The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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A guided tour of The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company with Peter Minter. Tuesday June 11th 2019

On Tuesday June 11th the rain dried up sufficiently for 18 members and guests for a guided tour of The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company. Our host & guide Peter Minter, a keen local Historian, told of his memories of moving as a small child from London with his family in 1936. When his father took over the brickyard, ft was one of many around Sudbury at the time, none of which now remain. The clay seam at Bulmer was formed some 40 million years ago from river estuary deposits known as the London beds. The clay is very clean with excellent brick making qualities and Bulmer has plenty for the next 50 years production at least.

Discoveries have been found on the site as evidence of early man, including a flint hand axe. A bronze age urn, Roman pots and early bricks that show use of day on the site for many years. Records show brick making at Bulmer has been continuous since the mid 1450s, with a Medieval tile kiln found during ploughing in 1958. Early maps show 'Hurrells Hole Farm' brick making activity close to a pond, being the probable site of the first day pit. Peter can trace the Hurrell family to 1595, selling on to the English family who were owners in 1795. In 1923 it was purchased by a local brick maker who wound down the brick making before selling the brickworks with the farm to Peter's father in 1936. The house had no modem facilities so complete renovation was required.

Peter told us many stories of the process. As a child, Peter's father took him on site visits to the airfields and wartime bomb sites to see what brickwork was required when renovations were needed. He still visits sites to problem-solve where renovation is requested to match the original brickwork.
Peter learned the skills of brick making from older staff who were too old to be needed for war work. He showed us the handmade process using traditional methods, that have changed little over the years, and the clay seam where day for each year was dug during the winter months when farming was quiet and day bricks and pots would not dry properly. The clay is now processed using diggers and a pug mill' purchased in the 1890s. Peter has also more recently purchased equipment from Stoke-on-Trent potteries for processing the day to produce extra fine bricks for carving. Additional covered drying sheds have now been supplemented with heated sheds to speed the process and keep production going in wet weather.

There were three 'up draught' rectangular open topped kilns on the site, which were inefficient of fuel and difficult to control especially in wet weather.

His father invested in a new kiln with a 'down draught' design largely complete by the beginning of the second world war; really useful for the making of land drain pipes for many local airfields between 1941 and 1944. These kept the brickyard in operation as other brick orders dried up. The kiln has been refurbished and a further kiln built when further capacity was required.
Great skill is required for the slow firing process; loading the kiln takes approx 3 days; the firing another 3 days to gradually build up the heat by stoking the 7 coal fires each hour with judgement to decide when the correct temperature is reached; a further 3 days for cooling & unloading.
The brickyard is busy now making handmade bricks, tiles etc for renovation work. Peter has developed his range of work undertaken. Moulds are made individually for each customer to match old samples he is given. The work includes flooring and roof tiles, decorative work including twisted and shaped chimney bricks.

Recent renovation projects undertaken include those for the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Royal Palaces. Also, many local or small private works and listed buildings. As much of the original material is used. Peter has found additional clay sources now for white and pink bricks, to extend his range of projects, with licences to extract clay for over 20 years at present.
Peter gave many examples of his work which goes all over the UK & other countries. Projects undertaken include Bury St Edmunds and St Pancras railway stations, the spire of Halstead church, flooring in Westminster, window tracery on the Carmelite Friary in Norfolk. A recent notable project was to help the architect with the rebuild of Mattingleys, on the Sudbury Market hill which burnt down in 2015. Bulmer had provided the original bricks and Peter was able to advise the architect and make appropriate bricks for the new facade.

Several of Peter's family now work in the business, the most recent recruit being his grandson, who has a talent for carving for the decorative mold making. A total of 25 staff are kept busy to keep up with the orders coming in. Peter was warmly thanked for the most memorable and informative evening he had given. He has now written a book called the Brickmaker's Tale which records the in depth  history, memories, people, and changing methods of the family brickmaking at The Bulmer Brick & Tile Company.


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