Well I guess you can’t write a blog about Highbrooms and it’s history without talking about the Highbrooms Brick and Tile Company (HBBC) at some point, especially as evidence of the unique industrial past is stamped all over the original houses built in the area. In a previous entry we talked about the geology of the area and the rich Wadhurst clay as part of the Wealden beds that are close to the surface in this area so it is not surprising that the Victorians would extract it to help with the mass building that took place as part of mass industrialisation swept the nation bringing in new wealth to many, the brick works in Highbrooms was not the only one operating in the area , there were also several along St Johns Road in Tunbridge Wells and another in Castle Hill, Tonbridge, but it is certainly the most celebrated.
There is evidence of there being brick works in the area from 1855 and the HBBC was founded by a Methodist builder, John Smith Weare, in 1885 and continued to operate as a family run business until 1968. Many a local school boy know of the family homestead of the Weares as the grand house was called ‘Southfields’ which stood on the land between St Johns Road, Powdermill Lane and Yew Tree Road, now owned by the Skinner’s School and used as their recreational playing fields.
There are also two adjacent roads in Highbrooms named after Weare and Andrew, who were the two directors of the HBBC.
The companies head office was located on the North Farm Road, where it still stands as the ‘PK Motors’ office today.The brick works was also located adjacent to the ‘Southborough train station’, nowadays renamed as the Highbrooms station, and it even had its own sidings so it could load and transport its products for wealthy clients in London.
Prior to the brickworks being established in the area, Highbrooms was occupied mainly by Romany-Irish gypsies living in small woodland encampments but when the new industry came it bought changes that rapidly shaped the development of the area into something closer to what we see today.
An indication of how much influence that the HBBC had on the establishment on the modern day Highbrooms is seen in the census where in 1871 the population was 28 but by 1891 it had grown to 1038. The latter census has ‘road caravans’ registered alongside built houses used as addresses on the Highbrooms Road. Many of the original Romany – Irish gypsies in the area still have their descendants living here today with several family names, such as ‘Beany’ or ‘Beeney’, being prominent.
The original occupiers did not welcome the new in-immigrant population, as well as objecting to the stripping back of the woods to make way for new homes, and this led to much conflict with reports of bloody fights breaking out and of the police only patrolling in pairs in the area during the 1890’s.
What makes the Highbrooms brick and tile company stand out from other local works is the unique features left on the houses built on the roads around the clay pit. Many of these were built for the HBBC employees, but not exclusively, and there is a fine display of finials, plagues and moldings as well as colorful use of ornate brickwork on the North Farm Road and also on Stewart, Wolseley and Gordon Roads ( incidentally these roads are named after three respected generals from the Crimean war), we will be looking at these features in far more detail in a later blog entry.
Many of the skilled brick workers were recruited from the Staffordshire brick fields, with a lot of these having previously worked at the Doulton works. Henry Doulton had been recruiting graduates from the Lambeth School of Arts and by the 1880’s had over 200 artists on his payroll. It is highly likely that many of these workers appreciated the ethos of combing artistic creations alongside the monotony of mass production of bricks.
It is also interesting that many of the features were made from terracotta, a building material that had been out of fashion for many years and had previously only been used on innovative building projects for the very rich (several London palaces display this type of work) but here they were being used to decorate affordable housing for the working classes.
I am sure that we will be back to revisit the brick works at some point soon as it has had such an influence on the development of the area but a final thought for this entry is what do you think happened to all the seconds, the bricks that were unsaleable?
If you have something to contribute to this blog, or just want to let me know you are enjoying it feel free to comment below, email me at HighbroomsSociety@gmail.com or send me a message on twitter to: @HighbroomsSoc
Some of the material used here has been researched from the internet but special thanks must also go to Clare Hardy (The development of a brick making community High Brooms 1870 – 1900) and local historian, Fiona Woodfield (Civic society newsletter Autumn 2000).