Liz du Parcq explains how the Brix got into Brixton Windmill - and why it's more complicated than you think

Image: Ann Lee

Historically, humankind have built their homes and other buildings from the most readily available local materials, such as wood and stone. Brixton’s development from the early 19th century depended on a ready supply of local clay. But it may come as a surprise to learn that the name Brixton has nothing to do with bricks.

Brihtsige (or Brixi) was a Saxon lord, who is thought to have erected a boundary stone at the meeting place of the Moot or Hundred Court of Surrey (probably at the top of Brixton Hill). Hence its original 11th century Saxon name of Brixistane – centuries before villages and settlements formed round what is now Brixton, where woodlands gradually gave way to farmland and market gardens.

A short history of bricks

In parts of the world where wood and stone were never plentiful, bricks have been handmade from local clay, using binders such as straw, for 10,000 years. Originally they were sun-dried, but fired bricks, which are much stronger than dried ones, have been manufactured and used in building for around 7,000 years.

In the days before railways, canals and motorised road transport, bricks would be manufactured close to construction sites, using clay extracted locally. This is the reason for variations in the colour of older brick houses in England – yellow in London, red in much of the Midlands.

Brick Lane in Bethnal Green is the lane down which, in the 17th century, bricks were transported by horse and cart to the Spitalfields area, from kilns just to the north – a crucial link in the major construction work undertaken after the 1666 Great Fire.

Nowadays, bricks are mass-produced in a few locations in this country, from a variety of raw materials. They have a range of colours and finishes, severing that historical link between neighbourhood and brick colour. Bricks are even imported from half way round the globe.

The name's the thing

Image: London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department

So how did Brixton come to live up to its confusing name?

The bricks that built Brixton 200 years ago were mainly yellow ‘London stock bricks’, fired locally from London clay. This is a compact, dense, infertile accumulation of river deposits. It would be dug out by hand, moulded into bricks, and then fired on site in huge smoky kilns.

The picture, dating from about 1860, shows excavations for brick earth close to Brixton windmill. The windmill itself would undoubtedly have been built in 1816 using local brick, but there is almost no visible evidence of the brick colour, because the outside of the windmill is protected by pitch and the inside is painted.

Many of Brixton’s 19th-century houses are built using Flemish bond, a pattern of brickwork involving alternate stretchers and headers. Different ‘bonds’ are used to create different strengths of construction, wall thicknesses and decorative effects.

On some 19th century houses in Brixton, a few red bricks (more expensive as they were probably transported by canal from the Midlands) were used to decorate the yellow brick facades and highlight building features. But all London’s buildings soon became encrusted with soot, their beauty restored only after the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s outlawed smoky fuels.

Built to last

Like houses, windmills in different parts of England were built from the most readily available local materials. In London, this meant brick.

It is hard, under all the pitch, to spot any clear pattern to the brickwork of Brixton Windmill. We know the construction must have been sound for it to have lasted 200 years, and we know that there have been later repairs, possibly not using matching brick. This was an industrial structure, built to withstand strong forces, bear heavy loads, and keep the contents safe and dry, rather than for aesthetic purposes. Its beauty depends on its form and scale rather than on how artfully its bricks were laid.

So Hans Unger’s tile mosaic in Brixton tube station, ‘a ton of bricks’, may just be a visual pun, but it also expresses a great deal about Brixton’s history, in its own way.