Bricks in Brockley
In recent years, many houses in Crofton Park and Brockley have had a ‘facelift’. With the dirt and grime of a century removed, gleaming yellow, orange and red brick facades have replaced the black, brown and muted greys we are used to.
These gleaming aspects are exactly as the houses would have looked one hundred or more years ago; when newly built, whole streets would have shone as brightly. The colour can come as a shock to us, perhaps because our visualisation of the Victorian/Edwardian period comes mainly from black and white photographs.
So why were buildings of that time so colourful? Before the Industrial Revolution only the very grandest buildings -- cathedrals, castles, palaces and great country houses -- were built of stone. Lesser, local churches, and most houses would be part stone, part brick or rough stone. The stone would be used for decorative detailing around windows and doors, and on corners.
It was very expensive to bring heavy bricks or stone over long distances on carts, and the dirt roads became quagmires in rainy weather. As a result, most bricks were supplied by local brickworks, where they were made from the local soil.
London’s clay basin meant that the ‘London stock’ or standard brick for the capital’s buildings would be bright yellow. This can be seen in most of the houses in Crofton Park, which were built with bricks made in the brickfields of Brockley and Honor Oak. Lewisham Archives has several photographs of the Heath family's brickworks on Blythe Hill, one of several Brockley firms.
The advent of the canals meant that heavy loads could be transported far more easily. The local Croydon Canal was primarily designed to bring food, building materials and fuel into London, although it was not a financial success and closed in 1836 after just 27 years.
Just three years later the London & Croydon Railway replaced the canal, running along its course between Brockley Station and Honor Oak, linking the areas to brickworks further afield via a rapidly expanding national rail network.
Now the more expensive red and orange bricks might be sourced elsewhere, more cheaply than before. They still cost several times the price of standard yellow bricks, so their bright, unusual colours were a very obvious sign that a house built with them was a cut above its monotone neighbours.
Decorative brickwork on houses followed patterns similar to the ways in which stone had been used in churches, so these more expensive, coloured bricks were only used at the front of the house. You can see this locally in the ways orange and red brick edgings are used round front windows and doors as a contrast to the native yellow.
Soldier arches (lintels made up of rows of vertical or vertically fanned bricks) are often done in contrasting brickwork. Particularly fine examples can be seen on the west side of Stondon Park, where the double entrances are marked out in stripes, and on the newly restored semi-detached house along Brockley Rise (pictured above and in detail below).
Sometimes the keystone (the central wedge-shaped stone or brick on a soldier arch) is made from a decorative brick. Interesting examples of this can be seen on houses in Stillness Road and Brockley Rise, where you can also see bay windows topped with a cast sunflower.
Other features might include horizontal bands of red brick, or inserts in the triangular or semi-circular piece over a door or window (known as tympanum).
Imagine, as you walk around the area, not just the occasional house, but whole rows of gleaming terraces. Add to the colourful brickwork the stained-glass windows and door panels; beautiful Art Nouveau tiles in porches, and tiled front paths (often visible today only in fragments), and you get an idea of just how vibrant the streets of Crofton Park, Brockley and Honor Oak were in Victorian and Edwardian times.