Stewartby was once the world's largest brickworks: and like many brick and fireclay companies, it has a strong Scottish connection, despite being located in darkest Bedfordshire.

The story of the London Brick Company begins and ends with the Stewart Family.  Alexander Stewart was the archetypal if not cliched "strong, self-disciplined Scotsman" and both his parents came from farming stock, his father from Aberdeenshire, his mother from Perthshire.  Predictably, for a lay preacher, he brought up his family to have a strong work ethic and the moral compass so beloved of our man Gordon Brown.  Successive generations - his son Halley Stewart, grandson Percy Malcolm Stewart and in turn great-grandson Ronald Stewart - ran the London Brick Company at Stewartby, until it was eventually sold to Hanson Trust.  Its roots lay in 1869 when Halley and his brother Ebenezer formed a company called Stewart Brothers and Spenser making cattle cake, which thrived despite a serious fire in 1884 at their mill in Kent.  However, plans by a rival to corner the animal feed market encouraged Halley to sell up in 1889, and look for a new home for his capital.  Several years later, his attention turned to bricks. 

Brickmaking in this part of Bedfordshire was begun by B.J. Forder who gradually expanded into the Oxford clay belt.  By 1897, Forder had opened new brickworks at Elstow and Wootton Pillinge, and needed investors to plough money into mechanising the brick-making process.  Forder brought in several partners, including Halley Stewart, then a Liberal candidate for Parliament.  In due course, Forders became a limited company and Halley became the chairman, with a controlling financial interest.  By 1910 Forders was producing 48 milion bricks a year, and meanwhile its rivals, the London Brick Co. bought the company of James Randall in 1900, operating in Wootton Broadmead, followed by 450 acres of land at Wootton Pillinge in 1905. 

The Wootton Pillinge Brick Company, founded in 1901, was finally bought out by LBC during the slump of the early 1920s.  During this downturn, several brick companies came together in a merger designed to stabilise prices, and in 1923 the two largest companies merged to become “London Brick Company and Forders”.  Halley Stewart became the first Chairman of the company for the first year, then in 1924 Perry Malcolm Stewart succeeded his father as Chairman.  By 1936 the company was re-named the London Brick Company Ltd.

Halley's “moral capitalism” led him to improve the working and living environment of his brick makers.  London Brick Company had its own ambulance and fire crews, a horticultural department and a photographic department, as well as its own swimming pool inside the factory, and ran a number of sports clubs.  Together with his son Percy, Halley Stewart planned and developed the model village at Wootton Pillinge, later named Stewartby in his honour.  Like Bourneville in Birmingham, and Port Sunlight on Merseyside, Stewartby was a so-called model community complete with a school, sports club, church, a town hall and numerous other amenities, provided by an industrialist who effectively became a philanthropist in his care for his employees.  Percy Stewart was brought into the business whilst still young, and eventually become one of Britain's leading industrialists.  Like his father, he believed in ploughing profits back into the industry in search of long-term capital growth, rather than seeking the quick return which so many public companies do nowadays.  

At its height, Stewartby brickworks was home to the world's biggest kiln and over 2,000 people worked at the plant producing 500 million bricks a year.  London Brick's secret weapon was the "Fletton" brick, fired from Gault clay and later to become the standard building material throughout the southern part of England.  Geologically-speaking, this Lower Oxford Clay is made up of 5% seaweed and as this organic material burned when the clay was in the kiln, it reduced the need for coal, and also ensured the bricks were evenly-fired.  After the war, Ronald Stewart took control of London Brick when Percy retired, and the brick industry continued to consolidate. 

At the start of the 1970's, the company acquired its local rivals, Marston Valley Brick Company, and NCB Ancillaries (Whittlesea) Ltd, plus the Fletton brick interests of Redland Brick Limited.  London Brick had now cornered the market.  A slump in the building industry (these happen with monotonous regularity) led to 250 lay-offs at Stewartby, and three smaller brickworks were shut down completely.  However, in 1979 London Brick sought permission to build a fully-automated “new generation” brickworks, following the Stewarts' example of investing for the future using new technology.  In 1983 the company stated its long term strategy: "to operate brickworks in the Marston Vale in order to produce 20 million bricks per week", and the kilns at Stewartby were converted to run using methane gas drawn off nearby landfills, which had once been claypits.

London Brick's continuing success prompted an approach at the start of 1984 from the Hanson Trust, who were already involved in the manufacture of facing bricks.  London Brick resisted, and published plans for a new £25 million “superworks” they proposed for Stewartby.  However, Hanson Trust bid almost £250m, and took control of the company.  By then, there were 26 different bricks in the London Brick range, from the sandy-coloured “Hereward Light”, to the dark, wavy-ridged “Rustic”.  These, and their cousins, built over five million houses in the UK built with London Brick stock – and every brick has the distinctive frog, or indentation in the face, making them easier to cut and handle.  That also explains the tagline which sounds cryptic to anyone outside the building industry: “London: the Brick with the Frog”.

The next step, inevitably, was cost-cutting: in 1985, 400 were paid off at Stewartby, and over the next few years Hanson reportedly adopted a hire and fire strategy, inimical to the way that the Stewarts ran the business. The greatest changes came about due to environmental legislation: old-fashioned brickworks create a good deal of pollution, so work was carried out through the 1990's to clean up Stewartby.  At the same time, kilns were shut down and chimneys demolished: for example today only four of the original 23 chimneys remain.  The remaining four have been listed by English Heritage, along with two of the "Hoffman" type brick kilns.  More than £1 million was spent on Stewartby Brickworks in 2005-7 in an attempt to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions.  By then, there were just 230 people employed at the Stewartby brickworks, with only two kilns and three chimneys in use, producing a total of 135 millions bricks a year.  The attempt to reduce pollution failed, and the brickworks finally closed in February 2008.

Although the kilns have long since cooled down, the power is still live to many lights and control panels, some parts are stripped out, and some buildings are still intact.  The northern side of the site is a battlefield of bulldozers now, as Hanson build a new headquarters just beyond one of the brickmaking buildings; elsewhere neatly-stacked pallets of Stewartby’s final production run sit side-by-side with piles of brick dust, and mountains of scrap iron, the legacy of several generations’ worth of investment in brick.  I saw the bulk of the brick production buildings still standing, and walked along the tops of the kilns – sticking to the crowns of the brick vaults, as the blaes elsewhere is shaky.  Inside, everything is still coated in brick dust, and inexplicably I managed to fill the back pocket of my trousers with it!  I’m happy that I crawled through the No.2 kiln, clambered over the remains of a brickmaking machine, stood under Stewartby’s great chimneys, and paused briefly where a photo of LBC’s brick-laden AEC six-leggers was taken in the 1940’s.

Stewartby’s ultimate fate?  Housing, with 1,200 new homes, Hanson’s new offices and a renewable energy facility being planned for the brickworks site, plus a series of boating lakes created in the former brickfields alongside it.

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