They are one of the most ubiquitous building materials in Sydney, so you probably haven’t given them much thought, but the history of bricks in Sydney is actually rather fascinating! Listen now
The three large towers that we see at Sydney Park at the southern end of King Street and the start of the Princes Highway are survivors of a once thriving local industry.
They are the chimneys of huge kilns that sit below them, where bricks made from the clay excavated from the surrounding land were fired, and are remnants of the huge brickmaking industry that existed around St Peters, Alexandria and Waterloo. Rich shale deposits of Wianamatta shale found there in the 19th century were ‘the brickmakers’ equivalent of gold’, and today’s Sydney Park was once a patchwork of deeply excavated brickpits.
Over the period 1858 to 2007 there were 56 different brick companies that operated in the municipalities of Alexandria and Waterloo, with the biggest cluster of brickmakers found west of Sheas Creek along the Waterloo, Barwon Park and Cooks River roads. The main firms operating there in the 1890s were the Bedford, Beulah, Carrington, Patent Plastic, St Peters, Vulcan, and Warren brickworks.
The Sydney Park chimneys and their kilns were part of the Bedford Brickworks. The company was established by Josiah Gentle in the 1890s, who was part of a brickmaking family and had been making bricks in the area since about 1873. The Depression years of the 1930s were difficult ones for the brickmaking industry, and in 1936 Bedford Brickworks was taken over by Austral Bricks, who continued operating the site until the 1940s and other brickworks in St Peters until the 1980s.
The various brickworks at St Peters were a key source of employment for the men and boys of Alexandria, St Peters and Newtown. Unlike other seasonal industries in the area, such as woolwashing, brickmaking happened all year round, with some kilns, such as Bedford’s, operating around the clock. The only thing that slowed production was heavy rain, which made the clay heavier, more difficult to extract, and flooded the brick pits.
In Sydney in the 19th century, children as young as 10 or 12 were employed in boot factories and tobacco factories, and boys of this age were employed in the brickpits as puggers. An inquiry into child labour in 1875 discovered that boys worked a 10 hour day at the brickpits and could remove up to 8 or 9 tonnes of clay dirt in a single shift, climbing down the precipitous slopes, filling up baskets which they carried back up and then transferred via wheelbarrows to the brickmakers in the kilns.
The deeply excavated clay pits, some 50 for 60 feet deep, with their kilns and chimneys towering overhead formed an impressive landscape.
The brick kilns along the Cooks River Road (now King Street and the Princes Highway) were a landmark for travellers and tram passengers.
During the day the chimneys pierced the skyline, while at night, with many of the kilns operating continuously, the fires would light up the night sky, the sulphur wafting across the suburbs.
The brickmaking industry of St Peters was central to the suburbanisation of Sydney, providing the building materials for construction across the city, and was part of the first wave of Sydney’s industrialisation.
While Bedford’s is remembered in the remnant factory structures, other local brickmakers are also commemorated in the landscape. Henry Knight, a brickmaker turned local politician, and Henry Goodsell both have nearby streets named after them. Both Camdenville Oval in St Peters and Henson Park in Marrickville were formed on the remains of old brickpits. Other areas across the Sydney from Brookvale to Kirrawee show similar influences.
If you are passing the chimneys over the next few weeks, you’ll notice lots of scaffolding as conservation work is undertaken by the City of Sydney to ensure these heritage landmarks will last into the future.
We have several articles in the Dictionary that touch on the thriving industry of brickmaking in Sydney, including two that look specifically at the St Peters brickpits.
Ron Ringer’s deeply researched and comprehensive book The Brickmasters: 1788-2008, Dry Press 2008 is also highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of bricks in Sydney.
And if you’d like to see Sydney’s oldest brick (here), it is currently on display in the State Library of NSW’s Dalgety Walkway that links the Library’s two buildings at the lower ground level.
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