Chawley stands on the Cumnor ridge, a situation that affords fine views to the north and west. Its former claim to fame was its clay and brickworks.
Chawley was well suited for the local production of lime and bricks because of the occurence there of the materials needed. It stood on strata of Corailian limestone and Kimmeridge Clay. The availability in the parish of limestone rubble fore-stalled for many centuries the use of brick in Cumnor, while traditional thatch and Stonestield slate were preferred to clay tiles.
Bricks and tiles had of course been made in the region since Romano- British times. By the mid-14th century tiles were selling for 2s 6d a thousand in Oxford. In the 18th century a tax was imposed upon both products but removed from tiles in 1833 and from bricks in 1850. By 1860 there were 69 brickworks in Oxfordshire.
It may have been the incentive of tax abolition that moved John Neale, a farmer at Chawley, to start making bricks and tiles. He is first mentioned being involved in this trade in 1846. The 1851 census shows John Neale, born in Cumnor, married to Elizabeth, farmer of 70 acres and kiinman, employing 7 labourers.
Bricks had been used in the rear extension of Cumnor vicarage and earlier at Red House Farm and a home in Botley. Nevertheless a big demand did not arise until early Victorian times, when the Great Western Railway's arrival stimulated a building boom in West Oxford.
On 28th February 1857 an advertisement appeared in the 'Oxford Journal':
'Chawley Brickworks and Lime Kiln,Cumner.
Elizabeth Neale begs to inform her friends and the public in general that she intends, with the assistance of her son, to continue the business carried on by her late husband; and hopes, by strict attention to business and punctuality to orders, to merit their patronage and support'.
By 1871 Elizabeth Neale was employing 9 labourers at Chawley. Her farm became known as Brick Kiln Farm. The kiln in fact lay on the east, opposite side, of the road to Faringdon.
The 1876 O.S. map shows a small clay pit just across the road and another nearby. The kiln was probably a Dutch kiln in which bricks and tiles were fired together. There were lime kilns along Chawley Hurst lane and another clay pit was being opened up nearer Cumnor Hurst. The latter exploited a 40 f oot layer of Kimmeridge Clay. It was easy to dig and contained 8% of bituminous materials which burnt during firing. Chawley was one of the last, and largest, works to exploit this particular clay.
It would seem that the Earl of Abingdon took over the works in 1877. The Neale family had been his tenants. The family maintained a connection, however; Hilda Neale, living in Hurst Lane, said that her grandfather was manager in the early 20th century and her father was foreman.
The Earl of Abingdon increased the investment in the works. The date 1879 was placed on a boiler house and on a pair of cottages tiled with 'treacle tiles' (plus a caricature of his Lordship) in the Eynsham Road at Botley Pound. The back of the premises was used for drying and storing tiles, brought down from Chawley on a narrow gauge railtrack.
In 1879 quarrymen were opening up pits on the hillside below the Hurst, and while driving a tunnel for rail tracks into one of them, found the bones of a large Pliosaurus,, the rest of which was excavated by Professor J.Prestwich. The skeleton is now in the University Museum. Other fossilised remains have been discovered include Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus.
The 1881 census shows 6 brickmakers, 1 kiln labourer, 1 brick burner, 1 sawyer, and William Neale of Chawley cottages as manager at the works. The business was listed in 1883 as 'Brick, tile and drainpipe makers, wheelwrights and steam joinery works'. The original kiln had been lengthened to about 100 feet and widened, and the introduction of a Hoffman continuous kiln (the first came into Britain after 1856) meant a considerable advance in fuel efficiency as hot gases from the firing stage dried out and warmed up unfired bricks. The chambers were fired from the top with small coals and temperatures reached 950 degrees C. The hot gases, after passing through drying chambers, were carried up a tall chimney which became a local landmark.
The Chawley bricks were hard, water-resistant and of a pleasant orange colour. Some were hand-made, and expensive, others were wire cut. 'Chawley blues' were even more hard and durable. A timber business developed on the site, with trees being brought from estates for miles around.
The accounts of the Earl of Abingdon in the Bodleian Library give details of the employees and the rents of their tied cottages. In 1899 the works made a good profit.
Immediately after the Great War a lot of bricks were produced but could not be sold. Production had to close down till the surplus stock had been disposed of. Wages remained low and in 1921 there was a strike for better pay, eventually resolved by a rise of ls Od but not before several workers were sacked and ejected by bailiffs from their cottages with their furniture put in the street.
Trade revived as building increased and in one record year 5 million bricks were produced. In 1930 a disastrous fire demolished the engine house, sawmill and part of the brick plant.
Older residents have recalled the brickworks. In winter the clay was dug by hand, using 18 inch long grafts. The clay was taken by rail skip to weathering heaps near the works. From 1925 to 1932 the diggers were paid 5d per cubic yard. They often kept clay fossils for sale to visiting parties of geological students. In order to make more money they made flowerpots and clay whistles in the shape of birds.
The cut bricks were air-dried in the yard and surrounding fields, and were protected from the sun's heat by hack- boards on the more exposed sites. The firing cycle took a month. A team of men was paid ls 6d per thousand bricks for setting in the kiln, ls Od for emptying the chamber, and 2s 6d for loading a lorry. A lorry held about 3,000 bricks, though some steam waggons took 5,000. In the 1920s up to 85 men were employed altogether. Bricks were delivered to the district using two teams of horses, stabled at Brick Kiln Farm, while traction engines pulling two trailers were also used.
The men should have been provided with gloves when emptying the kiln, but used pieces of cut-up motor tyres. They threw buckets of cold water over one another to cool themselves.
Tiles were also made, some hard red, some with a brownish glaze called 'treacle tiles'. The store yard on the Eynsham Road by Tilbury Lane was not used after 1908 but the rail track was still used to the Eynsham Road, taking down bricks for local buyers and taking up coal.
This continued till 1913. The trucks ran on gravity, a man riding on one of the wagons, using a brake to control the descent. The brickworks made their own trucks; they also made wagons, timber trolleys, field gates andwheelbarrows. The blacksmith (Mr Wickson) made the metal rims for the wheels; he also shoed horses after the Curnnor village blacksmith gave up. Mr Sirnms made the wheel hubs.
Timber from lord Abingdon's testate, which included Wytham Woods, had always been felled as a crop and brought to the saw-rnill by carts or bogies drawn by two horses. Four strong horses were kept, two to each cart. A cart would hold three large trees and it would be a day's work to load and carry them home. Timber was also collected from other farms and estates, including lord Valentia's at Bletchington.. Jack Adams recalls that if the shire horses brought timber from Appleton, they were unharnessed at Cumnor duck pond and allowed to drink their fill - 'a wonderful sight'.
The brick trade had its ups and downs. At one time there were a million bricks stacked unsold in the yard. Lord Abingdon used some of these to build cottages for tenants. He also provided beef from Fred Butterfield's for the men's Christmas dinner. They received a joint according to the position they held and years of service
The Chawley Timber, Brick and Tile Company was bankrupt in 1937. The last workers, George Avery and Fred Dideock, never did receive their pay.
While there was talk of closing and bankruptcy, two of the workers, George Avery and Wilson, were ordered to go with the lorry to a wine merchant some distance away and bring it back full with whisky and wine to the Manager's house. This rankled sore with the workers at the time. In 1946 a court case was pending against him for embezzlement of money. He died two weeks before the hearing.Because of alleged corruption, Chawley Works was not a happy place.The works finally closed down at the beginning of the Second World War.
Their bricks could not compete in price with the cheap 'Flettons' of the London Brick Company, which used more advanced technology. As early as 1936 some of the land was sold off for building, allowing the start of Bertie and Norreys Road.
The company had a sawmill which continued on the site. This was acquired in 1942 by Mr Kemp, formerly Kempfer, a Jewish refugee who had come from Hungary in 1939. His cor-npany became 'Timbmet' and in 1954 it purchased the rest of the site from the Earl of Abingdon. The familiar chimneys stood till 1956, when the Oxford Mail bore a photograph with the caption 'Cumnor Eyesore to Go'. But for Fred Messenger the greatest irony came after he lost his job with the closure of the works - taking employment as a lorry driver he found himself delivering cheap London Company bricks.
As a result of the Cumnor History Society's researches, a second terracotta cartoon of Lord Abingdon was found and restored by Timbmet. This had been on a building in Chawley Works.
Memories of the Works
Fred Messenger' remembered the works well. Born in 1911, he came to Cumnor when his father was demobilised after the Great War, having served in the Flying Corps. His father took a job at the brickworks and lived in the terrace of red brick cottages in Hurst lane.
Fred said there were three or four lime kilns at Chawley. They were circular or horse-shoe shaped, built of stone with a wicket or stone arched door on one side and ventilation shafts at the bottom. The coral rag limestone was put alternately with coke in 18 inch layers to the top of the kiln, a wood fire having been laid beneath. The top was sealed with stone rubble and earth. The wicket was sealed withstones, then plastered over with mud. The fire was lit and left to burn for 3 or 4 days. When it had cooled, the pieces of lime were removed. This was hot lime which, if put in a bucket with water, made it possible to boil a kettle of water on it by the chemical action. This, when the water was poured off, was fine hydrated or slaked lime, used in plaster and for liming clay soils to improve their fertility. Fred said some gardeners made their own lime in this way.
Fred's father made sand stock or hand-made bricks in wooden moulds or frames. A striker was used to level the clay in the mould and a plinth was used to move the bricks when wet. When the weather was wet the men moulding bricks could not work because they took so long to dry outdoors. There was a machine to make ridge tiles and drainpipes, which were baked in the small kiln near the road.
The big kilns were fed with coal through fire holes at the top with iron lids. Day and night they had to be stoked every half hour. If the weather changed overnight the men in Hurst Lane were awoken by the night stoker knocking on their door. They were paid 3s Od for a night call-out.
Fred remembered the 1930 fire. One night the hooter sounded and they ran out to see the buildings in flames. Fred, then employed there, ran into the carpenter's shop to rescue his tools.
Work started at 7 am, with a half hour break for breakfast, an hour for lunch, finishing the day at 5 pm. If men lived near the works they went home in these breaks, otherwise they brought a packed lunch and a bottle of cold tea.
Fred Costar remembers the strike of 1921. At a union meeting held in the 'old pound' by the tythe barn in Cumnor, people threw money into a hat to help the workers on strike for more pay. He also recalled Willoughby -losing a leg in the saw mill and that he was given a cottage in compensation. There were no deeds to be found when the family came to sell the cottage.
Fred Costar recalled that a bricklayer would be paid £1 a thousand bricks laid and the brickwork of Chawley Villas was done in ten days. Monty Sherwood earned £30, including setting the grates. At the works there were two gangs working on machine bricks and one going on sandstock bricks. There was a shird with rnouldr, for making ridge tiles and land drains. The timber brought in was sawn with a steam saw and was used to make gates, wheelbarrows and clog soles which were made with a band saw. Sawn planks were also sold. An auction was held every so often to sell any surplus. Charley Neale, the foreman, thought the works could not carry on without him, but when one year he was ill for six weeks he had to admit 'You're right. You get on very well without me.'.
Reg Costar was the son of Charles William ('Dad Chartie') Costar and was 16 when he went to work at Chawley where his father was foreman. He remembered that clay was fed into a hopper and through the brick cutting machine in strips. His father cut it with wire, ten bricks at a time. Four boys were responsible for picking up the bricks with soft pads (to prevent finger prints on them) and placing them in tens on oiled boards. The boys would then in turn ride down on the truck with 50 bricks. They removed two bricks on the top plank to give them space to sit and they would control the truck with a brake stick. They then ran all the way back to the cutting machine. At the other end of the rail bricks were stacked three high with air spaces in between. It took two days to complete an 'ack' cover as the bottom three layers had to be partially dry before they would take the weight of the next three, otherwise they werecrushed.
The rate of pay was 6s per thousand bricks between five men and four boys. If they were lucky they earned 35s per week but the weather and the speed of the machine meant that sometimes only £1 was earnt. It was a sore point that the wire cut brick-making machine was at times restricted in its speed by the manager so that workers could not earn excessive wages by piecework. Brickmaking was restricted to the frost-free months as they were dried out of doors. The bricks were fired in two kilns with square chimneys.
In the winter the brick workers quarried at Rockley on the Faringdon road. Stone had to be stacked 1 yard high and so many yards square. Pay was 2s 6d per cubic yard of best stone, Is 6d for soft stone and Is Od for a cubic yard of sand. There was a stone crushing machine with three grading sieves.
Albert Holloway's father worked at Chawley until the strike of 1921. The family lived in one of the tied cottages in Curnnor High Street. After the strike, he said, the police and bailiffs came and put all their furniture and possessions out on the street and he lost his home and employment. Mr Arthur Wastie, living then at Westfield Farm, put the two groups of cottagers and their furniture in his barn as a temporary measure. The trade union took the children, including Albert and his sister, away to a union home in the south-east for several weeks until the parents found new employment and homes.
Jim Nash recollects a 'milestone inspector' (tramp) sitting underneath the signboard outside the brickyard. He carefully counted a handful of coins and shoved them in his pocket. These he had gained by begging. The passing workers eyed him inquisitively. 'Ah', he exclairned, pointing at the signboard,' Chawley Works, but Tommy don't !'
Mrs Reg Coster was the daughter of Willoughby, the chief sawyer at Chawley sawmill. Her family came from London and they lived at the 'Mangle Pits', one storey thatched cottages with no 'mod cons' on the pick of Hurst Lane. Two families lived in these cottages, which were later demolished. Her father met with an accident at the sawmill. The saw had been moved because of the fire and the guard had not been put back on it. He was awarded £70 compensation but he had no job and a family to bring up. He used the £70 to buy the tied cottage he lived in by then in Cumnor High Street. He paid the money to Lord Abingdon's estate agent.
Mrs Hilda Coster recalled that pay at Chawley was low and all piece work. Workers left Chawley for better pay at the brickworks at Wheatley in Oxfordshire. The men took a billycan of cold tea to quench their thirst and their midday meal would be the top of a loaf with a hunk of cheese or fat bacon on it.
Miss Hilda Neale and her twin sister were born in the house at the corner of Chawley lane in 1897. Their father was Charlie Neale, foreman at the works. His pay was 15s a week. The family moved to a house at the brickyard and later to 21 Hurst lane. They were strictly brought up, their father keeping a cane beside the table to deal with any misbehaviour or bad manners at once. The. girls had one penny pocket money each week. Hilda remembered her mother getting up very early to have time to walk into Oxford, pushing the pram containing the three children (Hilda had a brother), doing the shopping and getting back to Chawley to get father's dinner at twelve o'clock.
Jack Webb recollected that Bill Sallis and Will Brown used to drive the timber carts. Five or six of the clay diggers formed a club or union to come out on strike in 1921. That day the two woodmen got up early and were away to the woods- they did not wish to lose a day's pay. Lord Abingdon was told his men were on strike. He let his bailiff know that he was going to the House of Lords that day. When he returned he offered the men another ls a week.
Reginald Jefferies told how after the First World War the works bought two of the mules, sold off by the War Department, used to drag stetchers over the battlefields. These mules belonged to a 'union' and one 'Butcher' Neale was responsible for them and used to drive the rnule waggon. One day he had a load of bricks to deliver to Appleton and they had to be unloaded and stacked by hand. He was away from the road when he turned and saw the mules and cart tearing off down the road back home. It was past 5 pm. Butcher gave chase but when he caught up with them they were already in the brickyard, with most of the bricks still in the wagon. The mules (nocked off at five even if Neale didn't.
The original kiln, which was opposite Brick Kiln Farm on the other side of the main road, was 100 ft long and had )een widened. By 1898 the Hoffman kiln had been built. This was composed of two semi-continuous kilns built back o back and had holes cut through the lividing wall at each end to make it operate continuously. These apertures vere too small so that 'getting round he end' was always a problem. These were introduced into Britain in 1856, saved fuel by using the hat gases from he firing stage to dry the bricks, but at a later date was not thought to make much economy. In 1911 a second Hoffman kiln, a true one with rounded ends, was built by lord Abingdon at a cost of £1,000. It had a covered top and was 115 feet by 55 feet. Earlier kilns were open at the top and sometimes filled from the top, furze gorse being used to flash fire them to a high temperature. At an old kiln in Freeland coal was piled on top of thegorse, then a layer of bricks, followed by more layers of coal and bricks- a primitive method of filling the kiln. The early kilns at Chawley may have used the same method. The hard red Chawley tiles, to be seen on the barn at Chawley farm, were fired in the early kilns. How the so-called treacle tiles, giving a glazed brown appearance, were made remains something of a mystery.
Thanks are due to the many people who contributed information about the Chawley Works.