Stonemasons I have known…

I’ve met a lot of characters in the trade over the years, and I just wanted to share some of the stories. It seems to be one of those vocations that seems to attract misfits/oddballs – call them/us what you will.

The first full-time job I got was at a cathedral stonemasonry workshop (or ‘bankershop’ in masonry parlance) in Somerset. The master mason was a supremely talented and kindly man from Lancashire. When I got there my enthusiasm was palpable and rather puppy-like, and I was asking him if he liked Bathstone (‘too soft’), Portland (‘too grey’) and then, as I looked increasingly perplexed he said,

‘Son, get yer ‘ands on some York stone. It’ll blunt yer chisels to hell but my God can you get an edge on it.”

He was quite right of course. It eats through tungsten carbide which is much harder than the old steel ‘firesharp’ tools, due to its abrasive nature, but as masons we love to produce a fine arris (edge) to our work which will remain. And while the rest of us used the air (pneumatic) tools he refused for the best part: “I like to think I’m still a stonemason in a power cut.”

If I’ve made him sound curmudgeonly he certainly wasn’t. In contrast there was one mason there who was the best banker mason I’ve ever known. He was an absolute lunatic. His weekends consisted of playing football and fighting, and whenever dignitaries arrived at the workshop he would make sure he was wearing his Superman underpants and then drop his trousers in front of them. And he got away with it because he was earning the owners a fortune. Stone would fall off his banker to reveal pristine acanthus leaves, volutes and  egg and dart buried within the stone. He was a nice guy really but like a lot of young men seemed to have a lot of anger to get out of his system. I’m note sure I’d have wanted to bump into him and his mates late at night in Bristol.

I moved to another bankershop and met one of the meanest tightwads ever. One of those guys who borrows all his tools and never has anything to lend you. He was Somerset through and through. One time we’d moved to new premises and he said :

“Here. It’d be nice if xxxxx (the owner) had his name wrote on the door.”

Another mason who was pretty educated corrected him: “Not wrote!”

” All right then, writ ya posh bastard!”

While many masons did the standard apprenticeship from the age of 16 many discovered it later, as I did. Having been to art college for 3 years I’d left with a huge ego and very little in the way of skills. Other masons have been Oxbridge law students (a friend of mine who I spotted reading a work in Ancient Greek on site only the other day), English scholars, structural engineers, former bricklayers, script developers and so forth. Maybe we were all just looking for something tangible, to work with our hands, and for our love of ancient buildings of which every square inch had been built or touched by the hand of a man (or woman).


  1. Stuart said:

    Read and enjoyed, thanks Geraint.

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