In a world of mass-production, the Matthews family has turned to specialisation for their survival, producing handmade bricks and using craft skills that prove traditional technologies can thrive in a modern economy.
A decade ago, anti-establishment pop duo KLF burnt a million pounds of their royalty money in a symbolic rejection of society's material values. And when the band who gave us hit record The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu wanted to turn the ash into a lasting monument to the stunt, they approached brickmaker HG Matthews of Buckinghamshire. "It came out a beautiful yellow colour," recalls managing director Jim Matthews fondly. "It was the finest brick I had ever seen. I approached the Bank of England and asked them if we could use the ash from the notes they burnt, but they said no."

It was a happy chance that brought KLF to a firm with a ready inclination to take up new challenges and a love of providing clients with special one-offs. HG Matthews has survived in a competitive world by adopting the Darwinian survival tactic of specialisation, producing handmade bricks using traditional craft skills that have been handed down over three generations. Henry George Matthews started the yard in 1923, and following in his footsteps nearly 80 years on is his 29-year-old grandson Jim.

The business has flourished in a world dominated by major-league brick companies and their economies of scale. It produces just 2.5 million bricks a year, including machine and handmade bricks and specials. To put this total in perspective, London Brick (now part of Hanson) produced 16 million bricks a day at its peak.

Now one of a handful of family-owned brickmakers left in the UK, the firm is headed by Jim Matthews and his brother Trafford. Another brother William runs a fireplace and stove business next to the brickworks. Jim's mother and aunt do the bookkeeping, and a cousin runs the farm bought by Henry George when he realised there were valuable clay reserves on the land.

In scruffy jeans, a T-shirt and trainers, Matthews is ready for anything the dusty world of brickmaking can throw at him – including loading lorries and checking kilns. He exudes enthusiasm as he answers phones and deals with queries from the yard and office.

Keeping output low and quality high is a deliberate strategy to secure the long-term future of the company. "The main thing for us is the business," says Matthews. "Our philosophy is to keep it going for the next generation, so we take a long-term view – we want to preserve clay reserves, so we don't produce too many bricks." He points out that there used to be 23 brickyards locally, but now there are only three. The others either ran out of clay, or went bust because of the trend away from locally produced bricks to cheaper mass-produced alternatives.

Another problem is an owner's temptation to sell a yard for housing development. Matthews has strong views on how land assets could be put to better use. "There should be laws allowing industrial sites to be sold for housing only if the money is reinvested on rebuilding that industry elsewhere," he says. "Industries are usually on sites that are 50% bigger than they need to be as they have evolved over many years. Industry would get investment to build smaller, more efficient factories and we would get the houses we need too." He is also trying to buy a brickyard in another area, although developers have beaten him to it on one occasion.

In fact, finding the right clay and getting permission to extract it is a constant headache. All the clay is locally produced and Matthews concedes he doesn't know how much there is on the company's land. "I wouldn't be confident of much more than 20 years' supply," he admits.

"It's down to the planners, although they are very sympathetic as they appreciate the role we have in preserving the local environment and the fact that 30 local people are employed." The company remediates old clay workings by filling them with inert waste and by planting trees.

Matthews shuns high technology in favour of traditional methods and equipment. Even the device that produces the machine-made bricks is 70 years old. It needs three men to operate it, whereas a modern machine would be entirely automated. But Matthews prefers not to save on labour costs. "A new machine would change the whole nature of the company as it would be all computerised. They are only relevant to a yard with high production. It's a bit like delivering milk on an articulated lorry."

A second machine dispenses clay to the men making handmade bricks from a central hopper. A local engineer made it as a special commission, basing its design on a derelict machine found in the woods nearby that was last used for making bricks 70 years ago.

Matthews is passionate about builders using local suppliers of crafted goods to preserve the local character of different parts of the country. Once he gets onto the subject of how uniform mass-produced bricks are destroying the distinct character of the English landscape, it is difficult to get him back on track. "Its depressing to see E E an old building extended using the wrong bricks. For a tiny bit extra they could have used handmade local bricks. What irritates me is that the difference in cost between the cheapest and most expensive bricks is only 3% on the build cost. It's a myth to say traditional materials are obsolete due to cost."

Matthews insists that his views are not simply driven by self-interest. "I'm not crying into my beer; we run a very successful business. It has provided a good standard of living for three generations." The company's bricks are bought by local builders merchants including Jewsons, their biggest customer, and the bricks are also used by local builders. English Heritage and the National Trust generate business for the specials side of the company. But in comparison with the 1980s, when there was a 16-week waiting list, HG Matthews has to work harder to sell bricks today by advertising and marketing campaigns.

Matthews also laments the loss of traditional brickmaking skills. "I believe the demand for the product is there, but not the supply. The knowledge is about to die. If the [brickmaking] industry isn't resurrected, we could end up having to rediscover these skills. But today, there are still men in their 70s and 80s with that knowledge."

The company has recently reintroduced the lost skill of glazed header bricks after an interval of 100 years. "It's taken us 10 years to perfect it," says Matthews. But despite being open-minded about experimenting with skills and materials, the company is still waiting for its next request to immortalise bonfire ash in brick.

Hales’ pace: 20 years of clay under the nails

Andrew Hales has worked for HG Matthews for 20 years since the age of 16. He is now production manager and foreman of the works, a rigid-sounding job title that disguises the flexibility of his role in such a small company. “I do everything,” he says. “I fix faulty equipment, take queries in the office, do the drawings for the moulds and also make the specials.” He did leave the job briefly at 20 when he began to find the work tedious. He tried his hand at plumbing for 11 weeks, then became a postman for two. “I asked for my old job back,” he recalls. “They say once you have got clay under your fingernails, you can’t leave it alone.” Today he is making specials for Mapledurham House, an Elizabethan stately home near Reading, which will be used for the decorative brickwork on nine chimney stacks. They feature seven different specials, and three sizes of facing bricks. At the moment, Hales is making a rectangular brick where one side tapers to a sharp point. “These bricks were originally cut to size on site, but the conservation officer asked for them to be moulded,” he explains. “It’s a very difficult job. The sharp end mustn’t contain any sand as it will disappear in the kiln. It is also very easy to damage the point during handling.” He picks up a lump of clay, dusts it with fine sand and shapes it into a lump slightly larger than the mould. Brickmaking is peppered with quaint terminology: this is called “rolling a dumpling”. Hales slams it into the mould in one smooth action, pointing out that it is important that the clay fills the mould completely. Squeezing it into the mould is not an option, as this would smooth out the creases or “smiles” found on the sides of handmade bricks, destroying their character. He then “strikes a bow” by cutting off the excess clay with a tool that looks a bit like a cheese cutter, dusts the exposed surface of the brick with sand, gently taps the sides of the mould to release the brick, then turns it out onto a board. The drying process also requires care. Hales picks up a special that has drooped at either end. “The bricks must dry slowly or they will curl and whip,” he cautions. Hales is concerned about the erosion of brickmaking skills, and regrets that there aren’t more craftsmen to take the same satisfaction in the work that he does. “Brickmaking is a dying art, you do need to do a proper apprenticeship,” he says. “But I love the pure earthiness and simplicity of making bricks. Brick is beautiful.”