History of Brick Making and Brickyards in the Clarenville Area

A Mr. Wiseman spent one summer in Trinity Bay experimenting with clay found near George’s Brook. His activity piques the natives’ curiosity and led John Tilley of Hants Harbour to ask the government on 28 April 1833 that he be given the exclusive rights to make bricks in Trinity Bay. However there is no evidence that Tilley was granted his petition or succeeded in making bricks.

It is believed that the first bricks in Newfoundland were made in 1832 by a man named John Clement at a place on Smith’s Sound about mid-way between Harcourt and Burnt Brook called, appropriately, Clement’s Point.  Mr. John Clement made the bricks by hand: he shoveled out the clay, removed the pebbles, shaped it into bricks and baked them in the sun. Mr. Clement later moved his operations “five miles down the sound” to Burnt Brook (Brickyard) prior to 1840. Mr. Clement sold his business to a Mr. March who later sold this enterprise to Mr. Daniel Cameron.  Mr. Cameron, a mason from St. John’s, who bought the property at Brickyard installed the pugmill in 1862. Mr. James Pittman was running the operation for Cameron before 1864 and owned the Brickyard in 1879.

1 – Clement’s Bricks at Clement’s Point, 1832-1840
2 – John Clement – The Pittman Brickyard at Burnt Brook (Brickyard)
3 – C & M Pelley Bricks – Trinity Brick Ltd at King’s Cove (Milton),
4 – NF Brick & Tile Co. at Elliott’s Cove, 1891-1903
5 – Aaron and Charles Smith at Snook Harbour, 1895-1952

James Pittman, a Crewkerne, Somersetshire brick maker, left England in the early 1850s as a stowaway on a French ship bound for Blanc St. Blanc in Labrador. Disliking the Labrador coast, he rowed from there across to St. Anthony in Newfoundland, obtained a working passage on a fishing schooner and eventually reached Trinity where his uncle Joseph had a cooperage. Such were the attractions – both scenic and personal – of Trinity Bay that James sought permanent employment in the area. He naturally considered brickmaking and visited Clement’s old brickworks, which by then belonged to a St. John’s mason, Daniel Cameron. Cameron was pleased to have an assistant. The two men worked together until Cameron retired in 1879 and sold the plant to Pittman for £400. Pittman Brickyard

Workers in the Pittman Brickyard in 1918. Benjamin Pittman [1872-1920], John “Jack” Tilley [1891-1981], Ambrose “Am” Harris [1876-1960], Nathan “Nath” Pelley [1887-1945], Edward “Ned” Tilley [1896-1918], Malcolm “Mac” Pittman [1902-1970], and an as yet unidentified worker. Photo provided by Victor Ralph Pittman

Source: J. W. Hughes, 1970

The Pittman Brickyard at Burnt Brook, later known as Brickyard, is located between Shoal Harbour and Harcourt.

The most sophisticated piece of equipment that James Pittman inherited from Cameron was a ‘one-horsepower’ pugmill: the unfortunate horse walked around the mill in a continuous circle while harnessed to a boom that had a bladed, rotating vertical shaft, which mixed the clay. Once churned, clay was hand-pressed into sand-lined moulds and then dumped onto wooden pallets as ready-formed bricks. Pittman and his helpers carried the wet bricks to a drying shed; thrice a year they removed the shed roof and stoked a huge fire beneath the racks of bricks to bake them into hardness.

James Pittman’s technique differed only slightly from that of the earliest Newfoundland brick makers; nonetheless, he knew more about bricks than anyone in Trinity Bay. His closest friend was Charles Pelley, Scholar Tilley’s grandson, who owned a sawmill nearby in King’s Cove (now called Milton). Pelley had a keen interest in, but no knowledge of, brickmaking; James Pittman, on the other hand, desired to learn the sawmill business. Charles Pelley took to walking at dusk through the woods to Pittman’s house, where they exchanged information about their respective professions until the small hours of the morning. By 1886 Charles Pelley was ready. He hired some relatives, including a 9-year-old nephew, Malcolm Pelley, and started up his own brick plant in King’s Cove (Now called Milton).

The Pittman’s old Iron Quaker Brick Machine.

Source: J. W. Hughes

During the 37 years of their concurrent operation, the Pittman’s and the Pelly’s experienced only friendly competition. Pelly at first used house-powered pugmills, beginning with a modified molasses barrel and later graduating to more professional models. In 1901, he bought an Iron Quaker Brick Machine that doubled his plant’s production. Pittman, not to be outdone, bought a similar machine. Pelly’s bricks went to the St. John’s market by scow and train and Pittman’s were sold along the coast from the decks of a sailing schooner. By 1894, James was filling orders for both bricks and lumber with Consolidated Foundry Company (Mr. John Angel) at St. John’s. By 1898, both Pelley and Pittman were turning out an average of 60,000 bricks per annum, which were sold from their yards for seven dollars a thousand (Howley: 1917).

Source: Clemons Rusch, Bergenfield, NJ

In the above picture of a “Pittman” brick you may notice one with two “T’s” and one with one “T”.

A Mr. David Mills, grandson of William Pittman and great-grandson of James Pittman, did field work on traditional houses around Trinity Bay and found an old brick with the “PITMAN” [one-T] mark at a house in Goose Cove near Trinity – which had been constructed sometime between 1891 and 1893. The brick came from the chimney and was fairly course in texture but did have an indented frog which contained the name. As David explains, “The frog was homemade and because of difficulty in bending the wire, great-grandfather was forced to omit one of the T’s so it would fit the brick. The resulting name was in a sort of rough script rather than clean block letters and was made by pushing the wire brand into the soft clay and pulling it slightly to one side. This left a slight indentation to the left and a raised rather sharp ragged edge to the right which formed the word.” Even though the actual frog for each is 3-7/16″ wide, the style of the name, as well as the two-T spelling, is different on the later bricks.

In 1906 James Pittman died. His sons – Benjamin, William and James continued to operate the brickworks until Benjamin’s accidental death at the plant in 1920 turned them from the business. The Pittman family was devastated by the tragic deaths of Benjamin’s son, Abel, 14th April 1918, on the battlefields of France, and of Benjamin, himself, on 1st October 1920 as a result of leg injuries suffered in an accident at the Brickyard.

After forty-three years after James Pittman received his land grant the the longest continuously operating Brickyard in Newfoundland was closed.

Mr. Charles Pelley died next in 1924, leaving the Pelley plant in the hands of Malcolm Pelley. He and foreman Lawrence Adams managed the operation over the following decades, during which interval new techniques and equipment were incorporated into the plant as invention and money allowed. Completion of the causeway to Random Island in 1953 brought radical changes to the Pelley operation, as it enabled the company to economically retrieve quarried and crushed shale from the island. (The clay at King’s Cove, although closer to the plant, had had to be stockpiled and drained for a year before being used.) The switch to shale necessitated expensive alterations of plant facilities, but resulted in a superior product the shale-derived bricks.

Malcolm Pelley, the last of the nineteenth-century brick pioneers, died on 5 July 1964. With his passing, an era of Newfoundland brickmaking ended.

Before the years was out, C. and M. Pelly Limited sold more than half of its shares to L.E. Shaw Limited.

The summer of 1969 saw the brick plant at Milton make the headlines. The Pelley Shaw Company was shutting down on Aug. 1 for an indefinite period.

The report in the Packet of July 28 read: The announcement from head office in Halifax is a serious blow to the workers at the plant and to the community at large. The major shareholders, the Shaws, announced the shutdown explaining it was not a permanent closure. They did, however, promise three months of company benefits to the employees at the plant.

Reasons for the shutdown – poor year for construction due to the tight money situation has resulted in a slow demand for bricks; plant has an inventory of nearly one and a half million bricks on hand and sales are slow; much of the school construction which has been counted on has been curtailed in a general government slowdown on spending.

In 1971, John Green bought out most of that company’s shares and changed its name to Trinity Brick Products Limited (now Trinity Brick Products (1972) Limited).

In the last years of the brickyard operation it experienced hard economic times and was forced to close. The Trinity Brick Plant in Milton finally closed in 1999.

Trinity Brick* may be dismantled
Yard sold to mainland rival?

By CRAIG WELSH, the Packet, 28th July 1999

The fate of the Trinity Brick Ltd. may soon be known, although not in the way workers would prefer.

At a meeting of employees held last Thursday, workers were told competitor L.E. Shaw, a brick manufacturer in Nova Scotia, is preparing to buy the brick yard.

The problem is, they’ve also been told Shaw is only buying the yard to acquire the machinery and close the business, which would eliminate a competitor.

Shaw and Trinity Brick have been bitter rivals for years with the local yard often accusing the mainland company of dumping product into Newfoundland at below cost.

The possible sale to Shaw has workers angry and worried. If it’s true, 22 workers will be directly affected. However, there are also management jobs and spin-off employment from the yard that would be affected by a closure.

One of the yard workers is Stan Miller. At 63, he argues he’s still got a few more years work left in him yet. But if the yard closes permanently, then he’s not certain what he will do.

“My E.I. benefits are about to run out and a lot of other fellows at the plant have already run out. I don’t know what I’m going to do because I’m too old to be moving to the mainland at this point,” Mr. Miller said. He was told at Thursday’s meeting the deal could go through any day.

It’s something plant foreman Manuel Ellis is reluctant to discuss in detail. However, if a deal does happen that sees Trinity Brick close, he knows exactly where he intends to place the blame.

“It’s the government’s doing. The problem with the brick industry in Newfoundland is the provincial and federal governments are not emphasizing using brick in their products.

“It causes us to have a poor market. We’re dependent not only on the private sector, but heavily on schools, hospitals, courthouses and whatever is going to be built in the province,” he said.

Mr. Ellis emphasized if the yard was sold, workers would have no problem with that, even if it was to a rival company. They just don’t think it’s right for a mainland company to come to Newfoundland and close down the only brick yard in the province.

Nor do they want hand-outs from the government. What they do want is the government to support local industries like Trinity Brick and not abandon them.

“They’ve got to get their heads out of the sand and start using something that is manufactured locally. What’s the point of Chuck Furey going to China and convincing someone to come back here to set up shop when they’ll only go and support someone on the mainland. That’s unfair. How long are they going to be in business if our own government turns their back on us?” he asked.

If Trinity Brick is sold and dismantled, there would be consequences beyond laid off workers. With no competition left in the province for bricks, Mr. Ellis estimates the prices of brick will quickly double. If that happens, then the exodus of bricklayers from the province will increase because there will be little work for them to do here.

Joe Mercer, the plant manager of Trinity Brick, could not be reached for comment.

*Formerly, Pelly Brick

Their were two other brickyards lay in Trinity Bay on Random Island: one at Elliott’s Cove and the other at Snooks Harbour.

The Elliott’s Cove plant opened up in 1890 under The Brick and Tile Manufacturing Company Limited, a firm incorporated in 1890 by six St. John’s merchants. For eight years the company suffered through two incompetent managers before acquiring a third, highly skilled, Englishman named James Craven in 1898. Unlike his predecessors, who tried to make do with the dilapidated machinery provided them, Craven frankly informed his employers that modern effective equipment is the better part of profitable production. When a fire leveled the brickyard in the fall of 1903, The Brick and Tile Manufacturing Company decided to move elsewhere.

From the 1900s until 1949, the Smiths’ Snook Harbour plant operated at a marginal profit and supplied bricks for local consumption. As Aaron and Charles grew older, Aaron’s sons, Atwood and Norman, took control of the family business. However, with Confederation in 1949, the Newfoundland tariff on the cheaper Canadian bricks disappeared, taking with it the Smiths’ profits. The two brothers and all their employees were thrown out of work. They tried in vain to have the Newfoundland government take over the brickyard, but in 1952 were forced to close down by lack of a market.

      The Clarenville Packet
      Geoff Jones @ Flicker
      Bob Clemons
      Lois Clemons Rusch
      Edward Vincent
      Adrian Goodyear
      J. W. Hughes

I would like to personally thank the above sources a for helping me learn so much about brick making in the area. I would like to specially thank Ms. J. W. Hughes who without her help this page would of not been possible.

Thank you all so much