Every week during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Black Country Studies Centre will be bringing you videos and blogposts about life in the Black Country, past, present and future. Expert speakers will give you insights to their subject and research, as well as sharing their recommendations and links for finding out more. Catch up with previous episodes here.

This week’s episode of Lockdown Learning is all about the history of bricks in the Black Country. Elizabeth Thomson shares the story of bricks and her research into the hidden lives of female Black Country brickmakers…

In June 2018 I started a part-time PhD based with the Black Country Living Museum and the University of Birmingham on the brickmaking industry of the Black Country. My career in building conservation and my role as heritage adviser for the Canal & River Trust has provided diverse experience for my brickmaking research. My studentship forms part of a major development project at the Black Country Living Museum called Forging Ahead. The £23m expansion will see the creation of a new 1940s–1960s historic development telling the story of social, cultural, commercial and industrial life in the Black Country during this period.  This will feature a working library, shops, NHS clinic, a bowling green, and demonstrate industries that led to worldwide export of Black Country products, such as brick-making, edge tool manufacture and aluminium founding. `

The Forging Ahead brickworks will form a collection of buildings which represent both mass-produced and small-scale brickmaking in the Black Country. The brickworks are loosely based on a group of buildings which stood at Cricket Field Colliery in Brockmoor, owned by several prominent Black Country brick makers including John Hall, J.T Price & Co and E.J & J Pearson up to its closure in the 1970s. Unfortunately, none of these buildings were recorded before they were demolished so the replica buildings are based on photographic analysis of images which were taken in the 1970s. Some of the Museum’s diverse brick collection will be relocated to the replica brickyard as well as brickmaking machinery from the Museum’s collection.

The Black Country brickmaking trade was not defined by gender; men, women and children were all involved in the physical process of brick production. By examining the brickmaking trade in the Black Country from the 1500s onwards the study will seek to define the role of women – the ‘brickyard wench’, from the early days of brickmaking in the area through to the decline of the industry in the late twentieth century. To help with the research I have two volunteers from the Museum who are searching the archives for information about local brickmakers. So far, we have found 220 companies who were making bricks in the Black Country in the nineteenth century. This data will be used to direct where the voices of the women brickmakers may be found in historical sources such as, oral histories, factory inspector reports and probate records.

There are many brick collectors around the world and another aspect of my research is to trace and record Black Country brick stamps. I have started an Instagram page called @blackcountrybricks and any contributions of names and locations of Black Country bricks are very welcome. So far, I’ve had contributions from the French Guiana, Trinidad and New Zealand.  I look forward to hearing from anyone who is interested in any aspects of my research  – elizabeth.thomson@BCLM.com

For further information please visit the following:

Don’t forget to check out the Black Country Living Museum History at Home series of history learning materials for primary school children!

Interested in construction and the built environment? Find out more about University of Wolverhampton’s School of Architecture and Built Environment.