Blyth Spirit in Barton
A historic tileyard still in production
The manufacture of bricks and tiles along the banks of the Humber has been an important industry in Barton for many years. There were four separate makers of bricks and tiles here in 1824 with another appearing in 1842. By 1851, there were seventy-eight men and boys working in the industry and after 1850 when the Brick Tax was abolished, the industry grew bigger still. The year 1892 saw something approaching a score of brick and tile manufacturers in full swing along the Humber’s south bank. Today, the only survivor of Barton’s once thriving brick and tile industry is Blyth’s tileyard at Hoe Hill.
The area lends itself to the industry through the perfect quality of the clay hereabouts with the upper levels of the beds being ideal for tile making and the lower levels being more suitable for the manufacture of bricks. When the industry was at its peak, it was traditional with the making of the tiles for the clay to be dug in the winter whilst it was wet and with the actual manufacture taking place from after the last frosts in spring and throughout the summer months. The coal, which was needed for the firing in the kilns, was brought in by sloop – ninety tons at a time – and the finished brick and tile products were taken away by the same method of transport.
With the introduction of mass production techniques and the debut of the concrete tile in the 1950’s, the eventual decline of the industry became inevitable and the number of operational tileyards fell by 64% between 1896 and 1936. It seemed that there was no ongoing demand for the production of hand made clay tiles and nationally they did lose their popularity on a large scale. Gradually, all the manufacturers along the Humber embankment ceased trading with the exception of the business founded by William Blyth. What is astonishing however is not only that William Blyth’s tileyard at Hoe Hill is still alive and well but, quite incredibly, it still produces the same craftsmanship results that were created by the firm’s founder in 1840! The Hoe Hill tileworks really is a story of unbelievable survival through times of fierce competition. It is an industry that has continually persisted with the use of 19th century technology throughout in the manufacture of a traditional hand made product.
Apart from the transport methods, nothing has changed at Hoe Hill since the creation of the original business. First the clay has to be prepared to the correct consistency and water content. Then, still by use of the old machinery, the clay is ‘extruded’ and formed into the required tile shape before being placed on enormously long racks in the drying sheds. These shed roofs are specially constructed with air vents throughout in order for the drying process to continue. As soon as the tiles are sufficiently dry, they are fired in one of the two downdraught kilns – still coal fired and interestingly, the only manufacturer in the country to still use this system. The process of firing lasts for about a week with the temperature gradually being raised to a maximum of 1020 degrees Celsius before the gradual cooling off towards the end of the operation. With two kilns on site, as one is in use, the other is emptied and refilled alternately.
As soon as firing is complete, the tiles are ready for sale. They may be single lap tiles, plain tiles, ridges, fittings or pantiles that are made in 4 different colours. Other types of tile, including floor tiles can be made to order. With production runs currently amounting to one and a quarter million tiles per year, the market is still buoyant and upbeat. No toxic chemicals whatsoever are used in the processes and the age-old method of manufacture ensures that they do have a long life. Blyth’s ‘Barco’ tiles can be found all over the country and they have been exported to other countries as far away as Japan and Australia.
With production still going strong into the 21st century, the demand for hand made clay tiles has brought about something of an unexpected advantage for Hoe Hill. Present day legislation concerning conservation issues frequently centre upon the use of matching textures and colours required for products being replaced in renovation schemes – roofing being certainly no exception. Exact matches to existing old roofs with modern mass produced tiles are seldom found to fit the bill but the hand made tiles made to the original specifications are just what the conservators are looking for. This has proved to be a benefit for the business and it is definitely a case of the old technology now working at its best.
Recently implemented ideas at the Ings tileyard include diversification from the clay tile making industry. Frost-free plant pots of every shape and size are available here either readily available or made to measure by potter Gabriel Nichols. Special orders can be taken for the most ingenious pots and other garden ware. These bear the most interesting patterns and emblems and can include inscriptions and many sorts of messages for special occasions or anniversaries. Artisans are taking up residence in their own workshops and studios in the tileyard (see side panel) demonstrating all manner of craft and manufacturing, but all sharing the same ambition to work sustainably with locally sourced materials.
The firm had been in the same Blyth family ownership for over 150 years but after 2004 it became the subject of great interest to a business entrepreneur by the name of Mr Gordon Harrison. He immediately saw the potential in the site as a business venture but with some interesting additions. The existing business consisted of two sites that were both tileyards originally. Far Ings had been left to get neglected and become totally unproductive years previously but the Hoe Hill complex is the still very productive side of the business. Gordon Harrison bought the whole business with its two sites of forty-two and twenty-eight acres and he soon began to formulate his new business plan. What had been a traditional tileworks producing hand made products will certainly continue as a going concern in the future, this feature forming the prime focus of the whole operation, but there will be other stimuli injected into the overall project.
Gordon’s blueprint for the future of William Blyth’s tileyard is as far reaching as it is impressive. Under the new business name of ‘The Old Tile Works’ Gordon’s ideas for the future scheme will centre on the topic of education. He, quite rightly, believes that as a special venue for visiting students and schoolchildren, the experience will fulfil a very important role in their education. A special function room will cater for the teaching of local industrial history and of course impart information on the unfolding story of the tile and brick making industry of the Barton region.
Along with a visitor and education centre, he has recently developed an extensive building programme to include a large restaurant. ‘Tiles’ – the new dining experience – will initially just be open during the daytime, but it is envisaged that the coffee shop/restaurant will seat 90 guests and there are even plans afoot to supply the restaurant with meat and produce reared and grown locally on the site of Far Ings. The building is a fitting piece of architecture for the venture with matching red brickwork and a beautiful interior complete with impressive large wooden beams and a superb, manufactured on site, tiled floor. Gordon’s plans have even taken account of hosting possible functions here with a special long room adjacent to the restaurant containing a stunning window at the end. A specially designed terrace is situated in a suntrap and has views over the ponds towards the town.
Another long building has been built, now home to an enclosed row of workshops housing crafts people in residence who will each demonstrate their own particular trade and promote sustainable crafts and industry. It is in fact an artisan centre where the public can get ‘hands on’ experience of the work of these skilled people.
The official opening of The Old Tile Works will take place on Saturday, 29th June and is definitely a place to earmark for a visit, whether it be for a day out for the family, a trip to purchase items that were seen made or even for a delicious meal out. The Old Tile Works has been given a new lease of life and in addition to the fantastic makeover, it is scheduled to be a major employer in the Barton area. The original entrepreneur was William Blyth and his latter day counterpart is Gordon Harrison who has certainly made sure that the Blyth spirit lives on. With clay bed reserves on site that will last for at least ninety years and a location so easy to find near the span of the Humber Bridge, this has to be the best success story for years.
THE ARTISAN VILLAGE
The Old Tile Works is also home to several artisan businesses whose workshops will be open for you to visit. They range from fledgling fashion and food businesses to crafts men and women who all share the same ethos of sustainability, using, where possible, locally sourced materials.
Hand thrown pots, in clays sourced from the site, by master potter Gabriel Nichols and his three fellow potters. This is the home of the handmade Lincolnshire flower pot but Gabriel and his team produce a wide range of products from plaques to rhubarb forcers and ornamental garden pieces. They also accept commissions for personalised items as birthday, retirement or wedding gifts. There are working demonstrations for you to see of these dried and fired on site, genuine Lincolnshire products.
Run by Lincolnshire raised brothers Dominic and Patrick Thomas, Wold Cycles make production and custom bicycles in their workshop. All of their bikes have a level of customisation to them and they invite anyone to come along to the workshop and talk to them face to face about the products. They use machines and tooling to ensure accurate cutting of tubes and forming of parts, combined with welding and brazing by hand to produce bikes that are built with precision but also have a high element of hand working to them. They will be busy in the workshop from July 2013 and bikes will be available to order from autumn 2013.
Tel: 07772 373802
Jim Griffiths is a master carpenter producing bespoke, handcrafted furniture from reclaimed, recycled and sustainably sourced woods. From cabinets to complete kitchens, Jim’s service includes design, manufacture and installation to customer’s requirements.
Facebook: Yellowbelly Woodwork
Tel: 07886 727957
Using no artificial flavours or colourings, Egil’s Preserves’ range of jams, chutneys, marmalades, pickles and curds are made from quality, locally sourced, fresh produce. They are available on site, at county Farmers’ Markets and served in The Old Tile Yard Café and Restaurant.
Tel: 07834 435 108
Alison Casserly Knitwear Design has created a small but unique collection of British yarns, dyed naturally in rural Lincolnshire with dye-stuffs that she either grows or has collected responsibly near her home, or obtained from UK suppliers. Alison also creates knitwear and offers classes.
Tel: 07828 131 581
STELLA & ALF: THE COLLECTION
Designer Paris Hodson and stylist Charlotte Hay’s first collection is a capsule wardrobe in natural and organic fabrics. Sustainable, classic and enduring design is their ethos for manufacturing in Lincolnshire.
Facebook: Stella and Alf
Tel: 07545 493 314
THE RECLAMATION AND GARDEN POTTERY SHOP
There is a wonderful range of garden pots thrown in the Potters Shed and an eclectic collection of vintage garden and household items for sale in the Reclamation and Garden Pottery Shop. Housed in one of the old drying sheds, the shop is a charming opportunity to browse and discover an unusual gift or feature for your home or garden.
A local sculptor situated in the Old Stable, producing unique garden items and other materials from The Old Tile Works clay.
Tel: 07591 133566
The Old Tile Works, Far Ings Lane
Barton DN18 5AZ
Tel: 01652 637095
Facebook: The Old Tile Works