Answers to Questions


The Brickmakers of St Albans

Bricks use to build St Saviour's Church, St Albans, 1896-1902

January, 2012




St Albans

Roger, who has an interest in St Albans bricks, has pointed out some inconsistencies about my Great Grandfather Jacob Reynolds's involvement in making the bricks used in the building of St Saviour's Church, St Albans, as a result of talking to an old inhabitant of the area, who suggested that Jacob Reynolds's bricks were not good enough and bricks from Hatfield were used. He also found a reference to Wilton-Hall's book The Story of the Church and Parish of St Saviour. St Albans of 1910, the text of which is now on the St Saviour's web site.


The "problem" is undoubtedly due to the creep that can occur in family memories - and to illustrate how this creep  can occur it is worth looking at the evidence in some detail.


The difference is between the family tradition that

 "Jacob Reynolds made the bricks used in the building of St Saviour's Church."

and what is almost certainly what happened.

"Jacob Reynolds made some of the bricks used in the building of St Saviour's Church."


Wilton-Hall's book, written in 1910, includes a very detailed account of the building of the church as seen by someone who was there at the time, and the relevant information is:

  1. The foundation stone for the Chancel was laid in 1896 and the completed chancel was connected with the temporary tin building on the site later the same year.

  2. "It is an interesting fact to note that most of the bricks used in building the Chancel were made in the District of St Saviours."

  3. The Nave, which replaced the temporary tin building was built between 1901 and 1902.

  4. "The materials used [for the Nave] were local red brick for the external facings, with Ancaster stone for the dressings; the internal facings of Fletton bricks, and the stone work from Bath stone quarries."

It is clear from this that most of the bricks used in the Chancel came from a brickworks on or near Bernards Heath and in 1896 there were two brickworks remaining in the area - one run by Jacob Reynolds off Sandridge Road and the other by James Dickson on a plot immediately adjacent to the church. Bricks from either (or both) sites may have been used, but as Jacob Reynolds was the treasurer and appears to have been the main fund raiser for the building of the church it is quite possible that he donated a significant number of bricks for the construction of the Chancel. Bearing in mind the thickness of the walls (see Structural Design of the Church of St Saviour's) it is even possible that they were internal to the walls and not the facing bricks. However it is clear from surviving JR bricks from various sources that at least some of the bricks he made were designed as facing bricks. (It may be that the cruder surviving bricks were made before the Blanks and Lefevre brick making machine was installed.)


So who was the supplier of local bricks for the Nave? This was a period when many small brickmakers were going out of business because they could not compete on price and quality with Fletton bricks (see London Brick Company). Part of the success of Fletton bricks was due to the fact that the Oxford clays from which they were made were free of stones, and were suitable for large scale mechanisation. The brick earths of the St Albans area all contain stones, which added to the costs, and suitable deposits were in comparatively small pockets of suitable clay.


James Dickson's brickworks closed in 1899 so cannot have provided bricks for the Nave. Jacob Reynolds's brickyard was apparently still operating in 1902 and may have continued to 1908. However bricks had been made on Bernards Heath for centuries, and the best deposits of brick earth could well have been worked out and the "Heath Brick and Pottery Works" may have ended up making things such as flower pots, etc. (I have a pottery rhubarb forcer which could have been made there.) If one compares the references to bricks in the book one might have expected more would have been said about the "local" bricks used for the Nave if they were from the Bernards Heath area.


Roger's informant suggested that the local bricks came from Hatfield and between 1895 and 1902 a Josiah Smart is listed as a brickmaker at Hatfield (but no later entry for Hatfield brickmakers). I have no other information about his brickmaking activities but he appears to have been a London based contractor who worked a number of gravel pits in Hertfordshire (records at HALS) possibly for road making using tar macadam.


In addition there was a major new brickworks that opened between St Albans and Hatfield. This was at Hill End and had been set up by Joseph Fenwick Owen to make the bricks for Hill End Asylum, but clearly continued as a brickworks until 1940. This slurried the brick earth allowing the stones to settle out and would have had new brick making machines.


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To conclude: The above story shows how a tiny change in the wording can modify a family legend - although it is still very likely that Jacob's brick making company made some of the bricks. (I am quite sure he did not personally mould or fire the bricks himself.) It also suggest area of further research - such as the identity of the maker of the local bricks used in the nave.


However it also highlights the kinds of problems encountered when trying to relate family legends with what actually happened. For instance in many families the tradition that "My ancestor fought at Waterloo" started life as "My ancestor was a soldier at the time of the Battle of Waterloo."


If you can add to the information given above tell me.

January 2012


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