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Dickinsons and Hempsteds-Marriage and Business

In this blog, we will discover the origins of 'the clay that burns' a process that was vital to the formation of the London Brick Company.

‘Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.’[1]

Thomas Carlyle (1843)

A wedding

October 1905 had been unusually wet and mild in Fletton. The churchyard of St. Margarets stretched out under the spreading branches of the ancient tree of Lebanon and a thick carpet of autumn leaves concealed the muddy path beneath.

Edward Dickinson junior, the manager of one of J. C. Hill’s brickyards and longtime resident of Fletton, stood nervously at the gate of the church. He had a slight, frame and was dressed conservatively. His distinctive high hairline had begun to thin, which accentuated even more his fashionable whiskers.[2]

Today he had the honour and responsibility of giving away his niece, Kathleen Mary Hempsted. Her father, George’s brother-in-law, Nathaniel Hempsted, had been tragically killed in London two years earlier in a hansom cab accident.[3]

Kathleen slipped her gloved hand into the crook of her uncle’s arm. He looked at her and gave an encouraging smile. Like any 21 year old Kathleen considered the journey in front of her. [4] Not only that of her new life to come but the more immediate challenge of reaching the church door without splashing her wedding gown on the way. Kathleen’s dress was simple and elegant, with a lace overskirt delicately embroidered with roses.[5] Not at all suitable for the walk in front of her.

Officiating at the ceremony was the Reverend W. M. Croome, from the nearby parish of Woodston. Reverend Croome may have offered the nervous groom, George H. Holloway, a few words of encouragement as they waited for the bride inside the recently extended church. Certainly, Fletton was vastly different to Rowno, Voltignie, Russia, where George had been living and working as a telegraphist, and where the newly married couple would make their home.

The Dickinsons and Hempsteds

Thirty years earlier another wedding had taken place which had forged the relationship between the committed Wesleyan families of the Dickinsons and Hempsteds. Two families who had a dramatic influence on Fletton.

At the beginning of 1849 ‘a strong agitation’ had occurred in the body of the Wesleyan Methodist Church which led to the first leaders of the Wesleyan Reformers being thrown out. Locally, in Grantham, Messrs Rogers, King and Ironmonger received the same treatment and Edward Dickinson senior joined them.[6] In fact, Edward was one of the instrumental figures in the establishment of the Wesleyan Reform chapel in the Swinegate Assembly Rooms. Edward was also Deacon and served as Sunday School Superintendent for 30 years. When the Assembly rooms were sold, with nowhere to go the Wesleyan Reformers joined with the Congregational Church.

Therefore, it was natural that the marriage of Kathleen’s parent’s Mary Dickinson, to Nathaniel Hempsted, on Tuesday 12th December 1871, would take place at the newly built Congregational Chapel, in St. Peter’s Hill, Grantham.[7] The longevity of their marriage was celebrated in the local newspaper on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary in 1896. [8]

Mary was the eldest daughter of Edward and Fanny Dickinson. Edward was the proprietor of the unusually named ‘Noah’s Ark’ emporium, which was situated next to the distinctive Angel Hotel on Market Square, Grantham. Edward was also a soldier with the Lincoln Rifle Volunteers and would rise to become Quartermaster and Honorary Captain. An achievement that was celebrated in 1893 when he was awarded a medal ‘finely wrought in silver…surrounded by oak leaves in high relief…surmounted by a crown…in gold’ for his 34 years of service as ‘not only one of the oldest volunteers but the son of an old volunteer’.

Edward was a well-known figure in Grantham as he strived to fulfil his political and civic aspirations. He was an ardent liberal achieving the position of secretary of the Liberal Association and he joined the Town Council in 1868.[9] The wedding of his eldest daughter, Mary, made a perfect social occasion where he could pursue his aims by extending invitations to influential men. His aims were successful and in November 1879 he was ‘most warmly applauded by the public’ when he was appointed Mayor of Grantham, an honour that would have been bestowed on him earlier if he had not threatened to abolish the ‘customary wine breakfast’. [10] In his Mayoral Robes Edward’s portly figure is distinguished and dignified and by 1881 he could also add Alderman to his civic responsibilities. Nathaniel’s parents Robert and Ann Hempsted, and his older brother George undoubtedly also joined the wedding party along with Mary’s five younger siblings: Fanny, Edward, Elizabeth, Annie and Henry.

A photograph of Edward Dickinson, which accompanied his obituary in 1913 reveals a distinguished spectacled Victorian gentleman, resplendent with white hair and whiskers, looking directly at the camera, perhaps a half smile playing on his lips.[11] He was variously described as having a ‘genial temperament’ and a ‘cheery word for everyone’ with a ‘devoted heart’ but he was also ‘conscientious to a degree’ with ‘fearless convictions’. Edward had an eye for an opportunity and was the embodiment of the rags to riches story. Born in Melton Mowbray he arrived in Grantham at just 12 years old to serve his apprenticeship as a brazier, gasfitter and tin-plate layer with John Parker, in Swinegate. Edward must have shown promise in his apprenticeship as John passed his business on to him. Within eight years Edward had moved on, formed a partnership, and was trading from the Market Place as Rogers and Dickinson haberdashery before finally trading for 35 years as ‘Noah’s Ark’.

It is not difficult to see that when his son-in-law, Nathaniel, became involved with the brick making industry in Fletton that Edward also saw the opportunity to make his mark and be involved in the ‘brick fever’ himself.

A Discovery in Fletton

Fletton, in 1881, consisted only of the church, a public house and a small village of scattered cottages.[12] This was a time before business had fully intruded into the rural idyll, a time when agriculture sat uneasily beside the fledgling industry of the brickyard, a time when the influential men of the village were Reverend William Upton and James Bristow, auctioneer and the time before ‘the clay that burned’ had been discovered.[13]

The acquisition of James McCallum Craig’s brickfield by the Hempsted brothers is concealed behind a series of purchases, leases, and mergers. But what we do know is that one of the ‘finest beds of brick, tile, and pot clay earth in the country’ was advertised for sale in the newspapers on Friday October 15th 1880 and all applications were to be addressed to R. Gollings of Fletton Lodge. Robert Gollings, himself a native of Grantham, was a brick manufacturer and a farmer of 142 acres employing 4 men and 4 boys. It was perhaps with trepidation and excitement that the brothers, recently arrived in Fletton from their respective homes, in Islington and Finsbury Park, were shown their acquisition by seasoned brickmaker Robert; 33 acres of prime brick making land that surrounded Fletton Lodge. Nathaniel and George knew that they were fortunate. Prime brick making land was sought after, especially when it had the potential of sidings adjacent to the Great Northern Railway. As speculative builders they knew that the ability to manufacture and transport bricks cheaply was critical. Consequently, these sidings were vitally important. Firstly for the economical import of coal used in firing the bricks and secondly the bricks they manufactured could easily be transported to their destination, in this case London. [14] The brothers had already moved to secure an income from the brickfield renting nine acres to Nathaniel’s father-in-law Edward Dickinson, with the assurance that they would purchase all the bricks he could manufacture.

Fortune seemed to be looking kindly on the Hempsted brothers. Born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire George and Nathaniel were the sons of Robert and Ann Hempsted. When the boys were born Robert was a moulder working in an iron foundry in Horncastle. But he was ambitious in both his business and political life. A move to Grantham enabled Robert to realise these ambitions. When he arrived in Grantham, he was employed by the plumber Pawson but the business soon became a partnership of Bonnell and Hempsted. Robert also had a business in George Street manufacturing agricultural instruments. The partnerships that Robert had were fluid, Bonnell giving way to Edward Felton who in turn made way for Robert’s sons, both engineers.[15]

As well as Hempsted and Co, formed in 1876 and operating from Dysnat Road, Robert continued to diversify and spread his business interests. Taking advantage of ‘The Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856’, whereby the government had ‘removed most of the administrative burden imposed by the government’ businesses were able to form limited liability companies and the selling of shares to the public became a quick and efficient way of raising capital.[16] In 1876 ‘The Lincolnshire Steam Thrashing and General Agricultural Machinery Company Limited’ was formed to purchase machines for rental for ‘farmers in different districts’ from Wardle and Co and Richard S. Caborn.[17] The company promised ‘a good steady profit’ and dividends paid ‘half yearly’. Robert’s son George Hempsted was a co-director and Edward Dickinson secretary. Although no evidence has been found if this is Edward Dickinson senior or junior.

Hempsted and Co were successful. Although both brothers were newly married, with young families, they were young, with energy and vision.[18] They toured the country exhibiting their machines. In 1876 they attended the prestigious Royal Agricultural Show held at Aston Hall, Birmingham, with their vertical engine. The Journal of the Agricultural Society reflected that ‘163, 148’ visitors enjoyed a ‘magnificent display of stock and implements’ in surroundings ‘the like of which was never before seen’.[19]

The following year they were exhibiting their steam engines at the Smithfield Show held in the recently built New Agricultural Hall in Islington.[20] It would be tempting to think that it was while the brothers were visiting Islington that they witnessed first hand the expansion of the district, realised the potential available and consequently were attracted to the world of speculative building.

The expansion of Robert Hempsted’s business interests, and his families standing within Grantham, was undoubtedly aided by his political achievements. Robert was a man of Liberal ideals and an activist. Liberal MP Robert Lowe opposed the government’s new reform bill, which had been introduced by William Gladstone Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister Earl Russell. This resulted in the establishment of the Reform league.[21] Campaigning for ‘one man, one vote’ a ‘very enthusiastic…open air meeting’ of the Reform League took place in Grantham on Saturday 23rd June and Robert took a lead role as the chair. In 1874 Robert was elected to the Town Council, and in his opening letter promised to work with ‘unceasing care’ with the ‘trust reposed in my hands’.[22]

The years immediately following Nathaniel and George Hempsted’s acquisition of the brickfields in Fletton were ones of discovery and financial challenges. With their engineering background the brothers realised that the Lower Oxford Clay, that lay beneath their brickfield, had unique properties. It is generally acknowledged that the Hempsteds were the first brick makers to utilise these properties to make their bricks. A process which, in the hands of J. C. Hill, would revolutionize both brickmaking and the brickmaking industry.[23] As the output of the brickfield increased Hempsted and Co attracted brick migrants to the Fletton area to work. In the 1881 census it was recorded that they employed 122 men and 50 boys.

A Change of Fortune

However, the enterprise was not without difficulties. In 1881 resident in the Manor House, Fletton was James Bristow, auctioneer, who had an interest in litigation. James brought an injunction against the Hempsteds preventing them from ‘continuing to fire bricks in such a way as to give off “noxious fumes”’. The complaint was upheld. [24]This was perhaps a battle to gain dominance as James later invested in his own brickworks in Fletton.[25] The remedy for the brothers was an expensive one. In order to reduce the ‘noxious fumes’ their chimneys emitted six Hoffman or ‘Ring of fire’ kilns had to be installed, at their brickworks, at a cost of £1,000 each.[26] Patented by Friedrich Hoffman in 1858, the Hoffman kilns sat like huge brick ships in the wilderness of the Fletton landscape. [27] The chimneys would forever stand like sentinels over Fletton and in his diary, at the end of the century, schoolboy Frederick Wright recalled that he could count more than a 100 chimneys across these yards from his bedroom window.[28]

Hempsted and Co was not established on sure foundations. The brothers were speculative builders, and their land and business purchases were based on mortgages. Just a few months after the purchase of the Fletton Brickfields an advertisement placed in Truth, on 5th October 1882, revealed the extent of their debt. The brothers had an audacious plan to raise capital of £500,000.00, a cool £33 million in today’s terms. The North London Freehold Land and House Company Ltd was formed. The company purchased the various enterprises that the brothers were involved in, in an attempt to raise additional capital by selling shares. In the prospectus the Fletton Brickfields were valued at £73,580, which equates to £4.8 million today. It further stated that ‘excellent profits’ were envisaged due to the continued ‘growth of trade particularly in the North London District’.[29]

It is difficult to imagine what Nathaniel and George’s situation was like. They were husbands and fathers. Nathaniel and his wife Mary, together with their four children Florence 12, Evelyn 8, Constance 6, and Sydney 4, and George, and his wife Ann and daughters Edith 6 and Grace 4, lived in Finsberry Park, London.[30] But they were desperately trying to keep their various enterprises afloat, which meant their time was divided between London, Fletton and Grantham. At the same time, they had to maintain appearances publicly to ensure future investors had confidence in their businesses.


Dreams, aspirations, and public standing were on the verge of being shattered. By the beginning of 1884 the inevitable happened and the brothers, together with George Dickinson senior and George junior, were declared bankrupt. In the review of the ‘Proceedings for Liquidation’ reported in The Nottingham Evening Post their liabilities amounted to £187,895 with assets of £33,673, although these figures vary from report to report.[31] In today’s terms their debts amounted to approximately £12.4 million pounds with assets of only £2.2 million.

The immediate evidence of their bankruptcy appeared in local newspapers giving notice of two auctions, which were due to held within a day of one another. [32] The first on 26th May 1884 at the Red Lion Hotel, Grantham, the second on the 27th May 1884 at the Great Northern Hotel, Peterborough. The first auction was selling the Hempsted Brickfield in Grantham, the second the Dickinson and Fletton brickfields in Fletton.

The bankruptcy cases were protracted and damaging. Still mourning the death of his 21-year-old daughter Annie, a few months earlier, Edward Dickinson senior filed his petition for bankruptcy.[33] He realised that his position was untenable and ‘resigned his position as justice of the peace and an alderman of the borough’. Although ‘much sympathy…(was)…felt’ in Grantham, as Edward and the Dickinson family had ‘always been greatly respected’ it can only be imagined what effect the bankruptcy proceedings had on Edward who was a man of ‘strictest integrity’. [34] It must also be questioned whether their father Robert Hempsted and Nathaniel’s father-in-law George Dickinson appreciated the true complexity of the situation. The family felt the divisions as claims and counter claims were made between the Dickinsons and Hempsteds. The brothers stated that ‘paragraphs…(had been) …inserted’ in the Lincolnshire Press that the ‘failure of the bankrupt’ was ‘due to the failure of…Messrs. Hempsted’ which was ‘totally untrue’.[35] In response Edward Dickinson senior admitted that Messrs. Hempsted had sold him goods ‘amounting to £2,554 16s 7d ‘for which he had not paid’.

Nathaniel and George Hempsted, and Edward Dickinson senior and junior accepted their fate, but Robert’s involvement was unclear, and he fought to retain his good name. In March 1884 he was required to give testimony at the bankruptcy hearing. When asked if he was a partner, he responded ‘I will have nothing to do with it’. [36] However when questioned, in December 1883, other witnesses, such as Edward Girdlestone, brickmaker, claimed that he had known Robert for the ‘last 35 years’ and whilst the company had been comprised of ‘father and two sons’ Robert was ‘the only known member of the firm-in Grantham’.[37] Whether Robert’s defence was entirely successful or not is unclear but to date I have found no evidence declaring Robert Hempsted bankrupt. What is for certain is that the proceedings took a heavy toll on Robert. Although his health had been ‘indifferent…for some time’ he died on Friday 12th March 1885. Interestingly the newspaper report announcing his death referred to Robert as ‘well known and respected’ but it does not mention his partnership or endeavours with his sons.[38] Robert’s wife was not left to grieve her husband’s passing in peace. The High Court of Justice brought an action against her, as his widow, and on 24th December 1885 a request was made for creditors of Robert to come forward.[39]

Following bankruptcy neither Nathaniel nor George could bring themselves to leave their engineering and brick industry past. After a brief period of retirement in Hastings Nathaniel moved to 4 Harlem Road, London and was employed as a mechanical engineer whilst George remained in London and was variously recorded as a brick commission agent and civil engineer living at Fairview, Hornsey, and in retirement 15 Sterndale Road, South Hammersmith. Meanwhile Edward Dickinson senior’s obituary, in 1913, is testament that he was accepted back into the heart of Grantham’s public life being remembered as one who ‘well and truly served his fellow-men’ and having had a career ‘worthy of emulation’.[40]

Edward Dickinson junior

Edward Dickinson junior, a grocer, married Annie, a milliner, in Grantham in 1883. Annie, the daughter of carpenter James Warmer and Ann, a dressmaker, was born in Peterborough. Like many young girls she had moved away from home to seek work. When she met Edward, she was boarding in the household of Magdaline Godfrey, a draper’s wife at 12 Watergate, Grantham. Their first daughter, Murial, was born fit and well on the 5th September 1884 in Fletton.

During the short space of time, between Edward’s marriage and his daughter’s birth, Edward’s life had changed dramatically. He had become manager for the Dickinson Brickfield; had been Hempsted and Co’s visual presence in Fletton both during their time of boom and bust, been declared bankrupt himself and finally witnessed the auction of the brickyards. [41]

Edward now had valuable experience in the brick making industry. This experience became indispensable to J. C. Hill when he arrived in Fletton and purchased his first brickfield, Hardy’s yard. Edward became one of Hill’s brickyard managers, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1916. In keeping with his new position, and to join the other important figures in the brickyard Edward and his family moved from 6 Fletton Spring, Old Fletton to Wyngate Croft, London Road.

Edward, like his father in Grantham, was a prominent member of his local community. In Fletton he took an active role on the parish council, the School Board, the Fletton and District P. S. A Society (Pleasant Sunday Afternoon) and the Fletton Urban District Council, which meant that he was therefore ex officio a Justice of the Peace for the Norman Cross Division of Huntingdonshire. [42] Perhaps unfairly, like another of J. C. Hill’s managers Adam Adams, he was widely criticised by the opposition as being Hill’s puppet in politics only acting on behalf of Hill and the London Brick Company.

As the new century dawned Edward approached his middle years with family celebrations. He and his wife Annie celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1908. They received a presentation from the Fletton and District P. S. A of a ‘handsome silver-mounted oak tray’ with a suitable inscription. Edward was also called on once more to give away another one of Nathaniel’s daughters, Winifred Alice, when she married Charles Tomlinson in Grantham in 1911.[43] Unfortunately Edwards wife pre-deceased him by 17 years and passed away in 1921. Seeking companionship, it was only one year later when Edward married the wife of his cousin Kate Dickinson. Edward remained busy, only three years later he celebrated his daughter Murial’s wedding to John Dilger. In 1931 he returned to political life when he was elected Chairman of the newly formed Old Fletton Urban District Council.

Edward died in 1939 aged 82. His obituary recalled his arrival in Old Fletton and his progression to manager when he had ‘six separate works in his charge’.[44] Just as the Hempsted brothers had changed Fletton’s fortunes forever, Edward also had a huge impact on the community. The Fletton and District P. S. A spoke of his ‘good influences which your exemplary home and public life has exerted in this locality’ and his efforts to ‘elevate and sweeten our common life’.[45]

[1] (Accessed 6/3/2018) Thomas Carlyle (4 December 1795 - 5 February 1881) was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, like Hill another influential Scot. [2] Edward Dickinson, circa 1891, private possession of Julian Baldwin. [3] Grantham Journal, 28th February 1903. [4] Kathleen Mary Hempsted, circa 1951, private possession of Julian Baldwin. [5] (Accessed 24/7/2020) permission received. [6] Grantham Journal, Saturday September 6, 1913. [7] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 22 Decmber 1871. [8] Grantham Journal, 12th December 1896. [9] (Accessed 24/7/2020) [10] Grantham Journal on 15th November 1879. Photograph private possession of Julian Baldwin. [11] Grantham Journal, September 1913. [12] Grantham Journal, 15 July 1911. [13] R. Hillier, Clay that Burns: A history of the Brick Industry. (LBC, 1981). [14] The Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury, Friday October 15, 1880. [15] Grantham Journal, 28 September 1872. [16] R. Hiller, Clay that Burns, A History of the Fletton Brick Industry, (LBC, 1981), p. 9. [17] Grantham Journal, 20 May 1876. [18]Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23rd May 1884. [19]The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society’, (John Murray, London, 1876), p.548-p. 550. [20] (Accessed 27/7/2020) Building News and Engineering Journal, December 5th 1862. Stamford Mercury, 11th September 1885. [21] (Accessed 4/8/2020). Grantham Journal, Friday 29th June 1866. [22] Grantham Journal, 7th November 1874. [23] Hillier, Clay that Burns, p. 14 and p. 21. O'Rourke, 'Some Northamptonshire Brickworks', Bulletin of Archaeology in CBA group 9, (13) (July 1970), pp. 8-28. [24] Hillier, Clay that burns, p. 15. [25] Hillier, Clay that Burns, pp. 21-25. (Accessed 8/12/2017) James Bristow was the father-in-law of Richard Gibbs Gardener, the sleeping partner of Henry Hicks who purchased Fletton Lodge Farm in 1889. J. P. Bristow, James Bristow’s grandson, would become deputy Chairman of the modern London Brick Company. [26] D. Jaggar, and R. R. Morton, Design and the Economics of Building (E and F. N. Spoon, 1995), p.55. A. Bloodworth, Memories of George Street Baptist Chapel, Fletton, Peterborough, (2000). [27] The Hoffman kiln in the photograph is at Bletchley, circa 1900. (Accessed 27/9/2017) [28] F. Wright, ‘Tales of my Childhood’, p. 27. [29] Truth October 5 1882. [30] Personal possession of Julian Baldwin. Cambridge Independent Press, 7 August 1875. [31] The Nottingham Evening Post, Monday, January 28, 1884. The London Gazette, November 16, 1883, p. 548. [32] Grantham Journal, May 1884. [33] Annie Dickinson. Photograph private possession of Julian Baldwin. [34] The Lincolnshire Chronicle, 8 February 1884. [35]Nottinghamshire Guardian, Friday February 22nd, 1884. [36] Grantham Journal, 22 March 1884. [37] Grantham Journal, 22 December 1883. [38] Nottinghamshire Guardian, 20 March 1885. [39] Grantham Journal, 24 December 1885. [40] Grantham Journal, Saturday September 6 1913. [41]Hillier, Clay that Burns, p. 12. [42] The Grantham Journal, Saturday, June 11, 1910, p. 4. It was reputed that Hill was disappointed that he never held this position. [43] Grantham Journal, 8 February 1908. Grantham Journal, 15 July 1911.. [44] Grantham Journal, Saturday, August 12, 1939. [45] Grantham Journal, Saturday February 8 1908.

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