The Bulmer Brick and Tile Company for the craft of traditional brick making, Suffolk

Finalist for the Best Craftsperson or Apprentice on a Heritage Rescue or Repair Project, sponsored by Ecclesiastical, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

For over 80 years the Bulmer Brick & Tile Company has been mining rich seams of London clay in Suffolk to hand make bricks for heritage projects all around the country and further afield. Though often overlooked in a finished restoration, the bricks are key to its integrity, as is the little-known craft of traditional brickmaking. 

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‘In the blood’

“Brickmaking gets into your blood,” says Peter Minter, whose father started the brickmaking business in 1936. At 85, Peter Minter is still excited by the firm’s current portfolio of jobs, which include high-profile projects at Hampton Court Palace, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland.

But he is still equally as absorbed in the challenge of making bricks to match any historic buildings, he says. Since the early years of ploughing a lonely furrow as traditional brick makers, demand for the family’s skills has continued to grow, and in recent years they have started to receive more enquiries from overseas.

The Bulmer Brick & Tile Co is a family affair, employing two of Peter Minter’s sons, two grandsons and his daughter-in-law. “We each have our own areas of focus and it works beautifully,” says Peter Minister. Together, they bring a wealth of specialist knowledge of the fabric of historic buildings.

Bulmer is located on clays that have been used by brick makers for around 500 years and is continuing this practice of turning the clay into bricks with traditional methods of making, drying and fired in a coal burning, down draught kiln that give the bricks a distinctive finish. The Minter family has continued use of Tudor brickmaking techniques and, as well as many thousands bricks each year for historic structures all over the country and further afield, today they are often called on for advice on matching bricks.

Inspiration

Many of the historic buildings that Bulmer has worked on date from around the 15th century when the use of brick first began to take off, and these include the Grade 1 listed Hampton Court Palace, which offers a perfect example of the craftsmanship involved in traditional brickmaking. Peter Minter has been working at the palace since 1975 and estimates that it incorporates around 150,000 of their bricks.

Most recently, the long-term restoration has focused on the Barracks Block, which was originally two buildings for William III to house the foot guards and house guards, erected in 1679. Before work could commence, research and an analysis of the original bricks was undertaken allowing a faithful match to be achieved.

Another example of the family’s specialist knowledge and craftsmanship can be seen at Queen Anne’s Summerhouse, a Grade II listed building in Old Warden, Bedfordshire, which had fallen into disrepair and had a collapsed roof by the time restoration began in 2008.

Research for the restoration established that the building was in fact a Baroque-style folly from the early 18th century rather than a 19th century building, as had been suggested by a date stone that had been added at a later stage. A grant from English Heritage enabled the Minters to hire two apprentices for the project, where they learned about the processes involved in producing the rubbed and gauged brickwork required to achieve the exacting finish. The site was also opened to schoolchildren so they could get a taste of the craft of traditional brickmaking.

Why this category?

The Minters have revived the craft of traditional brickmaking and led the use of handmade bricks in heritage projects for decades. The family’s willingness to look carefully at the fabric of each historic building has enabled the business to grow from a small specialist firm that once matched single tiles and bricks for individual customers into a thriving business that says it is as proud to work on high-profile projects for clients like the National Trust and English Heritage as on much smaller projects. For Peter Minter, like all true artisans, the fascination remains chiefly with the properties of the raw material – in this case, clay – and in the craft.

“There is always a new challenge,” he says, “whether it’s looking for new sources of clay or sand to match bricks, or figuring out how we are going to produce bricks for a new project that uses bricks made in the early days of the engine.” A former farmer, he likens traditional brickmaking to farming in that it is a way of life. “Seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he says. “We never stop thinking about bricks.”

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