A masterpiece, brick by brick

PUBLISHED: 11:32 26 April 2007 | UPDATED: 12:25 04 May 2010

WHEN looking at Ely Cathedral and the buildings that surround it, I think that we all marvel at the sheer feat of achievement, partly because the stone to build it had to be brought here by river. As you look at the buildings carefully you will see differ

WHEN looking at Ely Cathedral and the buildings that surround it, I think that we all marvel at the sheer feat of achievement, partly because the stone to build it had to be brought here by river. As you look at the buildings carefully you will see different stone and brick patterns, which sometimes do not seem to quite fit.

Of course, like Rome, Ely was not built in one day and therefore over the centuries the supply of building materials came from different sources.

In the 14th century there was a period of great building works in Ely, with Prior Crauden and Alan de Walsingham at the helm. The first use of tiles and bricks in Ely, according to Robert Lucas in his paper Ely Bricks and Roof-Tiles and their distribution in Norfolk and Elsewhere in the 16th and 18th centuries, was in the years following 1339 with the construction of a bridge and new Lady Chapel.

Bricks were brought in from Wisbech and King's Lynn. Those from Wisbech came from a brickyard that had been set up to supply materials to build Wisbech Castle.

Bricks from Emneth and Wiggenhall in Norfolk were used by the Cathedral Granator in 1355-6 to make the hearth in the rebuilt bakehouse.

When the Ely Porta was started in 1397, once again a huge number of bricks had to be purchased and imported into Ely.

It would appear from various records that brick building and tile making was started in Ely at some point in the 15th century.

W M Palmer's paper Enclosures at Ely, Downham and Littleport A.D. 1548 published in 1937 says that there was a 'tyle kylne close' on part of Barton Farm in the middle of 15th century and a 'kilnhouse' on the Manor of Turbutsea.

This industry became highly profitable. From the second half of the 16th century, Ely bricks were supplying building works outside of the city.

Thomas Baskerville, writing in the 1680s, commented that Ely bricks had been used in the Great Gate of King's Hall, now Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1528-9 and accounts from the re-building of Clare College show that bricks were purchased from Ely.

The success of the Ely brick business can be attributed to the trade along the River Great Ouse and the connecting river network. The other settlements along the river were on the whole wealthy and prosperous settlements - Cambridge, Huntingdon, Bedford and King's Lynn.

Toll records show that Ely bricks were passing along the whole river system.

The colours of the bricks identify which of the local clays were used in their production. Kimmeridge Clay produced reddish brown bricks, gault produced buff or white and the alluvium a range of mottled coloured bricks. The gault bricks from Ely were particularly popular. They were extremely hard, due to the chalk which was used as flux to bind the sand and clay.

In the years 1766 to 1767, Ely bricks were bought by the corporation borough chamberlain in King's Lynn. Some were used for harbour installations, others in the foundation plinths of buildings and in 1625 John Kercher was allowed a reduction in his rent of eight shillings by the Lynn Corporation to pave his 'howse with elye brick'.

Ely bricks became the fashion statement for wealthy merchants building houses in the area. The squire of Hunstanton, Nicholas L'Estrange, bought quantities of the brick to floor his farmhouse built on farmland near The Wash; these were delivered onto Heacham beach to be taken to the site.

So the next time you look at the cathedral buildings take a closer inspection of the bricks.

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