In a post from several years ago, I mentioned bath bricks, a product used from the beginning of the nineteenth century as a sort of scouring pad and metal cleaner. When I mentioned it in an account of the hard live of an Irish farmer’s wife before the war, I actually didn’t know what it was… became curious and investigated.
A favourite town of ours is the small town of Bridgwater, just down the coast from us; it is rather neglected in some ways, these days, and many people are surprised that we really like it and enjoy visiting. Bridgwater is on the River Parrett, and was originally a busy and bustling port with a thriving brick industry, house bricks made from the natural clay along the course of the river.
In the 1830’s William Champion and John Brown seem to have separately patented Bath bricks, but there were many other brick makers making them; at the height of their popularity there were at least ten different brick makers who made Bath stones. They were experts in their craft and knew all about the different properties of the different materials they used, and they realised that they could make a type of brick from the river bank silt . two hundred years ago, instead of thinking of silt as a nuisance, it was a valuable material to be harvested every few months from square pens which were built to trap the silt on this tidal river. It would be processed, ground up by a horse-driven machine, shaped into bricks and fired in the many kilns beside the river in the brick yards.
The bricks were in handy sizes, about two to three inches, and could either be used when wetted to rub on things like knives and other metal tools and implements to polish and clean them, or they could be scraped and the moistened powder used as a scouring agent just as we use scouring and cleaning powders today (often they are included in a cream cleaner) The siliceous powders could be used on larger surfaces such as floors.
You can see the River Parrett walls, and beneath the rushes, reeds and grasses is silt… this rich resource is ignored and treated as a nuisance to be dredged and deposited on farm land. Within a couple of miles either side of the town bridge from where I took this picture, the particle size of the grit, and the algae content, is perfect for making the Bath Bricks.
The reason they were given the name Bath bricks was nothing to do with the city of Bath except for the fact that the finished bricks looked a similar colour to the stone quarried near Bath. An astounding twenty-four million Bath bricks were made per year at the height of their use, and in WW1 they were part of a soldier’s kit.
These days you will only find Bath bricks in museums, although you might find bath bricks (lower case) made from soap these days! next time you use one, think of the original Bath bricks!