Wight Stonemasonry Limited: making their mark on history

Do you ever look at a building and wonder at the genius of its creator?

Do you ever look at a building and wonder at the genius of its creator? Why was it built? What purpose did it serve? Who was the stonemason? When I went to meet two stonemasons I found that sometimes even before the first stone was laid, the story had already begun.

Dave Hailstone and Dave Crouch run Wight Stonemasonry Limited at Dinglers Farm on the Yarmouth Road outside Newport. Their business card says “Architectural and monumental stonemasons” and I discovered this meant that besides carving gravestones and inscriptions, they are also banker masons who specialise in carving stones into geometrical shapes and fixer masons who fix stones on to buildings.

This sorted out we went inside their workshop where huge blocks of stone were stored ready for cutting. The floor was coated with a fine white dust and on the benches I saw an amazing assortment of tools. The two Daves were working on pillars to replace the old ones at the cemetery gates in Carisbrooke. “If a Norman stonemason walked in here today,” Dave Crouch told me as I admired the trefoil design they’d carved on the stone, “he’d recognise our tools. Today we use the same ones and process those Norman stonemasons used in the 12th century.”

Their chisels are made of steel and come in a variety of sizes and shapes and lying alongside the mallets similar to those used by medieval stonemasons, there was a plastic one for use in wet weather. Power tools save time – I saw one that looked like a gigantic dentist’s drill – but these require as much skill to handle as the other tools.

Dave Crouch said that when St. Thomas’s church in Newport produced an advent calendar last year to raise funds for the church’s refurbishment, he found they had worked on nearly all the churches in the pictures, like St. George’s in Arreton where they were involved with the Burma window. They also spent two weeks setting out the tracery for a window in St. Thomas’s before they started on the complicated job of replacing the original 70 stones from Caen with new Bath stone cut in accurate geometrical shapes.

The two Daves are proud to be Isle of Wight born and bred. Dave Hailstone started his career as a stonemason working on Department of Environment sites and it was the DOE who sent him to a building craft and training school in London. Dave Crouch’s family lived in Carisbrooke Castle where his father, Peter, was a stonemason and Dave followed in his footsteps, training at Weymouth College to get his City and Guilds in stonemasonry.

A stonemason in the Middle Ages earned the name ‘freemason’ if he was a highly skilled stonemason employed as a ‘free’ agent to build castles and churches in England and as the work was often dangerous, the masons formed lodges to take care of any injured members or their widows and orphans. The term freemason is not used in modern day stonemasonry but at the Freemasons’ Lodge in Newport, you’ll see the badge of the United Grand Lodge of England, an open compass across a square, carved into the building’s wall in Lugley Street.

One of the oldest stone buildings on the Island is Carisbrooke Castle and the first reference to it is in AD 1136 when the anonymous chronicler of Gesta Stepheni writes that it was “very finely built of stone and very strongly fortified”. The original wooden palisade fortress had been built in a hurry because the Normans expected to be attacked at any time and the new castle was built mainly of Greensand, a type of sandstone, which was quarried and brought from a scarp at Gatt Cliff, the old name for Gatcombe. The same quarry was used until 1921.

When Isabella de Fortibus came to the castle in 1262, she began rebuilding and extending the residential buildings. Henry Long, reeve of the castle, kept an account of the masons she employed and after her death, stonemasons are mentioned again in a record of payments made to them during the years 1318-19 for the new brattices they fitted to the ‘great tower.’ Later “Chardges of the masons woorke of the southeast and southwest knights” appears in the accounts for 1601-02 (the knights were the small artillery bastions added later to the existing fortifications).

The original Carisbrooke Castle was a wooden fortress which had been built in a hurry because the Normans expected to be attacked at any time

Inside the castle gatehouse there’s a stonemason’s mark on an ashlar block in the wall. Stonemasons often carved a personal symbol on each block of stone to mark the difference between their work and that of other stonemasons and it also helped the master mason to estimate the amount of work done by each man. When Sandown Fort was being built in 1652, in spite of masons being paid 1s.4d per day compared with a labourer’s pay of 9d., the two deputy lieutenants responsible for controlling the finances, Sir John Oglander and Sir Edward Dennis, found it difficult to recruit workers.

Their records show a note of payment “to Smugg for goinge with a warrant to Shorwell to presse Masons for the kings worke.” Smugg’s errand must have been successful because the following week two masons, Thomas Davis, senior and junior, arrived to work on the site. Apparently the two men had discovered a large hoard of Elizabethan shillings hidden in a barn at Newchurch the previous summer so a stonemason’s wage must have seemed miserly by comparison.

Sadly a lot of the buildings created by the architect, John Nash, on the Island, have either disappeared or been modified. The Guildhall in Newport, built on the site of the old Town Hall and Cheese Cross and completed in 1819, is an example of his work though a tower was added to the building in 1887. In a letter to a Mr. Sewell dated 24 February,1814, Nash warns against the extra costs for the building and urges Sewell to appoint a Clerk of the Works to oversee the work.  Contract Number 3 for the Masons’ Work stipulated that “the plinth of the arcade all round to be of Bath stone, those under the piers the arches to be each in one stone; the moulded fascia under the columns to be of Bath stone, and the key stones of the arches under the columns.”

The black Derbyshire marble chimney-piece and slab for the town hall cost £45 but for the town clerk’s office, only £5 was to be spent on the chimney-piece of Portland stone, unlike Sir Richard Worsley who spared no expense when he finished his house that had been started at Appuldurcombe in 1701.

Designed by John James with James Wyatt providing its elegant Baroque style, the 18th century mansion was intended to house Sir Richard’s collection of Greek Marbles, paintings and gems. When Appuldurcombe House was completed with its Tuscan columns, swags, roundels, garlands and mouldings of Portland stone carved by two stonemasons from London, he could boast that it was the grandest and most striking house on the Isle of Wight.

Talking of marble reminded Dave Hailstone of his visit to a quarry in the mountains near Pisa in Italy when he saw the seam of marble that Michelangelo, one of the most famous stonemasons, used for his sculpture, David. The craft of stonemasons has existed for thousands of years and we have them to thank for many of the inspiring monuments that exist today like the Easter Island statues, the Egyptian Pyramids and the Greek Parthenon. I think Dave Crouch put it in a nutshell when he said, “It’s good seeing your work last.”