Katesgrove and Reading Bricks

I have learned from my copy of “Waterloo Sunrise” that the district in which I live is called Katesgrove, and that this area of Reading once housed three kilns from whence the many bricks required to build the town’s Victorian terraced houses came.

Our search for the redbrick history of Reading begins at Katesgrove Lane, the road out of Reading which lies parallel to the river Kennet and which takes the brick-obsessed walker towards Elgar Road and Waterloo Road (of which we will hear more later.) As well as being the route towards the brick kilns of the past, Katesgrove Lane once housed the Reading Iron Works; a fact remembered in streetnames like Foundry Place which can still be found if one is inquisitive and observant.

Coming to a crossroads on the way out of town, one goes straight over into Elgar Road. One Mr Waugh had a kiln in this road known locally as Katesgrove Kiln, and still further along was the Waterloo Kiln, which is just a five minute walk from where we live.

The Katesgrove Kiln seems to have been a large operation, which entailed not only the making, drying and firing of bricks, but also the digging out of clay soil from the surrounding environs for said making, drying and firing. Today there are flats where the kilns stood, but in a photo in “Waterloo Sunrise” the shoring up and strengthening of the surrounding banks post brick-clay digging can clearly be seen. And the bank is still very steep today, though hopefully less in danger of collapsing than it once was.

Photo in the book featuring the ravaged grounds around where the kilns were being shored up and strengthened.

Photo now featuring the new flats which stand where the old kilns were, with the green bank in the background.

Incidentally, the view from the edge of that bank looking down on the flats looks approximately like this!

Further along Elgar Road we find no. 56 which was built by Mr Poulton, who owned Waterloo Kiln.

No. 56 Elgar Road is the ornate house approximately in the middle of the photo, with the darker bricks. Incidentally, Poulton’s father in law – Mr Swain – lived at Highclere, a grand residency in Milman Road. Swainstone Road was named after Mr Swain, who used his interest in Waterloo Kiln to get the bricks needed to build a new street of houses there. Highclere still stands today as does Swainstone Road.

Highclere’s grand doorway!

The brickworks of Merrs. Poulton and Sons are described in an article quoted in “Waterloo Sunrise:”

Well situated on the banks of the Kennet, these works have excellent transport facilities by way of that river, in conjunction with the canal and the Thames; and the firm are thus enabled to make prompt delivery of goods to any point. The manufacture is carried out under the best modern conditions, with the aid of much improved machinery, and a high reputation is maintained for machine-made building bricks, sand-faced facing bricks, silver-grey facing bricks, red roofing tiles, red ridge tiles, chimney pots, moulded bricks, and red brick enrichments.

The Waterloo Kiln got its bricks across to Whitley Street by way of a track. Over time that track became so useful that it was upgraded to a proper road.

However, not all the streets in the Katesgrove area have fared as well. This steep road is still unmade. Potholes are filled in with crushed Victorian bricks, and a small set of red brick stairs at the top affords a magnificent view of Reading’s skyline.

Knowing about the history of the area enriches my wanders immeasurably. I love having the words to hand to describe the careful arrangement of colours which typifies so much brickwork around here. For instance I love knowing that the pale golden bricks are in fact “sand-faced facing bricks” and that the darker, slate-coloured bricks are “silver-grey facing bricks.” I love knowing that there was such a science or enterprise as “red brick enrichment.” Best of all, I love to spot the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into making some of the buildings around here. It strikes a chord with my knitterly heart to see a useful and necessary thing made with care and pride. For instance look at the interesting way that the bricks have been laid in a sort of arch shape in this supporting wall.

Now this reminds me of an intricate or innovative shoulder construction on a sweater, and I like how within the staid practice of brick-laying, this imaginative configuration (which I’ve not seen anywhere else) takes both practical and aesthetic considerations into account. The patterns which appear in the brickwork of Reading remind me very much of fairisle in that they are both a localised tradition emerging out of materials to be found at hand, and in that strict design rules can hasten the development of distinctive, regional styles.

The building above with the scaffolding is The British School, built in 1810. This building has become the focus of intense longing on my part. Why can’t I have a million pounds to give to Jelly, so that the genius planz to turn it into a venue and artist studios can prevail? Just look at it. I wonder how it can be turned into an arts building. Wouldn’t it be amazing? Think about the way it would sound inside… here is the back.

Grand Designs aside, the variety of brickwork dwellings and spaces in the distance of just a few streets around here is both astonishing and diverting.

And everytime I walk home along Elgar Road I will now wonder whether these wonderful old metallic relics are some part of Messrs. Poulton & Sons’ former brick-making enterprises.

I said there were three kilns; but Rose Kiln which is the third is the subject for another walk. And another post.

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