Friday, 4 December 2009

"Just another brick in the wall" (Fire-brick that is...)



 
You wouldn't  think there was much mileage in a garden wall really. Not a great deal to get the old grey matter working, pique the curiosity or get the juices flowing. It's interesting though how even the most unlikely of sources can pose a conundrum. I suppose landscape detectives can read a certain amount into rural walls - the materials used for example would reflect the cheapest and most easily available resource, whether it be flint, granite, slate or limestone. You can also tell about regional variations in building techniques or dry stone walling which might be instructive. In cities though most garden walls are made of the ubiquitous brick that could have been shipped in from almost anywhere. But what if the wall is made of a completely unexpected and unusual material? Presumably one available locally and cheaper than the cheapest brick. Can that still provide a window on the past like its country cousins?

Take this wall in Abbey Road, South Wimbledon for instance. I've walked past it many times and always thought it to be a not particularly attractive but utilitarian bit of walling. A bit on the grim and foreboding side but doing its job. It runs the length of about ten houses for the end of a whole block, so is obviously not the work of a single house-owner doing a spot of DIY.  
I'd have to be honest and say it's not the sort of wall you'd linger over or think particularly worthy of closer inspection....until that is (cue the dramatic music) you went and had a closer look! Straight away the first thing you'd notice was the materials that were being used were all very irregular and not the most obvious choice when building a wall.


 The second thing that stands out is that a large number of these irregularly shaped items seem to be man-made and obviously broken pieces of something larger, such as the central slab in the section above.

In fact the more I looked at it the more obvious it was that the rough and irregular dressing of the stones was due to the fact that most of them were covered in a thick layer of slag and not the usual sort of garden walling found at B&Q!

Mixed in amongst the slag covered pots were some bricks, masonry, clinker and seemingly random 'lumps' of indeterminate origin. Definitely not the sort of industrial mix you'd expect to find on a (relatively) quite Merton back street.

The obvious question then is where it came from and how it came to be used in such a manner? As you can see from the buildings their design doesn't suggest that the wall was built at the same time and it actually seems to be a much later addition. 
 
My first thought was that there might be a railway connection as the side of Abbey Road leads into Station Road - a name that seems a little odd at first when you think that South Wimbledon tube is about half a mile away. However I knew that there was a much more direct railway link that was still around up until the early 80s.  This was a short branch line - mainly devoted to freight - that ran along what is now Merantun Way.
You can see the route on the google satellite map. The old station was about where the roundabout is now situated and Station Road was originally about twice as long as it is now.

View Larger Map

Could they have come from the steam engines furnaces?  The fact that they were encrusted onto clay suggested that was unlikely and I don't believe that steam engines generated that sort of heat, so that was one initial (not so) bright idea out of the window.

Then I had a bit of luck. Working my way along the wall I found a couple of bits of clay that had a manufacturers mark on them.  

B. GIBBONS JNR.  LTD  -  NR. STOURBRIDGE 

I had no idea whether this was significant or not but it was the only lead I had so I made a note of the name and went off for a bit of investigating.                                                           It was soon apparent that the Gibbons family seem to have been significant players in the mining and metalworking businesses during the Industrial Revolution. I found records of leases going back to the1830's which describe Benjamin Gibbons and his brother John as being mine-owners and iron-masters.
However, they really seem to have hit the jackpot with their mining of fire clay which initially almost seems to have been regarded as a by-product of the coal industry itself. Its real worth was soon realised and this extract from Black Country Industries by Bev Parker shows how well regarded the Gibbons fire clay was
In this, the Stourbridge and Brierley Hill district, a very extensive business is carried on in the manufacture of fire-bricks of all kinds, used in the construction and relining of blast furnaces, puddling furnaces, cupolas, and air furnaces. The fire-clay deposits here are reputed the best in England, being fashioned into melting pots and gas-making retorts, which fetch high prices; these bricks are exported largely, and are highly prized in all parts of the world, particularly the foreign settlements of the British Empire, the general opinion being that they resist the highest temperatures in smelting furnaces of any others which have yet been produced. Perhaps Ruffords, Mrs. Emily Gibbons, and Pearson and Harrisons, make the best quality. Mrs. Gibbons, relict of the late Benjamin Gibbons, Esq., the well-known ironmaster of the Millfields furnaces, we are informed by Mr. Jones, of the Commercial Gas Works, here stands unrivalled for the manufacture of these Gas Retorts.
Emily had taken over the fire brick side of the company with great gusto after the death of her husband Benjamin and she seems to have been a rare case at the time of highly successful woman running an industrial company. On her retirement in 1880 she was eventually handed it over to her two sons who kept the name going into the 20th century.


I was also very fortunate to come across a newspaper article that not only went into the history of the company, but that also gave some background to fireclay itself. The article was grandly entitled When Gibbons fireclay works of Gornal led the world in gas retorts   and it points out that
...from the earliest times the fireclay extracted from the bowels of the Black Country was considered to be of the highest quality. Usually lying beneath the coal seam, the extraction of fireclay occurred within a relatively small area, centred on Lye, Cradley, Amblecote, Brierley Hill, Pensnett and Gornal. It was shaped into articles known as refractories, of which the most familiar kind is the firebrick, and it was noted that Black Country refractories could withstand the very highest temperatures without cracking. When the Industrial Revolution dawned, the Black Country fireclay fields really came into their own, and by the late nineteenth century there was barely a blast furnace, glass cone, pottery kiln, steel works, iron foundry, coal mine, or chemical plant that did not use refractories of one type or another made in the Black Country. Almost every industry in the Empire depended on our brickyard chaps and wenches, who by 1864 were making 30 million firebricks alone every year.
 
So assuming that our slag encrusted pottery was actually firebrick it suggest it might well have come from a blast furnace, iron foundry, glass cone, pottery kiln or chemical plant, which narrows it down fractionally (I'm ruling out the coal mine and  steel works as I'm pretty sure they would have been noticed in South Wimbledon)

But what are these gas retorts that everyone praises so highly? Not being a chemist or an engineer I had to dig around a bit further to find out and they seem in essence to have been used in the manufacture of gas from coal (I believe this was the basis of the old 'Town Gas' before we all went over to the North Sea variety). Retorts were large pottery tubes (described as looking like torpedoes) in which coal was heated at very high temperatures and which eventually produced coal tar, gas and various other by-products. Could these bits of pottery be the remains of broken retorts then?

The possible presence of retorts had me thinking that there might have been a small gas works on the site, using the coal coming in from the railway to make gas for local consumption. As it turned out there was indeed a power station on the line for whom the coal was intended. Sadly for me it turned out to be a large power station in Croydon, not a little gas-house in  South Wimbledon!  Things were looking a bit grim on the detective side when I found myself straying off the path somewhat. In my researching I had discovered that on the other side of our lost railway line was the site of an equally lost factory - the Line Bothers 'Tri-Ang' Toy Factory complex (There were three Lines brothers, and as everyone knows three lines joined together make a tri-angle!). Not only that, in the thirties it was regarded as the largest toy factory in the world and during the second world war had been the worlds largest manufacturer of the Mk III Sten submachine-gun! This is a fascinating company with a fascinating history of its own but what grabbed my attention was the fact that a commentator noted it was one of only a couple of manufacturing sites large enough to have its own private siding. You can get an idea of the size of the site in the picture below. The railway is to the left of the factory, converging at the top left of the. site with the Abbey Railway station.
(Addendum: This Pathe newsreel shows toy testing in Morden in 1951 and by the type of toys being tested I would be pretty sure that it was filmed at the Tri-Ang factory itself)

TOY TESTING

Fascinating as this was, what really caught my attention was one of the other site important enough to have its own siding was The Eyre Smelting Co. Ltd.  Well if I was looking for a local site that might be interested in using fireclay, this was surely it!

Grace's Guides have an interesting illustration of  an Eyre Smelting Works catalogue which give some indication of the range of metallurgical products they were involved with.

Some further searching led to a railway site with photos of the old line, including picture number S03 a 1968 photograph of a derelict Merton Abbey station with the chimneys of the Eyre Smelting works in the background.  I haven't as yet found a potted history of the company - and for all I know it may still exist in some shape or form somewhere - but there are occasional references to the works on the internet, including the odd publication, advertisements in aviation trade magazines, notice of the production of a commemorative calender for the Festival of Britain and, most intriguing of all - its role in role in the scrap business.  For those who are nostalgic for the golden age of flight the Eyre Smelting Works seems to have been the last resting place for a huge number of decommissioned aircraft, including Spitfires, Spitefuls, Meteors, Vampires and all manner of other post war planes whose eventual destinations have been logged by enthusiasts. But it wasn't only British and American planes that succumbed to the Eyre Eorks furnaces.  Immediately after the war a large number of German aircraft were flown to Britain for testing and evaluation before suffering in the harsh winter of 1949
Many of the aircraft were overturned in the gales, and others suffered from falling trees, and shortly after this, the wholesale scrapping began... After all useful pieces and large metal areas had been removed, the mortal remains were buried in twenty feet deep holes where they remain to this day. This burial process was quite common with another pit being sited out beyond Brize Norton village in farmland, to accommodate the remains of aircraft that had been stored in dispersed sites.
The last recorded "movement" of a German aircraft took place on the 16th of December 1948, when Siebel Si 204D AM 46 was sold to the Eyre Smelting Co.
I haven't found exactly when the Eyre Smelting works closed down but the railways stopped in the mid-70s and Merantun Way was built in the early 90s. My guess would be that the smelting works had melted down its last jet-fighter within a few years of  the 1968 picture and had then been demolished itself. Its furnaces and fireclay had then been smashed and broken up, revealing its lining of petrified slag and clinker.  Quite who the enterprising builder was who spotted a convenient use for the waste I doubt I'll ever find out but you have to admire their parsimony and I wonder if any of the occupants of the houses realise that part of their garden wall may once have been flying above them during the Battle of Britain?


All this is conjecture and guesswork of course and quite possibly totally inaccurate, so I'm looking forward to hearing from anyone who can provide a bit more information about the Eyre Smelting Works and the unlikely South Wimbledon garden wall. I hadn't realised what a historical journey I was setting out on when I first thought to have a closer look at it but it's amazing where a bit of old clinker can take you!

10 comments:

dp said...

What a splendid account! Really nice to see that level of investigation and detail. Reading all of that into a piece of brick is - or should be - a salutory lesson for everyone.

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Amazing story and great detective work. You're definitely a real mine of information! More about Merton Abbey station and the Tooting, Merton & Wimbledon Extension Railway can be found at: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/stations/m/merton_abbey/index.shtml
All the best and keep up all the excellent work.

Boydongood said...

Excellent and fascinating piece of detective work - many thanks for sharing it with us! I'm also intrigued by the Triang factory - I had heard it was there but know very little about it. Perhaps someone out there could post a link to further information?

Duncan said...

What a fantastic post. So interesting.

I have some great photos of Merton Abbey Station and here is one I put on Flickr. I'll upload the others when I get the chance

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarflondondunc/4077235141/

I also have this advert for the Lines Brothers Tri-Ang works.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarflondondunc/2827529810/

SOE heroine Violette Szabo even worked here for a while during the war.

colleen said...

Brilliant detection! Utterly admirable.

Victoria said...

There are more walls like this in North London, specifically Edgware and Mill Hill. I have been puzzling about why they appear to be made of melted and glazed firebrick for ages. Thank you for shedding some light on it.

Boydongood said...

This is really strange. I posted my appreciation of this article back in December 2009, and on the weekend I was doing some weeding in my front garden when I noticed that some of this black stuff had been used in a low retaining wall! Even stranger, my house used to be owned by a builder who recycled much old material around the house. I wonder if he could have built these very walls?

Diana Somerton said...

My husband worked at Fry's Metals, Tandem Works, Merton Abbey from 1969 to 1991. He recalls a notice board with Fry's name on it and in brackets Eyre Smelting Company. They were taken over by Fry's who were part of the Cookson Group. He remembers old planes being melted down at their Willow Lane site. Fascinating piece of detective work.

Tom Cresswell said...

Brilliant detective work, I think you
are right to think that the wall comes from the Eyre Smelting Co. I left school in 1957 on a Friday and started work at the Eyre Smelting Works on Monday. We worked on blast furnaces, rotating furnaces, both types had to be shut down periodically to be relined, The slag combined with the fire bricks would make ideal walling. I left working there in 1965, but I recal that it did not close for some years after this, very interesting account by you well done.

Anonymous said...

I've found an old special alloy ingot which says eyre smelting co ltd . Merton abbey connery printed on top. Anybody got any info on this please.