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Stonework (outside)

Listen to the Audio Guide and discover:

  • What it was like to be part of the Hayward & Wooster team who restored the stonework outside the Abbey between 1951 and 1960
  • How it felt to be working high above the ground perched on scaffolding in all types of weather conditions
  • How the heavy stone was raised up from ground level to the Abbey roof 
  • The skills and craftsmanship required to be a stone mason and what tools are used
  • How it felt to carve some sculptures for the Abbey's famous West front


Restoring the stonework 1951-1960

Bath Abbey is mostly made from Bath stone, a local limestone that is soft stone and easy for masons to work.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the stone on the outside of Bath Abbey needed to be repaired. The stone on the highest parts of the building had been worn down by years of wind and rain. In the lower and more sheltered parts, the stone was dirty because of pollution in the air from coal fires. This had also caused some of the stonework to be covered with a hard, encrusted substance almost an inch (or 2 and a half centimetres) thick! 

A building firm in Bath called Haywood and Wooster was employed to restore the Abbey’s stonework, first by cleaning off the dirt and then by repairing and replacing parts of the stone that needed it. 

In March 1951 the restoration of the stone outside the Abbey began.  First, scaffolding had to be put around the Abbey and its Tower so that they could get to all of the stone, even in the highest places.  The Abbey bought all the scaffolding in 1951 at a cost of £2,114 (that’s worth about £50,000 today).  Hiring the scaffolding would have cost at least double that amount!


What is the difference between a banker mason and a fixer mason?

In April, Haywood and Wooster’s stone masons began to arrive.  Stone masons are skilled men who work with stone.  Bryan Dring was one of the first masons to begin work on the Abbey. 

Bryan was a specialist stone mason known as a “banker mason”.  Banker masons worked at a “banker”, which was a wooden workbench (sometimes covered with a piece of carpet), that the masons used to put the stone on whilst they worked on it.  Banker masons worked in a “banker shed”, which was located on the South-West side of the Abbey, right where you walked, to the side of the Abbey shop!

In the following clip, Bryan explains how he came to work on the Abbey, what a banker mason did and how their job was different from a “fixer mason”. He talks about his fellow stone masons, how Burt Chard, one of the strongest masons, could lift and carry his stones and how highly skilled Jack Mitten and Reg Hardy were and the strokes of their chisels as they struck them with their mallets to carve the stone.


Raising up the stone

Once the stone had been worked into the required shape by the banker masons, it would need to be raised up onto the Abbey so that the fixer masons could fix it into place.

The masons would use a “chain block” which was like a metal pulley made of chains and gears to lift the stone up onto the Abbey.  The gears in it meant that the masons could lift stones weighing half a ton (or 450 kilograms) with ease!  The masons also had a small engine to help them lift the heavier stones.  

Lifting the stones from the banker shed at ground level up onto the Abbey could be hazardous as the chains on the chain block could rub against the stone being lifted and damage it.  


Repairing the Tower

The masons first repair work was to the tower.  Working up that high could be difficult in bad weather.  Bryan also recalls how dangerous it could be in cold weather, especially when the wooden planks on the scaffolding around the tower and the metal “putlocks” that the wooden planks rested on were covered in frost.

Phillip Wooster – from the Wooster family who formed part of the building firm Haywood and Wooster – was still at school when his father’s firm began work on the Abbey in the 1950s.  Although he was young, here he remembers the discussions about the scaffolding going up and climbing to the top of it when it first went up!

If you look up to the top of the Abbey’s tower you’ll see just how high it is.  In fact, the tower is 161 feet (or 49 meters) tall!  

The four pinnacles at the corners of the top of the tower are its highest points.  The pinnacles (sometimes called “finials”) are the pointy tops of the stonework.  But they are not only on the top of the tower.  You can see them on the top of many pillars on the roofs of the Abbey.  These pinnacles or “finials” are extra decorations which emphasize the tops of many pillars.  Some of them were recarved when the Abbey stonework was restored in the 1950s.


Making the finials

Arthur Evans was an apprentice for the Bath and Portland Stone Company.  He was one of the masons who worked in their masonry yard in Corsham (just outside Bath) to make some of the finials for the Abbey. Arthur remembers how he made the finials and how they were transported to the Abbey.

The finials would be fixed to the Abbey by the fixer masons mentioned earlier.  Finials are secured to the stonework using copper rods through the middle of them (called “dowls”). However, if the finials were to be fixed to the top of the tower this would be done by a steeplejack, who also helped to maintain the finials year after year.  In the Audio Guide, David Dawson, a steeplejack who worked on the Abbey from 1948, describes what a steeplejack is, how he came to work as one, and how they would do some of the work high up on the Abbey’s stonework.

Bryan Dring, the Haywood and Wooster banker mason whom we heard at the start of this guide, also carved some of the croquettes for the finials, where only the croquettes and not the whole finials needed to be replaced.  This was not usually a banker mason’s job and would usually be done by Haywood and Wooster’s dedicated carver Charlie Hatchard.  On one occasion, Bryan remembers that Robert Blackmore (the Managing Director of Hayward and Wooster) visited the Abbey whilst he was working there and noticed his ability to carve the croquettes.  The next week, Bryan remembers he received an extra £2 in his pay packet for doing this work.  £2 in the 1950s is worth about £50 today so it was quite a bonus!  Even so, Bryan was in fact saving the firm money because to employ a carver would have cost them significantly more.



Sculpting the statues on the West Front

Haywood and Wooster’s headquarters on Walcot Street were not only used for storing the drawings used by the architects but were also the location where the sculptor Peter Watts carved many of the statues that were needed to replace those on the West Front in 1959.

As you stand in front of the West Front, look up at the angels climbing the ladders.  What do you notice?  Do they all look the same or are they climbing the ladders differently?

Phillip Wooster explains why some of the angels are carved differently and describes how they were carved by Peter Watts in 1959.

As well as four new angels (the second and third lowest on each ladder), and the trees mentioned by Phillip, Peter Watts also carved a new figure of St Matthew and the Dove above the window of the West Front.  In the final clip of the Audio Guide we hear Peter Watts’ son Matthew talk about his father’s work on the Dove at the top of the West Front window.