In the towns and villages around the canal and across north-east Wales, red-brick buildings are notable for being so common. They are reminders that brickworks were once numerous in the area, using the high-quality clay found here.
Clay soil is difficult and unproductive for agriculture but perfect for industrialised areas. Because clay occurs near the surface it can be dug in open pits. With coal as a plentiful fuel for the kilns, the district around the canal had perfect conditions for brickmaking.
As industries such as iron working and mining grew rapidly, so did the need for cheap housing and industrial buildings that could be erected quickly. Bricks were ideal. Once mechanisation of the brick making process began, bricks became even cheaper to use, and were exported to the growing cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham and London. They are hardwearing, versatile and easily made into interesting and varied architectural shapes.
Villages in the parish of Ruabon were especially well known for their red terracotta. There were many small-scale brickworks and potteries and some became huge enterprises, particularly J.C Edwards and Dennis. Brickworks often stamped their names into their products and their bricks and the name of Ruabon can be found in buildings throughout Britain.
Buckley in Flintshire, a few miles north of Ruabon, had similar industries in the early twentieth century. This reconstruction shows the inter-relationship between the brickworks, colliery, pottery and the town. Each supplied the other with employment, labour and goods, as well as exporting products to other areas.
This film, from the 1930s, shows how bricks were hand-made in small works, and machine made by larger companies. Hand-making bricks survived in Britain until the 1970s. Now only a handful of large-scale factories produce the millions of bricks used each year. Click here to see the video.
More Information About Brickworks
After digging it from the ground, clay is thoroughly mixed in a pugmill. This ensures an even mix of minerals and water and removes the air. The clay is then moulded in ‘forms’, which give every brick a regular size. The bricks are fired in a kiln, changing the clay into terracotta.
Different coloured bricks can be produced by adding small amounts of minerals as the clay is mixed in the pugmill. Yellow and black bricks were made in small quantities around Ruabon, as well different shades of red. They were often used to make decorative patterns in brickwork.
You might expect to see a frog in the canal, but they can be found in bricks too. The ‘frog’ is the recess in the top of a brick, often where the name of the manufacturer is stamped. In a wall, the frog is filled with mortar, making a stronger joint with the brick above.
With a huge number of designs and sizes made at the brickworks, catalogues were produced enabling buyers to choose the products they needed. Many of the bricks and tiles were marked with sizes and design numbers, in places that wouldn’t be seen once they were set into a building.
Over 120 brickworks operated in Denbighshire and Flintshire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were small businesses, only supplying their local area but J.C. Edwards’ company alone employed over 1000 people, some shown here. The national reputation of the clay industries around Ruabon earned the area the nickname ‘Terracottapolis’.
Brick was cheaper and easier to use for building than stone. Industrialisation increased the need for housing and brick buildings dominate the villages today. In places you can see where older stone buildings were enlarged with later brick additions, such as the manager’s house at the canal basin in Trevor.
As well as making bricks, clay is used to line a canal and hold the water in. The clay is mixed with water and trampled, or ‘puddled’, so that the air is squeezed out. Canal builders rammed the clay down with wooden tampers, heavy blocks on poles.
The Chirk and Whitehouses tunnels on the canal are lined with tens of thousands of locally-made bricks. Instead of boring the tunnels through the hillsides, Telford’s workforce dug out a trench then built the brick tunnel over the top of it. They could ensure a perfect structure, solid and watertight.
The potteries and brickworks around Trevor, Acrefair, Cefn Mawr and Newbridge were interlinked to the clay pits, the mainline railway and the canal by a dense network of tramways. Pen-y-Bont wharf, on the canal near Pentre, was half a mile from the brickworks but a tramway followed the road to link them.
Pen-y-Bont, across the river from Newbridge, was the centre for J.C. Edwards production of its famous red terracotta. The works closed in 1961 and the huge clay pit became a landfill site. Some of the workers cottages and an office building survive, designed to show off what could be achieved with company products.
James Coster Edwards (1828-1896) started work as a boy-labourer but by 1870 he established his own company. Eventually the three J.C. Edwards works at Tref-y-Nant, Pen-y-Bont and Rhosllanerchruchog, formed the largest terracotta company in Britain. Edwards became High Sheriff of Denbighshire in 1892 and built Bryn Howel mansion beside the canal for his family.
Tref-y-Nant was an enormous J.C Edwards brick and tile works in Acrefair. Today, only a pair of office gate posts remains at the site. Another pair has been rebuilt outside Cefn Mawr museum. Tramways brought clay from pits on the hill above and took finished goods to the Plas Kynaston canal branch.
Brick and tile manufacturers built offices, works building and houses for their workers with their own products. J.C. Edwards saw this as a chance to show off the range of products and several beautiful buildings survive today. This is a former manager’s house, across the road from the Tref-y-Nant brickworks.
J.C. Edwards’ bricks were used across Britain and their rich, red colour was prized for Victorian and Edwardian buildings. The fine clay allowed for intricate sculptural decoration. The iconic Bute Dock Pierhead Building in Cardiff was built in 1896, from J.C. Edwards products made at the Pen-y-Bont works.
J.C. Edwards’ products were well travelled. They supplied floor tiles for the kitchens on the Titanic, which sunk in 1912. In 1903, J.C. Edwards decorative terracotta adorned the outside of London Underground stations on the Central Line, such as Oxford Circus. The company also made glazed white tiles for the platforms.
The Dennis works at Hafod were the last brick and tile works in north Wales. They closed in January 2008, and it looked as if centuries of brickmaking in this area would end. A new company was formed at the site however, and the name Ruabon is still carried on tiles made here.