Thursday, 7 July 2016

Brandon Flint Panels

Brandon in Suffolk is famous for being home to the world's largest gun flint industry. It was created in the 1790s because of the notoriously inconsistency of British Gun flints in both flint quality and workmanship skill.  Quickly it was to become the centre of the world gun flint manufacturing industry and the last surviving, the last Brandon knapper living on till the 1980s. Brandon produced the most and highest quality gunflints ever made. However while in hindsight its achievements look great in reality Brandon spent most of its history in a state of recession. Only formed in 1790s it was created for what unknown at the time would become last swansong of the gunflint, the Napoleonic Wars, and 1815 was the year it was to receive its last major orders. Following 1815 the dearth of wars and invention of the percussion cap were to render the industry in a permanent state of decline and poverty as increasingly fewer and further flung countries needed gunflints. Another problem with the industry was it was too efficient, adopting a manufacturing process derived from the French Method then the fastest and most efficient method of gunflint manufacture around, perhaps tripling its speed. The problem was huge numbers of flints could be produced quickly and by few knappers. For example and massive order of several million gunflints by Turkey for the Crimean War was fulfilled in just a week by a single workshop. This meant despite the Brandon gunflint workshops collaborating to keep prices artificially high, with low demand and high speed of manufacturer the price of gunflints declined for almost a century.

While being a gunflint knapper meant being in a dying industry, it was still a highly skilled craft and knappers being highly skilled craftsmen who had served a long apprenticeship from 8 years of age, as well as it being for many a family trade, were reluctant to seek alternative low skilled work in other fields. So instead tried to find alternative uses for their high skills. These included making novelties, jewellery, prehistoric replicas tinderboxes and even name plates from flint.

(Right) Novelties and Jewellery made by Brandon Knapper Bill Basham, skillwise they are equal to the very best from prehistory.

Gunflint knapping wasn't the only industry in Britain that used knapping and flint. The other was the flint building trade. A trade booming today, as it is increasing noted buildings built from modern materials 50 years ago are all but crumbling while flint buildings built up to 1000 years ago are as good as new and will easily see another millennia or two.

Knapping flint bricks like knapping gunflints or prehistoric replicas can be highly skilled work, the flint building industry using everything from crudely split flints to perfect knapped square blocks. The square blocks being especially difficult to make. However while it takes a lot of skill and many years experience to knap a perfect square brick this skill level falls well below the skills require to manufacture gunflints or the even more complex items Brandon knappers were making many sidelines such as flint letters, novelties and prehistoric replicas, so found themselves not only easily able to enter the top end of the building trade but surpass it.

(Above) In the first video we see modern day master knapper Eddie Fincken demonstrating how to make flint bricks including the extremely difficult square ones. In the second video we see a Brandon knapper making a square one too. Note the difference in techniques used in the two videos.

In the first video the knapper uses the flint building industry style of knapping, using a heavy masonry hammer, but in the second the Brandon knapper knaps the brick using a very light rapid moving gunflint hammer as if it were a gun flint. More importantly the Brandon knapper's style could easily be adapted to make shapes far more complex than simple squares.

Brandon knappers then came up with the idea of something much more complex than the building industry could produce and only they had the skills to make. They created elaborate decorative flint panels to decorate buildings with. The panels being made of flint were durable and weather proof,.

(Right) In 1902 this postcard was taken of Jack Carter (right) and of 7 elaborate flint panels made by his father William Carter. In 1972 these panels were donated to Brandon Library by the family and embedded in the wall.

The Panels embedded in Brandon Library Wall
The panels then were largely forgotten about, except by locals and in 2013 when the library closed the panels were almost destroyed in the demolition. However a local history group remembering they were there alerted the local council and they were safely removed.  The murals are currently being restored and reside at Brandon Country Park heritage project who are searching for a new local home for them.

The panels as they are now

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