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.

25 Responses to Katesgrove and Reading Bricks

  1. I agree, it is amazing inside, the restoration that has taken part so far has been so sensitive to the building and perfect… we keep hoping

  2. Wendolene says:

    What a terrific post! I am a huge fan of the warmth, character, and as you pointed out–craftsmanship–of brick buildings. Hearing the history of your city’s brick buildings makes them even more interesting!

  3. Julia says:

    I wish I had a million pounds to give you – what a gorgeous building. Lovely photos!

  4. colleen says:

    I met a man in a churchyard in Cambridge who told me that he used to collect bricks. He had over two hundred different types in the garage, but his mother insisted that they were thrown out. Pity.

    Such richness of bricks in Reading that the buildings look almost embroidered.

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  7. caroline alexander says:

    we currently live at the end of edgehill street the house on the right of the picture (the house on the left fell in to the quarry) it is fantastic to hear about the history of the area, as we often talk about the different bricks etc. thank you

  8. Gemma says:

    We’ve recently moved into a house on Alpine Street, and it’s wonderful to find out a little bit of the history of the area. I’ve often wondered what the British Schools building was. Thanks very much for a really interesting article!

  9. Paul says:

    Great images I have lived in Elgar Road , Alpine Street and Collis Street for the last twenty years and my mum can recall the kiln as her grandmother used to live on Elgar road,
    One of her memories is being sent to the Kennet Arms Public house to buy her nan a bottle of stout from the off sales.

    I stumbled across web site doing a search for Reading Brickworks after looking at Parkers estate agents web site who mentions Reading being the 3Bs, which I always knew as Beer, Bulbs and biscuits.
    They have it has Beer, Bricks and Biscuits.
    perhaps we should call Reading the 4Bs from now on and throw in the Tiles from Tilehurst

  10. Marilyn Taylor says:

    Are there any brickmaking kilns still working today in Reading.I am very interested to know.

    Also is there a brick making kiln in Newbury

    • There are no longer any brickmaking kilns in operation in Reading, the last one closed in Tilehurst in the 1970s; this loss was much lamented in the local press!

      I don’t know about Newbury I’m afraid.

  11. Adrian Price says:

    Great read, I found this while I was researching a book left to me by my father, he was a master builder from Witney who did quite a lot of work in Reading and he left me this book. It’s a book published by Poulton & Son in 1904 called Curvilinear Modern Practice In Setting, Steam Boilers, Economisers and Other Heaters, its full of beautiful illustrations and information on the setting of brickwork and also a few photographs of the reading brickworks.

    I was trying to find out what it’s worth as I am doing an inventory for insurance purposes. Any help in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

    Regards Adrian

  12. anthony a apcar says:

    how happy i was to read your site on katesgrove as i lived my early days at 10
    katesgrove terrace opposite my nan and grandad at no 7.happy memories these houses the terrace you may know was from katesgrove lane and the river and between the school porta the reading waste paper co and a little shop front room only opwner by mr Gwynn and his wife.these 2 up and 2 down outside loo and box roon was owned by Cr burrows.which were pulled down in 1957 ,

    • Bob Lawrence says:

      I was interested in Anthony’s reply regarding Katesgrove Terrace. I have been looking into my family history and my paternal grandmother, family name Tyler, is shown as living at number 17 Katesgrove Terrace when a young girl in the 1911 census. I was unable to find Katesgrove Terrace on the old OS maps. Anthony could you be more clear on the location. Was it the row of houses at the end Katesgrove Lane between the school and Pell Street on the school side or possibly one of the two side streets (shown on the 1913 OS plan) off Katesgrove Lane towards the river between the works and Pell Street.

  13. Bryan Colyer says:

    The 1877 OS map shows Katesgrove Kilns a few hundred south of Pell Street. Katesgrove Lane ended just past the junction with Pell Street. But in 1898 the OS map shows that Katesgrove Lane had been extended and the whole of the area originally occupied by the brickworks had been covered by terrace houses and the brickworks had been moved down the lane past the end of Waterloo Road. The lane south of Pell Street became Elgar Road.

    Poulton and Son’s brickworks site near Waterloo Road was bought by Robert Cort Ltd. in the 1950s. I remember this well because I designed the steel roof trusses which replaced the old wooden ones on the roof of the main building.

    At that time bricks and tiles were still being made at Tilehurst (Colliers), where the industry dated back to Roman times.

    I have found Reading bricks as far west as Wroughton, near Swindon. Presumably they were taken there on the Berks and Wilts canal.

  14. Michael Saunders says:

    Absolutely delighted to find this web site. I am doing a course in Architectural History and hoping to do my dissertation on brick and stone in Reading where I used to live. I am very interested in bricks generally colour type siource Colliers reds and so on so want to follow up any leads I can

  15. Bryan Colyer says:

    Michael, good to hear of someone like me who is interested in the Reading Brick industry. Useful maps are:
    OS Reading 1877 and OS Reading 1898. Obtainable from Alan Godfrey Maps:
    http://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk
    The 1877 map shows S & E Collier at Coley, south west of the Katesgrove Kilns just south of Pell Street. The company moved to Tilehurst in 1870 because the clay ran out at Coley. I believe the kilns were near Water Road but the clay pit was west of Norcot Road; there is an estate of houses there now: Pottery Road, Coalport Way, Minton Close, Denby Way etc. I remember the overhead cable way that carried the clay from the pit to the kilns. The 1898 map does not extend to Tilehurst, nor does it extend south enough to show the Katesgrove kilns, which had moved south to Waterloo Road because the original site had been covered with terrace houses.

    The Reading Museum has a good collection of information and items relating to the industry. On their website (www.readingmuseum.org.uk) there is a page about Brick and tile makers in Reading.

    S & E Collier also made Silchester Ware – reproductions of Roman Pottery. They also made terra-cotta statues – I remember the old Pearl Assurance building in Station Road, which had such statues in niches, the building built with all the different colours of Reading Bricks, reds, whites and greys. I believe there are still two of the original six gables of the building remaining; the rest was wantonly destroyed by the town council in the 60s. The council also wanted to demolish the old Reading brick town hall, but the citizens of Reading rose in a body and told the council to leave it alone. The council must have listened, because a few years later when Barclay’s Bank wanted to rebuild its branch near the market place, they were forced to retain the Reading brick frontage while the rest of the building was rebuilt behind it!

    • Michael Saunders says:

      Many thanks Bryan for your very full and useful response to my inerest. Do we know if any of the three brick kiln owners left any sort of records, bills of lading, customer accounts etc or werw they all destroyed. It would be good to track down where customers came from and how far afield the bricks ended up.
      I’m reasonably close to Reading and aim to start my research as suggested at the Reading Museum. Would the Berkshire Record Office on Castle Hill have anything useful in their archive?

  16. Nick Hopton says:

    Out of interest I’ve been looking at books and articles on bricks and brickmaking recently. One of them from 1850 is free on Google Books:

    https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Edward_Dobson_Rudimentary_treatise_on_the_manufact?id=zJcOAAAAYAAJ

    This makes clear the technical reasons why, for example, brickmakers in the Coley area had to tunnel for chalk and why the makers on the other side of the Kennet didn’t need chalk.

    The other thing is, there was a brick works at what became Sutton’s School playing fields. Does anyone know anything about this? It was here:

    http://maps.nls.uk/view/102339992#zoom=6&lat=7839&lon=12874&layers=BT

    N.

  17. Bryan Colyer says:

    Michael

    You might find some information both at the museum and the Berkshire Records Office. I have used both in the past and found them very helpful, though I had to pay a few pounds to get the information.

    Although S & E Collier are long gone, there are still family members living. I met a lady Collier descended from the founders of that company a couple of years ago while on holiday in Crete. I am particularly interested in people with the name Collier, because I have found that most of the Colliers came from my own family. The name has been spelt Colyer, Collyer, Collier and even (in France) Caulier. I have found relations in France, USA (dozens of them), Australia and New Zealand.

  18. Brian Stone says:

    My 3rd Great-grandfather, Rev. Dr. John Waugh, D.D. Esq.(1736-1922), lived in, Katesgrove, Information from a Burial document reads: Reading, King’s Road Meeting House (formerly Hosier’s Lane).

  19. Bryan Colyer says:

    The ‘photo of the old British School shows the wide range of coloured bricks which were made in England. An even more wonderful building was the Pearl Assurance building which was in Station Road. I suspect it no longer exists; the Reading Archives state it was demolished in 1980, yet Google Earth shows that part of it may still be there. Unfortunately I am too old to drive to Reading to search for it.

    It was an outstanding example of what could be made from clay and chalk. The facade was ornamented with terra-cotta statues on plinths. All was probably made by S & E Collier at Grovelands. There are two black and white ‘photos in the Tate Gallery, taken by the artist John Piper. You can find them on the World Wide Web. However the statues are missing from them, presumably sold or stolen.
    If anyone has information about the existence or non-existence of the building, I should be very grateful to hear it.

  20. thank you for the post

  21. Helen says:

    On a rabbit hole search for information about the substrata of where I live just south of Reading (and the clay=bricks side of that story) I tripped upon your article and really enjoyed the insight to the kilns of Reading, especially as I lived in Alpine Street many years ago and always wondered about that severe cliff-like drop into a void. And as the daughter of a fanatical knitter (and as I am someone deeply into “the feminine” and who likes to play free and loose between one idea and another in my writing), I really enjoyed the knitting analogies too; will be seeing knitting patterns in the bricks for ever now. Thank you!

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