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Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe – Writer and Tilbury brick and tile manufacturer – was pilloried, and then imprisoned, for sedition. Born to James and Alice Foe, though he may have been adopted, in 1660 or 1661, he later changed his name to the grander sounding Defoe. Charles II was on the throne, religious intolerance stalked the land and plots and counterplots were rife. Then came the great plague followed by the great fire; they were turbulent times.

He is regarded as one of the founders of the English novel. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are among his best known books. His political and business career, though full of mystery and intrigue, is probably less well known. At the age of 18 he speculatively bought a long lease on a parcel of land in Tilbury. He was also politically active and in 1685 he took part in the unsuccessful Monmouth rebellion against James II. When, in 1689, James was replaced by William III, whom Defoe had supported in his writing, he made many friends in the new order.

Although politically astute, Defoe’s private life was complex and costly. He maintained three houses and was responsible for at least nine children. As well as his legal wife, Mary Tuffey, with whom he had seven children, he also maintained houses for ‘private wife’ Elizabeth Sammen in London and ‘private wife’ Mary Norton in Tilbury.

His business life was chaotic as he was not the entrepreneur he believed himself to be. Many of his enterprises suffered bad luck, or as some would say, mismanagement, and creditors constantly pursued him. In October 1692 he was jailed for bankruptcy with debts of £17,000. Nevertheless, Defoe managed to bounce back. Despite the money troubles he managed to hang on to his land in Tilbury and around 1694 he scraped together the capital to set up a factory making bricks and new ‘Dutch’ style S shaped pantile (roof) tiles.

S Shaped Roof Pantiles

Today all traces of the Defoe Tilbury brick factory have gone, disappearing under the construction of the railways, Tilbury docks and housing. In 1985 the late Randal Bingley of the Thurrock Local History Society conducted meticulous research into the location of the factory. He concluded, after examination of the Court of Sewers Order Book held by the Essex Records Office that Defoe’s factory and house were located close to the junction of what is now Montreal and Dock Road in Tilbury. Back in 1694 the area was marsh land. The railways and docks would not come for another 150 years.  The Court of Sewers Order Book makes reference to Daniel Defoe and one Thomas Castleton (the Superintendent of the Defoe brickworks) needing to make repairs to the inland seawalls that lay at the corner of his (Defoe’s) house. Furthermore there are several references to ‘ye Brickkill wall’, Brickhouse Farmstead and Brick Kilne Marsh in the Order Book.

The location of Daniel Defoe’s Tilbury brickworks?

Early maps such as the Ogilby and Morgan map of 1678 show no buildings on the Chadwell marshes. However 100 years later, the 1777 Chapman & Peter André Essex map shows a ‘Milk House’.(see below). In 1869, William Lee published a three volume biography of Daniel Defoe. He claimed to have come to Tilbury as a day tripper and to have seen the remains of the original factory uncovered by the building of the railway. A hundred years previously though the brick field site had been returned to farming. In 1777 ‘Milk House’ was the new name of Defoe’s ‘Brick House’. ‘Milk House’ later became ‘Marsh House’ and then it was demolished. As a result, with the passing of time, reference to names such as ‘The Brick Yoke’ or ‘Brickhouse Bridge’ or ‘Brick Kilne Marsh’ vanished.

The Chapman and André Essex map of 1777 showing ‘Milk House’, formerly ‘Brick House’

Daniel Defoe’s brick factory was in business for just about nine years and by all accounts to begin with it was successful. Unlike most other commercial ventures Defoe dabbled in, the enterprise returned a profit and enabled him to repay some creditors. It also allowed Defoe to build himself a large house, ‘the Brick House’ where he could keep his third (private) wife, Mary Norton, employ several servants. possess a coach and keep a pleasure boat.
Despite having continual money woes, Defoe had friends in high places. One of them was Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s cathedral. London was a growing city. Queen Mary, the wife of William III, was a great supporter of creating ‘a grand, patriotic architectural project to house the veterans of the Royal Navy by building a magnificent royal building by the Thames’. The site chosen was Greenwich which coincidently was from where, in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I sailed by Royal Barge downriver to Tilbury. There she spoke to loyal soldiers at the time of the Spanish Armada, the immortal lines including, I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman.
Queen Mary died of small pox before the grand Greenwich project started. However, Mary’s grief-stricken husband, William III, swiftly issued a Charter to get the project moving, making special reference to ‘the relief and support of Royal Naval seamen who by reason of age, wounds or other disabilities were deemed incapable of further service at sea and unable to maintain themselves’.   A Commission was appointed. Christopher Wren was the architect, John Evelyn made treasurer and on 30th June 1696 the foundation stone of the new hospital was laid.

Queen Mary’s vision, a grand, patriotic architectural project, the new Greenwich Hospital

Of course the new hospital was a huge undertaking and needed vast amounts of construction material. So this is where Daniel Defoe and his Tilbury factory come back into the narrative. Defoe secured orders to supply bricks and during 1696 some 160,000 bricks were supplied with a further 20,000 a year later. Yet this was not a straightforward process. The hospital was buying most of its bricks through an intermediary called Nicholas Goodwin and Defoe even had to pay John Evelyn the treasurer a fee to secure his contract.

Periodically the hospital committee supervising the works reported issues with the quality and supply of the bricks. However Defoe seemed largely to have escaped any criticism.  His red bricks were considered to be of good quality. Of more concern to Defoe though were funding difficulties at Greenwich hospital itself. From the very beginning there were cash flow crises as monies promised for the building were not forthcoming. By March 1698 the hospital was £4000 in debt to its workman alone. Defoe had to wait a year to be paid for bricks supplied in 1696 and this came less the deductions made by the treasurer John Evelyn. Defoe didn’t seem to be paid for bricks supplied in 1697 and the following year Defoe didn’t bother to bid for the contract. Despite all the initial fanfare, the new hospital was well behind schedule.


PART 2 TO FOLLOW shortly


Backscheider, Paula, Daniel Defoe, His Life, John Hopkins Press, 1989

Bastien F, Defoe’s Early Life, Palgrave Macmillan 1981

Bingley, Randal, Panorama No 27, Thurrock Local history Society, 1985

Martin John, Beyond Belief, The Real Life of Daniel Defoe, Accent Press, 2006

Merwe, Pieter van der Merwe, A refuge for all, A short history of Greenwich Hospital

National Maritime Museum, 2010

Moore Robert, John, Daniel Defoe, Citizen of the Modern World, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958

Sutherland, James, Defoe, Methuen & Sons, 1931

West Richard, The life and Strange Adventures of Daniel Defoe, Harper Collins, 1997

Wright, Thomas, The Life of Daniel Defoe, C.J.Farncombe & Sons, 1931

Court of Sewers Order Book ERO. D/SR.1

The Colchester Archaeologist 2011

© Essex Hundred Publications November 2021