Part 4 of a 5 part series: for part 3 click here!

Banner image: Stewartby works and clay pit in 1974, Brick making - A history & Gazeteer by Alan Cox

Let's journey to the Millennium Country Park's very own marine Jurassic Park...!

By Duncan Willox ǀ Local geology enthusiast and poet

We’ve discovered the small-ish (and smaller), now let’s move on to the big beasties of the Oxford Clay Sea…

Fish teeth, scales and fin spines are fossilised, as are marine reptile teeth and bones - indeed the Oxford Clay is famous for them! However a cunning plan to visit the Park with trowels and collecting bags won’t work - there has to be industrial scale excavation, as with the brick making, to stand any real chance of finding those wonders. Even isolated teeth or bones are widely scattered. More complete skeletons are much rarer still. There were of course far fewer of these reptiles than there were shellfish, and they were strangely keen to hold on to their teeth and bones for as long as they could.

In the early 2000’s when I visited the last remaining working brick pit at Stewartby...

what a thrill it was to lay my eyes on a tooth or bone calling me from across 160 million years. Quarrying had by then already given birth to the tranquil lake scenery that we enjoy here today. I thought I’d now tell you a few of the amazing facts I’ve read about the brick making industry around Stewartby whilst researching the history of the Park.

The brickworks, at what was then called Wootton Pillinge, opened in 1897, and by 1936 it had become the largest brickworks, not just in Bedfordshire or England but the whole world! Building of the new “Garden Village” for the brickworks’ employees at Stewartby, had begun in 1926 and as the village expanded the name Stewartby replaced that of Wootton Pillinge (a name still commemorated at the Park with the ‘Pillinge’ lake in the Wetlands area).

The Garden village was called Stewartby after the Stewarts. Halley Stewart helped to finance growth of the brickworks, and in 1900 was appointed chairman of the newly incorporated limited company. He was a philanthropist, with a reputation as a forward-thinking liberal and radical (he supported women’s suffrage, land reform etc.). He was a liberal member of Parliament for a total of over 10 years, a preacher, journalist and a Justice of the Peace. Perhaps unsurprisingly he was knighted in 1932, and he died in 1936 aged 99, an impressive age for those times. His son, Percy Stewart had replaced his father as chairman of the company in 1924, and Halley Stewart’s nephew, Guthrie Stewart, was chief accountant and later company secretary.

You will have noticed the bricks scattered, like lethal confetti, both in and around the lakes. They are presumably rejects that hadn’t fired successfully. In the boom year of 1973 Stewartby produced a mindboggling 738 million bricks. In 1979 it was again said to be the largest brickworks in the world (with Ridgemont brickworks the second largest). In that year, 30 chimneys still stood at Stewartby brickworks, a forest of towering red brick tree trunks.

Stewartby brickworks closed in 2008, ending the last brick production in Bedfordshire. The last 4 of its chimneys stood like extinct volcanoes until, in 2021, they were demolished in a thunder of brick dust that settled like a modern-day sediment over the Oxford Clay in which the fossils are entombed.

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