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Little London

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 November 2017

The Leicestershire Journal of 14th June 1872 carried a slightly surprising story about Gypsies working in the local brickyards:

Mr. John Miles’ brickyard, in Melton Mowbray, is now worked almost exclusively by Gypsies, who are principally residents of Little London. This adaptation of Gypsy talent to the making of bricks is somewhat novel, but has undoubtedly been caused by recent legislation against their wandering mode of life. Talented horse-dealers, and skilled in chair bottoming, and other handicrafts, it is not often even now that Gypsies are found engaged in the work of ordinary labouring men. Men and women, boys and girls, are employed in this brickyard, and as they are no doubt earning fair wages, it is hoped that they will be as a community weaned from wandering, to be gradually absorbed into the great body politic.

Clearly this journalist knew little of either Gypsies or brickyards, since brick-making was a seasonal occupation it was one commonly undertaken by the travelling population in the 19th century and earlier, and this kind of labouring work had been popular with the Gypsy fraternity for many years, precisely because it was seasonal, and convenient to their “wandering mode of life.”

Firstly, the clay had to be weathered in the winter frosts, so that it was dug out in the autumn and left over the colder months, for the frost to get at it and help break it down. In the spring the clay was turned over and the stones and pebbles removed, before further refinement, such as adding sand, left the clay suitable for brick-making. After moulding in wooden moulds, which were coated with sand to prevent the clay from sticking, the bricks were left to dry before firing.

Of course, another reason that so many Gypsies and Travellers were involved in brick- making was that many of the kilns could be found on the commons, frequently the poorest land in the locality. This meant that the topsoil was thin and therefore easy to strip away, in order to dig out the clay necessary for making the bricks; in addition there was local woodland, gorse or brush, for firing the kilns. This made the sites, where Gypsies often camped, perfectly suited to this, and the Travellers provided a ready workforce, some acting as sand-carriers, as well as brick-makers and brick burners.

These brick kilns were a common sight throughout the countryside, supplying local needs, and the census records show several well-known Romany and Traveller surnames connected with the business of brick-making. On 22nd June 1874, at the church of St Mary the Virgin in Prestwich, Lancashire, Sarah Lamb, the daughter of brick-maker Thomas Lamb, married a William Skarratt (sic), and the 1881 census shows Smiths, Hollands, Orchards, Lovells, Loveridges, Ayres, Boswells and Bucklands all designated as brick-makers.

The census records show not only several Romany and Traveller families engaged in the trade, but also indicates that during the cold winter months they were sometimes able to stay in the brickyards themselves. The 1881 census, for example, shows the Gypsy Solomon Stanley, recorded as a pedlar, staying in Mr Hodder’s brickyard in Hound, Hampshire, with his son, his grand-daughter and his son-in-law, Thomas Cleft and his family, where Cleft is working as a brick labourer. However, this was hardly a new experience. A Hertfordshire farmer recorded, as early as the 1740s, that there was a swelling of numbers of Gypsies in the area, notably Boswells and Hearns, and that “Herne (sic) had clothes of silver lace, kept a couple of race horses, was always full of money and acted as a chieftain,” adding that “this Herne got so much into the good graces of the owner of a brick kiln near Berkhamsted Common that he had leave to take possession of the brick-kiln house, and it was here that he resided near half-a-year together, with near 30 Gypsy men and women, who strolled about the country.”

Also recorded in historical records are a number of accidental deaths by suffocation, owing to the sulphurous by-product the kilns could emit; inquests range from the death of a man who appeared to have been drunk, when he lay down on the warm kiln, to young boys trying to roast potatoes. In Ware, Hertfordshire, in 1879, an inquest was held on “an unknown man, suffocated sleeping on a brick kiln,” whilst The Bristol Mercury of 18 February 1843 records four boys being found sleeping on a brick-kiln at Bedminster. Two of these boys were considered ‘old offenders’ and so sentenced to one week in the Bridewell, whilst the others were cautioned and discharged.

The digging out of clay, particularly good quality clay, also gave rise to Gypsies being involved in trades that stemmed from this. For example, Staffordshire, famous for its Potteries, the centre of ceramic production, resulted in a good many Gypsies hawking earthenware goods in the south of the country, having travelled down from Staffordshire. The availability of clay, salt, lead and coal in Staffordshire made this earthenware particularly popular and the Scarrots were one Traveller family who appear to have moved down to the southern counties to sell their goods, whilst still claiming Staffordshire as their base. This county also finds Scarrotts working not only as brick-makers, but in the more specialised tasks of brick and tile makers and quarry tile-makers.

In addition to bricks and earthenware, the kilns were often used for lime burning, using any chalk found beneath the clay. Since lime was used to enrich the soil, farmers began to have small lime-kilns on their land, and Travellers were often useful employees, being able to act as casual agricultural labourers, as well as occasional lime-burners or brick-makers. It also became common to find the job of brick-maker linked with another occupation, farmer perhaps, or beer seller. It was, after all, thirsty work and such an opportunity was not to be missed!

The Leicester 1881 census also reveals family of Smiths, all Gypsies, living in Brickyard Cottage, Melton Mowbray, where Napthali Smith, the head of the family, isrecorded as a brickmaker, and his wife, Amadine, his sister, Adeliza, and his widowed mother, Wyramenta (Viramenta), are all described as hawkers. Clearly, then, these two occupations could run side-by-side without difficulty. Napthali was, in fact, very much a local man, as well as a Gypsy, since his family considered Leicestershire ‘home.’ His father, also a Napthali, was baptised at Melton Mowbray on 17th March 1820, as was his mother, Viramenta Holland, baptised on 18th July 1825, the daughter of Thomas and Sarah. Viramenta had been a widow for sixteen years at the time of the 1881 census, since the elder Napthali had been buried at Melton Mowbray on 8th May 1865, when he was 55 years of age. His son Napthali was baptised in Lincolnshire, but Napthali’s wife, Amadine Booth, had been baptised at Great Peatling, Leicestershire and the couple were to marry legally in 1890 at Oakham, in the same county. All their known children were baptised within the county, Rosanna, born in 1880, was baptised on 7th October 1882 in Melton Mowbray, as were three subsequent daughters, Sarah, on 14th April 1885, Ann Selina on 13th June 1889, and Ethel Maud on 13th April 1890. Napthali’s sister, Adeliza, was also to marry in Leicestershire, and her union with a Nathaniel Booth, and all their known children, including a Napthali, were to be recorded in Leicestershire, mainly in the village of Oakham.

All this did not mean that Napthali did not still travel, although he was a short traveller, rather that, at the time of the census, when brickmaking was at its height, it was an ideal occupation for those who preferred casual and seasonal work. By 1891 Napthali’s wife, and sons John and Nathaniel, are all involved in this arduous task, but now living at Snow Hill in Melton Mowbray.

There were particular reasons that this work was often undertaken by Gypsies and eschewed by others. Of course, it was very hard and dirty work. George Smith of Coalville in Leicestershire, who had himself laboured in the brickyards from the age of 7, was to describe it, in an article in the Leicester Chronicle of 29th June 1895, thus:

When there was no clay I had to carry the same weight of bricks. This labour had to be performed almost without intermission for 13 hours daily. Sometimes my labours were increased by my having to work all night at the kiln.

But for the ordinary labouring man one of the most important considerations was continuity of work, something that for the Gypsy population was unimportant and unnecessary, hence casual and seasonal work was much preferred and, unlike Napthali, many Gypsies only undertook such labour for one season, often to be found at subsequent census time, or in court appearances, with a quite different profession.

There is a certain irony that a people “who lived abroad and about . . . in Gypsy tents,” as the Leicestershire Chronicle as early as August 1860 had remarked, were often to be found labouring in the brickyards that supplied bricks and tiles for the permanent dwellings of the gorjer population,

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford