57: The Marston Valley Brick Company and it’s cable tramway

Building London has covered the Bedfordshire Fletton brick industry before, concentrating on the London Brick Company [1] but for 40 years LBC was not the monopoly it became. The Marston Valley Brick Company, in mid-Beds,  [2] which was formed in 1929 rivalled LBC for many years till LBC swallowed it up in the late 1960s, partly through buying up land in the MVBC area so it could not continue. [3] The MVBC only had two works, the first built in 1929 just north of Lidlington [4] at Marston Crossing, on the then Oxford to Cambridge railway line and a second, at the Ridgemont Halt what was known as Brogborough. [5] on the same line, opened in 1935. The later was said to be the  “the second largest brickworks in the world.” [6] When built they were in deeply agricultural areas and aerial photos from 1934 and 1936 show the works standing isolated, alien, in the countryside.

Marston/Lidlington brickworks  1934
Brogborough Brickworks 1981 Stephen Coleman – Central Bedfordshire Historic Enviroment Record https://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/info/50/environmental_issues/289/archaeology_heritage_and_conservation/5

The bricks were much the same as LBC Flettons, though called Bespres, presumably ‘best pressed’, rather than LBC’s Phorpres, four pressed. [3]

The bricks also had much the same market as LBC, namely London, and on occasion they can be seen across London, e.g. at Link Street by the old Marian Court estate in Homerton  the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney built in 1958/1960. [7]  The London County Council was also a direct buyer of MVBC bricks.

And were shipped to London in large quantities by rail and road.

Thanks to Jim at https://www.flickr.com/photos/55505560@N07/ for this photo
Kids on a beano rather than bricks!
©Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service
And you can buy a model of the MVBC lorries if you want! http://www.modelbuszone.co.uk/efe/trucks/erf/31201.html

The MVBC also developed it’s own company village, Brogborough, [8] though much smaller than LBC’s Stewartby and by another row of workers houses near the Lidlington works they built the Marston Jubilee Working Mans Club, now just the Marston Social Club, looking like it could have been in a mining village in the Midlands or Yorkshire. [9]

Marston Jubilee Working Mans Club

Lidlington / Marston Brickworks closed in 1977 [10] and Ridgmont / Brogborough in 1981 [11] and every trace of the works is now gone though the houses and social club remain as does the old wages office in Lidlington, now converted into flats and called Valley House.

Brickworkers housing at Lidlington
The old MVBC wages office in Lidlington

While the Lidlington/Marston works site remains undeveloped, the Ridgemont works is now the site of massive Marston Gate warehousing estate including an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’. [12]

Where the Marston brickworks once stood, for now open to the public.

The whole wider area looks like it is to be built on, those recent economic changes may have stymied that, but apparently the tramway lines are recognised and would be retained. [13]

Local, Bedfordshire, archivist Andrew Mortlock, has researched the local Bedfordshire brick industry in detail so look out for his writing and occasional exhibitions, likely at Ridgmont Station Heritage Centre, as Beds still lacks a museum to this once massive, and community changing, industry. [14] [15]

The MVBC tramway

The clay pits and brickworks were connected by a “2′ 6″ gauge cable-hauled railway, which in turn was replaced by a conveyor belt on 6 November 1978.” [16] though aerial photos from the 1930s suggest an earlier aerial ropeway like the one still working at Claughton Brickworks. [17] The route of the line also changed in the late 1960s or early 1970s with both the expansion of the clay pits and the widening and rerouting of the B557. The lines was removed when the works closed, though the bridges from remain.  

Brogborough Brickworks 1967, Stephen Coleman, with the tramway clearly visible Credit to Central Bedfordshire Historic Enviroment Record https://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/info/50/environmental_issues/289/archaeology_heritage_and_conservation/5

Kevin Lane took a great photo ( used with permission ) in 1976 showing the ‘new’ cable railway, and lorries on the B557 heading north.

A cable tramway, not at MVBC but at the neighbouring Coronation works at Elstow from https://www.hows.org.uk/personal/rail/incline/br.htm

But earlier aerial photos of Ridgemont in the countryside 1936 seems to show an aerial ropeway. Note neither the housing estate nor the large Brogborough pit have been developed. The bend on the road is that seen in Kevin Lane’s photo. The farm in the middle of the picture is the ruined Brogborough Park Farm, see below.

Copyright https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EPW050324
Copyright https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EPW050324

But very excitingly several small bits of the tramway do still exist, near Brogborough as brick structures, but even better, just south of Marston several yards of tramway on the 1960s/70s line, survive hidden deep in wild rose and blackthorn scrub. They are actually marked on OS maps!
It a unique remnant of industrial archaeology for Bedfordshire and I hope has some statutory protection or if not are given so asap.

The tramway tunnel under the B557 near Brogborough
Cabling used for the trams

The Round House

Just off the route of the tramway, and on a public footpath, is the scheduled monument of a Norman  earthwork ‘ringway’ of which 2 large mounds remain, and the ruins of a 17thC mansion, The Round House, [18] which disgracefully was allowed to deteriorate and was burnt down in 1993. In the 20thC as Brogborough Park Farm it served as a training farm for migrants going to the Commonwealth, Australia and Canada etc, but after WW2 was used as lodging for the Italian migrants who worked many of the jobs in the MVBC brick works and who later contributed to Bedford’s famous Italian community. [19]

Ruins of Round House

Much earlier the regicide Colonel John Okey “.. an Anabaptist, London merchant, Parliamentary soldier, active in Parliamentarian politics, a regicide and an MP for Bedfordshire in 1658.” [20] lived in the house after 1654. [21] While an ally of Cromwell in the early years of the Commonwealth, Okey supported Parliament over The Protectorate and was sacked by Cromwell from the army, whence he came to Bedfordshire. He became a JP, it is thought helped establish Bedford’s famous John Bunyan Baptist Chapel, but had to flee abroad with the Restoration, and was then tragically betrayed, arrested and brought back to London where he was tried and executed as a regicide. [22]

John Okey possibly by J. de Claussin, William Richardson etching, published 1812 Reference Collection NPG D27164 Photo used under licence

To his death Okey retained his belief in ‘The Good Old Cause’:
And truly as to the Cause, I am as confident even as I am of my Resurrection, That that Cause which we first took up the Sword for, which was for Righteousness, and for Justice, and for the advancement of a godly Magistracy, and a good Ministery (however some men turned about for their own ends) shall yet revive again. I am confident, I say, That Cause for which so much Blood hath been shed, will have another Resurrection;” [32]


In 1992 the brilliant, seminal, Luton based sound system Exodus, much loved by Bedfordshire youth, and much persecuated by Beds police on the orders of the Whitbread family, did one of their earliest parties at the redundant Brogborough brickworks. [23] [24]

Marian Court was part of a botched re-development by Hackney Council. Debatable as to whether it was needed at all, the council claimed the estate was a poor use of land, but after numerous failures the scheme is running 4 years behind, and so 4 years of housing wasted. [25] [26]

Most of the route of the tramway has gone. But public and/or publicly used, unfenced/ungated, sections remain. Starting at Brogborough there is a half mile public footpath running along the route of the old track with interesting brickwork structures alongside that suggest another previous route.

Public footpath following the tramway at Brogborough

The remnants of the actual tramway are a few yards from dog walker paths south of Marston.
The Round House and it’s Norman earthworks are on a public footpath.
Unfortunately all the MVBC old clay pits, that have not been filled in, are inaccessible, being owned by local angling clubs, though I am sure access could be arranged with them. One of the old LBCs pits, now Stewartby Lake, slightly to the north can be visited though access from the Forest Centre & Millennium Country Park [27].  See LBC post. [1].

Brogborough Lake, in one of the claypits that supplied Ridgemont Brickworks. Unfortunately inaccesible. The smoking chimney on the horizon is not a brickworks but the Rookery South Energy Recovery Facility in one of the old LBC clay pits. [33]

And do visit the Ridgmont Heritage Centre at Ridgmont Station [28]  
Other walks in the area include the hilly Greensand Ridge Walk [29] and the John Bunyan Way, [30] and The Clay Way. [31]

Getting there

It should be very easy to get there from London, via either Euston or St Pancras and then the Marston Vale Line, via either Bletchley or Bedford, though disgracefully the line is currently closed due to the company who maintained the fleet going bust. Another rail privatisation disaster, though it’s fair to say the nationalised predecessor, BR, did it’s best to shut the line in the 1960s and 1970s. There is currently a rail-replacement service, which is of course no use to cyclists, and takes far longer than the train. When re-opened, the stations at Ridgmont, Lidlington and Millbrook all offer access and there is a good network of public footpaths.
By road the area is just off the M1.

[1] https://buildinglondon.blog/2022/07/27/42-the-clay-that-burns-the-london-brick-company-and-the-fletton-brick-that-built-much-of-20thc-london/
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marston_Vale
[3] https://www.brocross.com/Bricks/Penmorfa/Pages/england15.htm#:~:text=Marston
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lidlington
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridgmont 
[6] http://disused-stations.org.uk/r/ridgmont/index.shtml 
[7] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol10/pp51-59
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brogborough
[9] http://clutch.open.ac.uk/schools/marston-valeiums00/mvb.html
[10] Brickmaking A History and Gazetteer – Survey of Bedfordshire, Bedfordshire County Council / Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) Alan Cox 1979
[11] http://clutch.open.ac.uk/schools/ridgmont01/lifestyle_industry.html
[12] https://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/CommunityHistories/Brogborough/Ridgmont-Brickworks-Brogborough.aspx
[13] https://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/migrated_images/marston-vale-design-access-part-5_tcm3-29143.pdf
[14] https://www.bedfordtoday.co.uk/news/meet-archivist-history-brick-industry-730236
[15] https://www.bedfordtoday.co.uk/news/people/take-a-step-back-in-time-with-bedford-brickworks-exhibition-3699083
[16] https://www.hows.org.uk/personal/rail/incline/br.htm
[17] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-63734117
[18] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013016?section=official-list-entry  
[19] https://www.bedfordshirelive.co.uk/news/history/bedford-italians-highest-proportion-uk-4897619
[20] https://www.bedfordshirehrs.org.uk/content/publication/colonel-john-okey-1606-1662
[21] https://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/CommunityHistories/Brogborough/The-Round-House-Brogborough.aspx
[22] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Okey
[23] https://alanlodge.co.uk/OnTheRoad/exodus-parties-with-a-purpose/   
[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exodus_Collective
[25] https://estatewatch.github.io/estates/hackney/mariancourt/ 
[26] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1sLypuZxZf6_BEnI3ntGA_bZ8yXAa3-GJ/view
[27] https://www.marstonvale.org/
[28] https://bedsrcc.org.uk/ridgmontheritage
[29] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensand_Ridge_Walk
[30] http://www.lbramblers.org.uk/jbt.php
[31] https://www.marstonvale.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=c61ff0c3-9e43-406c-97df-0a9fe75a960b
[32] https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A30965.0001.001/1:10.1?rgn=div2;view=fulltext
[33] https://www.rookerysouth.co.uk/

NB All non-credited photos are copyright of Building London, can be used, but only with credit/attribution.

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