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615 Featherston Street - Hoffman Kiln

Building Details

Building name: Hoffman Kiln
Address: 615 Featherston Street
Construction date: 1938
District Plan Category: 1
Building number: 15
Heritage NZ Category: 1
Building number: 194

Historical Overview

The Palmerston North Hoffmann kiln, a variant of a Belgian Kiln[1], was built by Robert Price Edwards in 1904 and was used for a variety of purposes for over fifty years. At first coal was used to fire the kiln, but, after it became uneconomic, attempts were made to adapt it for gas firing.  These attempts failed[2].  The last attempted firing was in 1959 and following this the kiln was used for storing pipes, moulds and sewerage fittings until 1983 when the works closed down.  For a brief period the site was then used as a garden centre.

On 1 September, 1983 the Hoffmann Kiln of Palmerston North was registered as a Category B (since the 1993 HPT Act, category A and B buildings have been redesignated as category one) Building by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.  It was also listed in the then Palmerston North City Scheme.  At the time of writing attempts are being made to arrange for a charitable trust to be established to oversee the future management and conservation of the kiln.

The Hoffmann kiln type originated in Germany in the 1850's, was introduced into England about 1862 and modified designs were used in New Zealand shortly after this. Hoffmann's principle of continuous firing provided the uninterrupted production of quality bricks in quantity until about the mid-20 century by which time the development of more efficient gas and oil burners lead to a change to tunnel kilns.

Brick-making was established in Palmerston North[1] in 1872 by Charles Tricklebank who operated from Church Street until 1888. Robert P Edwards, Tricklebank's son-in-law, operated from the same locality[2] where in 1886 he had two kilns, an up-draught and down-draught, with a capacity for 60,000 bricks.[3]

By the end of the 19 century bricks were in high demand in Palmerston North after several fires in the downtown area and a requirement for building with bricks in the city. Edwards acquired 19 acres at Section 250, Lot 5, between Featherston Street and Tremaine Avenue (then Boundary Road) to establish a new brick-works. Here suitable clay was found near to the ground surface and several other brick-makers also operated.[4]

The Palmerston North Valuation Roll indicates that in 1897 the land that Edwards' was to acquire had an unimproved value of £380 with improvements of £100 and was owned by Thomas Hill, a brick-maker of Palmerston North.[5] Neither the nature, nor the location, of these improvements is known and while it is possible that they included a brick kiln, as Ian Matheson has noted, there is no evidence that Hill made bricks on the land.[6] During the 1897-98 financial year the property was acquired by Thomas Wilson a commercial traveller of Wanganui.[7]

When Edwards purchased the land in 1901 it contained improvements to the value of £127.[8] Improvements to the value of £600 made on the property by Edwards during 1904 represent the construction of the continuous kiln[9] Earlier improvements by Edwards to the value of £300 during the previous financial year (1903-4) probably represent the construction of the smaller No 1 kiln built to produce the bricks from which the larger continuous kiln was constructed.[10]

Edwards' continuous brick kiln in Featherston Street was based on a design patented in 1891 by William Sercombe from Leicester, England. The kiln was probably built by his son, John Francis Sercombe, who was his father's agent in New Zealand. The kiln is 34.32m long and 12.98m wide.[11] 

A newspaper article from 1904 described the extent of Edward's new enterprise in detail:  "there he has erected sheds and plant not equalled in the colony, even in the large centres. There are five sheds measuring 90 feet by 134 feet, including the machine shed, which is 15 feet high, rest of 6 ½ feet high. The whole place was planned by Mr Edwards and he has been his own architect throughout. The special feature of the establishment is the machine plant, some of the machines being quite new to New Zealand. The gas engine, an improved National of 26 ½ horsepower, one of the latest type easily generates power to drive the whole plant at full speed. An improved Whitehead plastic brick machine is the central object of attention. It is capable of turning out 20,000 bricks a day. From the time the pug is placed in the machine it goes through four processes, including hauling from the pit, per truck and steel chain, crushing, pugging and moulding. The kiln has not yet been erected but it is Mr Edwards intention to build a continuous kiln of the latest design, equal to 9,000 bricks per day"[14]

The plant was fully mechanised and as well as producing bricks, machinery produced pipes of different diameters, and a separate machine produced sanitary pipes.

In 1919 Edwards sold his brick-works to Brick and Pipes Limited, a newly formed company.[15] The extent of Brick and Pipes Ltd, buildings and the clay pit as well as two neighbouring brick-works in Boundary Road is shown on a 1924 map of the city.[16]

Motorised trucks replaced the use of horse and drays during the 1920's. Stables for the horses were located west of the western gate.[17]Electricity was also introduced during the 1920's.

In 1929 Brick and Pipes Limited went into liquidation and the court ordered that all of the company records should be destroyed.[18] Brick and Pipes Limited was reformed in 1929 and amalgamated with two other local brick-makers, Mr W Mouldey and Trevor Brothers.

The brick building, that still fronts onto Featherston Street, was built in 1938 and contained offices, showrooms and a storeroom. Other distinctive structures on the brick-works site include the gates, fencing, showrooms and drying area.

Between 1946 and 1954 three smaller simpler brick kilns were built on the site and more up-to-date machinery was installed. The No 2 kiln was built during 1946-7 and was demolished between 1961-1966.[19] The coal fired No 3 kiln was built about 1954.[20] It had a 30 foot long flue and drain running underground for the length of the kiln and then to the chimney.[21] Its 21m chimney was demolished in 1980.[22] The No's 2 and 3 kilns replaced the original No 1 kiln.

In 1959 the continuous kiln was fired for the last time and its chimney was demolished in 1977 to make way for further plant expansion.[23] In 1959 the wicket at the northern end of the continuous kiln was enlarged to allow the entry of a forklift into the tunnel which was being used for storage.

The oil-fired tunnel kiln was built in the early 1960's and was diesel fired. The gas-fired tunnel kiln, built in the 1970's, to replace the oil-fired tunnel kiln was the last kiln built on the site. It ran on natural gas.[24]

In 1980 Jack Diamond, then Field Officer for the Auckland Regional Committee of the NZHPT, produced two reports on the continuous kiln.[25] In 1983 the kiln was given a B classification by the NZHPT and was described by the NZHPT Assistant Director as ".. an appropriate memorial to the city's industrial past and monument to New Zealand's brick making industry." [26] The kiln is now registered as Category I under the Historic Places Act 1993 and the NZHPT also placed a Heritage Protection Order over the kiln in 1994.

During 1985 much of the brick-making site was redeveloped as a garden and landscaping business, David Muir Limited.[27] When a large pond for fish was excavated to the east of the continuous kiln, as part of the landscaping of the site, brick structures were uncovered.[28]

In 1987 extensive maintenance work on the kiln was carried out by the NZHPT including the replacement of the roof over the kiln. Jim Lundy and others explored the continuous kiln inner flue spaces and followed the chimney flue underground out towards the chimney finding that all the spaces were in very good order and contained little rubble below the ground.[29]

The whole complex was put up for tender in 1993 after the landscaping business closed and was purchased by the Higgins Group of Companies.

Summary of Heritage Values 

Although probably unaware of their origins, the owners of many buildings constructed using bricks in Palmerston North used bricks manufactured in the Hoffmann kiln over an approximate sixty year period. 

The efforts of the Pit Park People and especially Jim Lundy are making the origins of the bricks and the history of the kiln more widely known.  They are also enthusing locals and many visitors with the history of the kiln and its future use prompting the Palmerston North City Council into investigating purchase of the buildings and site.

The RP Edwards kiln and outbuildings are associated with the brick and pipe making industry in Palmerston North, especially RP Edwards who built the kiln and then Brick and Pipe Ltd who owned the brickworks from the 1920's to the 1960's.

Although, clearly a world wide successful method of firing bricks, it's the kiln's closure reflected problems in its use, the lack of good clay in the nearby pit and the level of competition in the first half of the twentieth century. 

The kiln is also associated with employees of the firm such as the Stevens's family while the showroom building is associated with the locally well-known architectural firm of Thorrald-Jaggard.

The existing kiln building and later larger sheds are associated with the enterprise and the NZ mining and ceramic industries.

Although not older than 1900 and therefore not deemed an archaeological site under the HPA 1993, there is an incomplete knowledge of the site layout and structures. There are, therefore, significant archaeological values to the site where archaeological techniques of excavation and mapping may able to further identify activities on the site.

The kiln is a well designed brick structure, using a typical form of brick bonding, creating an imposing, robust form appropriate to its original intended functions.  The industrial use of the kiln and other structures on the site are clear from their simple design and use of materials. 

Though originally located well away from the city encroaching housing developments have almost surrounded the site and the juxtaposition of the industrial and domestic architecture has created visual diversity in built forms.

The buildings within the site reflect the eras in which they were constructed, with the kiln of 1904, the showrooms of 1938 designed by Thorrald-Jaggard and the later large sheds of the 1940s and 1950s.  These structures create a backdrop to the kiln and, although not old, are associated with the Brick and Pipes Ltd. enterprise and were a working part of the brickworks.  The larger structures give an idea of the scale of the works and are designed in an appropriate industrial form and materials while the showroom has significant design values in its own right.  The space between the structures and the kiln, while allowing a wide view of the Hoffmann kiln, also reflects the large-scale open areas required for the production of bricks.  The ornate brick posts beside the showroom designed with the showroom, contrast with the strictly utilitarian nature of the other structures and are an appropriate entrance way into the brickworks.

The kiln is an excellent example of an adapted Hoffmann-type continuous method of firing bricks known as a Belgian kiln.  The kiln is largely unchanged since its construction although the chimney has been demolished.  The Hoffmann continuous kiln principle was an invention of great significance to the brick and limemaking industries, allowing larger volumes of production at considerable cost savings over traditional methods.  This development in brickmaking was matched by other mechanical advances in the overall process and reflected the considerable ingenuity and skill of Victorian and Edwardian engineering. New Zealanders were quick to accept these inventions and innovations.

The modifications to the brickyard over the last 100 years have included the construction of kilns with other means of firing and the construction of many other structures over the site, most of which have since been demolished.  There are likely to be archaeological values yet to be discovered.

The buildings and kiln have little current economic value with the brickworks being closed, however, there is potential for tourism.  The kiln no longer has use values associated with its original function, however, the kiln and site have didactic values for those wishing to learn about New Zealand's industrial heritage.  The kiln has considerable social values reflected in the community efforts to conserve it, as well as considerable political value arising from the debate over its future ownership and use.

Measure of value
Hoffmann continuous kilns were built in great numbers all over the world, with New Zealand constructing a great many.  Hoffmann and Hoffmann type continuous kilns are now rare in the world, with probably less than 10 kilns surviving today.  The Palmerston North kiln is one of only two Hoffmann type continuous kilns in New Zealand, therefore it is extremely rare nationally and internationally.  The significance given to one of the surviving kilns in England is reflected by its designation as an ancient monument.

Level of authenticity
The kiln and showroom have high levels of authenticity with reduced authenticity of some of the other structures.  The authenticity of the kiln has been reduced by the demolition of the chimney, however, the immediate setting of the brickmaking enterprise including the pit (although enlarged by metal extraction) is largely intact.  The wider setting has been greatly modified with the expansion of housing development to surround the site.

[1] In 1991 Jim Lundy spent three days visiting the continuous kilns of the London Brick Company near Bedford.  The managers labelled it a variant of the Belgian kilns they had formerly used. 

[2] At the time of Jim Lundy's visit the London Brick Company was experimenting, successfully with methane gas produced from trainloads of London sewage which was spread across the huge pits created from years of clay digging and collected under large inverted funnels.  Experiments with natural gas in the Palmerston North kiln were not successful.  The scientists at Stewartby suggested that this kiln would have needed major changes to original flue structure for gas burning to be effective.

[2] Petersen 1973:199-200.

[3] "Edwards, R P" The Cyclopaedia of New Zealand Vol 1, p1191, 1897

[4] Matheson, I 1998 The Featherston Street Pit: Historical Notes by Ian Matheson, Archivist, Palmerston North City Council, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[5] Palmerston North Valuation Roll 1897, File 2/23/1, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[6] Matheson, I 1998, Research Notes on Age of Hoffman Kiln, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[7] Palmerston North Rate Books, Ref 2/23/2, Palmerston North City Council Archives, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[8] Matheson, I 1998 Research Notes on Age of Hoffman Kiln, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[9] Palmerston North Permits to Build, Ref. 4/13/1 Vol. 1, Palmerston North City Council Archives, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[10] Lundy, J 1986 Information from Mr H R Edwards, 5 September 1985, Unpublished notes, NZHPT Regional Committee File 01-0022 A & B.

[11] Lundy, J. n. d. [Measurements of] Sercombe's Improved Perfect Kiln No. 1, NZHPT Wellington, File 12020-013.

[12] Diamond, J 1980 Report on the Hoffman Oblong Continuous Kiln, Brick and Pipes Ltd., 615 Featherston Street, Palmerston North, November 1980, NZHPT File 12020-013.

[13] Lundy, J 1985 Interview with Sam Stevens, 7 November 1985, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[14] Manawatu Evening Standard February 1904.

[15] Manawatu Evening Standard 15 December 1919.

[16] Farquhar, HR 1924 A New Map of the Borough of Palmerston North, Palmerston North City Archives Office. In Matheson, I. 1998 The Featherston Street Pit: Historical Notes, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[17] Interview with Sam Stevens by Beverly Edmonds 1958, NZHPT Regional Committee File 01-0022 A & B.

[18] Lundy, J pers. com. 2003.

[19] Matheson, I. Possible Dates of Structures, File No. A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives.

[20] Matheson, I. Possible Dates of Structures, File No. A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives.

[21] Plans for No 3 kiln are on Plan File 186/615, Palmerston North City Archives.

[22] Manawatu Evening Standard 1 October 1980, also Photograph BC176, Palmerston North City Library.

[23] Manawatu Evening Standard, 4 August 1977.

[24] Lundy, J. 2000 Notes on kilns at Brick and Pipes Ltd, 19 July 2000, Unpublished draft notes, File A175/106/2, Palmerston North City Archives Office.

[25] Diamond, J. 1980 Report on the Hoffman Oblong Continuous Kiln, Brick and Pipes Ltd., 615 Featherston Street, Palmerston North, November 1980,  NZHPT File 12020-013 &

Diamond, J. 1981 Report on the Hoffman Oblong Continuous Kiln, Brick and Pipes Ltd., 615 Featherston Street, Palmerston North, Second Report, January 1981, NZHPT File 12020-013.

[26] Manawatu Evening Standard, 24 October 1983.

[27] Tribune, 28 July 1985.

[28] Lundy, J. pers. com. 2003.

[29] Lundy, J. pers. com. 2003, also photographs on  NZHPT Regional Committee File 01-0022 A & B.