Brick and Tile Works in St Neots


Local historians Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.


With the demand for improving (casing the half-timbered medieval) old buildings, new houses, factories etc., drains and sewers during the 18th and 19th centuries entrepreneurs exploited local resources like the gravel and London Clay.


Duck Lane Brickworks


The Duck Lane brickworks (TL 190594) were probably started in the 18th century by Stephen Wye, a grocer and tallow chandler. He produced the white and yellow bricks that became fashionable after the red bricks of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Many of the Market Square houses were built or cased with his bricks. When he died in 1789 he left a fortune of £30,000.


A sewer was started in St Neots in 1820. It cost 3s.6d. (£0.17) a yard. The bricks were supplied by three local merchants and bankers, Messrs. Rix, Gorham and Banks. Whether they had local pits is uncertain. The 1800 Inclosure map does not refer to any brickworks but they appear on the 1835 Ordnance Survey map TL 189592 – (the present site of Levellers Lane Industrial Estate).


 Eynesbury Brickworks


The Great Northern Railway Company needed bricks for stations, bridges, tunnels etc. on their main line. Aware of the profits to be made by supplying this demand, James Paine, the son of James Paine, the St Neots’ brewer, invested capital by leasing the brickworks in 1853 for thirty years.


He moved into Elm House on Potton Road (originally Drove Road), Eynesbury and used his inheritance to expand and develop the ‘Eynesbury brickworks.’ Between 1855 and 1865 he also took over his father’s brickworks in Riseley.


The bricking business was a seasonal occupation. The foreman was Eli Andrews who lived in one of the brickyard cottages. Three or four men were employed from October to May. The topsoil was piled up in a bank. The clay was dug out with wooden shovels, put into wheel barrows and then emptied into an iron trough with cast-iron blades.  A small windmill pumped up water to mix with the clay. Silver or seaside sand was brought in by barge to Brookside and then carted to the site. It was mixed with the clay to stop it from sticking to the inside of the moulds. It was churned and squeezed out into a long rectangular slab. This was cut into roof tile or brick-sized blocks using a metal wire.


Labourers piled these onto trolleys and wheeled them into a drying shed. From May to October six or eight men were taken on to wheel them into a kiln where they were fired.


The chief products were bricks: plain, pan, corrugated and ridge (roofing) tiles,  9 inch by 9 inch and 12 inch by 12 inch floor tiles and two-inch thick field tiles (drainage pipes).


Once baked they were taken out and piled up, ready to be sold by the thousands. Loaded onto a cart, a horse would haul them to the building site.


Paine’s tenancy came to an end in 1883 and he sold his stock which included:

‘500,000 building bricks, 15,000 roofing tiles, 326,000 draining tiles of various sizes, 2,000 culvert tiles, 1,200 octagonal chimney bricks, 1,500 garden tiles, 50 headstones, 2,000 ridge and hip tiles, 176 open gateways, 15 in. and 12 in. lead pump, piping, wheelbarrows, planks, shelves, pug mills, three tile machines, kilns, drying and other sheds.’


It was probably sold to Arthur W. Atkinson, a general merchant, who, by 1865, had opened a brickworks on an adjoining site.  His son-in-law, J.R.H. Bedford, continued brickmaking until 1920.


Day’s Brickyard


In 1838 the brickyard was referred to as ‘Brickkiln Field, adjacent to Galley Hill.’ According to Rosa Young, in her book St Neots Past, Mr John Day, the brewer at the Priory, also owned a brickworks in Hail Weston. Between 1842 and 1860 he bought the brickworks in Eynesbury, between Barford Road and Potton Road (where the Ridgeway is today). Day & Sons were rated for it in 1860. They built two cottages for their workmen.


As Mr Day also had the brewery, all employees were entitled to free beer. Even visiting workmen got a pint when they came to borrow a ladder and a pint when they returned it!


Frank Day died after the First World War in 1919. Priory Brewery was sold to two millers, Messrs. Jordan and Addington. The brickmaking business stopped and the stock was sold. Harry Bishop bought the site. Some of the moulds and brick-making tools can be seen in the Norris Museum, St Ives.


Gravel Works


The River Great Ouse used to flood almost every year and vast quantities of small stones and pebbles built up on the inside banks of the meanders. Before coal tar (Tarmac) was used, gravel was needed for filling in the ruts of roads, covering the market square, for drives and paths. In 1877 James Ashwell and James Ray were paid 1s. 2d. (£0.06) by the Treasurer of the Commons to did gravel which was sold at 2s. 6d. (£0.12) a yard.


Gravel was also added to cement to make concrete.  Entrepreneurs bought land on these beds of gravel (e.g. The Gingerbread Lakes, Wyboston Lakes, Paxton Pits) and hired men and boys to dig it up, wash and sort it (grade it for size) and cart it away.


Details about the Little Paxton pits was found on the Hunts. Leisure website.


The area around Little Paxton has been quarried for gravel for many years, possibly centuries. The gravel was originally used as a dressing for local roads. In the nineteenth century the gravel was used for the buildings and improvement of local houses. The site as it is seen today was started in 1939 when a 5 acre pit was opened to meet the demand for gravel which was needed to build runways at the commencement of the war. They first extracted from what is now the Sailing Lake, then in the early 60's they extracted from Rudd Lake then Hayling Lake. The irregular shaped pits, which now provide a haven for wildlife, were the result of unsophisticated gravel extraction (compared to today's standards) by a dredger sucking up the gravel like a vacuum cleaner. The shallower pools were dug as protection for the main working area to hold back the water due to the absence of pumps, the high water table and frequent flooding. During the 1940's 50's and 60's the processing plant was located in the open area where today reserve visitors stand to view the cormorant roosts from the Hayden Hide!
After about 20 years extraction the labyrinth of large and small lakes with pockets of undisturbed gravel and clay led to the inherent quality of the reserve today. The site is still being dug with the intention of re-working the "holes" into sites suitable for wildlife, including predator free islands for ground nesting birds. The gravel is sold mainly within a 25 mile radius from the quarry, to companies making concrete, roofing tiles (sand),
building blocks (sand & pea gravel), or to builders merchants.


Source: Tebbutt, C. F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers


In your books make a list of the sort of jobs there  would be for men and women, boys and girls, in the brick, tile and gravel works in the St Neots area?

Gravel has been extracted in the Little Paxton area for centuries. The first gravel was unprocessed and used to dress local roads; today, it is part of a multi-million pound industry.  This page recounts the history of quarrying at Paxton and explains the methods used today.

A potted history
During the 19th Century, gravel from Paxton Park was probably used for the construction and improvement of local housing, but in 1939, a 27 acre pit was opened at Oxcroft Furlong to meet the demand for aggregates to construct runways during the Second World War. During the 1930s and '40s the pit was owned and worked by Reg Fields and Frank Pateman, local garage owners in Huntingdon Street, St Neots. They named their aggregate business 'Gravel Products'.

This deposit was worked for three years, draglines were used to dig, old lorries and a small light railway were used to convey the extracted material to the processing plant.  On exhaustion of the reserves, workings moved to the present site at Little Paxton.

From the 1940s until 1958, gravel was extracted from the area that is now the nature reserve managed by Huntingdonshire District Council.  Draglines and old lorries were initially used to extract the gravel, but a lack of suitable pumps (to remove water from the pits) meant that extraction was less efficient than it is today. Pits had to be shallow, peninsulas of land being left to hold back the water and protect the works. This resulted in what is now known as Heronry Lake, an unusually-shaped pit, which provides a haven for wildfowl.

Later, dredgers were used to suck gravel from the lake bed through a floating pipe line (made of old aircraft fuel tanks).  However as the distance from the shore increased, blockages became more frequent and the quarry switched to a tug boat and barges. The remains of the old quay can be seen behind the pumphouse at the south end of Heronry Lake.

In 1961/62 Fields and Pateman sold 'Gravel Products' to Sydney Greens of Henley-on-Thames. Sydney Greens were the main contractor building the dual carriageway from Little Paxton to Buckden.

In 1965 large dewatering pumps were employed to allow the dig to be worked 'dry', as it is today. This allows the entire depth of gravel to be extracted, resulting in easier processing, though the large pumps have been replaced by smaller mobile pumps.

In 1967 the present processing plant was commissioned. Around this time, ECC Quarries Ltd purchased Sydney Greens and the name 'Gravel Products' disappeared.  Between 1967 and 1972 extraction was by dredger, then by dragline onto dumpers. During this period a lot of material went out as 'As Dug' direct to the Eaton Socon by-pass.  From 1972 extraction was by dragline onto field conveyors, as remains current practice.

Between 1972 and 1983 gravels were extracted in the area that is now leased to Boughton Water ski/sailing club (the 'A1 Pits').  Extraction between 1983 and 1993 created the lake at Pumphouse Pit, which was landscaped, with islands as home for breeding lapwings and redshanks.  Present excavation east of Diddington will link into the 1983/93 workings to create a large lake divided by a causeway. The current workings are being restored for recreation and conservation uses.

In 1994 ECC Quarries demerged from the parent company of English China Clays Limited and was renamed CAMAS Aggregates Ltd., part of CAMAS plc.  It then merged with Bardon Aggregates in 1997, the quarrying division becoming Bardon Aggregates, under the parent company Aggregate Industries.

The current operation is scheduled to complete extraction in 2006.  A planning application in January 2003 will seek permission to extract gravel from three further areas, which would extend the life of the quarry by a further 13 years (click in the yellow box for details of the extension proposals).

From the earth to roads and houses
The gravels are extracted by an 38 RB dragline, a long boomed excavator with a 2½yd3 (1.9m3) bucket, holding just under 3½ tonnes, which is filled by dropping and dragging a rope towards the machine.  The face height worked varies with the deposit, a working face being typically 2-3 metres high.  The gravel is fed into a 17 tonne feed hopper and onto an extensive field conveyor system, which transports the material to the plant for processing.

Eight field conveyors extend to over 3000 metres and are all approximately level until the "Elephant", conveyor no 1.  Power to the conveyors comes from two switch houses.  The belt travels at 1.7 m per second and carries about 200 tonnes per hour.  The "Elephant" deposits the 'As Dug' onto a surge pile with an underground recovery system, and it is fed into the processing plant from here.

The gravel is conveyed on to a Niagara double deck screen, where a water spray is used to separate sand from stone.  The stone passes through a Pegson scrubber barrel and a Trommel screen, which divides stone according to size.  Small gravel (<6 mm) is stockpiled by the conveyor, while larger stones are carried by conveyor to a Parker 1½-deck screen which grades the aggregate by size into bins.  The largest stones are taken to the crusher, a 2ft Norberg cone, which sits astride the main feed conveyor to the plant.  Crushed material is deposited on the belt for reprocessing.  Aggregates are loaded from the bins, or direct from the blending conveyor, into lorries for deliveries or onto the dumper for stock piling.

Sand is processed through a Linatex S type classifier, where water is used to produce two grades of sand: sharp and soft.  These are discharged to piles through the hydrocyclones mounted on the towers, which partially dewater the sand and remove the silt.  Silt is piped from the plant into the settlement lagoon (Washout Pit).

The aggregates are produced to British Standards and are used predominantly in the manufacture of concrete. All aggregates are sold into the local market.





Other local occupations

Cattle sold at market were slaughtered, skinned and butchered. The skins were used to make leather at the Tannery in Eynesbury, There was also Parchment Works.  It used the skin of baby pigs (vellum) to make good quality document paper.  

Apart from these occupations Eynesbury and St Neots had butchers, bakers, shopkeepers, tailors, dressmakers, drapers, grocers, carpenters, blacksmiths, ink-mixers and umbrella makers.

In Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford there were also coach-builders, saddlers and harness makers for the stagecoaches that used the coaching houses on the Great North Road.


(Sources: Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers)