An edited version of ‘The hunt for bricks, tiles and pots’ by Dr.John Marshall in the CIHS Newsletter for May 1990, by kind permission of the author

(Page created 19/04/05)


Reake Wood tile kiln (G.Brambles)


Drains, like sewers, do not make people excited. Yet these valuable artefacts play a huge part in any form of civilised life. What is more, the builders of our great industrial towns seem to have commenced their work with precious little knowledge of either. When challenged about the huge crisis of cleanliness and sanitation which marked the early growth of these towns in the 1840’s, a well-known economic historian said, in a radio discussion, “well, you cannot blame them really…… the fact is that nobody really knew how to mass-produce the simple drainpipe!” Like a good many historical truths ( if truth it is ), then this one really does strain the credulity; the Britain which could produce a James Watt, and which led the world in many kinds of invention, couldn’t make a simple earthenware pipe? In fact pipes were undoubtedly in people’s minds, but the market of those days didn’t give them priority. They were being used on landed estates in the forties, and Sir James Graham of Netherby near the Border encouraged drainage tile manufacture by one Benjamin Lucock as early as the 1820’s. Where towns were concerned it was simpler to erect houses and then to think of the drainage afterwards. There was little Money in the conducting away of Muck.

The drainage problem related to farm land too. When writing about Furness and Cartmel in about 1809, William Dickson (General view of the Agriculture of Lancashire, London 1815) made it very clear that despite all the big improvements in agriculture that were then being made, nobody had really studied land drainage as such; experiments in that direction were usually confined to the digging of drainage ditches and dykes, although the occasional trench filled with stones was not unheard of. Accordingly, fields often remained half-flooded in bad weather, with clusters of rank rushes where good pasture should have been.

This remained the case over much of Cumbria until the 1840’s, and then came a large transformation, brought about chiefly by great landowners who had a strong interest in improving the value of their land. The two most prominent landlords were Lord Lonsdale in Cumberland and the Earl of Burlington in Furness and Cartmel. There had been a practice of digging shallow trenches on the larger farms, although many smaller farmers did not even do this. During the 1840’s much of this changed. It became known that the value of a field could be transformed if you dug a trench up to three feet deep, and put tiles which were horse-shoe shaped in section at the bottom, with the open end downward, resting on pieces of slate thrown out by the slate quarries of the fells. When covered in the whole made a satisfactory land drain, especially if the trenches were only eight yards apart and if the underground conduits thus made led to a larger ditch at the side of the field.

The horse-shoe tiles seem to have remained in production at local tileries for only a few years,and then cylindrical drainage pipes were substituted – we are still talking of the 1840’s. During those few years, a large part of lowland Furness and Cumberland was transformed by drainage.

The two most prominent tileries in southern Cumbria were undoubtedly those at Frith, near Holker Hall, and at Sowerby Wood near present-day Barrow. Both were owned by the Earl of Burlington (later the 7th Duke of Devonshire) and of course they were intended to benefit the Earl’s tenants. But we have to remember that the Earl was also the patron of the North Lancashire Agricultural Society, then flourishing, and that the tiles and pipes were advertised through the Society too. Accordingly many hundreds of thousands of them were sold from these tileries


The local clay was used for raw material. It is conjectured that this was then mixed into an even constituency in a circular mixing pit with the use of a horse gin, and then further mixed in a pug mill, which extruded the clay into suitable shapes. A wire cutting device sliced off the lengths into suitable sections, and the raw or “green” tiles and pipes were put into the kiln.

Coal must have been used in great quantities in the kilns, although after the opening of the Furness Railway it was available in the district in bulk. In the case of Frith it was evidently imported via the quay at Park Head on the Leven Estuary, where a “Coal House” is marked on early ordnance maps.

Featured site

Reake Wood Tile Kiln