Alongside coal and iron, the Middle Coal Measures of the Denbighshire Coalfield yielded huge quantities of fireclay, which gave rise to a thriving brick industry in the 19th century. Although the clays of Ruabon, and the hard red bricks made from them, were far better-known, the coal outcrops at Brymbo were no exception and there were once a number of brickworks in the Brymbo area, some of which survived until comparatively recently, and which produced both firebricks and “common bricks” for industrial and domestic uses. Although a lower-profile industry than the coal mines and less prestigious than the iron foundries, the brickyards were another characteristic part of the East Denbighshire landscape.

As with the collieries, I’ll start with a look at the Brymbo Company of Henry Robertson and the Darby brothers, operators of the Brymbo ironworks and much else besides.

The Brymbo Company brickworks was called Caello, and lay at the edge of the Brymbo estate: on the turnpike north-west of the village and ironworks at the point where the railway to Minera crossed it. “Caello” was an old field name and means the “calf field”, recalling a time before Wilkinson when cattle were grazed on the estate pastures. The existence of Caello was, as with many other brickworks, a byproduct of the existence of a mine close by: the Smelt pit, which raised far more fireclay than coal. As well as firebricks, the works produced silica bricks, the silica being sourced from the quarries at Bwlchgwyn, and “common bricks”, the latter apparently made of a “blue mudstone near the horizon of the Drowsell Coal” (according to the Geological Survey of Great Britain’s Geology of the Country around Wrexham, 1928). The same clays were also mined at the New Grosvenor pit in Coedpoeth, which was briefly in the ownership of the Brymbo Company but which latterly operated as a fireclay-only pit under the ownership of Arthur Acton (who was, I suppose, a member of the well-known family of Wrexham solicitors). There was certainly a Brymbo Company brick works in operation in the 1850s: fireclay and bricks were advertised as on sale from the Brymbo Colliery in 1851, and an unpleasant-sounding accident involving a Robert Edwards was noted at the “Brymbo brick works” in an 1856 Wrexham Advertiser. This seems to have been elsewhere on the Company’s estate, however: probably near the Blast Pits (a field near Brymbo Hall was recorded as being called “Cae Bricks” in the 1829 estate sale catalogue). The date of 1860, well into the Henry Robertson era and after the opening of the Minera railway, has been quoted for Caello’s commencement.

Production, at least in the 1870s, was around 375,000 bricks monthly, a figure which caused the workforce to be singled out for a special treat in 1875 (related in Andrew Connolly’s excellent book Life in the Victorian Brickyards of Flintshire & Denbighshire). Mr. Darby, in the same period, claimed that the Company was able to produce “millions” of bricks annually. The Ordnance Survey maps of this time show a very simple and largely open-air setup consisting of an enormous circular kiln on a slight eminence above the railway line, surrounded by the sort of furzy moorland that once typified the top end of the Brymbo Estate. By the 1890s, the large kiln has gone, and a series of buildings, chimneys, sheds, and the like had replaced it; a coal level (the Caello Level) ran from immediately behind the works, and old coal shafts were scattered over the whole site (the colleries’ main level, the Level Fawr, ran practically underneath Caello on its way to Glascoed). The works manager in this period was a Mr. Charles Edwards. A newspaper story of November 1884 reports an “interesting geological discovery” at Caello, where the workmen engaged in extending the works unearthed from the bed of drift an upright tree “about four feet in girth” which had been converted into “bituminous coal“.

There are a number of pictures of the brickworks at Caello floating round the web, giving a good idea of its appearance in the 20th century. The best-known of these can be found at Taken in 1962, it shows the tramway that connected the works with the clay level at the Smelt and which was largely unchanged in operation from the horse-drawn railways of the earliest years. Nevertheless, it appears as if the tramway itself dated only from the later 1880s: at least this is what a note in the Wrexham Advertiser, 1887, implies. Regular readers of this site will be familiar with the Brymbo Parish Vestry and their periodic involvement in various road-mending or road-building controversies, and this story was no exception:

It has been suggested that the Vestry felt itself somewhat slighted when the Brymbo Company was allowed to lay tram rails right across two roads, a township road and the Chester and Minera road, between the Cae Llo Brick Works and their clay pit without even consulting the Vestry, although the consent of the Highway Board was obtained at the time. It is rumoured that this will be brought before a special Vestry meeting.

Permission had, indeed, been sought from the Highway Board by Harold Rawlins of the steelworks company back in October 1885. The “special Vestry meeting”, if it happened, clearly had little effect, as clay continued to be drawn between the Smelt and Caello for another 75 years or so. The horse tramway must have fallen out of use at some point in the early 1960s: my father, who worked at Caello very briefly, could not remember it.

In later years the brickworks lost its common thread of ownership with its best client, the steelworks. While the latter went to BSC and latterly to GKN, Caello was spun off in 1966 as a division of “GKN Refractories” under the management of E. T. Edwards, and ended up in the hands of the Castle Brick Co. of Northop. With the closure of the Smelt pit in 1968 and the railway to Minera in 1972, the writing was clearly on the wall for this isolated and small-scale industrial site and Caello eventually ceased operation around 1975. Although I clearly remember the derelict works from my own childhood, the immediate area was opencast and landscaped in the 1990s and now bears little resemblance to old maps and photographs.