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The arrival of John Cathles Hill-'maker of modern Fletton'

John Cathles Hill

Over the next two blogs the story of brickmaking in Fletton is continued. I will introduce you to John Cathles Hill, a scottish born speculative builder from London. It is with the arrival of John that Fletton was put on the brickmaking map and history was made.


The laden wind whirled around John Cathles Hill’s ankles, buffeting against his loose woollen trousers of deepest chestnut, as he made his way along Fletton Road towards his newly acquired brickyard - Hardy’s Yard. John wore a matching wool morning coat, over his long sleeved white shirt and burgandy brocade single breasted waistcoat. The ensemble was completed with a burgandy silk puff tie, which his wife Matilda had recently given him to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. As he shrugged his shoulders, hunkering deep within the folds of his Inverness cape for warmth, he once again offered thanks for the wisdom of his wife who had persuaded him to pack warmly for his trip to Fletton, from his London home in Whitehall Park, Hornsey. The previous year, 1888, had seen an unusually cold summer. Ice had even been seen interrupting the fishing fleets going in and out of the Faroes. This had given way to an even colder winter which now persisted into the New Year.

The road John took into Fletton was unmade and there were deep pockets of frozen water, which the 31 year old nimbly avoided. He soon saw the potential cause of these as a cart laden with winter feed rumbled passed him. The farm labourer touched his cap and as John side stepped he raised his beaver skin bowler hat in acknowledgement. John paused to take stock of his surroundings. He noted that the main road here was narrow, barely wide enough for the cart to pass through. To his left partially concealed by established oak trees, he could see the back of a substantial house, which by its close relation to the church he assumed would be the rectory. On his right a terrace of seven new houses, fronting out onto the church, show a glimpse of what Fletton could be.

The date stone declared they were ‘Haydn Terrace-1887’. John observed them appreciatively. He removed his leather gloves and retrieved his notebook and pencil from his waistcoat. Ever the observant architect builder John drew a sketch of the houses. Each had a handsome bay window, front door with light above and a large double casemement window upstairs. The brickwork was simple but attractive. Breaking up the buff courses were bands of red bricks. The upper courses beneath the slate roof were set at an angle to the rest adding a simple but pleasing touch. Importantly for John the row sat back from the road and each had a front garden neatly enclosed with a low brick wall and iron railings.

John had seen the mistakes of past expansion in London, where densely packed working class districts followed the railway lines. In contrast he envisaged estates built in an uncrowded way, making wide thoroughfares planted with kerbside trees. John had only arrived in London ten years ago, after spending two years in Glasgow at the Mechanics’s Institute learning the principles of architecture and construction. However, he had already built estates in Hornsey, Crouch End and Highgate. John could envisage doing the same here in Fletton, to accommodate his brick workers, with the addition of local amenities and shops. He had recently completed such a project at Millman Terrace in Hornsey.

Realising the time was evermore progressing John knew he had to attend to more pressing matters. He returned his notebook to his pocket and blew on his hands to warm them slighty before consulting his pocket watch. Excellent he thought to himself as he realised that he had plenty of time until his appointment to meet the brickyard manager at Hardy’s Yard. He ran his forefinger and thumb over his moustache before adjusting his hat. Replacing his gloves he inhaled deeply and set off again, renewed to reach his destination.

His grandson J. E. B. Hill would later describe his grandfather as ‘a remarkable man of immense energy and vision’ and here in Fletton this would be in full evidence.

Was it only a few short weeks since he had first visited Fletton, John thought to himself. On that trip he had purchased all the bricks that were available for his London housing estates. On the return train journey John had realised what he must do. To ensure a steady supply of bricks he would buy a brickyard. In this way not only could he control the supply but also the price of this vital commodity. John knew that this was a risky endeavour. Many brickyard owners before him had failed but he knew that his venture would be different. He knew that he could utilise the new ‘fletton process’ to his advantage. Rather than operate seasonally he would run his brickyard all the year round.

The Hardy’s Yard manager had offered to have a carriage collect him from the Angel Hotel in Peterborough. But John had declined preferring to walk the four miles. He saw it as an opportunity to get a feel for Fletton, a feel for what he could do there and where his mother and father would shortly be moving, to be his ‘eyes and ears’ while he was attending to his London businesses. It was only a short walk now down Fletton Lane in front of St. Margaret's church before his route turned right and joined the High Street.

As John walked along High Street a sign on the left proclaimed his arrival ‘Hardy’s Yard’. John stood, brought up abruptly by the vision before him. Gone was any semblance of rural activity. Before him stood tall chimneys, sentinels sitting aloft Hoffman kilns, keeping watch over the village. Men were pushing huge wagons full of the most precious commodity, Lower Oxford clay from the grinding pan to the presses. Others were feeding the never ending hunger of the kilns with unfired bricks. Despite the biting wind the men mopped their foreheads with rags, smearing the clay and coal dust across their reddened faces, evidently suffering from exposure to the tremendous heat. The sound of the presses beat a monotonous tone of industry and throughout suspended in the air John could detect dust, a mixture of clay and coal that clung to his throat.

Walking towards John, automatically brushing his hand on his jacket before extending it, was the Hardy’s Yard brickyard manager ‘Good morning. Mr. Hill?’.

‘Yes, good morning’, John responded shaking his hand enthusiastically, ‘Mr. Adams’.

‘Glad you found us’, Adam Adams responded, ‘I presume you would like to look round your new works?’.

This photograph was taken at John C. Hill’s wedding to Matilda Mose in 1882. Hornsey Historical Society.

Information taken from:

J. Schwitzer, ‘A London developer: John Cathles Hill, 1857-1915’, Hornsey Historical Society, vol 40, p. 8.

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19 sept 2023

Thank you for posting this - so interesting. I was born and raised in Fketton. Christened, married and rang the bells at St Margaret’s church. It is so interesting to here how Fletton was developed. The house I was born and grew up in was in Queens Road - built in 1889.

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