How did London Brick become the largest brickmaker in the world?
John Cathles Hill establishes London Brick
John Cathles Hill (1857 – 1915) was born outside Dundee in Scotland. He followed his father into the wheelwright and cartwright profession.
Hill relocated to London in 1878 and worked as a joiner. He established his own business as J C Hill & Co with a capital of £300 and entered into the housebuilding trade from 1881.
Hill entered into brickmaking in 1889 with the acquisition of a small brickyard at Fletton, near Peterborough. The brickmaking business was incorporated as a private company called London Brick in 1900. It was probably the largest brickmaker in the world. There were factories at Fletton, Ponders End, and Great Bentley in Essex. 2.5 million bricks were produced every week. 1,500 people were employed.
Hill was declared bankrupt with liabilities of over £1.2 million in 1912. He suffered with cirrhosis of the liver for the last four years of his life and died in 1915. He was succeeded as manager of London Brick by his son, John Edgar Hill (1887 – 1937).
London Brick introduced the first fletton facing brick in 1923. It is a relatively inexpensive and versatile brick that used Lower Oxford Shale Clay. It is now readily identifiable as a standard housebuilding brick.
The Malcolm Stewart era
B J Forder & Son, controlled by Sir Halley Stewart (1838 – 1937), acquired London Brick in 1923. The merged business was known as London Brick Company & Forders. Stewart appointed his son, Malcolm Stewart (1872 – 1951), as company chairman in 1924.
London Brick Company & Forders was the largest brickmaker in the world by 1931. Four million bricks a day were produced.
London Brick Company & Forders extended its distribution throughout England during the interwar period.
The name of the company reverted to London Brick from 1936.
John Edgar Hill died with a net personalty valued at £344,807 in 1937.
Stewart was made a baronet in 1937.
A company record was broken in March 1938 when over 167 million bricks were produced. London Brick held around 25 percent of the British brick market.
With a production of 1.75 billion bricks per annum, London Brick had by far the largest capacity in the world by 1946.
Stewart retired as chairman in 1950 and died the following year. He left a net estate valued at £522,965.
Continued growth of the business
London Brick established the largest brickmaking works in the world at Stewartby in Bedfordshire in the early 1950s. Complete with a model village for the workforce, the site could produce twelve million bricks a week.
The Scottish market was entered in the 1950s.
The Calvert Works in Buckinghamshire were extended in 1962. A new kiln was installed to increase capacity by 50 million bricks per annum. After installation, the Calvert Works was established as the second largest brickmaking site in Britain.
A new brickworks was opened at King’s Dyke, near Peterborough, in the late 1960s.
By 1974 London Brick controlled the entire British fletton brick market, and 41 percent of the total British brick market, and was the largest brickmaker in the world.
Around 7,000 people were employed in 1982.
Hanson restructures the business
London Brick was acquired by Hanson Trust for £247 million in 1984. Hanson was already one of the largest brickmakers in Britain through its Buttlerley subsidiary.
Hanson Trust typically acquired declining businesses, but Lord Hanson (1922 – 2004) asserted that London Brick was “essentially a well-run and managed company with a good market”. However upon acquiring the company he discovered that the industry was in steady decline. The kilns were inefficient and required replacement. London Brick’s British market share had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent between 1981 and 1985.
Lord Hanson fired the managing director, James Bristow, who later criticised Hanson’s “greed and misunderstanding of the industry … he was paying far too much for the business and couldn’t hope to get a proper return”.
1,264 people, a quarter of the London Brick workforce, were made redundant due to falling demand in 1985. Lord Hanson commented, “there are ups and downs in certain markets. We did not lay off people at London Brick to make more money. This was to save the company, which has lost market share.”
Hanson doubled profits at London Brick between 1984 and 1988.
The Stewartby works were the largest brickworks in the world in 1990, producing 10.5 million bricks a week.
The Calvert brickworks were closed with the loss of 336 jobs in 1991.
London Brick employed 1,750 people in 1992.
Hanson merged London Brick and Butterley in 1995. The two companies manufactured over one billion bricks a year, and held around 30 percent of the domestic market.
The post-Hanson era
Hanson was acquired by HeidelbergCement in 2007.
The Stewartby brickworks were closed in 2008. The site would have required substantial investment to meet UK limits for sulphur dioxide emissions due to the type of clay used.
HeidelbergCement sold its United States and British building products businesses to Lone Star Funds for $1.4 billion in 2015.
The British brickmaking business was listed on the London Stock Exchange as Forterra with a valuation of £360 million in 2016. Forterra was the second largest brickmaker in Britain, with a quarter of the market.
The London or fletton brick is still produced by Forterra at the King’s Dyke Works.