• Tuesday , 19 November 2019

Brick – A Tale of Two Cities

‘There is nothing more elementary than brick. Humble in its substance, easy to manufacture and used for centuries. Its size governed by the maximum comfortable object a hand can hold or lift repetitively, its length around twice its width to ensure an effective bond. It would seem that there is nothing simpler than a brick and yet, there is also nothing more complex.’

– Sergison Bates, ‘Brickwork’, ETH Zurich



By the age of twenty-one I had spent a total of twelve months in London, though over three four-month summer periods, and had yet to visit Limerick. This was righted in the autumn of 1993 and I have lived and worked within, or a maximum of fifteen minute’s walk from, its Georgian grid ever since. My relationship with London on a personal level recommenced when we opened our first office there in early summer 2009. I currently reside in Mile End and regularly embark on a meandering walk to our current office location just off London Wall near Moorgate. Though remarkably different in scale, density and character the familiarity in texture is omnipresent in walks through both cities.

The Civil Survey of 1654-56, which gives a description of every property within the walled city, describes only one brick building, located near Island Gate, owned by a Captain George Ingoldsby, measuring 31 by 19 ft, of which there are no extant remains. From the mid 18th Century onwards, brick started to gain momentum in the building of Limerick. In the John’s Square development it was used in the kitchen floors, passage floors, vaulting to cellars, internal partitions, dry lining and externally to infill the oculi on the facades to the square. By 1761 brick was being combined with stone in many of the city’s new buildings. In the 1760’s the first Georgian terrace was built on George’s Quay, made predominantly in brick but with stone used in the lintels. From this time on the use of buildings in the city became associated with a specific material; industrial buildings in random stone, public buildings in cut stone and brick. By the early 19th Century, brick was unanimously accepted as the building material for the new terraces as set out in Colle’s masterplan for the Newtown Pery area.

The building accounts for the John’s Square development give an indication that the brick utilised for the project was burnt locally. Brick-making skills were developed in Ireland during the 16th and 17th Centuries, and bricks were made from local clays in all parts of the country until well into the 20th Century. An 1841 map of the Coonagh area shows evidence of brick-holes and brick-yards, and it is mentioned in a few publications that brick was manufactured here. During the archaeological excavations for the N7 Southern Ring Road discovery of three sites in Coonagh West and Coonagh East revealed that clay was extracted from the brick-fields/brick-holes on the River Shannon flood-plain, shaped into bricks and then fired in open kilns known as clamps. The bricks were then brought up the River Shannon and unloaded at Barrington’s Pier, which was built to facilitate the transport of bricks from the Coonagh brickfields to Limerick City in the 18th Century.


The Great Fire of London on 2nd September 1666, destroyed about three quarters of the city, including over 13,000 houses, 89 churches, 52 Guild Halls, St. Pauls’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the cities authorities. The Great Fire, and the fire of 1676, which destroyed over 600 houses south of the river, changed the face of London forever. Hardly surprisingly the use of brick in the construction of buildings in London increased dramatically from this point on.

Following the Great Fire, Hackney became an increasingly popular location for wealthy Londoners to build large houses, wishing to be close to the court, entertainment and financial centre of the city but also enjoy the freedom of country living. The bricks for these buildings would have been made in the many local brickfields using the abundant local clay. By 1806, due to this development the brickfields occupied 170 acres; more than all the market gardens and nurseries.


Comparison and Contrasts

In both cities I try as much as possible to walk to work, which allows an experience of the city lost while sitting in a car, on a bus or a subway. In Limerick the route alternates between South Circular and O’Connell Avenue past the various Victorian and Edwardian terraces towards arrival in the Georgian core. In London the route is a little longer and alternates between the walk through Whitechapel and a more meandering journey via Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, down Bishopsgate, to a final destination off London wall.

There are many similarities and great differences between the two cities in scale and character, but perhaps the most familiar connection between the two cities is the Georgian period in character and texture. One of the first most striking differences is that although the texture is similar, the colours are not. The relentless red brick of Limerick is contrasted in London with a variety of colours.

The brick façades of Irish buildings in the 18th Century were not subject to the same rapidly changing fashions as those in Britain. Locally produced bricks were limited in quality and the fine bricks needed to execute gauged (or rubbed) brickwork for fine architectural dressings had to be imported. Similarly, the colour of brick façades appears unrelated to London fashions and had more to do with the natural brick colours resulting from the firing of available local clays, red being the most widely used.

In London, outside areas where good building stone was available, brick was the universal Georgian building material. Brick of good, hard quality used for the outer walls were known as ‘stocks’ whilst poorly made ‘place’ bricks, which included as much ash as clay, were used for cheapness sake in the unseen work of party walls and partitions. The stocks used in and around London were of two colours: grey and red, the latter being a trifle more costly and often used for lintels and window arches whilst the grey bricks were preferred for walling in general. In the latter part of the century London stocks were almost uniformly a pale, yellowish brown.

The Georgian bricklayer almost invariably laid his bricks in a Flemish bond in which the headers and stretchers alternated in each course. This bonding type is fairly familiar in both cities, though extensive variations in pointing are also evident – often necessitated by the variations in the quality of brick used.

Another subtle difference in Limerick, and also in Dublin’s Georgian period, is the omission of the string course at first floor level, which is an integral feature of much of London’s Georgian architecture. A scarcity of cut stonework is also noticable. In Limerick’s main thoroughfare the first floor is taller with sash windows in nine panes over six, and six over six on the ground floor. In most of the London equivalents, there is consistency between these two floors.

All in all the result is an unusual familiarity as one walks through various parts of London, in particular the Bloomsbury area in the Borough of Camden where the greatest similarities between the two cities exist in texture, scale and character.

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