Monday, March 1, 2010

Newnham on Severn, Gloucestershire

The colour of masonry

We get used to linking localities with building stone: Cornish granite, East Anglian flint, Derbyshire millstone grit, and so on. In Gloucestershire, the best known local stones are the golden limestone of the Cotswolds and the pinkish sandstone of the Forest of Dean. Between them, in the clayey Vale of Severn, though, there is no dominant building stone and many of the older houses are timber framed or built of brick. So what is this curious dark material that forms part of a house in Newnham, by the western bank of the Severn? None of the above, clearly. The surprising answer is that it’s slag, waste material from copper-smelting, and it must have had an interesting journey to get here.

In the 18th century copper smelting took place at Redbrook, on the River Wye not far from Monmouth, and at several sites in the Bristol area. The best guess is that the slag used for this building came from one of these sites and got to Newnham by boat – Newnham was once a river port. There are several buildings in the locality, and in other Severnside villages, made partly of the material.

Some say that the slag was used as ballast in ships, but the material must have been specifically intended for building because it was deliberately formed into blocks. William Marshall in his Rural Economy of Glocestershire (1789), explained how it was used:

‘Until of late years, it was cast away as useless, or was used as a material of roads only. Now it is thrown, while hot, into moulds, of different figures and dimensions, and thus becomes an admirable building material. It is proof against all seasons, in every situation; consequently, becomes an excellent material for foundations; and still more valuable for copings of fence walls; for which use it is sometimes cast of a semi-elliptical form. It is also used as quoins, in brick buildings; in which case, the blocks are run about nine inches square, and eighteen inches long. It is of a dark copper colour and has the appearance of a rich metal; but flies under the hammer as flint.’

It was relatively easy, when the Severn was a busy highway of cargo vessels, to ship this heavy material upstream and offload it at the various ports and inlets along the river’s course. Ever since there have been a smattering of walls like this hereabouts, adding a dark coppery tinge to Gloucestershire’s architectural palette of pink, and gold.


Neil said...

Wonderful to take a visually ugly building like this and make it beautiful by explaining the process and the history. Thanks.

Jon Dudley said...

I love the way it looks as if it's an old building once totally constructed of slag that has been repaired with another softer material. Fascinating.

Around these parts in the 20's, they made breeze blocks with clinker, the waste from the gas works. They were rarely used as a 'face' material, normally rendered or overclad in asbestos sheeting to deliver the Jacobethan bungalow look much loved on this particular coastal strip.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: Interesting to see this going on around your way. Breeze blocks are made from all sorts – in fact 'breeze' means 'ash', so I suppose a lot of such blocks have furnace waste of some sort in the mix. The idea of bungalows made partly of waste from the gas works and partly from asbestos does make one pause, though.

Jon Dudley said...

Makes one wheeze too!

Anonymous said...

Jon beat me to it.
The internal walls of my house are clinker block...always interesting to drill into.

Philip Wilkinson said...

All this talk of breeze blocks makes me wonder whether this house was once rendered, or intended to be, to mask the mix of materials. It does seem to have been the way it is now for some time though.

Peter Ashley said...

Classic 'English Buildings Blog' stuff. Thankyou.