I spent a chunk of last week buying 300 bricks to repair a wall. On Monday I thought I could just cycle along to the local builders merchant in the morning and offload them from his lorry in the afternoon. After chatting to half a dozen merchants I learnt that there is a brick shortage in the UK and that most bricks for small orders like mine would probably have to be filled by imports from Europe. I had originally lusted after some deep red bricks with an almost silky texture, but the probability of finding 300 of these was low and the cost high (approx. £1.30/brick), so I opted for the stuff of railway arches an opted for engineering bricks, which in reality are not a bad match with their surroundings.
Such is the perversity of life, that whilst failing find bricks, I did manage to find a book on brickmaking in the local area. I had to cycle across town and pausing to catch my breath at a bookshop in the town centre seemed like a pleasant interlude.
Making and transporting bricks is an energy intensive industry. One litre of petrol represents approximately 10 kwh of energy, if used in a typical car this provides 15 km of motoring, a brickworks might use that amount of energy to make four bricks. Whilst the loo rolls purchased on the the 15 km shopping might be consumed in a week, a brick will do something useful for a century or more. Do not quote these numbers, they are highly unreliable.
At the beginning of the 19th century brick making used to be a reasonably sustainable industry. Clay which is the main ingredient is often readily available in the places people want to build houses so transport costs were relatively low. The fuel for firing was often the small, discarded branches of trees felled in woodland industries such as timber and charcoal and general coppicing. In some places trees were planted as a fuel crop to meet the needs of the brickyards. As the pace of industrialisation quickened there was a move to fewer, large scale brick yards using either coal or coke which is a byproduct of town gas manufacture. Initially this was for high quality engineering bricks which formed the basis of many Victorian structures, but as time went on, small, local brick manufacturing declined. As I learnt, it is now an international industry which, I guess, is fuelled by natural gas. Apart from small scale production, it is difficult to see how a sustainable brick industry could be economically viable.
In my imagination at least, there was a Monty Python sketch based on the most boring man in England, who also happened to collect bricks. The photos in this post are from my own collection (which number about seven). One of the men I spoke to whilst tracking down my 300 bricks, was I think an enthusiast and far from boring. He pointed out that much of the colour and texture or urban life comes from the variety of bricks used in building. This is particularly true of London where a lot of the beauty of presentence of railway stations, hotels, museums, churches and even water towers comes from the variety and creative use of bricks.