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What’s in a wall?

The new uplighters in front of the museum building pick up the texture of the old walls in dramatic fashion (see last week’s blog). The photograph above is a close-up of one section, in daylight, and just wonderful to look at.

Pause to look, and there are stories there, even without any other knowledge of the history of the place. Clearly, materials have been re-used. The basic ‘building block’ here is the flint, a local material and used in many of the older buildings in the Close. When building with ‘rubble’ (unshaped stones) it was useful to include a ‘string course’ at intervals up the wall, to create a kind of frame or skeleton, assisting the mason in keeping the wall straight. Such courses are often quite decorative, contrasting with the material of the main part of the wall and perhaps projecting outwards or highlighting windows and other features. Here it is not so much for this latter purpose, although the courses can be picked out because brick, clay roof tile and dark sand stone have been used, albeit in a rather rough manner, to add colour.

There are at least two types of sandstone used here, and some limestone. I am no great geologist and so cannot identify these with any certainty but greensand is another local material and the brownish coloured chunks here may be ironstone. Comments welcome!

The bricks are very weathered and vary in colour. It may be possible to date them from their size (see below).

If you are interested in the history of bricks, read on (with thanks to the Architects Journal)….

Brickwork offers clues to the age of a building. The Romans were the first to use clay bricks in Britain, and bricks were then not re-introduced into the country until the Middle Ages. Hampton Court was one of the first major buildings of that period to be built of brick. With the decline of medieval timber- framed buildings and the advent of canals, railways, and better roads, bricks were transported and used throughout the country.

By the eighteenth century, brick was the most common material for houses, and many old timber-framed houses were gentrified by re-facing with bricks or mathematical tiles, particularly the latter after the first brick tax of 1784.

Since the 1400s the width of a brick has always been about 4.5 inches (114mm) – governed by the need to grasp and lay it with one hand. But the length and thickness of a brick has not always been as constant as today, being influenced by government legislation, regional variations in firing thicknesses of clay, bonding, joint thickness, and local practice.

Medieval bricks were longer and thinner than modern bricks – perhaps 2″ (51mm) thick. But beware modern imitations, particularly in early 20th century buildings. Parliament fixed brick sizes in 1776 at 8.5 x 4 x 2.5 inches (216 x 102 x 63mm). In 1784, after the American War of Independence, parliament taxed each brick used, so some bricks were made larger, up to 10 x 5 x 3ins (254 x 127 x 76mm) so that fewer need be used in building and so saving costs. In 1803, these large bricks were further taxed, and this was avoided by reducing the size to 9 x 4.5 x 3ins (229 x 114 x 76mm). In 1850 the brick taxes were repealed, and brick sizes gradually standardised, rising four courses per foot (304mm), except in the north of England where they rose four courses per 13 inches (330mm) for much of the nineteenth century. However, the worst examples of ‘jerry’ building in the nineteenth century produced bricks of various sizes and sometimes with large quantities of soot mixed into the clay, leading to crumbling houses over a short period of time.

In 1851, machinery was designed for making pressed bricks in volume, eventually replacing handmade bricks, except for best quality work. Machine- made bricks, such as Flettons which were first made in the 1870s, are generally smoother and more regular in appearance than handmade bricks.

If you would like to learn more, try this site by clicking here.