London Stone Building Material History

Goldholme Stone have supplied Ancaster and Clipsham building stone to central London including to:

  • St Pancras International Station
  • Farringdon Station
  • A city development by CIT Belgravia
  • Several Properties on Park Lane

Our Clipsham limestone was much liked by Westminister Local Authority who described it as “more interesting than Portland” with warmer tones.

Our research into the stones that built London promoted us to write this fascinating article.

London lies on sand and clays, it has no natural building stone of its own. Fortunately the city is dissected by the River Thames allowing cargo to reach the heart of the city.

Roman London (Londinium)

During the late 190’s AD Emperor Septimius Severus embarked on the fortification of the town.

The project would involve 3.5 kilometres of stone walls including 20 defensive bastions. A 12 acre inner fort to accommodate 1,000 men, administration buildings, storage facilities, etc. The project was described as one of Romans biggest construction projects of all time.

For the building stone material, they turned to the area around Maidstone in Kent. Boats could easily navigate the 127km distance using the River Thames and on to the River Medway.

The building stone of choice was known as “Kentish Rag” named due to its ragged edge when split. The Rag belonged to the Hythe Beds of the Lower green sand, a cretaceous Limestone.

Several quarries were established around Maidstone, all conveniently situated by the River Medway. The local quarries were at Allington, Boughton, Manchelseas, West Farleigh, Teston, Tovil, and Dean Street.

Each of these UK quarries had supporting infrastructure, accommodation blocks, support services and villas for the upper hierarchy.

The Rag Stone was described as lying in Beds of between 15cm and to 60cm and occasionally 90cm. The colour was described as Grey/Green or Grey/Blue, but would mellow with age. A softer stone called hassock lies interbedded with the rag, but it is not clear if this inferior stone was transported to London or discarded for local use!

The massive project would require 1 million stone blocks of about the size of a modern day breeze block. It would take up to 3,000 boat loads of block stone to carry an estimated 85,000 tonnes of Rag stone into London.

Interestingly a sunken Roman ship was discovered deep in the silt of Blackfriars. It still had its cargo of 26 tonnes of Kentish Ragstone.

Several Roman Buildings were built from the same source including The Temple of Mithras, a building set into the ground and only discovered following a WW2 bombing raid.

A 2 acre stone Basilica somewhere around the location of St Pauls Cathedral was built. Ancient baths were discovered and a substantial tower at Aldgate.

The wall itself can be seen at various locations close to the Tower of London, a location on Tower Hill, Beneath the London Museum, a small section of the stone wall along with one of the defence bastions has been preserved beneath the Merrill Lynch Building and can still be seen in the basement. Temple of Mithras is on Queen Victoria Street. In addition to Kentish Rag stone there is evidence of Flint, Brick, Lincolnshire Limestone, Cotswold white lias, Welch slate along with various imported stones along the ancient walls notably from Italy, Belgium, Greece and Egypt.

The remains of a Roman Amphitheatre are still preserved and open to the public beneath the Guildhall.

The Norman Conquest

After 1066 The Normans introduces new stone mason skills and masonry stones in to the city.

Caen stone was used extensively although not considered a very good quality stone in terms of durability.

William the 1st built The Tower of London reverting to Kentish Rag stone with Caen and Quarr limestones from France.

He used dressings from the upper Greensand known as Reigate Freestone. This would be the first stone type to be brought in by cart.

Westminister Abbey was reconstructed in Kentish rag, Caen, Reigate Freestone, Clunch (Chalk) from Cambridgeshire with decorated columns of Purbec Marble, with the exception of Reigate the quarry stones were all brought in by sea and river.

The Medieval Period

During the Medieval Period the Roman wall was still being used. There is evidence of strengthening and repair during this period.

The Kentish Rag stone quarries were used to make 7,000 cannonballs during the reign of Henry the fifth.

The Guild Hall

Built between 1411 and 1440.

Designed to reflect the power and prestige of London. It served as the Town Hall for several hundred years. Built of Kentish Ragstone it was said to have the biggest Collyweston stone roof ever built. Unfortunately it would later be bombed during the second world war reducing the expanse of the earlier roof.

The Great Fire

The year was 1666.

After the fire, legislation was introduced to ban thatch and other combustible materials giving way to brick, stone and slate.

The relatively new stone of choice would now be Portland. Portland stone had the great advantage of being next to the sea, cranes would lower block stone down into boats waiting in the English Channel. Architects Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor would start to re-build London in the new white stone and starting with no less than 51 churches.

The most famous “white church” is undoubtedly St Pauls Cathedral designed by Wren and built between 1675 and 1710.

Other Wren buildings built from Portland stone include:

  • The Chelsea Temple Bar Gate
  • The Old Royal Naval College
  • Monument of the Great Fire
  • Marlborough House – although principally brick, the quoins and formal detailing were of Portland Stone

Hawksmoor worked closely with Wren particularly on the new Portland stone churches, notable ones being Christ Church, Spittle fields, St Mary Woolnoth, St George in the East, St Georges Bloomsbury, St Annes Limehouse, St Alfrege Greenwich.

Portland was used for the Bank of England, The British Museum, Somerset House, The Mansion House, All featured Cornish Granite Lower Stories.

Georgian Period 1714 to 1830

The Georgians were responsible for the massive explosion of London particularly developing Residential Property. Two Great Estates developed across what is now Central London, The Grosvenor Estate and the Bedford Estate.

Unfortunately for the quarry stone suppliers, the materials of choice were mainly brick.

Portland stone was used more sparingly for occasional fancy facades and window detailing. Examples of these properties can be seen in Grosvenor square, Mayfair and Bedford Square in Bloomsbury.

Regency Period 1811 to 1820

The Regency Period was a Great disappointment for the Stone Industry as the new material of choice was “stucco” painted white.

Stucco is no more than external grade plaster!

The leading Architect at the time was John Nash. Examples of Regency Architecture can be seen around Belgravia and the roads around Regents Park and particularly striking Park Crescent.

Victorian period 1837-1901

The Victorians were responsible for building the grandest buildings such as The Houses of Parliament and the famous Big Ben Clock Tower (Elizabeth Tower from 2012). The stone of choice was Permian Lower Magnesiun Limestone originally selected from Anston in South Yorkshire due to its close proximity to the Chesterfield canal. Two other local quarries supplying the same stone type known as “Cadeby” would be selected, Bolsover Moor in Derbyshire and Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire Cadeby stone was chosen  principally because the special commissioners referred to as the ‘A Team’ who were assembled to approve the fabric of the building, turned to Southwell Minster for evidence of Longevity not realising that the Minster was in fact built from Mansfield white, a completely different stone. It is reported that during the construction some of the stones were breaking down by the effects of frost and polluted air even before the scaffold had been taken down, further to this many stone were laid sur bedded (the wrong way round). Charles Dickens wrote in 1860 that Anston Stone was the worst ever used in the Metropolis, in the year 1860 he described the workmanship as showing unpardonable slackness. Cornish Granite was used for the frost susceptible lower work such as the basements and foundations. During the 1980’s and 90’s a major restoration project took place initially intended to use Clipsham stone but when it was evident that the Clipsham quarry could not keep up with the pace, French Anstrude Stone was imported to supplement the demand. Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894. The stones being Cornish granite for the wet areas and Portland above.

Bath Stone had been used sparingly from the 17th Century, but due to its distance and inability to be accessed by boat it had not made much impact on London.

This would change dramatically with the advent of the canal network in 1790 and later the Railway Network in 1850.

Bath Stone flooded in to London on mass as a cheap stone building material, cheaper than hardwood. It was used for 95% of the Victorian Bay Windows on the thousands of middle-class residences being built along with the stone staircases of the Victorian Slums of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Bath Stone made a good alternative to timber as it wouldn’t shrink, crack or twist and crucially it could be painted.

During the 19th Century thanks to modern transport systems Portland had lost its almost total stranglehold as the building stone supplier to London. Architects could now choose from building stones anywhere in the UK. Grey and Red Granites from Cornwall and Scotland. All colours of sandstones from the Pennines, cream, brown and yellow limestones from the Great limestone belt in Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire and Wiltshire. Slates were flooding in from Cumbria, Cornwall and Wales. Yorkshire paving from Yorkshire, Cumbria and Derbyshire and Lancashire. Limestones came in from Ketton, Weldon, Ancaster, Clipsham to build many modern churches.

St Pancras Station

The magnificent building we see today in its Gothic Style was commenced in 1868. This was Victorian Grandeur in the extreme. The Architect was George Gilbert Scott. The massive building was built in Leicestershire bricks with Ancaster stone Arches and detailing. The roof is protected from the elements by 300,000 Welsh slates which were hauled in by the Railway system. Three giant clocks were strategically positioned all the faces were Welsh Slate over painted the largest had a minute hand of over 7 feet in length. Granite was brought in from Cumbria to make stone pillars.

The London Shame of Stones

The French Caen Stone was used to build Buckingham Palace the residence of Queen Victoria, within 20 years of construction the stone was crumbling, only after several queens guards had been injured by falling masonry was action taken to re-cladd in Portland.

Cadeby Stone

Originally from Anston in South Yorkshire, the stone was selected for the Houses of Parliament, but was said to be breaking down by the elements even before the Scaffold had been taken down.

Kentish Rag

Flattered to be invited to provide the stone for the latest Royal project, the disappointment of the stone masons must have been stark, as it turned out to be 7,000 canonballs for the Henry the 5ths army.

Bath

The Bath stone masons must have been made up to receive huge orders for the 1850 property boom sweeping over London.

Believing the honey coloured stone had finely been appreciated for its Aesthetics, they must have been horrified when they discovered that it would all be painted.

Stones that got dropped

The French Caen stone got dropped after its constant failure, notably The Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.

Kentish Rag got dropped by Christopher Wren in favour of Portland.

Colyweston roofing tiles got dropped for Welsh Slate.

Clipsham Stone got dropped for French Anstrude. During repair work on The Houses of Parliament in the 1980’s/90’s (Clipsham Quarries couldn’t keep up the pace).