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The History of Swallow's Tiles

The company was founded on the present site at Bookhurst Hill, Cranleigh in around 1894, although production was commenced on an adjacent site in 1860.

Originally the company produced only bricks and clay pots which were not only used locally, but transported by canal to London.  The founder, a Raymond Swallow, was persuaded to manufacture roof tiles by a neighbouring building contractor and so the foundations were laid for a thriving local business supplying the immediate area with the hand-made tiles, which form such a significant component of the local architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An additional product line, small-bore clay drainage pipes, was added in subsequent years but with changing markets and imported products it is the volume of production of roof tiles which survives to this day.

Tile making has a long and varied history in Surrey and Sussex and traces of early Roman production have been discovered in the immediate area.  The present 70 acre site in Cranleigh is rich in high quality Wealden clay and has provided the company with its raw material for almost one and a half centuries.

As recently as the 1950s the clay was dug by hand and transported to the factory buildings by means of a narrow gauge railway where the tempering of the material was carried out by steam powered machinery.  The water to create the necessary steam was drawn from the now flooded 1900’s excavations.  Today, this same water is used to soak the clay prior to mixing, thus no mains water is used in the production process.  The clay is mixed and pounded by machinery which would have originally have been driven by steam but is now updated to use electric motors.  The clay is extruded into 20kg “sods” and stacked adjacent to the makers.

Not much has changed in the actual moulding of the tiles since those Victorian days.  The clay is still delivered by hand barrow to each maker’s workbench where the same traditional wooden tools are employed.  The work is very repetitive and each maker is targeted to produce 800 tiles per day.  After hand moulding, a process which has been likened to pastry making, each tile is carried to a nearby drying area where they will rest for 2 days before being turned over to their final drying position.  The drying by warmed air can take up to 13 weeks.

Following the drying, the tiles are transferred to the traditional brick built kilns which up until the early 1970s were fuelled by welsh steam coal.  Today, they are fired by natural gas delivered via the mains system.

 

The company thrived throughout the 20th century and the management passed from one generation of the Swallow family to the next.  During this period tiles were supplied to not only the immediate region but also much further afield.  It is however locally where the company gained its reputation for a distinctive hand made tile with examples seen on many of the familiar high street buildings and more stately mansions of the South East and even Royal Palaces.  Very often these locations used some of the wide range of decorative ornamental tiles, particularly on vertical tiles walls which are a distinctive feature of the vernacular architecture.

 

The company has exciting plans for the future.  A new  factory is essential to the long term survival of Swallow's Tiles.  The present methods of handling, drying and firing the tiles are inefficient.  The heavy use of energy is not acceptable in the world of modern clay tile production.  However, these plans include the retention of the heart of the production method, the hand moulding.  The tiles will have exactly the same texture, colours and appearance as the existing traditional product and will continue to be a vital component in the preservation and restoration of our environment. 

 

Sadly, our plans have not come to fruition and the business closed on 30th April 2008.