How did an illiterate man establish the largest brickworks in Britain?
George Smeed (1811 – 1881) was born in Sittingbourne, Kent. He received little formal education. He worked for a period as a hawker, sleeping underneath roadside bushes at night. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a small public house.
Smeed acquired a plot of land at Sittingbourne and established a brickworks in 1845.
Smeed became one of the largest employers in Kent. He was the largest brickmaker in England by 1871.
Smeed succeeded due to his business acumen, energy and foresight. A John Bull-type figure, he was a colourful man, inclined to use strong language. He was illiterate, and long after he became wealthy he could barely sign his name.
Smeed was joined by his son-in-law, George Hambrook Dean (1834 – 1924), to form Smeed Dean & Co in 1875.
Smeed Dean was the largest brick manufacturer in Britain, and produced over 60 million bricks in 1877.
Smeed was presented with a portrait, funded by public subscription, in recognition of his charitable works in 1878.
When Smeed died in 1881 he operated the largest brickmaking works in the world. His obituary in the Western Press hailed him as “the making of Sittingbourne”. He left a personal estate valued at £160,000. Dean succeeded him as head of the company.
Smeed Dean employed 1,400 workers by 1902, and paid up to £80,000 a year in wages.
Dean died with an estate valued at £184,929 in 1924. He left bequests to various Baptist organisations, and insisted upon a humble funeral.
Smeed Dean & Co
Following the death of Dean the business was registered as Smeed Dean & Co. The company estimated that three billion Smeed Dean bricks had been used in London alone by 1925. The company was the largest producer of stock bricks in Britain in 1926.
2,000 men at the North East Kent brickworks went on strike regarding pay in 1926.
Smeed Dean was acquired by Dunstable Portland Cement Company in 1927. The Sittingbourne site was modernised at a cost of nearly £100,000.
Dunstable Portland Cement Company was acquired by Red Triangle for £1 million in 1928. It created one of the largest cement and brick manufacturers in Britain, and was the largest supplier of general building materials.
An automated brickmaking plant had been installed at Sittingbourne by 1929. It was capable of manufacturing 20 million London stock bricks per annum, and was the largest of its kind in Europe. In total Smeed Dean produced 60 million bricks a year at Sittingbourne; London stock, red facing and multi-coloured. The company owned 80 barges for brick transportation.
Red Triangle was acquired by Associated Portland Cement, best known for the Blue Circle brand, in 1931.
The Sittingbourne site manufactured 14 million Smeed Dean pale yellow bricks in 1980.
Smeed Dean bricks continue to be manufactured at the Sittingbourne site.