This article was prompted by a brick! It was discovered by the site manager of the new Wicklow County Council apartment development at St. Mary’s Road, Arklow – formerly the location of the old Technical School and later Arklow library and Maritime Museum. The brick in question was made by the Arklow Terracotta Brick and Tile Works and appropriately, it will be donated to Arklow Maritime Museum!
(Sample of the fuller – but not fullest – address brick. Donated to Arklow Maritime Museum by Wicklow County Council, 2018)
Kynoch Munitions Factory: Special bricks for danger houses
It’s true what they say, setting up one factory can often lead to the setting up of another. Unfortunately, the opposite can also hold true – the closure of one can lead to the demise of another. This interdependence usually stems from the second being set up to supply the needs of the first. In 1895, the largest manufacturing company ever to set up in County Wicklow opened its gates – Kynoch Munitions Factory. It flourished from 1895 until 1918, although its phased closure didn’t see the locks going on it for the last time until 1920. It was a massive concern, covering over 700 acres with several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes. Many of these were no bigger than a garden shed. These were ‘danger houses’ where the very perilous process of mixing nitro-glycerine with guncotton took place – if there was an accident, the smaller the building and the fewer the occupants the better. Many of the structures, however, were very substantial and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of red bricks went into their construction. Such was Kynoch’s demand for material that they helped establish a separate new factory just across the road from their munitions plant.
The sports grounds & the brick factory
From its inception, Kynoch management was concerned with the physical and intellectual development of its workforce. A library was installed in the recreation hall and educational talks and films (among the first in Ireland, beginning in 1898) were held regularly. Likewise, they held an annual sports day and opened a cycling track and general sports field at Ticknock at what had been ‘Bradford’s Farm’. The exact location has yet to be identified, but logic points to, or at least close to, the site soon to be built on by a new brick factory to supply the building material needed for the rapidly expanding munitions plant.
Faux granite, bricks and tiles
Rumours of this new brick factory first appeared in the Wicklow News-Letter of 25 May 1898. Throughout the opening months of 1899, however, there were still regular references to the Ticknock Cricket Grounds, Kynoch Sports Grounds, the Cycling Track and other variations denoting the site or thereabouts. That does not mean that nothing was being done. Clay analysis and other scientific experimentation were in progress to determine if local soils and sands were suitable. In fact, the original idea was to make a form of artificial granite from the vast quantities of fine sand available on the Kynoch site, rather than making terracotta brick and tiles from local marl.
On the 22 July 1899, the News-Letter could tell its readers that experiments on the sand in the vicinity had shown that it was perfect for the job and that construction should begin in the near future.
The new company was registered on the 16 July 1900, with the following board: Mr A E Mills, managing director; Mr Vere Ward Brown J.P., Balnagowan, Palmerstown Park, Dublin; Mr David L Craig, Flower Grove Kingstown; Mr Thomas J Troy, MCC, Ferry Bank, Arklow; Mr J Stewart Whitehouse, works manager. Construction of the factory began in November 1900 with the first run of bricks produced in June 1901.
By January 1903 they were supplying not only Kynoch’s seemingly insatiable appetite, but were also tendering for contracts from the Arklow Town Commissioners. In 1906 they bid to supply bricks for the extension to the town Gas Works which had been built in 1902 at the back of the old disused St Mary’s Graveyard in Main Street, now St. Mary’s Park. In 1909, local businessman Alexander McGowan took over the factory.
There was at that time, quite rightly, a bias towards local manufacturers and the commissioners were happy to offer contracts to local companies if their products were up to scratch. Such local loyalty is now considered politically incorrect. When the Arklow Town Commission was promoted to the status of Arklow Urban District Council in October 1910, there was little alteration in the membership. Mr So-and-so, ATC, now became Mr. So-and-so, AUDC. The main difference was for the first time in its history the town of Arklow, or at least its elected representatives, were empowered to raise finance through local taxes and borrowing for the construction of new council houses.
The vast majority of the bricks bore the simple brand ‘Arklow’ on one side. However, evidence of the close connection between the brick factory and Kynochs can be seen in the brick on the right which bears the word ‘Arklow’ [as on the left] on one side and ‘Kynoch’ on the other:
As far as is known, all the bricks from the factory were stamped. Usually, they simply bore the name ‘Arklow’ in the frog, the hollow that created a strong bond with the mortar. Others carried the full company name and address – ‘Arklow Terra Cotta / Brick & Tile Co. / Ticknock / Arklow / County Wicklow / Ireland.’ There were also other variations.
Private one-off houses and small terraces were also being built, many with bricks from the Ticknock factory. These public and private housing booms were signs of arguably Arklow’s most prosperous period up to that date. The harbour was booming, a new dock had been constructed on the south side in 1910; Kynochs was employing upwards of 1,000 workers (this would swell to 4,000 during the war years of 1914-1918); the quarries at Arklow Rock were also in production and there was a general air of ‘let the good times roll’. In 1913, Alexander McGowan secured a contract for 1.5 million bricks for a railway extension at Bray.
Inside the Brick Works
A fascinating insight into the day-to-day working of the factory is preserved in Arklow Maritime Museum. It is a typescript of a memoir by the late Peter Lynch who joined the workforce in 1912 at the age of 13, having lied about his age. A perceptive young man with an excellent memory, Peter would record his time there as he did with other aspects of his long and varied life.
1914 – 1916
The outbreak of World War I, when Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, was to see the town’s fortunes further increase. In the case of the Brick and Tile factory, however, it was not good news. Since their opening, Kynochs had paid higher wages than other local employers, partly because of the dangerous nature of the enterprise. With the declaration of war came a massive increase in the Kynoch workforce with the factory working 24/7. The Brick and Tile works could not compete with the money offered in the Kynoch plant and subsequently lost most, if not all, of their key men to the higher wage available by just walking across the road. This led to its demise.
Kynochs was undoubtedly the jewel in Arklow’s industrial crown and its importance to the British war effort meant that the plant had to be protected at all costs from attack by sea or land. This meant that military troops had to be brought in and accommodated. A temporary barracks was erected on the plant’s vast premises, but it wasn’t adequate and further temporary barracks had to be established. The Arklow Brick & Tile factory fitted the bill perfectly.
The factory was still in operation and advertising its products in the summer of 1914, and even into January 1915 when Peter Lynch left to begin a life-long career as a sailor. Plans for commandeering it for military use were already in the pipeline and these can now be accessed on-line via the Bureau of Military History website. These detailed plans of the premises and its outbuildings, together with Peter Lynch’s very clear and eminently readable memoir, provide a wonderful window into this long lost factory.
In 1916, it was used as a holding station for republican prisoners – for one night, at least. One of the few centres outside Dublin to rebel that Easter were the volunteers in Enniscorthy. They held out longer than anybody else in the country, and did not surrender until they received orders sent by Pádraig Pearse who was already in custody in Dublin. When they gave themselves up they were brought to Arklow by lorry under heavy escort and lodged in the temporary military barracks where they were kept overnight in the erstwhile Brick & Tile factory. The exact number of prisoners is uncertain, one source says thirty-six another says twenty-eight. The following day, at about six in the evening, they were marched in handcuffs to the harbour and put on board the Urania, a steam trawler which took the men to the North Wall in Dublin from where they were marched to Richmond barracks before being sent to Frongoch internment camp in Wales.
The factory never re-opened. In fact, it was re-used as a British military barracks during the War of Independence and several local IRA volunteers were held there at various times during that conflict. There were still a few soldiers occupying it as late as January 1922, by which time ownership had passed to Bray businessman David Frame, who had also acquired the now defunct Kynoch site and buildings. Frame was an asset-stripper rather than a developer.
However, he did not have a completely free hand in dismantling the factory. According to the Irish Independent of 14 March 1923, the earl of Wicklow had sold metal bands around the kilns to Frame, with permission to remove them. Just why this should have been the case is a bit of mystery, but it does indicate that Wicklow had some financial claim on the assets. The factory was on his estate and presumably rent was – or should have been – payable to him. The most logical explanation is that such rent might have not been paid since the closure of the factory seven or eight years previously and selling whatever had a monetary value might have been Wicklow’s way of recouping any money owed to him. Whatever the reason, the earl of Wicklow’s permission had to be given before Frame could carrying out dismantling operations.
On Tuesday, 17 January, Thomas Weadick received instructions from Frame to remove the metal bands which girthed three of the circular kilns (often called beehive kilns because of their shape). Michael Strahan was there to assist Weadick. Two of the kilns were empty and the bands had been removed without incident. The third building, however, was in use as a cook house [see endnote 8] and sleeping accommodation by some of the soldiers. It measured twenty-five feet in diameter and had a domed roof of bricks. The bands had originally been placed around the kilns to prevent the walls from expanding and collapsing during the firing of the bricks and it was now felt that, since the kilns hadn’t been fired for some years, they served no purpose. Before he started removing the bands, Weadick called to the four or five soldiers inside, warning them what he was about to do and to be careful if some isolated bricks came dislodged and fell either inside or around the entrance or in case they were struck with the metal bands as they were loosened. One of the soldiers replied: ‘That’s alright, Paddy, carry on.’
The first two bands were removed successfully, but when the third was taken away, the whole kiln collapsed, the weight of the dome having pushed the supporting walls outward. Weadick was thrown to one side, but his leg and hip were injured in the fall. Strahan, who had remained on the ground to keep the work area clear, was unharmed. Inside, Pte J Smith of the Cheshire Regiment was killed.
At the coroner’s inquest which was held in the courthouse the following day, Weadick was asked if he hadn’t considered that this particular kiln was in a dangerous state because of the heat generated in it as a cooking house for the troops. He replied that he didn’t, in fact he believed that it would be more stable than the other two kilns which had lain idle and prone to dampness since the factory ceased production several years previously. He had not the slightest doubt that the building would remain sound even after the removal of the bands and had warned the soldiers only of the chance of single bricks being dislodged from the roof and that he had instructed Strahan to warn others away for the same reason. Perhaps the most important question was asked by the District Inspector of the RIC: ‘Why did you not leave these iron bands on these kilns until the military had vacated the place?’ Strahan replied, ‘I don’t know, sir.’
Little remains of the factory now. A housing estate stands on the site, a modern red-brick gateway-like structure marks the entrance. Inserted into this are two of the ‘Arklow’ bricks, reminders of the old factory. There are many such bricks around Arklow in gardens and walls. Indeed, many of the houses and shops built with Arklow bricks still stand, but unidentifiable while the buildings are sound and the stamps are hidden brick-upon-brick.
More research is being conducted into this and other Arklow factories. Hopefully, this article can to be added to in due course.