Robert McAlpine – History of Brickmaking.

Source WIKI – Sir Robert McAlpine, 1st Baronet who founded the eponymous company was born in 1847 in the Scottish village of Newarthill near Motherwell. From the age of seven, he worked in the nearby coal mines, leaving at 16 to become an apprentice bricklayer. Later, working for an engineer, he progressed to being foreman before starting to work on his own account at the age of 22 (1869). He had no capital other than that he could earn himself and his first contract involving the employment of other men had to be financed by borrowing £11 from the butcher. From there, McAlpine enjoyed rapid success; the early contracts centred on his own trade of bricklaying and by 1874 he was the owner of two brickyards and an employer of 1,000 men. (It was on one of the housing estates he built that he first experimented with using concrete blocks as well as bricks (from which he earned the nickname ‘Concrete Bob’).

With the capital he had acquired, McAlpine determined to build a garden city at Hamilton, South Lanarkshire. Relying now on the income from his estate, McAlpine’s attention moved away from his contracting business towards self-education. However, the financial panic following the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 virtually wiped out McAlpine financially: his mortgages were called in but his debtors did not pay him.

The liabilities from the Hamilton estate were threatening the construction business and to protect it, Robert took his clerk into partnership, trading under the name McAlpine & Co; the clerk was bought out not long after. McAlpine’s first large contract was a building for Singer Manufacturing in 1883 and the profit from that enabled him to pay off his remaining debts. Almost immediately he faced further financial difficulties. Winning a contract for the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire Railway without the necessary technical knowledge, the subsequent rebuilding work and litigation meant another fresh start.

In 1887, Robert took his two eldest sons, Robert Jnr and William, out of school to help him, with Malcolm and Alfred following soon after, and they did much to rationalise the firm’s administration and finances. Undaunted by his earlier experience, McAlpine took on further railway contracts, this time successfully, including the Mallaig Extension Railway and the Glasgow Subway. There was an increasingly wide range of building and civil engineering contracts but the firm was almost brought to its knees again with the construction of the Methil Docks between 1909 and 1913. It was argued that this led to a much more cautious approach to risk on the part of the sons – if not the father.

The inter-war period saw the firm focusing solely on construction. Gray wrote that Sir Robert McAlpine “seemed to have been involved in every major building and civil engineering project that ever hit the headlines of the day.” They included docks, harbours, power stations, factories; the Wembley Stadium and the Dorchester Hotel were notable examples. The Dorchester was of particular interest. When the client was unable to pay for the construction works, the company took possession of the completed building and operated it on its own account.

In November 1934, Sir Robert died aged 87. Two weeks later the eldest son, the new Sir Robert, also died. William was appointed Chairman while Alfred remained in charge of the operation in the north-west subsidiary, where he had been since 1918. These two deaths must have had some impact on what followed. The two London partners argued that the recession was impacting more on the north than the south and proposed closing Alfred’s company. Alfred, however, did not wish to return to London and, on an informal basis at first, the two businesses were run separately. The separation was formalised in 1940 and the northern business was renamed, Sir Alfred McAlpine. The two McAlpine firms had non-compete arrangements and sites had a common “McAlpine” board irrespective of which firm it was. When both companies first went public, they did so under the names Newarthill for Robert and Marchwiel for Alfred. These arrangements continued until 1983.

In 2003, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. sued Alfred McAlpine plc over the use of the family name and won.  The dispute centred on Alfred McAlpine’s intention to trade under the name “McAlpine”. There was previously a long-standing agreement within the McAlpine family not to make such a change but, following the death of Alfred McAlpine, the board of Alfred McAlpine sought to make the change in any event. The effect of the judgment was to prevent Alfred McAlpine from trading under the name “McAlpine”. In 2008, Alfred McAlpine plc was acquired by Carillion and dismantled, thus making the “name war” irrelevant.


Robert McAlpine (1847-1934) was a self-made working-class man who established a highly successful building contractor’s business and whose constructions included the West Highland railway line and Wembley Stadium. He was nicknamed ‘Concrete Bob’ due to his use of the new material and was created a baronet in 1918. The most prominent landmark which he gave to Kilwinning was the viaduct to the north of the town which carried the railway over the River Garnock. Source.


Extracts from Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons: The Early Years by Iain Russell.

… Other builders had to take into account the cost of buying bricks and carrying them to the site when they drew up their tenders for the contract, but Robert did not have to worry about this expense as Forrest ( City of Glasgow’s bank agent John Forrest) owned a brick and tile works at Stonefield and offered to lease them, a house, stables and brick making machinery to the young builder for £125 per year …

… While building in Stonefield (1872 – 1874), Robert discovered not only how great a saving he could make on his costs by manufacturing his own bricks, but that he could get a good price from other builders working in the area for any surplus he produced. He continued to lease the Stonefield works for the rest of the decade and he took leases out on Hamiltonhill and the Kelvinside Brickworks, both in Glasgow, in 1873 and 1877 respectively. As he does not seem to have tendered for contracts in the Glasgow area at this time, it is likely that the bricks he made there were sold to other builders …

… No other information survives about the techniques employed by the firm in building the Works ( Singer Manufacturing Company Works, Kilbowie, Clydebank, Glasgow) but it is known that McAlpine & Richmond supplied many of the bricks required for the works from their own brickworks at Stonefield which they continued to lease until 1886 …

… The bricks used to line the London Road tunnel (part of a 3-mile section of Railway – Tollcross Railway between Bridgeton Cross and Carmyle) were obtained from McAlpine’s own brickworks, built close to the site and producing bricks made of clay from the tunnel excavations … (This sounds like a temporary brickworks solely constructed to utilise the excavated clay  and provide bricks for the job in hand).

… McAlpine often built a brickworks near one of their sites as they did at Provan Gasworks and near Prince’s Dock, and clay and sand from excavations were used in the production of McAlpine bricks …

… The ground in which the dock (Robert Stevenson & Co’s graving dock, River Tyne, Newcastle) was to be built was made up of boulders, sand, clay gravel and slag tipped there by local foundry owners. McAlpine used the clay and sand to make bricks and the stone and slag for concrete aggregate …


Many thanks to Dr James Herring who forwarded the following information compiled by Dr Pat Simpson.

“The West Common was prone to flooding at seasonal high tides.  David France built a wall, the Divvy Dyke, to prevent this. This allowed him to build a brick works, the Seafield Brick & Tile Works on the land.  The house at the entrance gate to the Belhaven Bay Caravan Park was once part of the brick works.  The lake there is a result of the extraction of clay to make the bricks.

The brick works then became the property of an established brick manufacturer, William Brodie, in 1855. Initially, he lived in Rosebank, now called  Rosebank House.  His new home, Battleblent, was built in 1860, with its distinctive three wings.  He lived there with his wife and one of his daughters, Marion.  She married Thomas Sherriff, a son of a local agricultural instrument manufacturer, but sadly he died young.  Marion Brodie Sherriff took over the brick works after her father’s death, until its closure in 1890, and continued to live at Battleblent until her own death in 1920″.


1869Robert McAlpine (1847-1934) started in the building trade.

1872  – McAlpine won his first major construction contract, to build 100 cottages for miners at Stonefield near Hamilton.

1873 – 1874 – Robert McAlpine – Brickmaker and Brick Builder, Hamilton Hill, Possil Road, Springburn. House Bothwell Road, Hamilton.

1873 – 1874 – Robert McAlpine, brick builder and brickmaker, Hamilton Hill Brickwork, Possil St., and Stonefield Brickwork, Blantyre.

1875 – He began to invest in property, building houses to let in Hamilton, Stonefield, and Motherwell.

22/07/1875 – Glasgow Herald – Blantyre, serious incident. A lad, named James Johnston, 11 years of age, residing with his father, a carter at Stonefield, met, on Tuesday night with an unfortunate accident at Mr McAlpine’s Brickwork.  He got entangled about the engine and was drawn in and very badly hurt before it could be stopped. His right arm was fractured in several places between the elbow and the hand and he was otherwise cut and bruised. Dr Downie, who attended, ordered the lads removal to Glasgow Infirmary.

1875 – Hamilton Hill Brickworks, Possil (Maryhill) was operating in 1875.  It was owned by The Caledonian Railway Company and Robert McAlpine was leasing it that year for £55 a year, occupying the land also as a business. This is confirmed in the 1875 valuation roll.

1875 – Robert McAlpine was living at Burnbank Road Hamilton, although he was letting out a house and stable at Stonefield Brickworks to Robert McAlpine (perhaps his son or father?) and also letting out a block of homes called McAlpines Buildings (built in 1874?) at the corner of Glasgow Road junction with New Station Road, (a road that following 1900, became known as John Street).
As can be seen from the clipping Wm Allan & Co were also operating from the same brickworks at this time – click me – (Many thanks to Paul Veverka).

23/12/1876 – Glasgow Herald – Hamilton – Building in concrete – The Dean of Guild Court have had before them plans lodged by Mr John Tainish who proposes to build at the gas works a block of dwelling houses of concrete according to an English patent/ The surveyor, Mr Watson questioned the stability of the material; and Messrs Robert McAlpine, brick and tile manufacturer, himself a large contractor of concrete, and W.Brown, builder, were appointed to report on the subject. They yesterday reported to the court that they considered Mt Tainish’s system well adapted for dwelling houses. and that the material was of an enduring and substantial nature. The plans were accordingly passed.

1876 – 1877 – The firm regularly employed over one hundred men. Leased three brickworks and experimented with the use of concrete to make lintels and doorsteps.

1877 – 1878 – Robert McAlpine brickmaker and brick builder, Hamilton Hill, Possil Rd.; ho. Bothwell Road, Hamilton

1878Robert McAlpine, Brick and Drain Tile Manufacturers,  Burnbank Road, Hamilton.

1878 – 79 – Robert McAlpine, Stonefield Brickworks.

1878 – 1879 – McAlpine, Robert, builder and brickmaker, Hamilton Hill Brickworks, Possil Road; Kelvinside Brickworks, Great Western Road; and Stonefield Brickworks, Low Blantyre.

06/03/1879 – Glasgow Herald – Bricks – For sale, 300,000 common bricks in lots to suit purchasers near Great Western Road, Glasgow – Apply R. McAlpine, Burnbank Road, Hamilton.

1880  – The house-building ventures collapsed. Robert took his cashier, William Richmond, into partnership in his contracting business which avoided the business falling into the hands of his creditors. Robert continued nominally as an employee of the firm until he was discharged from bankruptcy in 1881.

1882 – Built the largest factory in Europe, for the Singer Manufacturing Co at Kilbowie, Dunbartonshire.

1882 – McAlpine & Richmond, brick and tile maker, Blantyre.

1883 – Dissolved the partnership with William Richmond.

Below – 23/01/1883 – Edinburgh Gazette – McAlpine and Richmond partnership dissolved.

30/11/1883 – Glasgow Herald – Wm Ferrie, brick moulder, 3 Lyall Street, Keppochhill was charged with having connived at the illegal employment of his 2 daughters in Robert McAlpine’s brickwork, St Rollox.  The girls were under 16 years of age. The Sheriff remarked strongly on the unfitness of such employment for young girls. A penalty of £1 including costs was inflicted.

Below – 1885 – Robert McAlpine (centre) pictured in 1885 during the construction of a viaduct on the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire Railway.

19/01/1888 – Glasgow Herald – Hamilton Bankruptcy Court – Matthew Stevenson, brick manufacturer, Blantyre, was yesterday examined before Sheriff Birnie in his sequestration. He stated that in April 1885, he took over, along with a partner, Mr Tinto, the brickwork at Blantyre from Mr McAlpine to whom he was previously a manager. Tinto and he each put in £200, bankrupt borrowing the same from his father (?) The business was unprofitable and they lost £150 by a fire. In November 1886 the copartnery was dissolved. He paid about £150 as Mr Tinto’s share and took over the firms responsibilities. He now believes the concern was then insolvent. His liabilities were £1200 and assets £213. The statutory oath was administered.

02/04/1895 – Glasgow Herald – Railway Engineering Feat – In the course of Sunday a feat which is believed to be unparalleled in the history of railway engineering was accomplished at Dalmuir. The North British Railway line which terminates at present at Clydebank is being extended to join the mainline at Dalmuir, so as to form a more direct and expeditious route from Glasgow to Helensburgh and Balloch. The extension passes under the mainline a short distance to the east of Dalmuir station and within the short space of 20 hours the embankment was cut through and a concrete arch erected and the permanent way restored to its normal condition for traffic. AT 2 o’clock on Sunday morning Mr Robert McAlpine, senior partner of the firm of  Mr Robert McAlpine & Sons, the contractors for the line, started 200 men on the work. Messrs Simpson and Wilson, the engineers; Mr Andrews, the resident engineer and Mr Thomas McAlpine were also present taking part in the directing of the operations. As it was impossible in the limited space for all the men to be engaged at once, they worked in relays and were provided with meals by a purveyor whom the firm placed on the ground. The work done between 2 am and 10 pm on Sunday embraced the handling of over 2000 tons of material. The embankment was dug through to the extent of 36 feet in breadth and length and to a depth of 15 feet. In 6 hours, 600 cubic yards of earth were excavated. A centre was then formed on the earthwork and about 190 cubic yards of concrete were laid to form an arch, after which the earth was filled in and the line restored. The men worked vigorously and everything passed off without the slightest hitch, the task being finished in 2 hours less than the time which it had been expected to take.

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