Building bricks of working life

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Ever get afternoons when you just don’t feel like doing anything much? You do? Surely not every afternoon?

OK then, I’m a freak as they don’t happen to me very often. Anyway, the other day I was at a loose end, sitting at my slow, old computer – I think it needs a new wick or similar – and with an absence of inspiration to write anything creative, I turned to what some call surfing the net. A harmless pastime whereby you pick a topic and click on it. The computer will then lead you through a string of other subjects either linked to your first choice or topics you viewed in the recent past.

In my case I was trawling through places that were milestones of my misspent youth in Kent. Schooldays at St Ghastly’s Academy, several army barracks, a range of public houses and workplaces where I earned my crust in pre-Scotland days.

One such workplace was Hammill Brickworks where I had a fill-in job for several months.

In its 1960s form the brickworks epitomised the need for subsequent legislation concerning health and safety at work. OK, it did have accident-prevention precautions such as guards on most of the machinery and notices advising one not to put a hand on certain parts of the firing kiln if you wanted to maintain the correct number of digits. There were even large extractor fans fighting a losing battle against the high levels of clay dust that swirled around, but it could never be specified as a good working environment.

To man a brick-pressing machine, you needed to be fit and agile, as the bricks came off the presses in pairs to be shifted to a small conveyor belt taking them through a machine coating them with tinted sand that looked a lot like fish-dressing crumbs.

Another pair of hands then lifted them as they emerged to be stacked in piers for firing on bogies. The simple act of stacking bricks on bogies was a precision task to be carefully learned if the green bricks were not to tumble in the tunnel kiln, the blocking of which was a major disaster as production would come to a grinding halt until the debris was cleared.

The press hands worked as a team, changing places at regular intervals to rest those on more strenuous tasks. In the few weeks I worked in a press team I lost a stone in weight, drank a gallon of water a day and soon developed a hacking cough similar to that of a sheep folded on frozen turnips.

The general foreman – a really nice bloke – took pity on me, switching my work to the yard gang who worked outdoors transferring the finished bricks emerging from the tunnel kiln either to waiting lorries or to a large area where the bricks were stacked to await sale. At busy times this could involve shifting something like 180,000 bricks a week, every one requiring hand transfer on at least four occasions – now that’s what you call labour intensive!

Once fired, the bricks were very abrasive – ordinary industrial gloves did not last a morning with the yard gang. Human skin even less. Instead we made things called “cotts” from old lorry inner tubes to protect our palms, which were the main point of contact with the bricks.

The correct loading style avoided actually picking up a brick, as they were palmed off the stack until four or five were stacked vertically on the right hand, then swung to the waiting lorry and laid in careful rows. Correctly-loaded bricks needed no rope or sheet, relying on their weight and friction qualities to bind together.

Losing a load was rare, usually the result of exterior influences such as the lorry driver needing to take urgent avoiding action on the road.

Although my time at the brickworks was not the best job I ever had, there was a feel to the place that mitigated much of the harsh working conditions. The guys who worked there were a mixed bunch who closely identified with whichever part of the process they worked.

The presses started at 6 am sharp, by which time the clay-drying blokes had already put in half of their working day, with the yard gang kicking off at 7am. The elite kiln firers worked 24-hour shifts, but had their own wee howff by the kiln.

Most of the general workforce had been at the brickworks for years, a few even since the premises were built during the 1920s.

Some were past retiring age, but that did not seem to matter much in those days, and most of them had odd quirks that were rather interesting.

One man had never been known to have anything other than cheese and onion in his pieces, claiming it was the best way to avoid being nailed by the dust.

I could not argue with that as he had been there for 40 years – while I fell foul of the stuff within a couple of weeks.

Another would sit alone and quietly sing to himself, but everyone had their own special seat in the canteen and recent additions to the workforce were quickly informed of this protocol.

I soon discovered that the yard gang were tough to the point of stroppy. They worked outdoors in all weathers, clad in oilskins most of the winter and stripped to the waist in summer. They all smoked hand-rolled fags and could be readily identified, as their weathered faces were in stark contrast to the pallor of the press team.

Sadly, the brickworks fell victim to the big building slump of 2008, having struggled for many years. I found the derelict remains on a website as I browsed my time away.

There is a plan to redevelop the site with houses and industrial units, which can only be a good thing, but it stirred many memories for me as I was born within a quarter-mile of the place when my dad worked on an adjacent farm after leaving the army.

When they bulldoze the ruined works, part of me will disappear – and, strangely, I will have a few regrets.

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