Brick by brick: building a bricklaying career as a woman in trade
2023 SPAB Fellow Kate Longworth tells us about discovering the joys of bricklaying and the importance of female role models.
In retrospect, I have always been well suited to a career in bricklaying, but it took a winding path of chance encounters and experiences for me to realise and then pursue it.
After a decade of working for the police, in 2016 I had a conversation with my dad - an artist and teacher - about the value of working in a field that he loved. I didn’t know what I loved, but I knew I wanted to work with my hands, so after some soul-searching (and budget planning!) I set my mind to learning a trade.
I applied for apprenticeships (initially in carpentry) and in 2018 I was offered one in bricklaying. I was excited for the change, but I didn’t anticipate immediately falling in love with bricks. From my first day at college, bricklaying has been my passion.
While at college, I got the opportunity to visit Hampton Court Palace and be shown some of the brick conservation work going on there. This visit changed the course of my career in two main ways.
Firstly, I had never seen joints so finely finished; I hadn’t even heard of gauged brickwork and I had no idea what a rubber was. Watching bricks being rubbed square and cut with a bow saw was magical to me, and I wanted to learn everything I could about how it was done.
Secondly, during the visit I met highly skilled and knowledgeable conservation bricklayer, Emma Simpson. Seeing her at work inspired me, and showed me that it would be possible for me to be an accomplished and respected bricklayer in what is a very male-dominated profession.
Knowing that I wanted to specialise in conservation, I decided to undertake the Prince’s Foundation Building Craft Programme. I learned a lot and met many inspiring craftspeople, through both the programme content and the placements I undertook. This led me to apply for the SPAB Fellowship.
Since changing my career, my goal has been to learn from experts and hone my craft. I get real pleasure from seeing the quality and speed of my work improve, while pursuing a greater understanding of traditional buildings and contributing to their conservation.
I have worked on some incredible buildings and am learning from talented craftspeople who care about the buildings they work on and the quality of their work, and are generous and passionate about passing on their skills. It’s infectious, and has become something more than a job to me.
In my spare time I read about bricklaying and conservation, I attend workshops and lectures, and I seek out older buildings and regale friends and family with details I see in the brickwork. It’s funny to think back to having to ‘stand and face the wall’ as a punishment at school; little did I know how much joy I’d get from staring at brick walls in future!
Though I now frequently work at Hampton Court Palace, I have never lost the awe I felt the first time I went, and I celebrated my birthday recently by returning to explore it as a visitor.
I spent years thinking it would be too hard to enter such a male-dominated world, and there have been times when it has been a challenge. It has been helpful to me to see other women in trades - I have met some through my work and training, and social media is helpful for finding and connecting with others.
Some women I’ve met have encountered gender-based discrimination at work, while others have had entirely positive experiences. As I continue in my career I hope I am able to inspire people who rarely see representations of themselves in building trades.
I’ve just finished the first block of the SPAB Fellowship, and it’s been an incredible experience so far. When I first heard about the fellowship during my apprenticeship, I set my sights on it, and I still can’t believe I’m here. Changing my career and starting afresh in a completely different field has been a challenge, but it’s also been the best thing I have ever done. Like my dad, I’ve now found what I love, and I’m not stopping for anybody.
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