and the pits were used to test tanks imported from America. 

Sir Percy Malcolm Stewart retired from executive duties in 1945 but continued in an advisory capacity under the title of Company President.

 Press shed with men stacking green bricks [Z41/LB10/1/2/32]
Press shed with men stacking green bricks [Z41/LB10/1/2/32]

The Post-War Years 1945 to the 1960s

The demand for labour in the brickyards following the war was a factor that was to have a great effect on the population of the surrounding towns and villages.  With the full employment, "...male Bedfordians had no wish to return to the filth of the brick kilns, to the long, unsociable hours, to strenuous shift work with little mechanisation to alleviate the laborious toil involved in production".  The wages were no longer considered high. A small number of prisoners of war who had been working on farms remained or returned to Bedfordshire to work at the brick pits. The brick companies built hostels for them and the other European Volunteer Workers who came from displaced persons camps throughout Europe, principally Poland and the Ukraine. There was a mass migration from the south of Italy to Bedford. The brick companies were so desperate for labour that they set up recruitment offices in Naples.  By 1955, 92% of male Italian migrants arrived on brickwork contracts, and of the 783 who arrived that year 468 (60%) stayed.

Sir Percy Malcolm Stewart retired in 1950, and Arthur Warboys, the former Deputy Chairman, succeeded him. The Research and Development Department developed a wider range of facing bricks which kept the company at the forefront of the industry. Arthur Warboys died in 1966, and was succeeded by Sir Ronald Stewart, the eldest surviving son of Sir Percy Malcolm Stewart. The brickworks continued to employ a high percentage of Italians and Eastern Europeans, but as they moved away to other employment more recent immigrants from India, Pakistan and the West Indies took the jobs the brickworks offered. In January 1967 there were 106 Pakistanis, 154 Indians and 46 West Indians working at Stewartby.

 Interior of shed with stacks of bricks, workmen and machinery [Z41/LB10/1/2/29]
Interior of shed with stacks of bricks, workmen and machinery [Z41/LB10/1/2/29]

The Late 20th Century

By the late 1960s the building industry was in recession, which naturally had an effect on the company. Sir Ronald recognised the need to diversify, and from September 1970 London Brick Land Fill Limited commenced the controlled tipping of household and industrial waste in old clay pits. The subsidiary company was renamed London Brick Landfill Limited in 1977. During the 1980s the landfill business continued to boom, and in 1988 London Brick Landfill merged with Shanks & McEwan.

Despite this the principal concerns of the company continued, and between 1968 and 1971 the company acquired another local rival, Marston Valley Brick Company Limited. The Fletton brick interests of Redland Brick Limited were also purchased, including the works at Kempston Hardwick. In 1973 London Brick Limited also acquired NCB Ancillaries (Whittlesea) Limited the only other producer of Fletton bricks.

The general slump in the economy took its toll in 1974 when the Bedfordshire Journal announced that 250 men were to be laid off at Stewartby, London Brick blaming the lack of stability in the level of house building. The original Elstow works, started by B J Forder & Son Limited in 1897 closed in 1973, with Coronation and Lidlington works closing the following year. In 1979 London Brick sought planning permission to replace two old brickworks in Bedfordshire with one fully automated ‘new generation’ works. After a long debate fuelled by concern about the environmental impact of the works, permission was granted in 1981.

Throughout the 1980s the drive towards modernisation continued, and some of the older chimneys at Kempston Hardwick and Stewartby were demolished as the company applied to build larger modern brickworks. The economy continued to have an effect on the building industry, and 1100 workers were laid off at Ridgmont in 1981. In 1983 the company stated its long term strategy: "…to operate brickworks in the Marston Vale in order to produce 20 million bricks per week". Despite cutbacks, London Brick was still a large local employer. 1983 was a successful year, with an increase in pre-tax profit of 70% on the previous year to £26 million.

This success, and the company’s venture into the increased manufacture of facing bricks in addition to the common and Fletton brick, prompted a take-over bid by the Hanson Trust, who were already involved in the manufacture of facing bricks. It was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in January and February 1984. London Brick was confident of resisting the take-over, and publicised plans for the new £25 million ‘superworks’ they proposed building at Stewartby instead of previously planned at Ridgmont. However, as reported in the Bedfordshire Times on the 1st March 1984, the Hanson Trust had - with a bid of £247 million – successfully captured over 50% of London Brick shares. This gave it overall control of the company, and plans for the ‘superworks’ were shelved. In 1985 cutbacks were made, 1285 workers were made redundant, 407 of those from Stewartby. Over the next three years the same number of people were taken back on to cope with an upturn in demand. This boom was followed with another slump in the early 1990s, with 556 redundancies in 1990 and a further 340 in 1992 when the local authority refused to renew planning permission for a ‘superworks’ at Ridgmont, stating environmental damage as its reason for refusal. The established brickworks remained open but continued to be affected by fluctuations in the house building industry.

 The former London Brick Company Limited Headquarters at Stewartby October 2007
The former London Brick Company Limited Headquarters at Stewartby October 2007

Sir Ronald Stewart died in January 1999 aged 95. On 3 February 1999 Hanson Brick announced the closure of the works at Kempston Hardwick. In February 2008 brick production at Stewartby ceased altogether, bringing the history of large scale brickmaking in Bedfordshire to an end.