Cubitt’s brick, lime and cement making

Cubitt’s brick, lime and cement making

[This page is an early draft and is in the process of being updated]

Hobhouse makes frequent mention of brick making statistics and alludes to brick making methods and locations.

In Georgian, and prior, construction bricks were made locally to the development due to the difficulties of transporting such heavy weights and distant with a horse and cart. This lead to pretty unpleasant environments around such developments as brick fields produced plenty of soot and smells as the bricks were fired by burning a variety of unpleasant materials to increase the firing temperature.

Cubitt had extensive brick making activities on Thames Bank, using Aninslee Machines described in The Builder, 27th May 1843, pg. 195 [opens the full article].

Hobhouse [Cubitt: Master Builder NY, 1971, pg. 307] suggests in relation to the wording of an article in the Illustrated London News in 1844 issues January 1845 [this reference does not appear to be correct as we cannot track the article down in the British Newspaper Library].

The article apparently stated:-

‘At length, Mr. Cubitt, on examining the strata, found them to consist of gravel and clay of inconsiderable depth; the clay he removed and burnt into bricks, and by building on the substratum of gravel, he converted this spot to one of the most healthy, to the immense advantage of the ground landlord and the whole metropolis. This is one of the most perfect adaptations of the means to the end to be found in the records of the building art.’

Hobhouse’s, very salient comment is:-

This passage, written in 1844, perhaps exaggerates Cubitt’s acumen in making bricks in Belgravia, which was being done at the same time by Seth Smith and other builders, but is worth quoting as an example of the growth of the Cubitt legend even in his own lifetime.

Price Albert purchased brick/tile making machinery for the estate at Osborne House from Thomas Cubitt, possibly having seen the write up in the Illustrated London News in 1844?

In the intervening years, since Hobhouse published her seminal work, a number of individuals have done substantial work on these areas.

Burham Brick Works

Cubitt owned a substantial brickworks at Burham which then increasingly became a cement works.

In fact, it was only an operational brickworks under the Cubitt banner from 1853 to 1859 – such a short period of time that it was certainly not worth the management time or heavy investment.

Cubitt’s Burham works are described in overly glowing terms in The Builder 19th June 1852 pg. 385 [opens the full article] also name checks his Thames Bank works.

Except from an article in The Builder 19th June 1852 pg. 385

[Hobhouse cites  Cubit Estate Records (Fulham?? may just be included in that volume as there were pages spare). 17 acres at Aylesford includes modern sandpit; part of Lark-field land was sold to Geo. Smeed with rest of works, indicating it had brick-making potential.

When the works was put up for sale in 1857, the following plant and machinery was included: ‘2 steam engines of 110 horses each and 4 steam boilers; , double brick machines in line of Sheds, machinery in large Tilery building, Machinery in old Engine House near Clay pit, shafting, two Steam Wash Mills, pipes for……Cuthell to Chas. T. Lucas, 4 February 1857, E. 248. 

T. Cubitt to Samuel Bailey, 4 June 1851, A. 263-4. He also trained a brick-maker for W. H. Whitbread: see letter of 19 June 1851, A. 272-3.]


After Thomas Cubitt died in 1855 it was operated under Cubitt company control until 1859. As an aside, it is very notable just how much of Thomas’ empire was so rapidly dismantled after his death. In the case of the brick and cement works it is probably indicative of its relatively poor location, size and the need for continued substantial investment. There is another factor that could well have played a significant part – most of the output of the works went to Cubitt’s Grosvenor Warf by barge. As the Grosvenor and Pimlico projects progressively wound down, due to completion, the utility of having a works that was centred around barge shipping would have significantly declined. The works was also not connect to the railway which was on the other side of the Medway.

  • 1854-1859 Thomas Cubitt and Co.
  • 1859-1871 Webster and Co [this appears to be erroneous or the dates are wrong as Webster & Co appears later in the timeline according to Kent Archives U234/T4]
  • 1859-1900 Burham Brick, Lime and Cement Co. Ltd [we have adjusted the accepted timeline to accord with the Morning Advertiser – Saturday 06 August 1859 announcement]
  • 1900-1938 APCM (Blue Circle)

An, unsuccessful, attempt seems to have been made to sell the works as early as 1857. A new partnership was formed to run it in 1859 [with Varney, Cubitt’s manager appointed as one of the six directors this is erroneous if it is accepted that – Morning Advertiser – Saturday 06 August 1859 announcement – is correct] – it is far from clear that the works was actually sold as opposed to simply got off Thomas Cubitt & Co’s books.

Development by Thomas Cubitt

July 1851 purchased 17 acres of lands at Aylsford.

December 1851 21 year lease on Glebe lands of Burham Vicarage

March 1852 purchased 100 ares farm in Larkfield

November 1852 purchase of 72 acres bordering the Medway.

[Source Hobhouse who cites Cubitt Estate Record, Fulham Vol, which is now in a private collection. So working from accessible sources:-

Add in images of the key letter from the letter books.

Cubitt -> Bailey A 263-4 4th June 1851

Cubitt -> Whitbread A 272-3 19th June 1851

Cubitt -> Whitworth C 168 & 296 24th Jan 1853

Cuthell -> Lucas E 248 4th Feb 1857]

Letters -> Varney [presumably the James Varney who was the manager of the brickworks?] in the penultimate letter book D Pgs. 267, 328, 345, 362, 404 – curious that Hobhouse didn’t cite these?]

The 1859 sale

The plant was initially primarily concerned with brick making, using the Gault Clay quarry immediately adjacent to the plant, but also made hydraulic lime and Portland cement. The initial installation was described on its sale in 1859 as “consisting of engine and house, washing mills, some four kilns, with accompanying drying stoves and nine coking ovens”.

The announcement of the formation of The Burnham Brick Pottery & Cement Company [Morning Advertiser – Saturday 06 August 1859] gives a fairly detailed account of whom held what roles including their bankers London & County.²

[We are trying to track down the 1859 sales particulars probably in Kent Archives U234/L2, U234/T4, U234/E5, U1644/T5]

The Burnham Brick Pottery & Cement Company formed in 1859. Morning Advertiser – Saturday 06 August 1859.

There is a very full account of the works in, The Illustrated News of the World, on 8 October 1859. This needs to be taken with a judicious pinch of salt as was almost certainly instigated by the new owners.

“We present our readers, on this page, with two engravings illustrative of these extensive works. It is well-known throughout the building trade that the late Mr. Thomas Cubitt’s works at Burham produced the very best bricks and pottery ware that could be profitably brought into the London market; and that the whole establishment, under the superintendence of the present manager, has arrived at a degree of perfection which will render it very difficult for any other brick-field in London to compete with that at Burham in respect of prices. In order to give our readers an idea of the extensive nature of these works, we cannot do better than lay before them the following account furnished by a gentleman who has visited this establishment. He left London one morning, by the 10.15 North Kent train, and arrived at Snodland in two hours. “On the journey we passed,” he says, “many brick-fields of various extent, and after passing Strood they became more frequent, but in none of them did we see more than is ordinarily to he seen in such places. After passing Cuxton, the Wouldham and other cement works were pointed out to us on the banks of the Medway, and immediately after, long before our arrival at Snodland, we saw the large pottery and engine house of Burham, with its immense square shaft rising up in the valley, and reminding us very forcibly of the large building on the banks of the Thames at Pimlico, so well known as Cubitt’s workshops, and now in the occupation of the Government.

On alighting at Snodland, we crossed the Medway in a ferry boat, and after a walk through the fields of about mile past the old church of Burham, we arrived at the works. The first objects of interest that attracted our notice were numberless rows of little sheds, under which the bricks are dried and which are termed hack grounds. These little sheds, about six feet high by three and half broad, cover upwards of seventeen acres of ground, and are situated between the brick machines and the kilns, and are intersected with lines of tramways. The whole estate is on a slope, falling gradually about one in eighty-five towards the wharf on the river, which fact considerably facilitates the economical working, as all the heavy material goes down hill, and in no case does any material or article have to travel over the same ground twice. At the top of the hill the clay is now dug, and is crushed and washed on the spot. The manager of the works, Mr. W. Varney, who was upwards of forty years in Mr. Cubitt’s employ, informed us that he had in the first instance selected the estate for Mr. Cubitt, and that the whole of the vast works had been erected and developed under his own immediate and residential superintendence. The clay is about 130 feet thick, and will last for a century to come. After being washed and crushed, the clay is conveyed in waggons or tramroads to the pugging

Plate from The Illustrated News of the World, 8 October 1859. By kind permission of Andrew Ashbee

mills and machines, where, after going through a very simple process of squeezing, squashing, and pressing, it issues forth from the various machines, through the dies, in the shape of bricks, either solid or hollow, and tiles of all sorts, sizes, end shapes. These are generated, so to speak, by the machines with a wonderful rapidity, and conveyed by boys off the machines on to harrows, in which men wheel them into the drying hacks, under which they are stored to dry, previous to being stacked in the kilns for burning. All the brick machines are worked by one long shaft, 520 feet long, which receives its motion from the large engine of 220-horse power. This engine we found to be an old friend, being the one formerly worked at the Minories Station to wind up the endless rope on the Blackwall Railway, when the trains on that line were propelled by the well-known wire-rope. This engine, which is by Maudslay and Field, does nearly all the work of the place—pumping water, crushing clay, flint stones, &c., working the pug-mills, and all the brick, tile, and drain-pipe machines.

The latter articles are all made in the large building forming part of the engine- house. There are four floors, 400 feet long, on all of which drain-pipes, ornamental flower and chimney pots, tiles, &c., are made and dried, the beat from the boilers and the pottery kilns being turned off from waste into various pipes and chambers for heating the rooms, and so drying those goods which are not suitable for out- door drying in the hacks, previous to burning in the kilns. The number of moulds and wooden frames to receive the several articles when first formed, and when the clay is still plastic and liable to damage by handling, is really surprising. To give some idea, there was one pattern for hollow tiles of which Mr. Varney informed us there were in stock 80,000. The more elaborate articles made in this building are burnt in the kilns in the building; but the stronger and coarser goods are burnt in the out-door kilos with the bricks, and from each floor is a tram-road down an incline for waggons, leading direct from the pottery house, with the goods when dry, to the kiln where they are burnt, and the manufacture is so arranged that the heavy goods are made on the lower, and the lighter on the upper floors, so that in loading (as it is termed) a kiln of dry goods for burning, the heavy and stronger articles are at hand for the lower portion, and the more fragile goods for the upper tiers. After being burnt, the goods then ready for market and use are drawn out of the kiln on the opposite side to where they are loaded, and are placed on trucks on the line of rails immediately contiguous to the kiln doors, and are thence conveyed down the gentle incline of about 1 in 85, either to the wharf, to be at once loaded into barges and sent away, or to be stacked on the stock ground to await purchasers. With the single exception of the coal which is conveyed from the wharf to the kilns and engine-house there is no up-hill traffic, and even this is considerably assisted by the down pull of the loaded waggons, which also, as they go down to the wharf, help up the empty waggons back to the kiln. Thus much horse labour is done away with, and, instead of a large stud, only a very few are requisite to do the work. Some idea of the completeness of these carrying arrangements may he arrived at by the knowledge that there are upwards of three miles of tram and railroad on the works, with numberless turn-tables, weighbridges, etc. Nothing here is wasted; all the broken bricks, drain pipes, and even what few stones there are in the clay, are ground up to powder in a powerful mill worked by the large engine; and on being mixed up with the clay, form a material out of which some superior quality of goods are manufactured. “A never-failing supply of water is obtained front the river, which feeds a reservoir of some three acres in extent; and at the wharf, which is of the most substantial description, and stone-faced, some six barges may be loaded at once. At high tide there are fourteen feet of water at the wharf. Adjoining the wharfs are the cement works, consisting of engine and house, washing mills, some four kilns, with accompanying drying stoves and nine coking ovens.

Nothing strikes a visitor to these works more than the substantial character of everything on the estate. All is of the most solid construction, perfectly unlike any other brick works we ever visited. In most cases a few boards roofed in with tiles, forming a tumble down looking shed, forms all the building one sees, except the huge square masses of burning bricks, called clamps. At Burham everything is made as if to last for ever—all is Cubittian in its appearance, and everything is burned in kilns of the most approved construction. In addition to the large engine—our old Blackwall Railway friend—there are three others of various power; and all the necessary workshops, with room for the men, foremen’s cottages, &c., are in their places.

Near the top of the hill is a most substantial house, indeed quite a mansion, which overlooks the works. This is the residence of the out-door manager, Mr. Varney; and on viewing the whole field, with its various and numerous engines, buildings, tramways, kilns, wharves, &c., one cannot but see that here are what may be justly termed the model brick-works. Here are concentrated the results of near half a century’s experience and improvements. Everything is in the right place. Nothing superfluous. Every possible attention has been given to economize labour and material, and every advantage taken of the natural position of the estate. When in full work, between 600 and 700 men and boys are employed, and from 25,000,000 to 30,000,000 of bricks, besides tiles and pipes, can readily be turned out from the works; which, however, can be considerably augmented without any great outlay, or increasing the present steam power.”

Plate from The Illustrated News of the World, 8 October 1859. By kind permission of Andrew Ashbee

Andrew Ashbee, comments in, Snoldand and Cementopolis 1841-1881 pg. 50

“The cement kilns at Burham shown above were sited beside the river and separately from the main brickworks. The view [of the plate above] also shows William Varney’s house ‘Varnes’ [to the left rear of frame]. The account tells us that he ‘he had in the first instance selected the estate for Mr. Cubitt, and that the whole of the vast works had been erected and developed under his own immediate and residential superintendence.’ If Varney had been ‘upwards of more than forty years in Mr. Cubitt’s employ’ that suggests he had begun some time prior to 1820; he appears in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living in Pimlico, presumably in premises provided for him by Cubitt. His first wife Maria died in 1842 and a year later he married Lydia Williams. By 1851 he had become a ‘brickmaker superintendent’ so was well placed for his forthcoming responsibilities. Thomas Cubitt died in 1855 and the family put the Burham works up for sale in 1857. A new partnership was formed to run it in 1859 with Varney appointed as one of the six directors.¹ In his latter years he had a house in Lower Fant, Maidstone, where he died on 30 August 1894, leaving an estate valued at £16,211. 15s. 6d.”

The chalk mining operation – to make the cement and the lime has left ponderable physical traces including tunnels and the massive chalk pits themselves.

After the cement works closed

It is clear that the main 750m rail tunnel was surveyed by The Ministry of Works during the 1950’s for use a nuclear fallout shelter [The National Archives – Underground accommodation: Quarry Tunnel, Burham, near Maidstone, Kent (1) – TNA – WORK 28/282]. That can be deduced from how the record is filed in the series Underground accommodation.



Brick making in general

Kathleen Watt wrote an entire PhD, in 1990, entitled “Nineteenth Century brick making Innovation in Britain: Building and technology Change” the following passages are relevant to Cubitt’s brick and tile making enterprises:-

Pg 87 –

“Cubitt’s experiments undoubtedly reassured many building professionals of the superior strength and quality of bricks pressed by machinery.”

This is interference to the idea that machine made bricks were inherently inferior to hand made bricks. Cubitt extensively crush tested his bricks.

Pg 135 –

“Evidently, despite his association with this company, by mid-century Ainslie entered into other agreements to manufacture his subsequent patents. In 1850 at the RASE meeting at Exeter, it seems he had formed another enterprise with William B. Moffatt, a manure manufacturer from London. Listing his address as Perryhill, Sydenham, Kent, Ainslie and Moffatt exhibited samples of manure and Ainslie’s newest tilemaking machines, “having a new mode of feeding, by the addition of one roller in connection with the other two”, 1. e. his patent of 1846 (RASE 1850, p.155). This raises a question of which machine patented by Ainslie did Dobson refer to as being popularly used for brickmaking prior to mid-century. In discussing the Ainslie machines improved by Thomas Cubitt and used at his large works at Burham on the Medway, Hermione Hobhouse illustrated the new roller machine patented in 1846, but cited an 1852 description of Cubitt’s works in The Builder. This article clearly mentioned the clay moving through a die: “The clay passes through two rollers out of the pug mill, by which means the air is driven out…011 runs in behind the die, to facilitate the passage of the clay through it” (The Builder 1852, p.285; Hobhouse 1971, p.313). This suggests that Ainslie’s earlier patented machines rather than his roller extrusion machine were more commonly known and adopted.”

Pg 178 –

“The Burham Brick, Pottery and Cement Company Limited was formed in 1859 to purchase works that had been established by Thomas Cubitt in 1853 at Burham on the Medway. The company purchased all the buildings and machinery used by Cubitt including seventeen Ainslie brickmaking machines (“improved by Cubitt”), pug mills, washmills and steam engines totalling 220 horse-power to operate the works (The Builder 1859, [the issue is not specified and it is not the October issue] p.655; Hobhouse 1971, p.311- 13)”

¹ This conflicts with the information in, Morning Advertiser – Saturday 6th August 1859 – which has Mr Varney as the brick and pottery manager and not as a director.

² Personal communication 1st July 2024, Nat West Archives “We hold very few customer records from this time for this bank. I’ve had a look at the records and we don’t hold anything relevant for the period around 1859.”