Paddington Canal and Basin

The Canal Basin at Paddington was surrounded by storage bays and warehouses, protected by high walls and gate-keepers' cottages, a few of which survived into 2001 but they would soon be demolished. Builders and merchants bought their goods from the wharf. There had been regular trade in hay, coal bricks, lime etc.

For many years too the dustcarts brought their rubbish to the North Wharf where it was loaded onto barges which carried it away to sea. By 2000 it was loaded elsewhere and the depot is merely a garage for vehicles. This rubbish played a part in rebuilding London as the following account shows.

'Rough Stuff', or London Mixture

The following extract from 'Bricks and Brickies: a story of a firm of Bargees', by Frank G. Willmott,1 gives a vivid impression of a trade which was carried on for generations, unknown to the general world.

'The basic fuel for brick making in the Thames Estuary was 'rough stuff', or 'London Mixture, as it was usually called. This material was the coke and ash from the house refuse bins of London.

The refuse was taken to various depots in London, usually at a wharf on the Thames. Barges would take up a freight of bricks (from the brickyards in the Thames estuary) and collect a freight of rough stuff from the wharves at Kennington vestry (or elsewhere). There were always a couple of barges hove to at Chelsea, otherwise the refuse went into lighters.

'It was supposed that stolen jewellery was shipped away in the rough stuff as at one time there was a big search on a barge at Otterham, when it was thought she contained some. At Vauxhall it was forked rough, or sorted house refuse. This was a comparatively light freight as it was mostly coke and paper and, if the wind was right, it meant a fast run back for more bricks’.

'The rough stuff was considered a dangerous freight as there was ever present danger of spontaneous combustion and carbon dioxide fumes from the coke. The crew would keep a watchful eye on the flame in the lamp. If this began to get low, it was time to go up on the deck.

On their way to the brickfields in the summer, barges were usually accompanied by a swarm of flies. The rough stuff was unloaded in a day at a low berth by a gang of five men, and carted to a site and tipped in huge mounds to smoulder, smell, and breed rats. There it was left for about a year for the vegetable matter to rot away, before being sifted and graded. Young boys would be employed at about half a crown a week, (perhaps one eighth of an adult labourer's wage in the 1900s) to pick out the hardcore off the barrows. The boys used to set traps in the rough stuff to catch starlings and sparrows which would be taken home to make a pie.

'In 1965 it was found that the rough stuff no longer produced the 5000 British Thermal Units required to burn the bricks. Householders were using the smokeless fuels that burnt practically away and the ash was virtually useless for brickmaking. However was discovered that the dust left from the coal washeries at Betteshanger Colliery proved ideal. Large reserves of this are kept on several disused plots near Rainham.'

This little book gives a  fascinating picture of a lost way of life. Many of the 'hills' of Rainham, low smooth rises, strange and mysterious, are of course the remains of all this brick making activity.


  1. Published privately from 7, Wakely Road, Rainham, 1973. ISBN 0 952538 0 4. This is a rare book but there is a copy in the British Library.


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Updated June 28, 2011