Photographed by Ian Suddaby on the shore near East Wemyss, Fife. This was left in situ as it was cemented to a large block of bricks. Wemyss Brick Co. Various works in the Aberhill, Denbeath and Methil areas of Fife. . . .
The following transcript is from an oral interview taken by Margaret Bennett from Gary Nurse who used to work at the Wemyss Brick Company. This was taken as part of the Grace Notes Scotland project.
Grace Notes Scotland is dedicated to identifying and handing on traditions to new generations. All of our projects document (whether in written or oral form), conserve, nurture and promote Scotland’s languages and dialects, traditions and skills, oral history, songs, tunes and stories.
Place Methil, Fife in the Methil Heritage Centre
Informant (s) Gary Nurse (GN)
Fieldworker Margaret Bennett (MB) with Jo MacSween (JM)
Original Format Digital mic, Edirol
Transcriber: Hazel Cameron
SUBJECT Brickworks, Fife
MB I know you’re not from here, but you know this place well.
GN Yes, now
MB But you worked here, where did you work?
GN I worked at Wemyss Brick Company which was established in 1906. It was owned by
the Wemyss family that own Wemyss Castle. Up to its demise in 2004 (I think it was) it
was knocked down, the only brickwork in the country run by a family because it was
passed on through generations. Until it closed.
MB Are those the bricks we recognise as building the miners rows?
GN Yes they are, they could either be a Bowmans Brick or a Wemyss Brick.
MB Whats the difference?
GN Bowman had the site before 1906 and he leased it from Wemyss but his lease ran out – so
the Wemyss say – and Michael Wemyss probably thought we’ll go and take it over and
they done that.
MB Ive heard of Wemyss pottery, which is very valued, Im not an owner of a piece, but just
heard of it. But I didnt realise bricks was a whole range of it?
GN Wemyss brick company, Wemyss Property, a lot of houses, 94 plastics, that closed before
the brick works closed. They have sheep farms, wineries, tea plantations.
MB Wow, you’re talking about enterprising. Where did the clay come from?
GN The clay for the Wemyss brick company came from the pogs just outside Kennoway.
MB What was the mode of transport?
GN Lorries, when I was there, up till 1973, the kilns were coal fired and after ’73 they were
gas fired. There was a new kiln built which was more up to date and then a second kiln
built in ’76 because the business was expanding.
MB I've never seen clay extracted, how was that done or who did it?
GN It was done through what you called, a brick machine.
MB A brick machine, thats actually digging it out of the ground?
GN No, a brick machine is what you call clay going into a brick machine that is already wet.
Like play dough.
MB What I meant was actually before…
MB Yes, from wherever the source of the clay is, how does that get taken out?
GN Right, from the beginning it gets taken out by a digger, they find out where the clay is
and go and see the farmer who owns the land, so they can did 100 ft down but after the
take the clay out they must put the field back to how it was – and they done that. The clay
then is transported onto lorries and taken to the Wemyss Brick Company where it was put
into a hopper. But clay at that time didnt burn on its own, we needed to fire it with what
they call red, we used to call it black in the brickwork, it;s the waste from the pit.
MB What you see in a slag heap?
GN The Wemyss Brickwork actually had the Wemyss coal company so they had the bin to
take the redd (redd they used to spell it like that) and we called it black and that was put
in another hopper and that was mixed, turned over, in big lumps just before, to get it right
and then it went into the preparation plant.
MB is that what gives it the fleck colour? You know you see flecks in bricks.
GN Thats the burning …
MB I was wondering, when you said it [the clay] was mixed with the slag from the slagheaps,
if that was what gave the brick its colour, the little flecks?
GN Yes, that’s what burnt it, cos there was coal in it. At that time the WBC made the
common brick, which was just a normal brick for houses.
MB That factory there, on the postcard, that would be from local brick? Can you tell it?
GN Yes that would be either Bowman or Wemyss bricks. After it was tipped into the hoppers
it went on to a conveyor belt into the preparation plant where it went through a crusher
and everything went down to about 3 inches in size and then it went up another belt into a
pan mill, which you would call a grinder, two big wheels going in opposite directions and
it would grind down to about just under a quarter of an inch, it would grind down to tiny
wee pieces, and then it would fall on to a belt and go up a belt and then go through what
they called the screens, which were really a riddle, a massive riddle, so it goes in there
and all the smaller bits go through netting onto another belt, the bigger bits which are too
big and dont get in come back and go through again, then it goes up another belt into
storage bins, then it goes from storage bins into a double shaft mixer, which is a water
MB A double shaft?
GN It is two shafted, it mixes the clay and adds water to give the consistency for making
bricks, and you can tell by your hand that it is good enough for making bricks. It’s hard to
explain unless youve actually felt it. Then it goes into a rotar store, its called that
because it goes round and feeds two brick machines, they churn it up, and goes in to the
end of the brick machine is an extruder. Its a small vacuum it goes into … its pushed out to
that, I think its 200 lb. pressure. Over 200 it would break.
MB Does it have part of that mould thing … where it has the name?
GN No, this I’m dealing with modern side now. The modern side would have WBC
underneath. Then it would go through that and the falling slab would automatically be cut
with the guillotine, and then it would go on another belt, and it would go through what we
called piano wires, it was pushed through the piano wires to get the right width.
GN Piano wires for they were the best thing to use for cutting.
MB Of course, sharp. Was it still wet at that point?
MB Like a piece of cheese.
GN So they would go through and were cut the same size and they'd go on another belt and it
would be lifted up by grabs on to what we called the setting machine, the WBC were the
only brick company in the country that had one, it cost them a million pounds. It was
MB Oh this was recently?
GN Yes, I’ll do the recent and go back quickly
MB The bricks would go in sections like that, and grabs would come down and lift the bricks,
and put them on a kiln car, we called it a kiln car, what do you call it here?
MB Wagon, boggie?
GN Yes, a boggie, well, this was all done automatically, once the kiln car was full it held
4000 bricks, it had 8 packs of 500 bricks and then it went through the drying system. It
had 3 tunnels, the air to dry the bricks was taken from the kiln, there was no waste, what
heat wasnt used to fire the bricks was transferred back in to the drying section. They
would usually stand there 48 hours. Now, till they went into the kiln and after they went
in they were called green bricks.
MB Yes, because they werent completed … cooked.
GN So they would go into the kiln and start off between 215 and 320 temperature and then
they would keep going up to a temperature of 5, 7, 800 and the centre of the kiln could be
up to 1100 Celsius to fire these bricks but the kiln only pushed every 40 minutes, a half a
car every 40 minutes. Within 5 days, the Wemyss Brick Company, when it was all
modernised could turn out 920 thousand bricks in 5 days. It employed probably 50 odd
people for different jobs. If everything went well, even after the bricks were fired not a
single brick or clay was touched, it was all done automatically…even to loading the
Now going back…
Track # 4
MB So that was from 1973 to 2001?
GN About 2001 it shut, it was mothballed.
JM What replaced it, was it foreign imported bricks?
GN It was in the paper, they closed it because the fuel costs went through the roof and the
materials were getting scarce.
MB Did the demise of the coal industry affect it?
GN No because the bing is still there, there is not much left of it but you would have got
another 30 years out of it.
MB But fuelling it?
GN Yes, the Gas, before it went to gas it was coal, and Wemyss owned the pits and owned
Wemyss private railway so it really was a family industry. 1906 they took over
Bowmans company of bricks and the lease ran out and then they moved it to Denbeath
and called it Wemyss Brick Company.
MB They moved it to Denbeath, where is that?
GN Thats where I stay, Denbeath in Methil. And it was coal fired and everything was done
by hand. And what they would call the setters, the people who would pick old bricks up,
can you see the old bricks without any holes and with names on them? You get Wemyss
ones, each of them weighed roughly between 7 and 7.5 lbs
MB Thats heavy
GN One in this hand and one in that hand. Women used to do that job 8 hours a day or more,
they would stop for their break, they would lift them out of the kilns, they never used
gloves, what they used was old bits of rubber tyres. A pad on the thumb and a pad across
the fingers, and they worked 8 hours a day doing that or more if need be.
MB Presumably they had a way of attaching that?
GN Yes, they would just cut and slip in
JN The opposite now of fingerless gloves?
GN The thing is that when they were packing them down, they have to be packed a certain
way to keep them steady and stable, there was a thumbs distance between.
MB Did people get burned, ever?
GN What actually happened they had a press that stamped Wemyss Brick on, – Stamp come
down, Stamp come down, – so you had to work in a rhythm all the time for that. And the
women worked up until it was modernised.
MB Till the 1970s?
GN Yes, they worked really, really, hard and earned their money. And there were
competitions throughout Scotland and I don’t know where about in Scotland it was, but
there were setting competitions – men laying bricks really quick – and it was two women
who won it. Two women beat men. I went in the modernisation side of it and I heard
about these women – they would go in kilns and everything, it was really warm, and they
would go in with bras on to get the bricks out, and you didn’t mess with them because
they could take a man out, they had muscles like Popeye. They worked really hard as
everything was manual in those days.
MB I was going to ask if that’s why you moved to Scotland because you heard of these
GN I met my wife in London, my wife is from Methil but we met in London, come up on
holiday a couple of times, so got a job.
MB Can you remember your first day at work?
GN I can remember my first day at the brick works and I can remember my first day at work
MB What was that?
GN I worked in London, I was an apprentice tailor.
MB A Tailor – gosh?
GN In 1965 I was 15
MB Are we allowed to ask if you still do the odd hem?
GN No. And my wage was £7 odd a week
MB In 1965? It wasn’t bad – thats a lot more than a lot of people got in 1965. So your first day
here, thats a big shift, tailoring to brick making
GN Yes, I went into shops and that and this job came up and I thought, it would make a nice
change, and at that time we were living in these flats along the road, it was horrendous
and we had to get out, so I went to see them. At that time they said, have you got a
house? And we said no, we live in a flat, so they said would you like a house? So we said
yes, that would be fine, so we got a cottage, at that time it was a tied cottage.
MB To the brick works?
GN Yes, if you left your job you were out your house, if you misbehaved, you were out your
house, it was exactly the same as the pits, everybody was out if you misbehaved. I was
there 6 months and that was taken away, there was no such thing as a tied cottage any
more, the law was stopped on that. So I’m actually still in the same house.
JM You are?
GN I’ve been there 40 years
JM Not the tied house? What did you manage to buy it or something?
Gn No, I rent it, my first rent was £4 per week.
JN I bet its more than that now.
GN I get it for about £325 now. It’s cheaper than buying a house.
MB And you like it, thats the main thing? And is it made of bricks?
GN Oh yes. It was built in 1875 by Bowman. Denbeath where I live, the Wemyss company
built that for the miners, because the opened the Welsley pits but needed people to work
in them, they thought right, we’ve got the local folk but we need outsiders but we need to
house them. This is what they done. In 1909 Randolf Wemyss thought, I want to look
after my workers, so he built Randolf Wemyss hospital but he actually died at his
residence in London but Eva his wife took on the role of making his dream come true.
MB And they built a hospital.
GN And the miners paid a penny off their wages every week to support any injuries.
MB Like a medical insurance?
GN Yes, it’s exactly what it was but it was called the levy of a penny. Thats what happened
because they needed people, they needed a hospital nearby and the more they done, they
more people came.
MB So he was a good employer?
GN A lot of people think he was a good employer, he was highly regarded at that point
because he looked after his workers. When I worked at the brick works, you were a
number – how things changed.
MB Back to your first day at work – what was it like?
GN An experience, it was quite good, interesting, I started off in the preparation plant and
learned all that and learned other people and went on
MB Was it an apprenticeship?
GN No it was just that you could go on and get more money – and then I ended up on the kiln
burning and it was computerised kilns.
MB So you did the computer bit and you’ve seen the whole range?
GN Yes, I’ve seen the whole range and I do a talk on Wemyss Brick Company and I go back
to 1906 and I go through stages with photographs. The people say, look at the women and
things like that!
MB Exactly but it makes people appreciate what it was like for them.
GN I’m going to tell you something really sad, nothing to do with brick works, we get schools
through here, so we had an exhibition, so we went down the beach and got some sea coal
and gave it to a child from the primary school and he didn’t know what it was – they have
no idea what coal is.
MB Isnt that something. This is why its important that you have a place like this.
END OF RECORDING