To the north east of Penn Common, on the slopes of the Colton Hills, is an area of open countryside known as The Seven Cornfields. Although it is now associated with Pennwood Farm, and has a long agricultural past, it was once the site of an important local industry, brick making.

Large numbers of bricks were needed for new housing developments, as Wolverhampton expanded to cater for its growing population. The Black Country changed dramatically as industrialisation began to dominate the landscape, and people moved into the area to find employment in the new factories. During the 19th century the UK population almost trebled, but the increase in the local population was far greater. Population increases of up to 8 fold occurred in some areas, as the proportion of people living in towns increased from 20% to 80%.

The fine glacial clay deposits on the southern side of Wolverhampton were ideal for brick making, and so several brickworks were built in the area. Most Black Country towns had at least one brick-maker who took full advantage of the locally mined coal and the excellent canal and road network that covered the area. Brickkiln Street in Wolverhampton is named after the brick kilns that once stood there, and others could be found on the southern boundary of the old town.

The location of Penn Brickworks.

On the eastern side of Dudley Road stood the Elm Farm Brickworks, and Pheonix Brickworks, along with several others around Ettingshall Park.

There were also a number of brickworks around Himley and in Gornal Wood, and in more recent times the one at Baggeridge.

It is possible that a brickworks once occupied part of the site of Windsor Avenue playing fields, in Penn, because the old meadow that once stood along the northern side of Linton Road was called Near Brickkiln.

Penn Brickworks

Penn brickworks has long disappeared, but the site has never been redeveloped, and today is scattered with remains from the demolished buildings and the old spoil heaps.

No documentary information about the works has so far been discovered, but it is marked on old maps, and is remembered by the descendants of the last owner, Samuel Flavell. Unfortunately the descendants of the original owners, the Lakin family, know nothing about the business, other than that it was owned by the family. What follows is based on evidence from old maps, remains from the site, and standard 19th century brick-making techniques. Luckily the remnants of the spoil heaps, which have now almost disappeared, gave an insight into what was made at the works, and possibly when.

Local landowners, the Lakin family, lived in Carlton House, which stood where Sandhurst Drive is today. The house stood on the Colton Hills, near the top of Sandhurst Drive, just below the summit ridge. The family is listed in the Wolverhampton Red books, as living in Carlton House, until the 1930 edition, but is not listed afterwards. By 1951 the house was occupied by the Gough family, who were poulterers. They appear to have occupied the house until its demolition in the late 1960s when the current houses in Sandhurst Drive were built.

The location of the brickworks, the gravel pits, and Carlton House.

A filled-in clay hole, now only a few inches deep.

The last ice age glacier to cross the site, deposited gravels at the top of the ridge, and clay on the far eastern side.

The Lakins fully exploited their mineral rights by opening a gravel pit at the top of the ridge, and the brickworks on the eastern side above the clay.

Both sites were conveniently situated next to a relatively flat dirt track which led to Goldthorn Hill, and allowed the gravel and finished bricks to be easily transported from the site by horse and cart.

Until a few years ago the site of the brickworks was quite open, and much could be seen. During the last two or three years the site has changed beyond recognition. It is now completely overgrown, and in places is two metres deep in weeds and saplings. Many of the bricks lying around the site, both in the spoil heaps, and in the base of the factory walls, have been removed, as have many of the tiles from the floor of the kiln. It now looks almost identical to the other overgrown fields in the area.

Parts of a smaller flooded clay pit still survive, but have been filled-in, and are well fenced. The main clay pit was situated at the north eastern end of the site and is still remembered by the older members of the local community. It was deep, with steep sides, and like other clay pits, eventually filled with water. It became known as “The Danger Pool”, and people often tell the story of a horse and cart that fell into the pool, and also a young child who drowned there. In the mid 1930s the buildings were demolished, and in the 1970s, the pool was filled-in with rubble from the site. All traces of it are now gone.

The site of Penn Brickworks.

A Penn brick.

Evidence from the site

Until a few years ago, there was much to see. Remains of the buildings could be seen in the wooded area on the northern side of the site, along with old floor tiles, and the base of the kiln.

The lower courses of the outer factory walls were visible, as was the brick base of the steam engine.

There were some slate roof tiles, the top of the well, the remains of kiln fire holes, and parts from the curved kiln roof.

The main building was rectangular in plan, as could be seen from the base of the outer walls. It was built of brick and had a slate roof. There were two thick, heavy duty walls just inside the northern corner of the building, and what seemed to be a filled-in pit.

This appeared to be the base of a steam engine and boiler, with a pit for the flywheel. Locals sometimes referred to this part of the building as the engine house. The steam engine would have powered a pug mill for mixing the clay, and possibly driven a brick-making machine. It provided steam for drying the bricks, and probably powered a winch to lift the clay from the bottom of the deep clay hole.

What remains of the outer walls.

Some of the old bricks and tiles, pushed up by tree roots.

It is likely that most of the building would have been occupied by a steam-heated drying room, which was usually the largest part of any late 19th century brickworks. There was also an office, possibly situated at the northern end of the building near the entrance.

Some of the old bricks and tiles were pushed up by tree roots, and many others were still in the old spoil heaps, which consisted of the inevitable rejects that occurred thanks to the vagaries of the firing process. The remains of the spoil heaps contained a wide variety of bricks and tiles that were made over a long period of time.

The earliest examples were crude, hand-made products that contained a small percentage of gravel, presumably from the two nearby gravel pits, owned by the Lakin family. The gravel helped to lessen shrinkage during the firing process and so would have reduced the number of rejects.

There were many well-made standard bricks, facing bricks, bricks with scroll work or a motif, and also some high quality examples that look like terracotta. The more recent bricks were machine made, indicating that a degree of automation was later introduced.

Some of the bricks were of a lighter colour, and blistered, suggesting that crushed lime had been added. Many of the tiles scattered around the site are of a heavy industrial type. They are unusual in that they slot together and so would ensure an even surface and share a heavy load.

Another view of the bricks and tiles.

The well.

A good water supply was essential. Water would have been added to soften the freshly dug clay to give it the right consistency for moulding. The water came from a well, the top of which could be seen on the north eastern side of the main building.

The works had one kiln, about thirty feet in diameter, which could have had a capacity of up to 20,000 bricks, depending upon the height of the kiln and the stacking density. Much of the tiled base remained until recently. Sections of it were pushed-up by the small trees that grow in the area.

The circular kiln, with a chimney on one side, can be seen on old ordnance survey maps. It appears to be a downdraught kiln which would have been fired from eight or so fire holes.

One of the spoil heaps contained parts of the curved arches that formed the top of the fire holes, and another contained some of the tiles that formed the kiln roof.  

The bricks for the kiln must have been made on the site. The base was built using the company’s heavy duty interlocking floor tiles, which were extremely strong and hard wearing.

An impression of how the kiln might have looked.

Part of the curved top of one of the kiln's fire holes.

The Brickworks in Operation

In the early days the clay would probably have been dug out by hand, in lumps, placed in a soak pit, and left overnight to soften.

Roughly three cubic yards of clay produced about 1,000 bricks. It could then be mixed with water to form a suitable consistency for moulding.

There would have been at least one moulding table where bricks were moulded by hand, using four-sided wooden moulds with no top or bottom.

The wooden mould was placed over a rectangular piece of wood on the table, to form the frog, and the clay would be firmly pushed in. Finally the excess clay was cut from the top to form the completed brick, which would be removed from the mould and left to dry. Moulds were often lined with a dusting of sand to prevent the clay sticking.

The moulding tables would have been replaced by moulding machines, which must have produced the later, higher quality bricks. Mechanisation had several advantages over traditional methods. The pressure applied to the clay in the mould was much greater, leading to a denser and more uniform brick, which gave more consistent results, leading to fewer rejects. The machines would also have increased the number of bricks made.

The site of the kiln, showing floor tiles and bricks that have been pushed to the surface by tree roots. The kiln base is made of the company's interlocking floor tiles, several of which can be seen above.

Trees growing through the base of the kiln.

The moulded bricks would be stacked on racks to dry, where each brick could loose as much as half a pint of water.

Before the steam engine was installed, this would be a lengthy process because the bricks would take a considerable time to dry, possibly never fully drying in the winter months.

If this was the case, the brick-making would have been seasonal.

Another view of the site of the kiln.

The dried bricks would have been carefully stacked in the kiln, and coal in the fire hole grates would be lit to produce the hot gases that were directed upwards from baffles to the underside of the domed roof. The gases would then flow downwards through the stacked bricks and out through the chimney. The floor would be perforated for this purpose.

Once fired, the kiln would be fed with coal through the fire holes, and stoked every half an hour, both day and night. The kiln had to be constantly attended for around two days until it had reached a temperature of possibly 1,000 degrees centigrade. The firing then continued for a further day to maintain the temperature, while the bricks baked.

Three or four days later the kiln would have cooled down sufficiently for the bricks to be removed. The whole process took just over a week. Great care was needed to reduce the number of rejects. Some were to be expected, but a whole kiln-full would be disastrous. Two ruined kiln-fulls in a row could lead to bankruptcy.

Emptying the kiln must have been one of the most unpleasant tasks. It would have been emptied as soon as possible after the firing process, to maintain production. This meant that the kiln would still be quite warm, and the bricks would not have fully cooled.

Although all of the bricks in the kiln were made from the same clay, their final colour would depend upon their position in the kiln. The ones in the centre would reach a higher temperature and so could be darker and much harder than the others.

One of the floor tiles from the kiln.

The underside of a floor tile showing the clay-gravel mixture.

On the 1901 map there appears to be a ramp leading from the main building, down into the large clay pit, so the clay would have been hauled into the building on some kind of trolley, before being placed in the pug mill, which was probably near to the steam engine at the northern end of the building.

The map also shows two small outbuildings on the site. These could have been stables, coal bunkers, or coverings for the straw that would have been used for packing.

A number of people would have been employed on the site, mostly doing dirty and unpleasant work for little pay. Some would be digging clay, or operating the pug mill. Others would be operating the moulding machines or stacking the moulded bricks in the drying room.

The kiln would have a number of attendants who stacked the bricks, controlled the fires, and then emptied the kiln at the end of each firing. There would have been a person in charge of the boiler, and someone to look after the horses and carts that were used for transportation.

The top view of one of the unusual floor tiles.

Many of the tiles scattered around the site are of a heavy industrial type like the two above. They are unusual in that they slot together and so would ensure an even surface and share a heavy load.

If a quantity of bricks was ordered, the customer’s name could be stamped on the top of each brick. "Beacon View" cottage, owned by Len Collins, was built from Penn bricks, and the Collins name is on each brick. The cottage was built around 1890 by Len's grandfather, who was a milkman.

Around 1900, Samuel Flavell purchased the brickworks, which he ran for a number of years. He was born around 1836, and at the age of 24 married Rachel at Sedgley Parish Church. He was the underground Manager at Corbyns Hall Colliery, Dudley, where he gained an award for his handling of a pit fall. In the 1901 census he is listed as a brick manufacturer. His son Arthur, aged 20 is listed as a clerk in the office at the brickworks.

Samuel lived at 10 New Street, Gornalwood, and was proud of one of the large orders, which was for bricks for the building of Queen Victoria School in Bilston Street, Sedgley.

The transportation of the bricks became increasingly more expensive, and so Samuel decided call it a day. It appears that he tried to sell the business, but without success.

By this time Samuel lived at 12a Gospel End Street, Sedgley, not far from the old brickworks. Samuel and his son Arthur, and other members of the Flavell family would go for walks across Penn Common to see the works, and no doubt reminisce about ‘the good old days’. Samuel died in November 1927.

After closure, the buildings remained empty for some time, and were demolished in the mid 1930s.


Samuel Flavell. Courtesy of Cheryl Nicholls.

What remained of The Danger Pool in later years. Courtesy of Lawson Cartwright.

I would like to thank Cheryl Nicholls for information about the Flavell family and their involvement at the brickworks, and Martin Holland and other members of the Wolverhampton Archaeology Group for their help and interpretation of some of the artefacts on the site.

Return to the
Penn Menu