Daniel Defoe was born to James and Alice Foe in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, in London. He later changed his name to the grander sounding Defoe.
Daniel Defoe 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.
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 (slightly more than £4,000,000 today). 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.
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 180 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 refences to ‘ye Brickkill wall’, Brickhouse Farmstead and Brick Kilne Marsh in the Order Book.
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.
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 turned 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.
According to Daniel Defoe, the factory at Tilbury gave employment to no less than 100 poor families. Other staff at the brickworks we already know of were Thomas Castleton the superintendent who was ordered with Defoe to repair local seawalls. On Castleton’s death in 1698, he was replaced by Paul Whitehurst. Additionally a Dutchman was employed for some of the time to oversee production of the pantiles.
Just to add to all the disputes Defoe was immersed in, Paul Whitehurst (the Tilbury factory superintendent) along with a drink supplier called Chapman later sued Defoe in connection with ‘small and strong drink’ being served to the factory workmen (as well as soldiers from nearby Tilbury Fort). Details are sketchy with a suggestion that the ‘strong drink’ was in fact served from Daniel Defoe’s house.
Yet making bricks and tiles and then selling them took up less and less of Daniel Defoe’s time and energy. Not only was he juggling three wives and homes, he also pursued many other interests and was always seeking new ways of making money. He was easily distracted.
In the early 1700s Daniel Defoe was increasingly busy with his writing and was producing pamphlets and booklets on a variety of subjects. Whilst Defoe was otherwise engaged it was not clear what was happening at the Tilbury brick factory. Certainly there was a huge demand for bricks in London but whether the Tilbury factory could fulfil any or some of the demand was another matter. Furthermore, Defoe had multiple mortgages on the Tilbury land of which no repayments seem to have been made. By 1703 the factory had run out of orders as suppliers feared they would not be paid. Defoe’s challenges suddenly came to a head.
Although published anonymously, Defoe’s satirical pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, caused fury in the establishment, the Church and especially with the new monarch, Queen Anne. Defoe was soon identified as the author, arrested, pilloried and then imprisoned after being convicted of sedition. On November 8, 1703, after six months in Newgate Prison, Defoe regained his freedom. Whilst the establishment had seen justice done in their eyes, there was still many an angry creditor chasing Defoe and it was necessary for him to go into hiding. Prison and hiding had disastrous consequences for the Tilbury factory and Defoe’s finances.
Despite the best efforts of his brother-in-law, Robert Davies, the Tilbury factory went bankrupt and after nine years the Defoe connection with Tilbury ended. Defoe claimed his incarceration had cost him £3,000.
Daniel Defoe may have been considered a hopeless business man but there is no doubt he was talented and prolific writer, having drawn much inspiration from his business dealings.
Defoe is credited with publishing over 560 books and pamphlets and being the father of British journalism. Despite this he died, in 1731, alone, in debt and pursued by creditors.
The above article has been extracted from a two part feature in the Echo newspaper (November 29 and December 6, 2021) written by Emma Palmer.
The Echo feature is based on an essay by a producer of numerous local history books, Andrew Summers from Essex Hundred Publications.