Common People Part 2: Bricks

In the second part of our exploration of 19th-century voices from Berkhamsted Common we will meet a bona fide war hero who fought alongside Lord Nelson and later made the bricks behind the stone facade of Ashridge House. We will also learn about the high calorific value of gorse not to mention its high monetary value: people risked jail to smuggle it to other Chiltern brick works under the eyes of the estate keepers. We will also meet the amazing William Ashby who was never seen without a donkey load of the golden weed: but nobody had ever seen him cut it. More seriously we will see an estate that would take a poor person to court for 3s worth of furze, but be quite happy to level the entire common of the same plant for its own purposes. Thanks for looking. Please like and share. It really helps spread the word. Let battle commence. Again.

Brick (British. Military. A small unit of infantry, typically comprising four soldiers, used esp. for reconnaissance, foot patrol, or the like. OED.)

This is not a shopping trolley but, I think, part of a tramway: evidence of the industrial scale of brick-making on Aldbury Common into the 20th century.
This is not a shopping trolley but, I think, part of a tramway: evidence of the industrial scale of brick-making on Aldbury Common into the 20th century.

Furze was particularly valuable because it could be grazed throughout the year and was not at the mercy of drought and frost. In some places, it was gathered for fodder, which had a reputation for recovering sick horses (see Part 1, footnote 3) – but this use is not mentioned by our witnesses. Many of them do mention that they sold furze to local bakers and brewers. John Newell, 67, Henry’s brother, sold some to Baker Sear. William Sear is recorded as a High Street baker in the 1851 census, employing two men. Sear is an appropriate surname for a baker, who prized furze above wood because it burned hot very quickly and left little ash – a significant factor, Chris Howkins has pointed out, if you bake loaves in the bottom of the oven.

William Saunders had cut furze for a living before finding success in hospitality and farming. Furze was still central to his business model:

‘I used to use a good deal of the furze and fern myself in the Anchor and the premises. I used the furze in the ovens for baking the bread and for the bottoms of my ricks and for the bottoms of the cattle yards, to be trod into dressing. The fern was also used for litter when we were short of straw. I used to get the furze and fern from any part of the common where it grew best and among other parts from the part which was lately enclosed.’

James Holliday, 79, had been Augustus Smith’s bailiff for 30 years and had worked for Smith’s father at Ashlyns Hall for 20 years before that.

‘We used to brew our own beer and bake our own bread and we used to burn furze and wood and anything we could get. We used to run for a lot of furze for lighting the fires.’ He baked his own bread with it at home and sometimes used to sell some to his neighbours.

Furze was so valuable as a fuel source that it was sometimes grown as a crop in the nineteenth century. Today there is a small wood on Coldharbour Farm called ‘Furzefield Wood’. A look at the 1840 tithe map shows that at one time a very large field on the farm was used for this purpose. John Butterfield, 65, who grew up on the common, remembered: ‘I know Cold Harbour Farm. There used to be some fields there covered with furze. When I first knew it was when my father had the brick kilns. There were 30 or 40 acres of furze.’ 5 fields of furze and fern, of which 3 or 4 were ploughed up on the instructions of Lord Bridgewater’s steward, he told the court before we read in parenthesis ‘Mr Thesiger objects to this evidence as being irrelevant, and John Butterfield’s childhood memories of Coldharbour Farm are deftly nudged into the sinkhole that awaits all our memories sooner or later.

By 1840 the field had been subdivided, but a small area was still producing furze. This might suggest a decline in the importance of furze to the local economy. The trial evidence suggests a mixed picture. Coal was becoming more viable for the estate, but most people still used furze and wood for their hearths. Furze was still being collected from the common at the time of the trial in 1866 but the days of large-scale harvesting were long gone.

The brick kiln near Coldharbour Farm is sometimes referred to in the evidence as ‘the old kiln’, sometimes as ‘Holdsmith Kiln’. The transcriber writes the name several different ways but we’ll stick with ‘Holdsmith’ – because George Whybrow does. John Newell, who helped his father there, remembered: ‘the kiln belonged to the Earl of Bridgewater and the bricks made there went towards building the mansion’.

John’s brother, Henry Newell, who you will remember had witnessed a highly charged confrontation on the common between two Bow Street Officers and a pair of landless sheep farmers on 25th May 1835, had also worked at the kiln as a boy.

‘The first work I done on the estate was to assist my father brickmaking on the common. It was called Holdsmith Kiln. It stood a little this side of Cold Harbour Farm. The brickyard was fenced in with rough rails. It contained quite 2 acres and the clay was dug in the yard. It was called a three-holed kiln, and burnt furze and wood. The furze was cut off the common to burn in the kiln. The furze was cut for several years until there was scarcely any left. I recollect the kiln being done away and the yard laid into the common. The kiln was built before my time’

John and Joseph Butterfield had both worked at the old kiln when it was run by their father, Edward. We will come back to them in a minute when we look at conflicts arising over the over-harvesting of the common’s most valuable crop.

From the lidar evidence, it is tempting to speculate that the old kiln was abandoned when the supply of brick earth ran out – the plethora of small pits may suggest an increasingly frustrating search for raw material.

Brickmaking continued at Aldbury Common’s Outwood Kiln.

Old Brick Pit, Aldbury Common
Old Brick Pit, Aldbury Common

Thomas Cox aged 78 States as follows

‘I live at Ringshall. I was born at Pitstone, lived there till I was about 13 years old, I then went to farm service and enlisted for a soldier in the year 1805, in the marines, was at the Battle of Trafalgar, and got my discharge in 1815. In 1816 I went to Ashridge and worked on the estate 47 years. After I had been at work on the estate for about 5 or 6 years I was employed brickmaking on the estate. The first place I burnt at was Ivinghoe Common. The next place was Outwood Kiln, in Aldbury Parish. We used furze for burning. The furze was cut on Berkhamsted Common and carted to the kilns. We cleared the common of furze. It took a 1,000 furze to burn a kiln of bricks. One kiln held about 16 or 17,000 bricks. The second kiln would require 700 furze and would burn 10,000 bricks. Each season we should burn about 28 kilns (14 in each kiln). We were burning constantly for about 8 years. In the 8 years we cut the furze fields belonging to Cold Harbour Farm twice. They consist of about 30 acres. During the 8 years I cut the furze on the common (that was when we had no work at the kiln) several times & was never interrupted.’

The scale of brickmaking, and furze cutting, seems heroic to me, let alone taking part in the most famous battle in British naval history.

Attestation papers show that he enlisted in the Royal Marines at St Albans on 26 March 1805. He gave his age as sixteen, occupation ‘labourer,’ and signed his name with a cross. By the time of the 1861 census, he was living in Ringshall. He was 72 years old and gave his occupation as ‘Brickmaker’. His wife, Fanny, 53, was a Straw Plaiter. One son, John, and two grandchildren were at home on the night of the survey, as well as two lodgers. Thomas Cox died, aged 87, and was buried at Little Gaddesden on 11 December 1875. An inscribed cross later became detached from his grave but is preserved in the church. It reads ‘IN MEMORY OF / THOMAS COX / WHO FOUGHT AT / TRAFALGAR / DIED DEC XI /MDCCCLXXV AGED LXXXVII’

It doesn’t record how many bricks he made, but they are still very much in service, supporting the stone facade of Ashridge House on the estate he worked for nearly five decades.

Thomas Cox's memorial in St Peter & St Paul's Church, Little Gaddesden
Thomas Cox’s memorial in St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Little Gaddesden

Thomas Waterton, the rough carpenter who had built up quite a flock of sheep prior to the drive, is one of many witnesses who remember the scarcity of furze towards the end of the time that the time the mansion was being built.

‘Above 40 years ago I cut furze on the common for 8 or 9 seasons in succession. I think there were 20 of us so employed, sometimes more, sometimes less. The furze so cut was used at the Outwood brick kilns. The furze was cut so low that at last we were obliged to mow it.’

Cutting furze, as you might imagine, was an occupation requiring specialized tools, clothes and skill. I don’t think it is fanciful to read a certain amount of professional distaste in Thomas’s memory of the effects of overexploitation. John Chapell, 69, remembered that ‘The common was pretty well cleared of furze by the time Lord Bridgewater had built his house.’ William Bell, 67, remembered that by that time ‘you could not find a bit of furze about the common as high as your shoe’. Willam Waterton, our gravel digger, had also cut furze at this time: ‘The common was nearly or quite cleared of furze for 8 or 9 years, all paired down as clean as could be.’ Thomas Kelling, 78, a lifelong Aldbury resident, concurred, ‘It was grass almost instead of furze. There was no dispute about anything then. Lord Bridgewater done as he liked. Nobody interfered with him. When Lord Bridgewater had what he wanted. Other people had the rest.’

The exhausting of a renewable community resource presumably did not unduly concern Lord Bridgewater because he had his own supply – on Coldharbour Farm. In any case, the overexploitation of furze may not have been an infrequent occurrence on the common. Pehr Kalm (see Part 1, footnote 4) noted that the furze was ‘a hand’s breadth high’ when he visited in 1748, because, he said, the poor people were cutting it and taking it home for fuel.

Inevitably, as demand for the golden egg threatened to kill the goose, conflict would arise. Joseph Hall, 58, used to cut furze with his father when his father’s work on the estate was slack: ‘My father used to sell the furze out of the parish, or to people in the parish, or in fact to anybody. Sometimes, if it was found out the furze was sold out of the parish, there would be a little enquiry about it and check it for a time, but after a bit all would go on as before.’ William Bell didn’t follow the furze carts himself but remembered that Joseph Swaby ‘had instructions to do so from the estate office, in case furze was taken out of the parish. Parties were caught taking the furze to Bennetts End Kiln, Hemel Hempstead, and Woodcock Hill, and have been punished for it.’

Nash Duncombe, 64, recounts a run-in with Hemmings, the estate’s wood steward (more about him in the next section) because he had sold furze to Edward Grover, who had taken it to Piccotts End: Hemmings and a keeper had followed the cart.

John Newell, who sold furze to Baker Sear, remembered ‘I know [Charles] Chappel went to jail for drawing furze off the common, and John Putnam for cutting it. I was a boy at the time. I don’t know where Chappel took it or whether he took it out of the parish or not.’

In fact, we can help him. Court documents from 1814 show that some of the furze, unfortunately for them, was destined for a kiln in Bennetts End. Both Chappel and Putnam are languishing in Hertford Gaol in August 1815, when they apply to be released under the insolvency act. Lord Bridgewater agrees to release them of their debts to him on signing a promise not to re-offend. Whether their other creditors, mostly grocers and bakers (named Sear, incidentally), and in Chappel’s case, sellers of horse provender, were equally magnanimous, is not recorded.

John Butterfield’s testimony, suggests that furze may have been spirited away from the common, and the parish, in industrial quantities.

‘I knew the common well. I’ve been over every yard of it, and I have cut both furze and fern, and have drawn a good many. I have drawn a great many to my father’s brick kiln. My father’s brick kiln was a kiln where he made bricks to be delivered to Lord Bridgewater – at a price.

Afterwards, my father had a brick kiln on Caddington common and used to buy the furze from the common to burn there, and he was chased off. Mr Atty [Lord Bridgewater’s steward] found out that furze was taken away from the common, and he used to set keepers to watch, and I have known as many as 5 or 6 carts standing at the public house until it was dark, as the drivers were afraid to go onto the common while it was light. They were my father’s carts.’

Even allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole, the fact that any furze found its way to Caddington, 10 miles away, shows the value of the crop to brickmakers in the first half of the nineteenth century.

When the estate’s private supply of furze had also been exhausted, John Newell tells us ‘they took to burning coals at the kilns’. When the mansion was finished the estate discouraged large scale harvesting of furze. Joseph Butterfield remembered, ‘I remember George Atty, Lord Bridgewater’s agent. After the brickwork was finished Atty used to try to stop the people cutting the furze, but he could not stop them. I remember the furze afterwards growing high – as high as my shoulder. It grew for several years without being cut.’

Joseph and his brother continued to cut furze on a small scale, as did Nash Duncombe who told the court, ‘ … it is not many months since I had some from the common.’ This was however at a very different scale from the mansion building days. John Butterfield tells the court ‘I have [recently] carried furze home on my back’ and known many others do the same, ‘I never heard anybody objecting to persons carrying away furze in this manner.’ William Saunders was ‘never interrupted in my life,’ removing furze from the common for his pub and farmyard, and had also harvested some recently.

Removing furze by cart though was another matter. Several of the witnesses mention one particularly redoubtable furze cutter still operating in the 1860s: ‘I know William Ashby,’ says John Butterfield, ‘he cuts furze off the common now, and has always done it and carted the furze away in his donkey cart. They have tried to stop him several times, and had him up before the Gentlemen, but he beat them every time.’

Berkhamsted’s historian, Henry Nash (d.1899), was moved to quote Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, and declared that Ashby ‘brought honour to his name’. A newspaper report from 1862, of a case at Great Berkhamstead Petty Sessions, is worth quoting in full.

‘CUTTING FURZE. – William Ashby was charged with cutting and taking away some furze from Berkhamsted Common, value 3s. 6d. – Henry Butterfield stated that on the 28th October, he saw Ashby going along by Hill Farm with a donkey load of furze which he took to Northchurch, where he sold it at different houses. Ashby asked whether witnesses could say where the furze was cut, whether on Dunstable Downs, or on the common, or at any other place? – Witness: I can’t tell where it was cut, but I saw you with the donkey cart go across the common. The case was dismissed.’

The estate would take someone to court for 3s worth of furze but had been quite happy to level the entire common for its own purposes. The iron fences that appeared on the common seemingly overnight in 1866 had actually been in position for years: they were just invisible.


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