WHEN the first ancient builders scraped mud into blocks and left them to harden in the sun around the city of Jericho in about 7,000BC little did they appreciate the longevity of their innovation.

In colder climes the blocks would be hardened by covering them with straw and coal-burning them until solid.

In the UK the process was developed to the maximum and kilns spewed forth bricks by the millions for the voracious appetite of a construction industry building countless terrace, semi-detached and detached houses for the nation’s masses.

At its height the industry supported 1,500 brickworks in the UK until more modern techniques of breeze blocks, glass and steel saw demand plummet leaving today only around 40 manufacturers supplying the trade.

While the largest produce around 500 million generic, monotone bricks a year, Cumbrian firm Furness Brick decided to adopt a specialist approach producing a tenth of the number using traditional methods resulting in a heritage product.

“The pandemic hasn’t been kind to the big brick makers as construction was hit by COVID,” says director James Collinge. “Some have had to scale back and mothball plants. But we seem to have benefited from the pandemic and the fact that people have been spending time and money on their homes rather than going on holiday.

“We were down in April but since then we have had very good months. You can tell by the number of skips you see when you are driving around; they are everywhere as people are getting their homes redone.”

James is third generation Collinge to have devoted his career to bricks. Furness Brick & Tile Co Ltd began life as Matthews & Son in 1845 with owners changing hands through several shareholder arrangements between 1845 and 1900.

Furness Brick and Tile Co Ltd took pride of place above the door in the early 1900s and traded at a site in Barrow-in-Furness from 1845 until the early 1970s when it moved to its current location at Askam-in-Furness.

The Collinge family gained a minor shareholding in the 1920s and in the 1950s James’s granddad William finally took the majority stake.

William died in 1984 passing his shares to sons John, Richard and Roger. Roger ran the company from 1984 until 1990 then Richard from 1990 until his death in 2015 when James, with his brothers Mark and Nick, and two surviving brothers of Richard, John and Roger, took the reins.

Today it supports a loyal and seldom changing workforce of around 45 staff with sales directors also working in Birmingham, Manchester and the North East.

“We were always told not to rely on the family business, it was not an option,” recalls Mark, who is married to Nicola and has two children, Isabella and Hugo. “I think granddad was keen for us to see more of the world. But my father realised that his sons could work as a good team.

“I’ve now worked in every department and remember when I was young picking bricks up off the floor in the rain, in January, at seven in the morning. We have a very low staff turnover because local people like to work locally, it’s a good commute and we offer people a good wage for minimal qualifications.”

Up until the 1980s the works produced engineered generic bricks for the streets of Lancashire and Greater Manchester using the ancient kiln that has burned coal every day since 1945.

“Then my father decided to go in a different direction after bringing in an advisor, Alan Marriott,” says James, who is a keen gym-goer and fan of Formula One and cars. “Since then we have made a ‘clamp brick’, which is more bespoke, hand-made, which maximised on the factory’s traditional methods of production.”

Bricks start from a raw material of shale excavated from nearby Kirkby Moor which is shaped, mixed with various chemicals and powders and fired at 1,050°C. The coal-powered kiln gives a distinctive heritage finish, unable to be replicated in gas-fired machines, that offers a new material an instant 100-year-old look.

Ever conscious of the environment, the kiln has produced a product throughout the entire time it has been fired and great care is taken to ensure the highest of efficiencies, with the operating permit and fuel usage approved by the local environmental agency.

The firm also operates a zero waste product policy in its processes and recycles every single brick that is not up to scratch, the materials reused in the next load of bricks. In the quarry, used and redundant areas are landscaped and restored to fit in with the surroundings.

Furness bricks are unique in colour, texture and finish and are proving suitable for heritage restorations, extensions and popular among homeowners who require a bespoke look to their new builds.

“It is ironic how at one point we felt the traditional methods of production made us feel like we were going backwards but they have been key to our success,” says James. “Our old machines are very difficult to find nowadays and there are very few kilns left in the world like ours.”

It’s a product that is good enough for prestigious organisations and individuals including the National Trust and English Heritage, and celebrities including Sir Elton John, Roy Keane and Michael Owen. The owner of Coca-Cola ordered a special blend for his new house in Atlanta, as did the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, for construction work that would blend in with the existing building. A brewery ordered new tiles for that instant century-old appearance.

The new Springfield Hospital, in London, a facility for people with mental health issues, is currently taking a quarter of total production after its Danish architect fell in love with the brick.

Whilst the UK takes the bulk of Furness Brick’s stock, they have also found their way to Qatar, New Zealand and America. At every stage Furness Brick’s specialists are able to guide customers through every aspect of style and design.

Equally important are individuals who source the bricks direct for their self builds or buy through a number of distributors who also like to keep them in stock with names such as Russet White, Ember Blend and Chapel Blend filling the order books.

The Victorian range of pressed smooth bricks allows customers access to a style and texture no longer available through any other UK manufacturer while charm and character of a bygone age can also be created thanks to a special weathering process. For clients with specific needs dictated by the age of their properties, Furness Brick also offers a colour matching service as well as imperial-sized pressed buff bricks.

So the future looks as solid as the bricks that fill the site yard. “We are planning to reroof the kiln, which was last done in 1945 when it was built,” says James. “Otherwise there will be investment in maintenance as we need to keep the old machinery running to give us that authentic traditional look that people love.”