In the 18th century, the most obvious improvement to farmland was the enclosure of fields. Less noticeable, but equally important, was underground drainage.
From the 1750s, huge increases in quantity and quality of crops, resulted from the drainage of flat fields and bogs. The digging of ditches and filling them with rubble was common practice on any forward-looking Renfrewshire estate. Further improvements could be made by lining the bottom of the ditch with flat stones, to form underground drainage channels.
From the 1830s, interest grew in an even better solution: the laying of manufactured clay pipes, known as ’tiles’. Initially the tiles were u-shaped, not circular, as they were easier to make. Clay was pressed flat and cut into rectangles, then folded by hand over rods, to form each tile. They were then dried and fired in kilns. Laid open-side down, the tiles often included a separate flat clay ‘sole’. They were known as drainage ’tiles’, probably because they resembled the curving red roof tiles imported from Holland.
In the 1830s and 40s the ministers of Erskine and Renfrew described tile draining as the ‘greatest improvement to agriculture in recent years, which is going forward in nearly all the farms in this parish’. The drainage had particular benefits in the growing of potatoes.
Most large estates sought a supply of clay to set up their own tile works. The landowner usually provided the tiles, with his tenants carrying out the heavy work of digging and laying the tiles at regular intervals across their fields. Apart from improving drainage, the old ridges and furrows were no longer required, and were flattened out.
The best fireclays were found around the north and west of Paisley at Walkinshaw, Ferguslie, Caledonia and Inkerman. These quality fireclays were valuable enough to be mined from the same shaft as coal, which was used to fuel the tile kilns. Although these big works usually produced drain tiles, their high quality clays were suitable for a whole catalogue of sanitary ware. Most tiles for draining fields were produced at smaller rural ‘Brick and Tile Works’ which will be discussed in next month’s Advertizer.
© 2018, Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum