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High Street History: Brickwork

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

How the bricks are put together - and sometimes where they are - are clues to the use of buildings.

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Brickwork on the Irwell Vale viaduct Creative commons image Icon LarysaS under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license


Few of us spend much time thinking about the physical construction of buildings. But brickwork can convey much information about historical changes in building techniques and materials.

Also, although not an infallible indication, different types of brickwork can help us to date the construction of a building. For instance, English Bond, which is characterised by a row of stretchers (long sides) alternating with a row of headers (short ends), became common in the 1450s and was the standard type of brickwork for British houses for almost three centuries. Because it was renowned for its strength, it remained popular for industrial buildings right through to the end of the nineteenth century.

Brickwork is also a measure of craft skills, so the more complex the patterns, the more skilled the worker. Indeed, the more finely crafted the brickwork, the more expensive a building would have been to build, so houses with particularly detailed and complicated brickwork were more likely to be occupied by the well-to-do.

Rubbed arch Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Rubbed arch

Above the window we can see a rubbed brick arch in gauged brickwork. Individual bricks were cut and rubbed to fine accuracy, such that only a very thin white lime putty joint was used between each brick. This would have taken considerable time and the bricklayer would need to be extremely skilled. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, rubbed arches were very fashionable. To the side of the window, we can see a variation on English bond, albeit with more stretcher courses than standard. Technically, it’s called EnglishGarden Wall bond.

Cross bond brickwork Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Cross bond

This style of brickwork was often used on walls surrounding the grounds of large buildings. It is similar to English bond but with staggered stretcher courses – making patterns possible. Since it needed time to plan out and skill to execute, it tended to be the preserve of wealthier property owners or public buildings such as colleges.

Flemish bond and black headers Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Flemish bond with black headers

This bond is laid with headers alternating with a stretcher and each course staggered by about half a brick. Its first use in England was in 1631, but it only really gained popularity in the late eighteenth century. It then became the dominant brickwork for housing for over a century. As the photograph shows, patterns were sometimes developed in the brick face by using bricks with dark burnt (flared) header faces.

Dentilated brickwork on roof Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Decorative brickwork

The picture shows two types of brickwork that, in most cases, were purely decorative. The window is in honeycomb brickwork, whilst along the eaves is a type known as dog-tooth (a variation on dentilation). Such styles became popular in the late eighteenth century when building decoration became increasingly prized.

Taking it further

Some aspects of urban history are covered in the Open University courses Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore (AT308). You may also be interested in Start writing family history (A173).





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