Saturday, September 27, 2008

Glenburn: Avondale's "Fire on the Clay" (1882-1972)

There had been earlier brickyards in Avondale and immediate districts: Daniel Pollen’s on the Rosebank from c.1855-c.1875, other smaller concerns on both sides of the Whau River … but William Hunt was to initiate one of the biggest in West Auckland.

William Hunt: 1881-1887

On 24 April 1882, James Palmer transferred title to William Hunt for 19 acres of land at the southern end of Allotment 85, bounded then on three sides by one Government Road (now St Georges Road), Wolseley Street (now Wolverton Street) and another Government Road (now Blockhouse Bay Road). It is likely that Hunt was already in occupation there before the title was formerly conveyed, as was a common practice in those days. William Hunt came from Wellington in Shropshire, England, having brought himself, his wife, and their family of eight sons and two daughters to Auckland in March 1880. He is said to have done rather well for himself with a small fortune made during the Industrial Revolution (supposedly around £60,000 in capital).

From the NZ Herald in February 1884: “Mr. Hunt has now got fully in operation his new brickworks, the machinery of which will turn out about 16,000 compressed bricks per diem. He has ordered from Glasgow another machine – a die plastic machine – which will give an additional output of 25,000 bricks per day. Two kilns are in work. The clay is run into the works in trucks, by rail, working on an endless chain. Mr. Hunt has erected residences for his men, and put in a lengthy siding from his factory to the Kaipara Railway. His expenditure on buildings, machinery and improvements, has already amounted to many thousands of pounds, and it is to be hoped that he will reap the full reward of his enterprise.”

Dick Scott, in his book Fire on the Clay describes Hunt’s success thus: “Hunt’s arrival in Auckland coincided with a boom that created a surge of inner city building of banks, hotels, shops, offices and factories. It encouraged him to pour his money into modern brickmaking machinery. He was the first in New Zealand to introduce mechanization to the industry and his bricks were superb. In excavating old building sites today their quality, the crispness of outline, the uniformity and density, instantly put them apart and makes most of their fellows seem warped and woebegone.”

The “lengthy siding” fits with a suggested layout of Hunt’s brick works proposed by J. T. Diamond in 1983: a long, sweeping railway siding from the main rail line about halfway between Chalmers Street and St Georges Road, to lie alongside Hunt’s Scotch kiln (for bricks, fireclay) and a bottle or hovel kiln (for pottery). An internal tramway is believed to have run alongside a long rectangular covered working area, connecting that with rows of stacks in a drying area, and forming a connection between the works and a clay quarry just to the east, across a small watercourse running approximately north to south (one of the tributaries to the Whau Creek watershed.) A dam across this watercourse would supply the works with water, and also flush away excess ingredients of the brick making process. It was a much smaller operation than would later be seen on the site. Hunt, after all, had only 19 acres, compared to the later extent of over 50 acres, but he would have had land use agreements with his northern neighbours, possibly John Buchanan, in order to run that precious rail siding from the main line to his works.

By 23 July 1884, Hunt had already created a substantial brick yard on the site, judging by the details disclosed in his mortgage agreement at the time with Philip Hawe Mason: “machinery works, buildings, kilns, furnaces, engines, rails, turntables, roads, trams, wagons, trucks, implements, tools, plant, working stock and other estate.” According to Dick Ringrose in a conversation with J. T. Diamond in 1940, Hunt brought all the machinery with him from England. 1 flywheel alone weighed 7 tons. Around 30 men were employed there.

He had purchased the land for £450 in 1882 from Palmer: just over 2 years later, he took out a mortgage for the lot to the value of £3500, agreed to be repaid on 23 June 1887. Hunt took out a further mortgage with Philcox on 1 September 1885, but appears to have been unable to repay either mortgage by the end of 1887. The building boom, on which he must have relied upon, collapsed. On 9 December 1887, he conveyed “equity of redemption” to J. Bycroft & Co for £5300, the total of the two unpaid mortgages.

Hunt’s manager was Tom Murray (who had worked at Arch Hill). Hunt’s was the first local works to utilise a rail siding. Hunt was also able to install a steam engine after about 5 years operation, replacing a horse-drawn pugmill used to mix the clay. His daily tally in summer was said to be 25,000 (in summer), with a kiln turnover of 150,000 per week. During the Hunt period, the bricks made here are said to have been used “extensively” in the building of the Catholic Church of Ascension in Onehunga’s Church Street, and the entire original Custom House building in the central city, although this was built over the course of 1888-1889. The bricks may have been made during Hunt’s time, but the profits belonged to Bycroft & Co.

William Hunt retired to a 600 acre farm near Ngaruawahia, and died in the Waikato on 1 October 1907. In the obituary for his wife, published in 1925, it was recorded: “Mr. Hunt founded the brick works [at Avondale] and worked at Avondale for seven years. He then sold out and took up farming in the Waikato. In those days trouble was rife among the Maoris, and the Hunt family had many anxious times. However they won the esteem of the Maoris by attending to them when they were ill or injured, and undoubtedly saved many lives. When Mr Hunt died the tribes wanted to take him down the river and accord him the honour of a chief’s burial. This request was not acceded to.”

J. Bycroft & Co: 1887-1896

Between 1887 and 1896, Bycrofts purchased two more lots, enlarging the total land holding to 30 acres. By the time the company sold the property to Joseph James Craig on 2 June 1896 for the bargain rate of £1000, plus a total of £3000 plus interest on unpaid mortgages (including part of Mason’s mortgage dating back to William Hunt’s time in 1884), it was nearly at its greatest extent but must have cost Bycrofts dearly.

Within two years of purchasing the brick works, Bycrofts had bricks included as part of their stand at the Dunedin Exhibition of 1889. “Bycroft’s biscuits placed in suggestive contiguity to his equally good bricks.” They had installed Mr. C. Ingram as working manager buy 1891. The business was now “Avondale’s Patent Brick Works … Manufacturer’s of Hunt’s Celebrated Building Bricks”, turning out fire bricks, fireclay goods, ground fireclay, “patent pressed fancy and ornamental bricks”, “terra cotta”, chimney pots, etc. Fireclay is a mined underclay found in association with coal seams and known for its suitability to withstand high temperatures, so this may have been brought into the works at Avondale via the railway from places such as Huntly in the Waikato.

Why would a biscuit and flour making company buy a brick yard? Between 1880, when John Bycroft senior (the firm’s founder) died and 1891 when his son and co-director of the company, also named John, died – Bycroft’s appear to have been following a policy of diversification. Aside from Hunt’s brickworks, they were involved with: the NZ Dairy Association; the Merchant and Shipping Agency business of Stone Brothers; and a tannery and fellmongery at Onehunga. Local wags passed on a rumour though that perhaps Bycrofts were having a spot of bother with their bakery kilns, with biscuits coming out hard and inedible: the purchase of the brick yard ensured these could be sold as quarry tiles!

J. J. Craig / Avondale Brick and Pottery Company Limited: 1896-1920

J.J. Craig initially kept Ingram on as manager. The yard was enlarged, a Hoffman kiln installed (this kiln can be seen clearly in the c.1898 photograph of the yards, from Special Collections), and the works became the first in the district to make glazed pipes with a small hand machine first used by Ward in 1895, then Vazey in 1902.The bricks made at the yard complimented the hydraulic lime mortar also sold by Craig which was used in many buildings of the period. At the Auckland Exhibition of 1898-99, Craig was awarded first prize for cream jars, spirit jars and plain glazed flower pots and waterfilters”, and was highly commended for “design of garden fountains, flower vases, and flower pots.” The firm received second prize for “facing and pressed bricks, moulded and air bricks, chimney tops and plain Rockingham tea pots.”

On 22 February 1900 Craig sold the site to William Elliot and the Avondale Brick and Pottery Company Limited. According to the deed, Craig had agreed to sell the land to the company for £800 “some time since” but the latter had not been formed or incorporated until early 1900.

A brief description appeared in the Auckland Star, 1903: “In the Southern portion of Avondale there are the large brick yards formerly owned by Mr Hart [sic], but now run by a limited company. These works employ a great number of men, the majority of which have cosy little homesteads of their own.” The Cyclopedia of New Zealand in 1902 refers to the brick yards as still being owned by Craig, so the agreement with George Elliot could well have only been in the nature of a lease, or as a subsidiary of the J.J. Craig company. The works were described by the Cyclopedia as: “said to be the largest in the Colony, with a capacity of 90,000 bricks per day, besides fire-bricks, fire clay blocks, oven tiles, stove linings, drain pipes, chimney pots, roofing tiles, ridgings, sanitary appliances, filters, jam jars, acid jars, cornices and ornamental work, flower pots, etc.” By 1913, the marvel was reported that the works were “lighted by electricity, so that work can be carried on night and day, and kilns thus be examined at a temperature that would be dangerous with almost any other form of light.” 100 men were employed, around 20% of Craig’s total workforce.

By 19 December 1910 the Avondale Brick and Pottery Company Limited was in liquidation, their agent William Elliot now acting as their liquidator with his brother George Elliot. The land was passed back to the Craig family (JJ Craig by then deceased) in the name of his widow Jessie and son Ernest on 12 September 1916. JJ Craig had purchased the property from the company for £3000 on their liquidation but no formal conveyance was arranged. Craig had died in July 1916. By now, the total property was around 52 acres, the largest area it was to encompass, as further land to the north was apparently purchased between 1900 and 1910, in the name of the Avondale Brick and Pottery Company.

Brick Tile (Auckland) Limited / Glenburn Fireclay and Pottery Company Limited: 1920-1929

"It is said of the London clay that inevitably it spells ruin to the brickmaker not thoroughly familiar with its nature, for it is too strong —that is, it presents great difficulties in manufacture owing to its excessive shrinkage. Yet when properly worked, no bricks are better able to withstand the severe conditions to which bricks are subjected than those made from the London clay. A precisely similar difficulty characterises the clay deposits at Avondale. It has long been held by the local "wise heads" that these clays, and particularly those at the Avondale works, are not fit for the manufacture of bricks, yet it would on evidence appear that the unfitness was not attributable to any peculiarity the clay possessed. It has however been conclusively proven that, under capable management, by the abolition of "rule of thumb methods" and the substitution of expert knowledge that the huge deposits of clay on the property of Brick, Tile, (Auckland) Limited, is just the very class of clay a competent and experienced management would desire for the production of a '"better brick." The new double pressed bricks now being made by the Company are branded BTA. It may be interpreted by those who are uninitiated as "Beats Them All" or "Better Than Any" which would be a not altogether unexpected exclamation by those who see them for the first time, which are in substance solid facts. It will not be necessary to remind the architectural professor and the building trades generally of these facts. Those gentlemen of keen observation will at once say they are indeed good and if by the clean, smart appearance of the brick with its sharp arrises, the initials might pardonly be interpreted as "Beats Them all."' The BTA. is put on the brick merely that one and all may know it is the production of Brick, Tile, (Auckland) Limited." (Auckland Star, 2 October 1920)

On 16 July 1920, the Craig family came to an agreement with John Melville and James Fletcher (of Fletcher Construction fame) for the latter partners to purchase the site under the name Brick Tile (Auckland) Limited. On 14 May 1923 by order of the Supreme Court the company’s name was changed to Glenburn Fireclay and Pottery Company Limited. The Craig family eventually formalised the sale on 16 February 1929 for £8000. Part of the land was sold the same day to William Anderson (corner of St Georges Road and Wolverton Street). Two days later, Glenburn went into liquidation, and a resolution was passed to sell the property to Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company which then in the process of incorporation. The purchase price was £42,274 8s 6d, an amazing sum, considering the value of the buildings and land together, as assessed by Auckland City Council in 1927 was only £5760.

Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company: 1929-1969

From 1929, while the works was known on plans and to locals as “Glenburn”, officially it was simply No. 3 Pottery, Amalgamated Brick & Pipe Company. The depression of the 1930s hit hard. From around 1934, the works was only operational part time. There were apparently only 9 employees at the works by 1930.

The days of the Avondale brick works however were numbered. More land was nibbled away from 1949 when the company sold sites along Blockhouse Bay Road and Wolverton Street for residential use, and more sites along St Georges Road from 1956. The site was rezoned as M2, or light industrial in the change in the District Plan in 1968, from the previous designation of “Burnt Clay Products Zone”, and sold to developers Associated Group Securities Limited at the end of 1972. Orders for bricks from the Glenburn works ceased 22 August 1969 and the last buildings and chimney demolished soon after. Today, much of the original Avondale Brick Works site forms the Lansford Crescent industrial area.


  1. As a bricklayer of some years experience I remember the glenburn bricks as a standout in quality and pleasing appearance.

  2. My mum found a Glenburn brick in the garden, there's a few around there use to be a bakery in the yard, Te Teko Eastern Bay of Plenty

  3. Found a glenbury Avondale brick in manurewa, south Auckland. while landscaping for a friend, also found another on great North Rd Avondale. Both of these bricks were recycled. Built to last

  4. I found a 'glenburn avondale' brick in the paving in front of the beautiful Hundertvasser Kawakawa public toilets. I now live where Glenburn brickworks used to be.

  5. Is Glenburn pottery collectable.I hv a coffee set and barrel.