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Canvas Weaving, Brickmaking, Metalworking

Brick makers

Wendy Austin





In the Victorian period, most towns, and even villages, were self-sufficient in that local businesses and shops provided for nearly all of the inhabitants’ day-to-day needs.  Tring was no exception, and nobody had to travel far to find both employment and commodities.

Apart from the activities at Tring silk mill, which was an unusually large concern to find in a small market town, various other industries sprang up, some of course related to transport necessities in the age of the horse.  These small businesses were founded and run by craftsmen, and often passed down through the generations, although some of the stories ended sadly due to bankruptcy or forced closure.

The subject of the silk trade in the town has been covered in a separate book, Tring Silk Mill (published 2008, reprinted 2014).  The essential industry of flour milling has also been written up in Gone with the Wind: Windmills and those around Tring (published 2010).  This present booklet covers three other industries trading from the late 18th century and, to a certain extent, to the present day.  Canvas weaving has now disappeared completely from the local scene but ironworking, forging and one firm of brickmakers still carry on in the locality.

It has been difficult to establish the exact dates and persons involved in some of the old industrial concerns, especially brickmaking.  But the content is as accurate as can be discovered at the time of writing; if any reader knows more details of these professions in Tring, I should be pleased to know.  References to source material are acknowledged in the main text or footnotes, but my thanks for information and loan of pictures also goes to Michael Bass, Shirley Bloomfield, Harvey Burch, Jill Fowler, Julie and Gilbert Grace, staff of Hammer & Tongs, Jimmy Honour, John Horn, Bert Hosier, Mick Jones of BBONT, the late Ron Kitchener, Jon and Debbie Lovelace, staff of Matthews Brickworks, Rebecca McCloskey, David Metcalfe, Stuart Pearce, Ann Reed, David Ridgwell, Paddy Thomas, Elizabeth Tory, and especially to Ian Petticrew who has formatted and edited this book.


December 2017



From the time of its first Market Charter in 1315 and before, Tring has always been a small agricultural market town, but in the 19th century some successful industry was established, helped in measure by the coming of the Grand Junction Canal and later, to a greater extent, by the London & Birmingham Railway.

In 1823 a successful cotton and silk manufacturer, William Kay (1777-1838), purchased the Tring Park estate but not with the objective of living in the mansion house, for he preferred to remain in London minding his other investments.  He claimed to have spent £30,000 erecting and equipping a five-storey silk throwing [1] mill in Brook Street which processed imported skeins from China and Bengal ready for despatch to various silk weaving mills, both locally and in Macclesfield and Coventry.  This undertaking was powered by a huge 22ft.-diameter waterwheel driven by the diversion of various streams which ran underground beneath Tring; later this was supplemented by steam.

At its peak the mill employed as many as 600 people, including a large number of children (some as young as eight years old) sent from both local workhouses and those in St Margaret’s and St George’s parishes in London.  The children were housed in a long dormitory building fronting the mill, provided with work clothes, and reasonably well fed.  All hands worked very long hours, although the children were supposed to receive some rudimentary education, and conditions may not have been so harsh for them as those in mills in the north of the country.

In 1872 the first Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) acquired the Tring Park estate of which the mill was part; by then, the silk trade generally was already in serious decline due mainly to cheaper foreign imports.  Not wishing to cause hardship, he continued to let the business run at a loss until the doors were finally closed in 1898.  The top two storeys and tall chimney were then removed, but the remainder of the original premises – somewhat altered – can still be seen in Brook Street and now serve to house a variety of industrial units.

Very much smaller concerns were the canvas weaving shops which sprang up in various parts of the town; looms were also set up in the Parish workhouse.  These workshops produced all types of canvas from that used on embroidery frames to coarse quality for horses’ nosebags.  The largest premises were in Park Road, and others were established in Akeman Street, Dunsley, off Langdon Street, and later, Charles Street, the latter not closing until the 1920s.  Again, some local child labour was used, usually boys referred to as ‘half-timers’, meaning they attended school for part of the day either before or after working in the factory.

From the medieval period onwards various types of metalworking was carried on in Tring.  When all transport was horse-drawn, local smithies were a necessity, and as agriculture became more mechanised, blacksmiths could be found in even the smallest towns.  Some businesses combined forges at the rear of a shop which sold all sorts of hardware, some made on the premises.  Examples of work produced by these firms can still be seen around Tring.

One industry in the town that still operates today is milling – Heygates at New Mill being the last working flour mill in Dacorum.  At Gamnel a windmill had been built on a strategic site alongside the canal, joined later by a brick-built six-storey mill erected under the ownership of the Mead family at the time when steam was replacing wind power (the windmill finally being demolished in 1911).  The adjacent wharf was then a busy place as the trade included dealing in hay, straw, gravel, coal, coke and general carrying by water.  Part of the complex included a boat-building business run and later owned by the Bushell Brothers, a concern that Thomas Mead had established to maintain his own fleet of narrow boats.  Part of the original mill building remains, but its interior has long been transformed.  The mechanical shafts, cogs, belts and sets of grindstones it once housed have been replaced by pipe-work that connects the grain silos with rows of cabinets housing the computer controlled steel milling rollers.

Over the years many other small industrial concerns served local needs, including several breweries, a tannery, a carriage builder, a lime works, and a mineral water factory.  Brief mention should also be made of the two cottage industries of Tring, straw plaiting and, to a lesser degree, lace making.  Essential to the local economy in the 19th century, this work could be carried out at home, mainly by women but also by children.  Without it many would have gone hungry for it helped to keep the wolf from the door, especially during times of agricultural depression when there was little employment for the menfolk.

However, just over one hundred years ago a report in The Bucks Herald lamented:

“. . . . by late Berkhamsted has become predominant.  Tring formerly was as an important town as Watford then was and, perhaps excepting Hemel Hempstead, its market was the largest in West Hertfordshire.  With a flourishing silk mill, employing a large number of people, several canvas-weaving works doing good business, and the plait industry in and all around the district, Tring was a thriving place and a large measure of enterprise and endeavour obtained.  But during the last generation all these industries have almost died out and the population declined in all the villages around Tring.  Tring has necessarily had to take a backward place by reason of its insular
position and its distance from the railway . . . . ”

Sic transit gloria


1.    Silk throwing is the industrial process wherein silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, receives a twist and is wound onto bobbins.  The yarn is now twisted together with threads, in a process known as doubling.  Colloquially silk throwing can be used to refer to the whole process: reeling, throwing and doubling.  Silk had to be thrown to make it strong enough to be used as the warp in a loom.




Canvas, a durable plain-woven cloth, was traditionally made from hemp (cannabis sativa) an undemanding plant with a long fibrous stem and six times as strong as cotton.  The fibres, from 3ft. to 15ft. in length, commonly called bast, grow on the outside of the woody interior of the plant’s stalk, and under the outermost part of the bark.

Stem of the hemp plant (Cannabis Sativa)

There does not appear to be a tradition of hemp growing in the Tring area (although there is a local ‘Hemp Lane’ which winds up from the main road to Wigginton village), and no one can say exactly why canvas weaving started as a small industry in various locations in the town.

Tring local historian Arthur Macdonald writing in the 1890s states: “The canvas industry is said to have been introduced [to Tring] by a colony of Flemings who settled here.  Some of their names remain, as Delderfield or Delderfeldt (‘Darofel’), and Wilkins (‘Wilquin’)”.  These people who migrated to England following persecution of their Calvinist faith on the Continent brought with them many craft skills, and were often master weavers or journeymen specializing in various branches of the textile industry, mainly silk, although some Huguenots had practiced the craft of canvas sail making in England since long before then.  No firm records can be discovered of these descendants of exiles actually arriving in Tring, but certainly a number were connected with Hemel Hempstead, where the Fourdrinier brothers installed a French-designed machine for the paper-making industry in that locality and where, it is said, the colony had its own cemetery. [

The first documented evidence of canvas weaving in Tring comes from entries in the Militia Lists [
2] from the middle to the end of the 18th century, and these record men working as rope-makers, as well as one flax man and one hemp dresser. [3]  By 1772, names of members of Tring families engaged in canvas weaving appear, including one Cutler, two Catos and several Olneys.  Mention is made in a legal document of 1815 relating to lands held by the Tring Park Estate where the name Jackson Harding and several other weavers are shown as well as a ‘weaving shop’, and it is possible that this refers to a premises engaged in canvas weaving.  (One of the Olneys – see below –had the given name of ‘Harding’, implying descent or connection with Jackson Harding.)

Pigot’s Directory from 1825 to 1839 lists four proprietors of weaving shops, and Arthur Macdonald describes these as follows:

Entering the town from the east, the first building on the left is the pretty pair of cottages [Dunsley Cottages] built by Lord Rothschild on the site of an old canvas weaving shop, then owned and occupied by Mr John Burgess, and before him by Daniel and Harding Olney.  The Olneys were a family of some position in the town, being the principal canvas manufacturers and possessing several properties.  William Olney had weaving shops in Akeman St., which he converted into the Akeman Brewery. [
4]  The present brewery in Frogmore St. was first a canvas factory worked by one Cutler.  William Cato commenced canvas making at The Oak in Akeman Street, and subsequently built the factory in Park Road which is now the only relic of the trade.”


Thomas Olney (b. 1790)

By ‘some position in the town’ Arthur Macdonald presumably refers to the Olney family’s high standing at the New Mill Baptist chapel, at a time when Non-Conformity was at its height.  Daniel Olney senior was Deacon at that church, and his brother, Thomas, who had been sent by their father to London to trade as a wholesale mercer went on to become one of the Reverend Spurgeon’s [5] right-hand men.

All qualities of canvas were woven in the various workshops, from heavy-duty for sacking, lighter weight for work smocks, down to very fine products for use on embroidery frames and for curtain lining.   The smock shown below is worn by Tring labourer James Stevens, these garments being the traditional wear of men and boys engaged in farm work, and often embroidered with emblems showing their particular trade, thus enabling them to be readily identified at the annual hiring fairs.  [

John Burgess, advertising his trade as “canvas manufacturer of open canvas for ladies needlework, gunpowder canvas, cheese cloths etc.” carried on weaving in the premises at Dunsley until it was shut down in 1883 [
7] and demolished some years later, along with other nearby properties, to make way for the erection of Dunsley Cottages opposite the Robin Hood pub.

The following extract of 1840 taken from Osborne’s Guide to the London & Birmingham Railway, gives some description of the procedures at the largest of the canvas workshops operating at that date:

“Tring claims to have commenced the canvas trade before any other town in England.  There are four manufactories, in which upwards of a hundred persons are employed.  The yarn is brought from Yorkshire, and wove by hand-looms; the first process is performed by boys; it consists in winding the yarn from the hand upon the spools, these are then taken to the warping mill to be wound into large warps ready for the loom; it is then taken to the loom and woven by men.  The work is not considered very hard and the time of daily labour is from ten to twelve hours; the men get about 16s. per week, the boys about 3s.  Mr Cutler, the largest manufacturer in the town, works 20 looms and employs 40 persons.”


James Stevens (1808-1911)

In addition to his canvas weaving business, George Cutler also bought a small silk throwing mill in Frogmore Street, Tring, a venture that had not flourished under the previous ownership of William Shipley, when a notice of ‘Sale under Distress of Rent’ appeared in the Bucks Herald in 1858.  Three years later Cutler also shut up shop and sold the premises and all assets.

As mentioned by Arthur Macdonald, William Cato moved his weaving shop from Akeman Street to Park Road, where Thomas Cato is listed in the 1851 census as employing 11 men, and in Kelly’s Directory of 1869 as “manufacturer of open canvas for Berlin work, [i.e. large-stitch wool embroidery], and gunpowder canvas.”  The census returns for Tring show all those engaged in the canvas weaving trade, including the ‘quill winders’ who were lads known as ‘half-timers’, since they were obliged to attend school for a half a day in either the morning or afternoon.  The rate then was half-a-crown for half a day which was not considered a good wage, resulting in a constant change of boy workers.  The following photographs show the Park Road weaving shop as it was around the turn of the century.

Catos weaving shop in Park Road, exterior and interior.

It appears that the men from the workshops were reasonably good at cricket, as an account of 12th August 1871 in the Bucks Herald informs that a match played on the Bowling Green [
8] between Tring United Club and the Canvas Weavers resulted in a win for the latter.

Most towns of any size had at least one rope maker, and listings for Tring in a trade directory of 1839 show four Rope and Twine Makers, all working in Market Street (now called the High Street).  In 1851 John King, described as a Master Rope Maker, is plying his craft of rope and twine spinning in his premises in Park Road where he remained until approximately the early 1890s.  It was perhaps no coincidence that his house and workshop were almost immediately opposite to Cato’s canvas weaving shop, as both trades would have required similar materials.

The latter was taken over by George Cato, but at the time of his death in 1906 the business was in sad decline.  Thirty years before this, in reports of political meetings in the town, the Conservative Party had bemoaned the fact that the number of Tring workers in both the silk and canvas factories had dramatically reduced: “Not many years ago there used to be something like 60 canvas weavers in the town, and now there were 16.  Would they know the reason?  It was Free Trade.  The Frenchman made the canvas and it was admitted here duty free, so that the Englishman could not compete with him.”  This laid the blame firmly on French imports endorsed by the Free Trade policies advocated by the Liberal Party.

George Cato’s obituary in the Bucks Herald in 1906 outlined other causes and also lamented that

. . . . in recent years [the industry] has fallen upon evil times, the old method of weaving having been superseded by more rapid and economical processes.  The old weaving shop in Park Road has played its part in the industrial history of Tring, and there are men employed there now who have spent the whole of their working life – in some cases more than 40 years – in the shop.  To them and to others the future of the business is a matter of grave anxiety.”

It may be that a few of them found employment in the fifth and last canvas weaving premises to be operational in Tring.  Named Gravelly Furlong, sited at the rear of No.12 Charles Street, it is shown in Kelly’s Directory of 1855, and was also owned by a Cato (James), and later taken over by Charles Cato.  He produced beautifully fine, soft canvas especially used for the lining of curtains, the merit of which was recognised in 1886 at a large Industrial Exhibition held in Berkhamsted when Charles Cato was awarded a medal.  Hearsay, although this cannot be verified, states that the shop also wove high quality cloth for army uniforms.  Several prestigious department stores were customers.

In February 1907, when the workforce went for dinner, a disastrous fire broke out in the drying room near to a stove; a length of canvas, part of a large order for Whiteleys of London, ignited.  Cato attempted to put out the blaze but within a few minutes the building was enveloped in flames.  Fortunately the Fire Brigade prevented the fire spreading to adjacent houses, but they were unable to save the workshops.  The damage was estimated at around £800 but this was covered by insurance, and five months later plans for a new weaving shop had been passed by the Council and a rebuild was soon underway.  After the death of Charles Cato, the business was carried on by his son who had spent his working life with his father until ill health eventually forced his retirement.

This last remnant of the industry eventually went the way of the others, when it finally closed down following the death of Frederick Cato shortly before WWII.  The premises then became a ladies’ clothing factory, specialising mainly in sewing coats.  Known as B. H. Baker & Son and owned by Barnet and Annie Baker, the firm employed both males and females, and in the 1950s frequent advertisements appeared in the Bucks Herald offering “the opportunities for young people to learn a useful trade in tailoring, machining, finishing and pressing.

Arthur Baker conveyed the property to Kenneth Pegg [
9] in 1977 and an application was submitted for change of use from industrial premises to conversion to two private dwellings.  Pegg extensively remodelled the building, using various interesting items of architectural salvage.  Now approached by a drive leading off the upper part of Albert Street, and after several changes of ownership, the property has been converted to form one large house.

Chapter Notes

1. From article in The Gazette, 12 May 2007.
2. From 1757, lists of men from various parishes with liability to serve in the military if called upon.  Their ages, occupations and any disabilities were shown.
3. A worker who separated the coarse part of the hemp with a toothed instrument called a hackle.  Once smooth, the hemp could be spun.
4. From Bucks Herald 12 February 1859: For Sale by Mr. W. Brown by directions from the Trustees of the late Miss Sarah Olney “A Brewery and a Canvas Weaving Shop of six floors, drying house, stabling and other convenient buildings ……….
5. One of the leading Non-Conformist churchmen of the era.
6. Hiring fairs, also called statute or mop fairs, were regular events in pre-modern Great Britain and Ireland where labourers were hired for fixed terms.
7. Account from the Bucks Herald.
8. An area of meadow behind Brown’s Maltings in Akeman Street.

9. Kenneth Pegg was convicted, tried and sentenced to a 26-year term for murder in 1985.




The first stage in brickmaking is to obtain a supply of suitable clay.  That used for brickmaking required several properties; it had to be plastic when mixed with water, have enough tensile strength to keep its shape, and its particles must fuse together.  The deposits of brickmaking clay around Tring were insufficient to support large commercial businesses, but sufficient to enable local brickyards to manufacture on a small scale.  These brickyards also provided welcome employment in a largely agricultural area where work at times was spasmodic due to weather conditions and the slumps in agriculture caused by cheap imported foodstuffs, such as American and Canadian grain and, later, frozen meat.

Clay was traditionally dug in the winter months to allow it to be broken down by frost.  It was then wetted and mixed with a loam-like substance such as sawdust or wood chippings.  An account by Bert Hosier, born 1928, [1] gives a good description of the site at Outwood Kiln, Aldbury, (
Chapter 4) during the time of his childhood.  With his permission, an extract is set out below:

. . . . I well remember the brickyard in full working order, the deep clay pits where all winter the men toiled digging out the clay, filling the large round wooden buckets which were hauled up by hand windlass.  One man had a slight hump on his shoulder, and I used to wonder if he had been hit by a bucket.  A light railway track with side-tipping trucks took the clay to the working area, the only braking system being a length of cordwood forced against the iron wheels.  Gradually a large mound of clay rose up near the brickmaking shed, ready for better weather to arrive.

In due course the clay was ‘soaked down’, i.e. pulled from the mound with long handled hoe-like implements, then well watered and tipped into the pugmill.
[2]  This was a hole in the ground housing grinding blades turned by the constant perambulations of a horse attached to a wooden arm.  The pug was barrowed to the making tables where four men actually made the bricks, slapping an accurately guessed amount of clay into the sanded iron mould, any surplus being taken off with a wooden striker.  The fresh bricks were turned out and placed on to the special iron-wheeled flat barrow to be wheeled out to the ‘hacks’ (i.e. frames for drying bricks before firing) and they would then dry in the sun.

Stacked in an openwork formation and with hack covers always at hand in case of rain or frost, they remained in the open until ready for burning.  During this time they would be ‘skintled’ (i.e. turned) to present a new face to the sun and air.  When safe to handle, the bricks were stacked in the open topped kilns where firing and temperatures, learned by experience over many years, turned the clay into the multi-coloured reds and greys of the facing bricks for which the yard was renowned.

The grade of clay needed eventually ran out, so the fence would ‘fall down’ and be replaced a few yards back to gain more ground and clay.

Another child resident of Outwood Kiln cottages was Mary Janes (d.1978) whose father was one of five brick-makers working at the site.  She has left a few recorded  memories of how things were then:

“. . . . The bricks were made in wooden moulds, the base of which was screwed to the table and the sides came off.  These moulds were dusted with sawdust, the clay was beaten in hard, the excess scraped off, and the bricks were laid in long barrows to be stacked and dried in the sun.  There was no piped water, the supply coming from a tapped spring feeding the horse pond at the back of the cottages.  It was a very busy yard which turned out facing bricks of best greys, multis and reds (which had not been baked hard enough).

Above: clamp    Below:
Scotch kiln

When dry the bricks were then fired, for which the use of ‘clamps’ was the oldest and most rudimentary method.  In its basic form a clamp is a carefully constructed stack of unfired (or ‘green’) bricks, such as that pictured above.  However, most brickyards used some form of permanent kiln, such as the ‘Scotch kiln’.  This was a clamp enclosed within four permanent walls with fire holes in the sides that led under a perforated floor onto which the bricks were carefully stacked.

Firewood and coal were the most common fuel sources used for firing bricks.  The heat from the fire passed up through the bricks and out of the top of the kiln.  Smaller brickyards generally had single fire kilns into which the bricks were loaded, the kiln lit, and the bricks burnt.  The kiln had then to be allowed to cool before the bricks could be removed, the process taking about a week to complete.

In addition to using local clay, Tring brick-makers also obtained supplies of clay and sand from other areas, from which they moulded the ‘multi-coloured’ bricks featured in some of their advertisements.  Basically, iron chemicals produce red clay; magnesium produces cream; and carbon produces various shades of grey, blue and black.  As with pottery making, glazed bricks are obtained by adding salt to the kiln.

As with other labouring occupations of those times, the work of the brickmaker was hard and the hours long.  Until 1871 child labour was used extensively in large brickworks, and census returns show that boys were employed in some of the brickyards in the Tring area. [
Other uses of local clay and flint

The flints-with-clay found in the area of the Chiltern Hills around the Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border yielded much valuable material that could be put to a number of uses.  Old maps of the Victorian period are dotted with pits of different types, marked as clay, chalk or gravel.

A practice known as ‘clay clapping’ (aka ‘puddling’) was carried out in some local hilltop villages such as Cholesbury and Buckland, whereby clay was dug and then used to line ponds, ensuring retention of water for both agricultural and domestic use in times of summer drought.  Considerable amounts were also used to line the beds of the newly-built canals; it was laid in slabs, and then impacted by driving herds of cattle along each stretch.

Before the age when tar mixed with iron slag (a by-product of the steel and iron industries) was used, roads were repaired with flints.  These were picked off farmers’ fields, often by children who were paid small amounts for what they gathered.  The flints would then be split by a ‘flintknapper’.  Both knapped (i.e. split) and unknapped flints were also used as building material in conjunction with bricks or stone, and many examples can be seen of what became a vernacular style in towns and villages all over the Chiltern Hills (e.g. Tring Parish Church).

The local builders of the time well understood the qualities of the bricks and limes that were burnt at the kilns in the area.  For mortar they used the scrapings from the flint-surfaced roads and the trimming of the verges; these they called ‘sidings’.  During the winter months the roads were scraped and their verges cut and the material so obtained was placed in heaps on the grass borders to be sold by the mile by the local authority.

Flintknapping – Charles Delderfield of Aldbury breaking flints for roadstone

Tring Parish Church - knapped flint and stone construction

Chapter notes

1. A Hedgehog’s Guide to Northchurch, Bert Hosier, pub.1994.
2. A machine in which clay and water are mixed, blended, or kneaded into a desired consistency.
3. Charles Smith (1831-1895), a child brickfield worker in the 1840s who later became a philanthropist and campaigned tirelessly for the reform of this practice.  Eventual success came with the amendment to the Factories and Workshops Act of 1871 that banned the employment of boys under ten and girls under sixteen from working in the production of bricks and tiles.



On the Dairy Farm area of the Ashridge estate before the end of the 16th century, two acres of land known as Lyons Grove were sold and cleared in preparation for the erection of a brick kiln, but by about 1723 this brickyard had ceased to function.  However, brickmaking was still carried on in the immediate area, for when one Daniel Puddefoot, tenant of the farm, died in 1744 his inventory included “…. For bricks and clay and sand and barrows and all as belongs to the Brick Trade - £3” (Herts Record Office, 105 HW 12).

Once the 7th Earl of Bridgewater inherited the Ashridge estate in 1803, great changes were in force.  An enlightened and forward-thinking landlord, the Earl brought many improvements to his properties and land, including plans for a brickworks approached by a section of new road leading from Tom’s Hill to Northchurch Common.  Known as Outwood Kiln, this enclosure comprised three buildings forming part of the brickworks, plus a plot containing two cottages alongside occupied by 1838 by John Howard and Thomas Cox.

Brickyard at Outwood Kiln, c.1930s

The exact date when the brickworks became operational can be reasonably estimated since it was not included on the Ashridge map of 1821, but cottages described as “at the Brick Kiln on the common” were being rated by the Vestry four years later.  There appeared to be no protests to the necessary enclosure of five and a half acres of common land; nor an objection by members of the Vestry, in fact no recorded disapproving comment of any kind.  It seems likely that it was made clear from the outset that the kiln would provide work, and that it would produce bricks to build better homes for the tenants of the estate.

The source of clay for Outwood Kiln would have been the same as, or similar to, that used by the brick and tile makers at Lyons Kiln as mentioned above.  The bricks, old or new, were a soft pinkish red in colour and can still be seen in many buildings in Aldbury.

Preparation of clay (‘pugging’) for brick making probably changed little between the opening of Outwood Kiln and the end of the 19th century when a horse-gear was in use.  The animal walked round and round, pulling and so turning a horizontal wheel to which was geared the paddle used to stir the clay.

A horse powered pugmill

Clay and chalk, for producing lime, could have been fired together, as Jean Davis in her Aldbury the Open Village (pub.1987) gives a description of the process.  The kilns were closed by walling over with lumps of chalk dug nearby; the unfired bricks were placed above the chalk and a fire was lit in the two kiln pipes.  Large pieces of wood formed the base of the fire, to which were added small bundles of twigs as well as furze, grass, moss and bracken, and the fire would burn for three or four days.  Finally, when all had cooled, the bricks were covered with moss and furze bound together and the kiln entrances were closed.

The bricks were finally removed, and the chalk then slaked with water, causing it to powder.  This was the lime used for mortar and also to spread and improve the heavy clay agricultural land.  Certainly chalk was burned at Outwood for making slaked lime during the first thirty years of the 19th century and there is no reason to suppose methods had changed greatly.

The Outwood Kiln brickworks continued to prosper in a modest way.  Trade Directories of 1878 to 1882 list James Jones as proprietor; 1886 to 1890 Robert Jones; and 1894 Robert Williamson; and an advert in the Bucks Herald, posted by Albert Ashby, of 6th May 1899 invites applicants for the job of brick-maker.

When supplies of suitable clay began to run short, some clay was then dug at Broomfield Spring (where there are still holes to be seen) on Northchurch Common, which was then carted to the kiln.  Until the outbreak of war in 1939 when the blackout prohibited the use of open-topped kilns, the brickyard was operated by Lockharts, builders and coal merchants of Berkhamsted and Tring.  In fact, many local brickyards had to be ‘blacked out’ for the same reason, and most did not reopen afterwards.



During the Victorian period, a number of small brickworks were operating in east Buckinghamshire a few miles from Tring, most at Buckland Common, where pockets of good clay were to be found.  The records are patchy, ownerships often changed, and the few accounts can differ in date.  But as far as can be discovered, the first documented brick-maker is Job Brown; [1] he is mentioned again in matters relating to the Inclosure of Buckland Common in 1842, and is listed in trade directories in 1854.

Sale notice for the estate of William Higgs

When the Rothschilds acquired the Tring Park estate, a brickworks was already in situ on a portion of their land holdings on the Common, a yard that produced hand-made multi-facing bricks in coal-fired Scotch kilns. [2]  The works were managed by George Gomm of Buckland Wood Farm who appears in trade directories as a farmer and brick-maker.  Slightly nearer to Buckland Wood, a second brickyard was sited in a field near Twye Cottages.  In 1862 George Gomm is offering for sale “at his premises near The Boot public house, 100,000 prime building bricks.  The bricks are all dry, of uniform size, of splendid colour and first-rate quality.”  The yard finally closed c.1899.

Three members of the Fincher family, John, Charles and Henry, Tring builders and brick and tile makers, operated from the 1860s to 1961 making ordinary facing bricks and ‘specials’ (brickettes and water-table bricks for window sills) in three Scotch kilns, also on the Common at Cholesbury Lane Brickyard (opposite Chiltern Cottages), using coal carted twice a day from Tring Station to fire the kilns.  As many as 1,000 bricks could be turned out on a good day, and with work starting at 6 a.m., the brick-maker’s day was a long one.  The heyday of Finchers was the late Victorian period when an advertisement appeared in the local paper “Wanted, four good brick-makers.  Apply Henry Fincher, Builder, Tring.”  A later advert appeared for a foreman brick-maker “to take complete charge of brickyard, to dig clay, and make and burn bricks at per thousand.”  The firm constructed many public buildings and private houses in and around Tring, including the Church House in 1896, and the schoolroom at the rear of Akeman Street Chapel, as well as Wigginton Village Hall.

OS 1900 showing the brickworks at Buckland Common

Over the years things did not always run smoothly at this yard.  In February 1909 Henry Fincher prosecuted one of his employees, Frederick Penn, for the theft of 73 pounds of coal.  The police constable of Cholesbury discovered “black footprints leading from the yard to the accused’s house, and coal stored in a sack in an outside shed.

The foreman at the time, George Dunton, appealed for leniency due to the accused’s previous good character, and he was fined £1.  Later the firm was run by Henry Cook, and went into liquidation by order of the Buckinghamshire County Court in 1935, following a petition brought by Alfred Dunton, an employee who had sustained an accident at work and been awarded a compensatory payment which had been discontinued.  He claimed that the company was unable to pay its debts, an opinion with which the judge agreed. [3]  However, the Tring Brick Company did continue trading on the same site until c.1960s.

Moulding bricks at Finchers Brickworks, c.1960s

A short way out of the village, another firm of Tring builders, Harrowell Brick Co. Ltd., operated in Oak Lane on a site of six to seven acres.  This works traded from c.1923 to c.1949 making multi-facing bricks also in coal-fired Scotch kilns.  During WWII Fred Harrowell advertised in local papers, offering air raid shelters constructed of either brick or concrete, suitable for six to eight persons with construction within seven days, and at a price of £34 each.

Harrowells brick workers, Oak Lane, c.1930s

William Harrowell had founded the building business in the middle of the Victorian period and the family also owned a brickworks at a site in Shootersway, Berkhamsted.  Many houses in the town are constructed using Harrowells’ bricks moulded from the pockets of red clay found in this area. [4]  An anonymous worker at this yard wrote an account of his hard-working days in the 1930s. [5]  He describes digging the clay from September to May; followed by cleaning out the pugging machines [6] and the brick making tables, and ensuring that the hacks [7] and covers were ready.  Four tons of the best coal was usually required for a burn, which reached white heat towards the end of the firing process; he commented that manoeuvring a loaded barrow filled with 120 bricks down the ramp from the kiln took considerable skill, and laments that the real craft involved in the brick-making process has been lost due to mechanisation.

Chapter Notes

1. Index of Poll on 31.7.1839 for the Hundred of Aylesbury.
2. Scotch kiln – employing an up-draught which replaced the old clamp firing method, thought to have been developed during the 17th century when coal was used instead of wood or peat.  Used by small brickyards, these were open-topped chambers with six to ten fire holes leading under a perforated floor into which the bricks were stacked.  After filling, the whole was covered with loose-burnt bricks; firing taking from three to five days, with two to three days of cooling.  Capacity could be up to 80,000 bricks.
3. Bucks Herald archives July-September 1935.
4. The Berkhamsted Review, July 1996
5. Chesham Bricks, Keith Fletcher, pub.2005
6. Often a horse-drawn mill for mixing clay with other materials, usually with a rotating blade.
7. Drying racks.



Cholesbury - Shire Lane

Sale of bricks by Browns

The demand for housing after WWI led to the opening of S.T. Brown’s brickworks in the 1920s on clay fields in Shire Lane.  At its height, the yard was producing 3 to 3.5m. bricks per year in coal-fired, and later oil-fired, Scotch kilns.

This yard produced a number of different brick types, including handmade facing bricks, and those known as ‘overburnts’ – meaning as the name implies, overcooked bricks which are not impaired in usefulness but making them less desirable commercially. Overburnts, a large house built of these bricks and situated on Cholesbury Common, was erected by the proprietor Samuel Thomas Brown (known as Tom) as his own residence. A well known local figure, he died aged 96 and his obituary appeared in the Bucks Herald on 1st September 1950, describing a versatile man, who during the course of his life had worked as a publican (licensee of the Rose & Crown, Buckland Common), a farmer and pheasant breeder as well as a brick-maker. In addition to his two farms, [1] Tom Brown acquired a second brickfield at Hog Lane, Ashley Green, and also supplied ballast, sand, and provided a motor haulage service. In 1938, the old Buckland Wood Farm site was bought by Browns for its reserves of clay.  This business continued until c.1978 and the area is now levelled.

Overburnts in 2016

Until 1937 six Dunton brothers, their father and three uncles all worked at H. G. Matthews in Bellingdon. That same year saw the opening of their own business on a six-acre site almost opposite, specialising in the manufacture of handmade bricks, clay roof tiles, gauged arches and fireplace brickettes; due to scarce capital resources production entailed the use of a very crude kiln. Output was doubled by 1939 but WWII put an end to further operations.

OS 1938 showing Browns and Duntons brickworks

After the war, when the acute shortage of housing created an enormous demand for bricks, the Ministry of Works encouraged Dunton Bros. to rent land in Drayton Wood, Shire Lane, on a site adjacent site to Browns. At a UDC meeting in Tring in June 1946 the problem was outlined when it was reported that the Ministry would not allow the town’s proposed new council housing in Park Road to be constructed using ‘facing’ bricks as specified by the architect, but that plain flettons would have to do, possibly with a cream-coloured render. The lack of progress on this Park Road site, due to the post-war dearth of building materials, prompted the Council to send a deputation to the Ministry of Works. [2]

Dunton Bros. traded at Shire Lane from 1946 to 1960; two cottages at Longcroft located at the western end of the lane are built of bricks from this yard, most traces of which have now gone but the old workings provide a good home for local badgers.

In 1952 Duntons purchased 68 acres at Meadhams Farm, Ley Hill, for seasonal brick production in two Scotch kilns. Some clay from here was also taken to Shire Lane, and by the late 1950s weekly output was 34,000 per week at Ley Hill and 40,000 at Cholesbury. After several changes of ownership, and an increase to four kilns, the firm was acquired by Michelmersh Brick & Tile Company, at that time employing a high ratio of staff compared with other modern concerns, as one third of the bricks were still moulded by hand. Due to difficulties in the construction industry and to bad weather, the closure of this smallest and oldest site in the group was announced in 2013, when the area was then scheduled to become a waste dump.
Hastoe – Kiln Lane

A section of a map accompanying the sale particulars of the Tring Park estate in 1872 marks exactly the site of the brickworks in Kiln Lane, and an OS map of 1877 (below) confirms the location of clay pits, kilns and pumps in High Scrubs wood at Hastoe. (Some 50 years before then, a “brick-ground and cottage at Hastoe Cross, of just over 15 acres in extent, and a rent of £11.5s.0d. p.a.” was included in a previous sale of Tring Park estate; this possibly refers to the same brickfield as that shown on the 1877 map but one cannot be definite.)

OS 1877 showing brickworks in Kiln Lane


Sale of bricks by Alexander Parkes, Sept 1871

George Bull of Oakengrove Farm in Shire Lane was the proprietor and is listed in Kelly’s trade directories of 1860 to 1874. But he was operating before these dates, as the invoice below records that he supplied bricks to the Rothschild Aston Clinton estate in the late 1850s, at a time when the mansion house was being enlarged and remodelled and much building material was required.

Shortly before the acquisition of the Tring Park Estate by the Rothschilds, sales of bricks from this area were arranged by auctioneer and agent of the Estate, Alexander Parkes.

When Bull’s kiln closed is again difficult to establish, but as late as 1891, the census return lists Charles Brown, brick-maker, residing with his family at Hastoe Kiln. In WWII, local people recollect pits in High Scrubs wood being filled in using student labour. This action, reported in the Watford Observer of 1st March 1940, was taken seemingly because of considerable subsidence in the wood, where trees had actually sunk in to large holes.

Record of bricks bought from local suppliers by
Sir Antony de Rothschild

Chapter Notes

1. During WWII brickmaking became low priority, so Tom Brown reverted to farming and acquired the 154-acre Buckland Wood Farm opposite one of the defunct Buckland Common brickfields.  This farm was sold at auction when the Tring Park estate was broken up.
2. One of these gentlemen was Councillor Harrowell, a Tring builder and brick-maker (see Buckland Common section).



In the Victorian period, members of the Honour family had diverse business concerns in or near Tring.  These included building, brickmaking, undertaking and horticulture.  Their brickmaking operation was centred in Chesham Road, Wigginton, where clay was dug from a small pit, which was abandoned when exhausted, and another then hollowed out.  The site and pits are shown on the map below:

Map showing location of brickyard in Chesham Road

Among many local buildings constructed by Honours and probably using their own bricks, are two picture palaces, one in Chesham and old The Empire in Akeman Street, Tring, which is the last of the town’s three purpose-built cinemas still standing, the premises having been put to various uses since closure in the 1930s. Honour’s also built a house in Chesham Road to accommodate their own family, almost opposite to the brickyard and known as Netherby Grange.

A second and earlier brickworks in this area was owned by Thomas Little. a well-known local farmer of the 433-acre Tring Grange Farm; the clay pits and brickyard were situated in Roundhill Wood, on the Chesham to Cholesbury road. An account in the Bucks Herald of 1840 stated “last Saturday, a notorious character named Joseph Cox, was committed for two months hard labour for damaging the brick kiln belonging to Mr Thomas Little of Tring Grange Farm.” Thomas Little evidently prospered, as eleven years later the census for Wigginton shows him employing 16 men on the farm, and another nine in brickmaking.

Receipt for bricks from Thomas Little to
Sir Anthony de Rothschild

Thomas Little appears to have ceased trading in bricks in 1885, when the stock of bricks, together with all the tools and utensils connected in manufacture, were offered for sale. After giving up Tring Grange Farm, Thomas Little retired, took himself off around the world, and intended to start a well-boring irrigation business in Queensland which he proposed to name ‘Tring’.[1]  But he met a sad end, possibly due to his very short sightedness, by walking into the ‘death-trap’ near Brisbane [2] and was drowned.

However, two years before Thomas Little ceased farming, James Honour is listed in the Tring Park Estate account books as renting ‘brick-ground, kiln etc. at Tring Grange’.  It is also likely that James Honour took over the works in Kiln Lane, Hastoe, following the departure of George Bull c.1878, but just who owned what and when in the Wigginton area is rather difficult to pin down.

Sale of bricks by Thomas Little, 25th September 1885
Closure of Tring Grange Brickworks

Chapter Notes

1. From the writings of Tring historian, Arthur Macdonald, c.1890.
2. Storm water drainage systems beneath the city.




Never known as a brickmaking area, there is a reference in 1688/9 to a brick kiln on Birche’s Peece. [1]  In the Militia List of 1798 for the town, Nathaniel Winfield is listed as a brick-maker, although exactly where he worked is not known.
Aston Clinton

A Rate Book of 1862 lists an area of over two acres comprising brickyards, kiln, sheds and meadow at Normill Terrace, Aston Clinton, but no other details.  Nearer to Aylesbury another brickworks owned by the Bonham family is documented; [2] this operated from c.1864 at Broughton-cum-Bierton on a site now covered with large ponds.  The company, then known as W & G Bonham, was dissolved in 1887. [3]  This may not have been too disastrous because, like many businessmen in the Victorian period, George Bonham had many strings to his bow, as he is described as grocer, baker, brick-maker and post master.

That bricks were produced in the Berkhamsted area for probably hundreds of years is evidenced by the name of ‘Brickhill Green’ at the top of the town on the south side.  A medieval pottery existed at nearby Potten End [4] where many years later a brickworks was established.  In the early 19th century, John Hare Nash occupied four acres, comprising a cottage, garden, woods and a brickyard.  How he fired his kilns is something of mystery, as the Ashridge Steward of the time had forbidden him to cut furze, the traditional fuel, the reason being so much was already being taken by owners of kilns at Coldharbour, Aldbury, Kensworth, and Ivinghoe.  Nash may have ignored the ban, or used wood from his own land; in any case, this operation continued for almost a hundred years employing four men and three boys.  John Nash’s son expanded the business and increased the workforce by four men, until he retired and sold his plot to a nurseryman.  A local competitor was Daniel Norris at Little Heath, who advertised in the local press “bricks of all kinds.” Both yards closed at the about the same time at the end of the century.

The 1833 London & Birmingham Railway Act had stipulated that the line was not to deviate from the authorised route when passing through the grounds of the Norman Castle (probably the first instance of what we would now call a ‘preservation order’), no structures, except for necessary bridges, culverts etc., were to be built, neither was the Company permitted to make bricks or burn lime anywhere within the parish.

Some 30 years later, on the opposite side of the valley, according to local historian, the late Percy Birtchnell, “kilns were a familiar sight on the skyline in 1863”, and these kilns operated for another hundred years making bricks on the upper part of Bell Lane and Darrs Lane.  According to the particulars of sale for the Rossway Estate “The freehold property and brick and lime works with two kilns and drying sheds, plus three cottages, gardens, barns, stables, cowhouse comprise over 14 acres and are in occupation of John Skinner.”  In 1883 John Howard is listed in the Pigot’s Directory as a brick-maker at Woodcock Hill, Northchurch.  Brickmaking continued in Shootersway until well into the next century in a yard operated by Charles Harrowell [see Buckland Common section].

A specialised activity peculiar to the immediate area, was the short-lived industry of digging for coprolites. [5 and 6]  On land in Ivinghoe Parish owned by Earl Brownlow and rented to Thomas Gale, a seam was discovered in the late 18th century, and several sites were worked until the late 1870s; where clay lay beneath the fossil bed, this was sometimes combined with brickmaking. [7]  Another tenant farmer on the estate, Richard Burdett of Horton, also received licence for coprolite digging on his fields, and later turned to brickmaking. [8]

The coprolite industry most likely was almost finished by the time Foxons set up the Ivinghoe and Horton Brick & Tile Company in 1877; the following year an advertisement appeared in the Bucks Heralda Good Sand Stock Brick-maker – apply at Ivinghoe and Horton Brick Yard.”  But no mention is made of the coprolite trade in a directory six years later when Jasper Foxon is shown as working as foreman at the brickworks.  He is followed after two years and until 1920 by Thomas Foxon listed as brick-maker in what was a small yard producing yellow-coloured bricks; these were used in the construction of several buildings in Ivinghoe village.  On OS maps from 1877 onwards the brickfield is marked on the B488 road as ‘Old Kiln’.  The company was dissolved c.1932 [9] and the site is now occupied by a bungalow.

Invoice heading from Foxons of Ivinghoe


The only local brickfield still in business but a little outside the immediate area of Tring is H. G. Matthews founded at Lye Green in 1923; their operation at Bellingdon near Chesham followed shortly afterwards.  At the peak of the industry, 23 brickfields were operating within a radius of Chesham, but this has now dwindled to three, mainly due to lack of new deposits of clay, although the firm of Matthews owns 1,000 acres.  A policy of careful restoration on the site of old workings is always maintained.

The firm continues to produce half a million high-class bricks of different types each year from clay found in the original deposits both at Bellingdon and Chalfont St Giles, although clay can now be dug at greater depths than in the old days.  Bricks are moulded both by hand and by machine, and a tour round the yard gives some idea of the old ways of brick making and the firing of kilns, two kilns burning wood which produces a greyish-coloured brick, the final colour depending upon the firing temperature.  Up to 1,000 moulds of different shapes are held in stock, some having been acquired from the closure of nearby Duntons (see Cholesbury section).

Digging clay by hand with windlass winch
Matthews’ brickworks, 1924

Matthews’ bricks have been used in several National Trust properties, as well as at Hampton Court, Chequers, Chesham clock tower, and Tesco stores at Tring and Amersham. Always known for the support given to the local community, Matthews donated the materials to extend Cholesbury Cricket Clubhouse and St Leonards Village Hall.

During the soil excavations necessary during the building of the Grand Junction Canal, the Resident Engineer, James Barnes, was able to report [10]:

“In the Summit at Tring, a part of the canal is executing in the parishes of Marsworth and Cheddington, where plenty of good clay is found in the cutting for the purpose of making bricks; my present object for beginning there was to dig clay this winter ready for making a sufficient quantity of bricks next summer that will be found necessary for carrying on the works in this quarter. . . .

Making bricks by hand at Matthews, 2016

Six months later, Barnes was again reporting “. . . ..about one million bricks are made, and nine moulders are constantly employed. . . .”  He then goes on to say that he would put this to good use by making bricks that were needed for the northern section of the canal, [11] a measure which would save considerably on transportation costs; it is reasonable to assume that these bricks may have been used in the construction of the many hump-backed bridges leading from Tring to its satellite villages, but no trace of these canal-side brick-workings has been discovered.
Modern Manufacture

Apart from H. G. Matthews at Bellingdon, none of the brickworks described in this section survive and workers at those old yards probably would not recognise today’s methods of manufacture.  Digging and mixing of the clay is highly mechanised, and the early line and drag machines have generally been replaced by excavators.  Ingredients such as sand, water and anthracite are added mechanically to the clay before crushing to ensure the right consistency for easier moulding.  Moulded bricks are dried using gas before being transferred to oil-fired Scotch kilns where they are fired at higher temperatures for less time than previously.

Chapter Notes

1. Calendar of Deeds, 1941, Bucks Record Society 5.69.
2. Bucks County Council, ID 0104500000, Monument.
3. Centre for Buckinhamshire Studies, ref. D/HJ/4/1/1.
4. A History of Potten End, Vivienne J M Bryant, pub.1986.
5 and 6. Gazetteer of Buckinghamshire Brickfields, Andrew Pike, pub.1980:

‘Coprolites’, from the Greek meaning ‘stone’ and ‘dung’, are fossilised dinosaur droppings, found in the Ivinghoe/Slapton area in the greensand overlying chalk marl and gault clay. When ground up, coprolites could be converted into superphosphate for supply to fertiliser manufacturers.

7. Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report, 2012.
8. Kelly’s Directory 1887.
9. National Archives, ref. BT34/179/11256.
10. Report by James Barnes to the General Committee at a meeting on 7th 1797.
11. Marsworth in Living Memory, Carole Fulbrook Hawkins, pub. c.1997.



In Tring throughout the 19th century many craftsmen working with metal traded in different parts of the town.  Not all were using heavy metal, and their descriptions vary from Iron Founder, Brazier, Tin-men, Whitesmith, Bell-hanger, Ironmonger, Blacksmith and Farrier.  Sometimes they advertised other specialist craft skills as well, such as Cooper, Wheelwright and, by 1902, Cycle Agent.  Some of the larger concerns over the years are described below.
G. Grace & Son

The present-day letter heading of G. Grace & Son proclaim that it is the oldest established family business in Tring, being founded in Frogmore Street by Sebastian Grace in 1750 (a busy man who married two wives and sired 18 children).  As well as metal working and ironmongery, at different times members of the Grace family traded as blacksmiths, whitesmiths, gunsmiths, gasfitters and bell-hangers, and later pioneered the early motor industry in Tring.  In the mid-19th century Charles Grace located to 29 Akeman Street where he worked with one apprentice, and then to 34 High Street; it was his son Gilbert who built the present premises.  With its distinctive wrought-iron balcony, the High Street shop has been a familiar landmark since built in 1890 to a design by local architect William Huckvale.  The garage workshops behind specializes in repairing and servicing classic cars.

Graces Ironmongery at 68 High Street

At the end of the Victorian period, Graces were advertising as constructional ironworkers, and examples of their skill can be seen in different locations around the town.  One particular local curiosity is what is known as the ‘Implement Gate’, made for a member of the Mead flour-milling family, and for many years sited opposite the firm’s main entrance in New Mill.  The gate has since been restored and removed to a site in Marsworth.

The Implement Gate

Work for the Rothschild family on the private waterworks and central heating system at Mentmore Towers led to further commissions and to the supply of materials for their mansion houses both in Aston Clinton and Tring Park.

Gilbert Grace, the present proprietor of the business and grandson of the first Gilbert, gives some interesting details of activities at the firm.  The whitesmith plied his craft in what was referred to as ‘the Tin Room’ and this included the re-lining of saucepans and other types of utensils.  The old blacksmith’s shop with its five forges, situated at the rear of the premises, was burnt out in a blaze in 1994, thus destroying a reminder of Tring’s heritage.  Some of the metal work manufactured in the forges include the clock face on the tower of the parish church; and fine large examples can also been seen in the Zoological Museum in Akeman Street.  Before the Museum was built c.1889, Walter Rothschild took a trip to Paris accompanied by Gilbert Grace, who had been commissioned to erect the roof structure.  The purpose of the visit was to gather ideas by viewing the newly-built Eiffel Tower; the result can be seen by looking high above the top floor showcases.  Other decorative features in the museum manufactured by Graces include the railings around the galleries and on the stairways.

Gates made at Grace’s premises - entrance drive to Tring Park mansion


Gilbert Grace on the staircase of the
Zoological Museum, 1992

Later, c.1909, a large extension was erected on the east side of the Museum to house the enormous and growing collection of insects and to provide more space for bird specimens.  The end result was a group of buildings around three sides of a quadrangle, the whole presenting a very attractive aspect from Park Street.  Graces of Tring again supplied ironwork for the construction of the roof.
Crawley Bros.

In 1839 William Crawley appears in a Tring trade directory operating in Akeman Street as a wheelwright.  By 1850 he had moved to Western Road on the site of what was the motor garage of Wright & Wright.  In addition to his trade of wheelwright he also worked as an iron-founder, at that time employing four men and a boy.  Joseph Budd, a Tring local historian, writes that “the Crawley ironworks was mainly agricultural and industrial blacksmithing and forging, but not horseshoeing, which was done by the various farriers scattered about the town.

Crawley’s premises were sited immediately adjacent to those of carriage builder George Parrott who had established his business in 1870, and this proximity no doubt proved beneficial to both businesses.

The third generation of Crawleys, brothers Herbert and Henry, commenced trading on their own account in Frogmore Street in the 1880s, and then took over their father’s firm three years before his death.  After that, matters did not go well, mainly due to under-capitalisation followed by the break-up of their partnership.

Roof construction on the extension to Tring Museum, c.1909

Like so many small ventures of this type, craftsmen do not always make good businessmen and the arrival of the motor car meant a decline in the trade of the wheelwright.  Herbert Crawley ran the business at a loss until 1900 when he had to admit defeat with an appearance in the Aylesbury Bankruptcy Court before the Official Receiver.  There he gave a full and candid account of his situation [1] explaining that he “kept a ledger for debtors, but not a bought ledger for creditors.  He used to keep a slate on which he wrote the orders, and did not keep any other book except this ledger and the slate.  He never prepared any statement with the object of showing what his income and expenditure was, neither did he take stock ……”  Unsurprisingly this old-established Tring firm was wound up and ceased trading shortly afterwards.

Herbert Crawley outside his house in Western Road
(Parrott’s carriage works on left)

The Crawleys’ neighbour, George Parrott the coachbuilder, retired and as the garage premises of Wright & Wright were expanding, the Crawley house was demolished, the outbuildings modernised or replaced, and the redundant chimney which served the steam-driven engines also disappeared.
Tring Iron Works

The history of the Hillsdon family in Tring is rather convoluted.  John Hillsdon senior was born in Waddesdon in 1805.  Twenty years later he and his wife and five children were living at Gamnel Wharf where he worked as a miller.  By 1850, Tring trade directories list both John and his son John junior trading as millwrights.  In 1861 they are described as ‘agricultural machine makers’, manufacturing at premises on the corner of Chapel and King Streets in a house and yard.  Today this is a private residence known as
The Steam House.

‘The Steam House’ on the corner of Chapel and King Street

OS 1877 showing Hillsdons’ premises

At this time their business did not prosper and both were declared bankrupt in the sum of £587.14s.0d.  They were imprisoned for debt, languishing in the House of Correction and County Gaol in Hertford.

But their assets were sold to pay the debts and later trading was resumed.  By 1869 John junior was able to display a comprehensive entry in Kelly’s Directory, being described as an engineer, millwright, iron and brass founder, manufacturer of portable and fixed steam engines, water wheels, corn, bone and colour mills.  John junior and his family emigrated to New Zealand but his brother, George, carried on the business after their father retired and it is likely that he made the engine installed in the Wendover windmill. [2]  In 1855 [3] the firm erected a new windmill at Quainton.  They also worked on the silk mill in Tring and possibly both the windmills at Goldfield and Waddesdon, but the best-known surviving example of their work is sited on Hawridge Common.  This tower mill has recently been (cosmetically) restored with a refurbished cap and fantail, a new set of sails, and its exterior has been lime-washed in white.  Now a private house with a colourful past, [4] the present owners have taken care to respect the mill’s Grade II listing.

A recent picture of Hawridge tower mill

A slender tower mill, built in 1883, it was erected by the firm at what was considered the reasonable price of £300.  Replacing the old smock mill that stood on the same site, some use was made of existing materials, including ironwork and one pair of sweeps (i.e. framework for the sails).  Hillsdons did not construct the machinery inside the cap, but probably carried out the installation; one account states that until a tenant could be found in 1885, being experiences millers they worked the mill themselves.

After serving the town and surrounding area for 80 years, Tring Ironworks finally closed down c.1905.

Towards the end of the 19th century a third John Hillson, who may have been from another branch of the same family, took over the premises of Charles Grace (see above) at 29 Akeman Street.  Shown as a coach and ironsmith, stationer and fancy warehouseman, it was not long before he moved to Western Road working simply as a coach-smith, all mention of ‘iron’ being gone.  It is likely that he was employed in the nearby carriage-building business of George Parrott, later the motor garage Wright & Wright.
William Tompkins

On the site of the present excellent hardware store of F. W. Metcalfe & Son, William Tompkins established a business c.1820s, proclaiming himself an ironmonger and brazier.  In those years when diversification of business interests was common, by 1839 William and Martha Tompkins were also listed as bakers.  This activity probably arose due to the great influx of labourers (i.e. navvies) working on the construction of the nearby London & Birmingham Railway, and Tompkins knew that his shop was the nearest to the site of their work on the great Tring cutting.  He also supplied the tools necessary for these tough men, as well as provisions which were referred to by the workers as their ‘tommy’.  In the cellar below the present shop, now the area for sales of kitchen equipment, are well-preserved heavy oven doors set into the brickwork; the fire beneath vented under the ground emerging outside the shop frontage, and one wonders what better way to tempt passing customers into the premises than the aroma of freshly baking bread.

Bread oven in the basement of Metcalfe’s hardware store, 2016

Two more generations of Tompkins carried on trading, firstly Mrs Mary Tompkins & Sons who advertised as wholesale and retail ironmongers, as well as coppersmiths, braziers, tin, iron and zinc plate workers; stove-grates and ranges were also manufactured on the premises.  One son Thomas took over, and when he died in 1894 his business was acquired by William and Arthur Dawe, who also had works in Akeman Street; these brothers moved with the times as among their varied activities they advertised as cycle agents.

Thomas Tompkins invoice heading (now Metcalfs hardware store)

After a period serving as a motor garage and, in WWII, a Royal Navy land-ship where barrage balloons and kites were constructed, the premises once again in 1948 reverted to its original use, that of retail hardware, a business that three generations of the Metcalfe family have run since.
Hampshire & Oakley Ltd.

After World War II, Rotherham man H. C. Hampshire, tired of the grime and smoke, was seeking to escape to the country, but England was still recovering from five years of upheaval and suitable premises were hard to find.  After a two-year search, an opportunity arose to acquire the disused Ebenezer Chapel at the top of Chapel Street, Tring, (Incidentally, this building was immediately next to the old Tring Ironworks).

Wishing to expand, their hobby of ornamental ironwork developed into a sound business concern.  The firm grew and was soon producing many types of iron and steel items from wrought-iron gates, lamp standards, trolleys, and even the framework for a Dutch barn.  When Hampshire died in 1954, Thomas Moy, one of his employees known as ‘Tom the Blacksmith’, took over as leading hand.  He made the altar rails for St Martha’s church immediately opposite the premises, and the arch over the gates of Tring Memorial Gardens.  He left Hampshire & Oakley in 1962 to become the blacksmith at the Tunnel Cement Works at Pitstone and, in addition to his normal work, he fashioned the iron fittings for the restoration of Pitstone Windmill.

Wishing to return to the original trade of his Sheffield days of spring-making, also led Hampshire to a decision to acquire a 300-year old forge in Akeman Street [below], for the manufacture and repair of leaf springs for cars and lorries.  A modern gas furnace was installed to produce the intense heat required for the silicomanganese steel needed in the process, but a few of the old fitments were retained as a reminder of the functions carried out by those who had wrought iron and shod horses. [5]

After the closure of Hampshire & Oakley in 1970, the old chapel was used by a company carrying out plastic injection moulding, but is now demolished and a modern house occupies the site.
Tring Forge

Entrance to Harrow yard and
Tring Forge, c.1890

From medieval times or earlier a market town like Tring must have had blacksmiths and farriers plying these essential trades, but the earliest mention is not until c.1820 when trade directories list three individuals, as well as one each in Wigginton, Aldbury and Wilstone.

The particulars of an auction sale in 1863 of The Harrow pub in Akeman Street show a blacksmith’s forge in the yard, and this is marked as a large smithy on OS map dated 1877.  These premises were most likely those used by Hampshire, and over the preceding years were worked by various proprietors – including at the turn of the century, Daniel Lines, and before WWII by Frederick Cooper.

This old forge and the other premises in the stable yard of The Harrow pub were finally demolished in 2006 to make way for new houses.
Forge at the Bulbourne Works

An attractive Grade II listed group of buildings stands on the Grand Union Canal at Bulbourne Tring, near the junction with the Wendover Arm.  At first the site was simply a maintenance yard but in 1847 it was decided that it would be less expensive if lock gates were built near where they were needed.  At Bulbourne a workshop was set up in the open air, and in 1903 the present buildings were erected.  Originally a team of blacksmiths manufactured all the mechanical parts for the gates, but as time went on modern machinery enabled the process to be carried out more quickly, and the forge was used only occasionally.

The premises of ‘Hammer & Tongs’, 2015.
The site has since been redeveloped as residential accommodation

However, with the closure of the Bulbourne Works in 2004, the forge area then again was worked in a traditional way, as Hammer & Tongs, established in 1988 by master blacksmith Paul Elliott, supported a group of blacksmith artists using traditional skills to work on commissions of any size for architects, local authorities and individuals.  As well as items such as railings, balconies and gates, artwork was produced in both wrought and cast iron, including garden furniture and water features.  Some of the pieces were displayed outside the old premises, and made an attractive waterside feature when viewed from the canal or opposite towpath.  At the time of writing, there are plans to develop the Bulbourne workshops site, including the Grade II listed buildings, for housing.
The Tring Park Stud

Always interested in agricultural matters, and anxious to improve the stock on both his tenant and local farms, Lord Rothschild set up a Stud Farm in Duckmore Lane, Tring, where working Shire horses were bred, stabled and cared for.  Among the various new outbuildings set around the large cobbled yard was a blacksmith’s shop equipped with the whole range of necessary tools, a soft wooden floor for horses to stand on whilst being shod, and a manger to keep them preoccupied.  Adjoining the forge were a tool storage area and an engine house with brick chimney.

A blacksmith from Lancashshire, Albert Christopher, was employed as shoe smith, and it was generally acknowledged among the local farming fraternity that Bert, as he was known, had a special ‘knack’ with horses.  It was claimed that many would only be shod by him, and in fact he travelled round the area, as well as much further afield on occasions, to attend to some animals that had been bred at the Stud. [6]

Following the death of Lord Rothschild in 1915, the whole enterprise came to an end when the horses were sold and the buildings put to other uses.  But the blacksmith’s shop remains, now serving as a workshop and base for a mobile forge used by a farrier travelling to local farms and other locations.
Dancers End Waterworks

Erected in 1866, this attractive industrial building was designed by George Devey, a well-known architect of the time.  Sited at Dancer’s End on The Crong, a steep wooded hill covered in beech trees, it occupies a somewhat secluded spot.

Dancers End Waterworks

Providing water from the Chiltern Hills to Aylesbury, Tring and local villages, the main building is surrounded by ancillary workshops and storage areas.  One of these contains the forge where all the metalwork required inside the main building was manufactured, as well as the railings enclosing the various reservoirs.  Now used as a meetings room, some of the original features and equipment remain and are well preserved, including a black ‘pot-bellied’ stove, and the forge itself, to left of which is a huge pair of bellows set up high and operated by pulling on a chain.

Bellows at the Dancers End Waterworks forge, 2016

Thomas Goodson & Son

The last reminder of the craft of the blacksmith in Tring is the name The Old Forge, an attractive property adjoining the main car-park at the bottom of the town.  In this area stood the premises of Thomas Goodson and his son, members of an old-established family of farriers at Wilstone.  The use of this forge was convenient for the grooms and coachmen employed at the stables at Tring Park.  The animals shod here at that time included those owned by the Rothschild family; as well as hunters and carriage horses, zebras, owned by Walter Rothschild and trained to harness, also required careful attention to the care of their feet which had to be trimmed and filed.  Although ‘tamed’ to a certain degree, these creatures remained wild animals and had to be treated with great caution.

The blacksmiths forge at No. 51 High Street where Thomas Goodson
and his son were blacksmiths.

Jim Goodson retired at the age of 80 and the business passed to George Stratford with Arthur Gutteridge, who had been taken on as an apprentice to Jim Goodson, running the forge.  These were the years of the Great War and trade boomed when hundreds of soldiers were billeted in Tring.  He recounted that sometimes he made 200 shoes a week, and recalled that he remembered horses by their feet rather than any other part of them; the most perfect feet he ever encountered were those of a mare named Kerry Clanish Maid, and he kept one of her shoes for 40 years. [7]  Arthur Gutteridge shod horses until 1940 when he went to a munitions factory, work which bored him greatly.

Exterior (showing chimneys) of Goodson’s forge, c.1900

This forge was later taken over by Eric Reed, whose son, as a small boy, remembers with affection his visits to the premises.  After school, he would brew a cup of tea for his father using an ancient blackened kettle; then he was expected to pump the fire using bellows which were operated by pulling on a cow horn attached to a long wooden arm.  Seemingly most of the horses were well-behaved, probably long accustomed to the procedure and, as Reed sat on a small stool with his back turned, would obediently lift a foot when tapped on the leg.  But a farrier still had always to remain alert as all horses, especially the heavy breeds, could suddenly snatch a foot away, shooting the blacksmith straight out of the door.  Unlike some farriers, Eric did not have a mobile forge, but on Saturdays would visit outlying farms and stables, having used the anvil to shape the shoes beforehand. [8]

Tring blacksmith Eric Reed with a heavy horse in the High Street forge

In 1937 Mrs Stratford is shown as proprietor.  After conversation for use as a doctor’s surgery, the Old Forge is now a private house.
James Elliott DipWCF

The skills of the blacksmith will always be needed and James Elliott, an award winning UK farrier, today offers a shoeing service in the Home Counties within a radius of his base at Shire Lane, Cholesbury near Tring.  He advertises a full range of farrier services including remedial and therapeutic shoeing and barefoot trim and trimming; all types of horse can be fitted with his handmade shoes, produced from his mobile forge.

Like his brother James, Charles Elliott was educated at Tring School and has since followed a career in metalworking.  A creative sculptor, his pieces are in demand by a range of corporate and private clients, and examples can be seen locally.  Married to international show jumper, Abbe Elliott, his work often reflects her equine interests, and is constructed using both traditional blacksmithing and modern metal manipulating techniques.

Horse sculpture by Charles Elliott


1. Bucks Herald 10th November 1900.
2. From Book of Wendover - letter of 1932 to Basil Pursell.
3. Bucks Herald 10th November 1855.
4. See Gone with the Wind: Windmills and those around Tring by Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin, pub. 2010.
5. The Changing Face of a Forge, P. J. Young, Hertfordshire Countryside, Spring 1950.
6. From an article in Horse & Driving, Keith Chivers, 1981.
7. From The Shire Horse, Keith Chivers, 1976.
8. A Memory of my Boyhood in Tring, Don Reed, Tring LHS Newsletter No.50, September 2005.