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Practical perspective

Words by Mark Godden
1 March 2022

Sir Christopher Wren clad parts of St. Paul’s Cathedral in brown Burford ironstone, but replaced it with Portland Stone because it performed better

Dear Editors,

As a long-standing hewer of Portland Stone with deep ancestral roots on the Isle of Portland, I was saddened to see this beautiful, late Jurassic building stone being so heavily politicised in the article ‘The symbolic power of stone’ (Geoscientist 31, 32-33, 2021).

Many societies follow long traditions that use stone to reinforce their status and power. This pattern of behaviour reaches back into prehistory, with Stonehenge (sarsen stone and dolerite) and the Great Pyramid at Giza (nummulitic limestone and granite) being prime early examples. Yet, the article focuses exclusively on the societal impulse to convey authority through powerful architecture onto Portland limestone alone.

The discussion disregards the likelihood that Sir Christopher Wren used Portland Stone to rebuild in London following the great fire of 1666 because this was the most practical and economically sensible option available – enormous structural failure of the north-eastern cliffs on the Isle of Portland put vast quantities of limestone onto the shoreline, allowing relatively easy loading on to barges and transportation into central London. Instead, the article’s narrative focuses on an overbearing state and a down-trodden proletariat.

Originally, Wren clad parts of the external surface of St. Paul’s Cathedral in brown Burford ironstone. This quickly failed in contemporary London’s polluted atmosphere, so was replaced with Portland Stone because it performed better. The St. Paul’s that we observe today is very different from how Wren originally envisaged it should look – if there really were socio-political drivers behind the original choice of building materials, ultimately, these did not achieve the intended visual outcome.

The nation is currently facing a colossal bill for repairs to decaying stonework in the Palace of Westminster. Had (for wholly practical reasons), Portland Stone been selected to reconstruct the building after the fire of 1834, and not the less-durable Anston magnesian limestone, as was used, it seems likely that this huge expense would have been largely avoided.

During the 19th century, convict labour was used to quarry stone on Portland, but that stone was also used in the construction of Portland’s prison. The Victorians also used Portland Stone to create utilitarian defensive structures, such as the breakwaters surrounding Portland Harbour. So, Portland Stone has not only been used in high-status, imperial edifices.

The article also suggests subjugation of Portland’s quarriers, yet, historically, many were largely self-employed and bestowed with ancient birthrights that allowed them to raise stone, unimpeded, from the crown commons. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the degree of self-determination, standard of living and level of education amongst Portland’s people probably exceeded those found in any other parish in Dorset.

When I think of all the beautiful structures that I have played a very small part in helping to create, I feel only pride, with absolutely no jingoistic contemplations of class, empire, or power. I suspect my quarrying forebears felt similarly about the buildings they helped to bring into being.

Mark Godden, Mine Manager at Albion Stone plc., UK

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