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Virginia Bricks

When our house was young it had a back patio tiled with red bricks. At some point, the yard was renovated and the bricks were replaced, but the original bricks weren't thrown out - they were re-used to make above-ground garden beds and low retention walls. This much I was told by the previous owner of the house. I quite like the look of weathered brick so the retaining walls will probably stay for as long as we live here.


Some months ago I noticed a faint maker's mark on one of the bricks, under the dirt and moss. A quick brush and the word VIRGINIA appeared, and many more of the old bricks turned out to have the same brand. My first thought was that they perhaps were imports from Virginia US, but there's also a suburb on the North side named Virginia and no doubt other locations in Australia with the same name. Time for a spot of research on the history of this essential building material.

Bricks were used from the very early days of the Australian colonies and this was also the case in Brisbane, where timber buildings predominated. And in some cases the first bricks were indeed imported from the UK. Back in the early to mid-1800s the cost of transporting bricks across land was very high in comparison to the sea transport, and it has been estimated that the cost of shipping bricks from England to Adelaide was the same as transporting the same bricks from the port to Adelaide city on the rudimentary roads of the day*1. Even the first fleet to Botany Bay carried ten thousand bricks, despite the limited space for food and other critical supplies*2. Hence European bricks can be found in old Australian buildings. But clay was plentiful in the new land and so were the other two key ingredients; fuel for burning and human labor. Economics therefore dictated that many small manufacturers would spring up in population growth centres and in close proximity to sources of clay and fuel.

The Brisbane Town commandant's cottage, with kitchen extension of convict-made bricks *3

The first bricks to be manufactured in Queensland were made at the short-lived Redcliffe penal settlement, founded in September 1824. Commandant Miller and his crew found good clay near Humpybong Creek and production started immediately, probably under the management of the convict brickmaker Martin Sellers*3. In the space of about eight months, enough bricks were made to build a free-standing store, a blacksmith's forge*4, a brick kiln, lining for a well and pavement for the barracks*5. Long after the outpost was abandoned some of the old bricks made their way into the chimneys of colonial-era Redcliffe houses*6.

When the settlement moved to North Quay in mid-1825 the first building to be erected was the Commandant's cottage, a timber structure prefabricated in Sydney but supplemented with a kitchen made from locally made bricks. Other brick buildings included the convict hospital, the military barracks and the upper part of the windmill on Wickham Terrace. The convict gang did well and in 1826, only a year after the founding of the colony, Commandant Miller reported a quarterly production of 44,500 bricksThe clay was sourced from the "Brick Fields" located at the current Roma Street Station and burned in a nearby kiln
*3. Claypits were also established at what is now Bowen Park next to the Royal Women's Hospital*7, at the Barry Parade and Wickham St intersection*7 and "Frog's Hollow" in lower Albert St*8.

Lime for cement was initially made from sea-shells and coral rubble gathered in Moreton Bay but in 1827 a limestone deposit was discovered at what became the settlement of Limestone Hills, later re-named Ipswich
*3.The first building in Ipswich was appropriately made of Brick, in 1829*10.

Brickmaking by hand was a perfected art by the 1800's although it did show some regional variations. The method used by the Brisbane convicts has been described as follows:

"There was neither the time nor the equipment to obtain fine grinding of

the clay, which was left coarse and gravely. Water was added, and with

bare-legged convicts tramping around in the mess, a sticky pug was

worked up. Allowed to stand for a few days instead of the two to three months

that it would have been given in England, it was hastened to the moulding

table. This table... was made of wood. It was moved to the clay, and for this

reason was often fitted with rough wheels. At one end of the table was set a

trough of water, and at the back of it, or on the ground beside the moulder, 

a barrel of sand. To the top of the table was fixed a "stock"—a flat board 

one inch thick and the size of the largest face of the brick... 


To make the brick, the stock was dusted with sand, the mould dipped

in the water, and similarly sanded and slipped into position over the stock.

A clod of pug, a little larger than the required amount, was thrown into

the mould, and pressed by hand well into the corners. The excess material

was removed, and the top surface leveled by drawing a... wooden "strike"

across the top of the mould. If the brickmaker found the clay not tight

into the corner, he would sometimes press it into shape with his thumb,

a practice which has given rise to the false story that thumb-prints were a

tally mark of a man's production made for the benefit of the overseer. 

Too quick drying of the unburnt bricks, the low heat of the bush timber 

fuel, and the too short time in the rough kilns resulted in poor quality, soft bricks"


Quality was clearly a problem, at least for some of the convict-made bricks, but one can assume that longevity wasn't a concern when the first buildings were put up in a hurry. When decay of bricks in the upper half of the windmill became a problem in the mid-1800's they were rendered and have remained so to this day*8.

Advertisement for the John 
Petrie Firm, 1883. Click to enlarge.

As Moreton Bay opened up to free settlers in the late 1830s the production of bricks remained a localised cottage industry. Further out from Brisbane town many houses were built with bricks made on-site, either by professional brick makers or by the builder*11, but by mid-century the industry began to consolidate around key players in the urban centres. In Brisbane, one of the pioneers was the stonemason and builder John Petrie who established a brickyard in Albion, on the banks of Breakfast Creek. Road transport was still problematic and John chose the location for easy access to riverside markets*14. When the firm won the tender for the new Brisbane goal to be built on the eponymous Petrie Terrace in 1858 he was faced with an unprecedented problem - the overland transport of some 300,000 bricks, or about 900 tonnes, to be hauled by bullock dray over 5 kilometres of dirt roads*14. John delivered the project and went on to become a leading industrialist and the first Mayor of Brisbane.

Despite the advancements in local manufacturing, some importation of bricks continued, particularly of "fire bricks" used in fireplaces, kilns and furnaces; and "bath" or glazed bricks for bathrooms. In 1861 a total of 20,000 bricks of undisclosed type were imported to Queensland from Germany
*16, and in 1869 288 packets of bath bricks and 8,148 firebricks arrived from Great Britain and other Australian colonies*17.

A major fire engulfed central Brisbane in 1864 , destroying more than fifty houses as well as banks, hotels and other businesses in the Queen Street area. Legislation was already underway requiring all new city buildings to have external walls made of brick, stone or other non-combustible materials*19, and in conjunction with the ongoing population boom*20 it created a multi-decade surge in demand for building materials. The 36.7 million bricks produced in Queensland in 1887 marked a peak of production which was unsurpassed for several decades *21.

The Fire of Brisbane in 1864, as illustrated by the Courier Mail

As mechanization conquered the Queensland industries in the late 1800's the era of handmade bricks came to an end. Machinery of various designs was adopted by the leading Brisbane brickyards, some from the catalogue of the mechanical engineers Clark & Fauset who are regarded as the pioneers of steam-driven brick making in Queensland*11. The 1889 Brisbane Exhibition introduced the public to a whole new range of earthenware, tile and brick products of all shapes and sizes, and the Queenslander reported*22:

"The general opinion by experts of the quality of the bricks and drainage tiles, as 

now turned out by the extensive machinery erected at the works of these 

several exhibitors, was that it could not be beaten in any of the Australian colonies; 

and even to the casual observer the difference between these hard, iron-like bricks 

and the soft, sandy things that at one time were the only sort procurable in 

Queensland, was very apparent"


The clay pits in the CBD were eventually abandoned and the suburb of Clayfield, named after the many pits scattered across the area, became a new centre of production. The most prominent pit measured a depth of 30-40 feet and was operated by the Hendra Brick and Tile Works, established in 1882. When the North Coast Railway opened in 1885 the works were transferred to a location west of the Virginia railway station and re-named the Virginia Brick and Tile Works*23. Some sources claim that the suburb was named after the company and others state the opposite - this point is unclear. One source of fuel for the Virginia brickworks as well as for the railway was the small coal mine operating at the North bank of Kedron Brook at Toombul, which is now a popular walking track with signs commemorating the history of the site*25. You can still see the seams of black coal in the northern bank of the creek.


The Virginia company later changed its name to Enoggera and Virginia Bricks and Pipes and expanded its operation to Pickering Street in Alderley*25. No traces of the works remain today but you have probably seen the tall chimney remaining at Mina Parade close to Enoggera Road which is the remnant of a competitor, the Newmarket Brickworks. But by the 1970s the remaining manufacturers had largely abandoned the city fringe. The original cottage industry, constrained by poor overland transport, had evolved into a modern and centralized business model as the road and railroad networks improved over time. The clay pits left behind in the suburbs would eventually fill up with water and became popular swimming holes, before being reclaimed for development.

Virginia clay pit injuries and fatality, 1906 and 1910

I was unsurprised to find that, as with most heavy industries around the turn of the century, brick making was a hazardous profession. Brisbane Courier notices in 1906 and 1910 mention accidents at the apparently unstable Virginia clay pit where collapsing walls injured two men and on another occasion crushed a poor worker "to a pulp and almost beyond recognition"*27, 28. Many more incidents were reported relating to rockfalls, machinery and gunpowder accidents in Brisbane brickyards. The charming bricks in our garden do have a story to tell, and remind us of the hard life of pioneering Queenslanders a few short generations ago.

The Virginia Brickworks clay pit at Enoggera, ca 1920. Photo courtesy of the John Oxley Library

*1 Early bricks and brickworks in Adelaide, City of Adelaide, 1998
*2 List of articles sent by First Fleet', Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol2
*3 Brisbane Town in Convict Days, J. G. Steele, 1975
*4 Early public service in Queensland, D.W. Fraser, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1963
*5 Redcliffe in 1824, J.G. Steele, Royal Histrical Society of Queensland, 1972
*6 Tom Petrie's reminiscences of early Queensland, C.C. Petrie, 1904
*7 Looking back on old Brisbane, S. Emmett, Royal Historical Society of Brisbane,1954
*8 Jubilee History of Queensland, E.J.T. Barton, 1909
*10 Pugh's Almanac, 1859
*11 Australian Building, a Cultural Investigation, Miller,, accessed 6 February 2013
*12 The Heritage Architecture of Queensland, R.E. Newell, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1969
*14 The Petrie Family - Building Colonial Brisbane, D. Dornan, 1991
*15 Australian Dictionary of Biography,, accessed 6 February 2013
*16 Statistical register of Queensland for the year 1861, Office of the Registrar General, 1862
*17 Statistics of the Colony of Queensland for the year 1869, Office of the Registrar General, 1870
*18 The Brisbane Courier, 17 December 1864
*19 The Brisbane Courier, 4 October 1864
*20 Between 1861 and 1871 the population of Queensland increased from approx. 21,000 to 102,000, and for Brisbane from approx. 6,000 to 19,000. Source: Queensland Government statistician,
*21 Statistics for the State of Queensland, Office of the Registrar General, years 1887-1920
*22 The Brisbane Courier, 23 Aug 1889
*23 The Brisbane Courier, 30 Aug 1930
*24 The Brisbane Courier, 27 Sept 1884
*25 The Brisbane Courier, 4 March 1909
*26 The history of Queensland, its people and industries, States Publishing Company, 1919-1923
*27 The Brisbane Courier, 27 April 1910
*28 The Brisbane Courier, 4 Sept 1906

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