Sustaining the Intangible Heritage of Stonemasonry

Today’s spotlight focuses on ‘Sustaining Intangible Heritage’ an event run by The Guild of St Stephen & St George Stone Masons in Norwich. Colin Howey, Clerk of the Guild, tells us about the Guild’s efforts to safeguard the tradition of stonemasonry for the future.

© Norfolk Museums Service - Guild of St Stephen & St George procession, with Norwich Castle in the background.

Tell us a bit about stonemasonry and the Guild’s history in Norwich.

Traditional Stone Mason Play, © Guild of St Stephen & St George Stone Masons

Stonemasonry has a long history and is far from a dying trade. Indeed, the Guild of our Master Mason, Dr. Stephen L'Normand, was founded in 1096. Interestingly, some of the Masters of this Guild worked in Norwich in previous centuries; for instance, Master William Ramsey oversaw construction of part of Norwich Cathedral cloister during the fourteenth century.

Stonemasonry skills have been carefully passed down through the generations for thousands of years; right down to this new generation. We are part of this. Over the next decade we will be training forty young people on seven year classical apprenticeships. They will learn all aspects of stonemasonry – like conservation, contemporary design and garden design – to become multi-skilled and fine craftsmen, continuing the tradition which stretches back thousands of years.

Our Guild has its roots in the Gild moot of 936 when guilds were ordered by King Athelstan to meet at regular intervals. The guild was dedicated to St Stephen in 1089. In the intervening period the craft guild was re-founded and christened “The Guild of St Stephen & St George”.

Master Mason L'Normand has achieved the rank of Guild Master; one of only twelve such persons in the world. He is a world class craftsman and donates nine months of his year freely to our guild in order to pass on his skills to the next generation.

Why is the tradition important to you and the local community?

The tradition of stone masonry is vital because it is bringing world class training and skills to East Anglia. Over time the re-foundation of the Stonemasons' Guild will create eighty high quality sustainable jobs for young people, working from our hub in Norwich.

Despite the duration and rigour of the apprenticeship, we are able to take on people with no formal qualifications or experience. We look for 'character': young people who show initiative, respect, resilience and who are prepared to work very hard indeed. This means that we can be genuinely inclusive and give an opportunity to people who aren't conventionally 'academic' or who need to move to think.

We are also committed to actively encouraging recruitment of women to the Guild. Half of York Minster's in-house team of stonemasons are women and we aspire to match this.

We demand much from our apprentices, but, in turn, we look after their welfare throughout their lives. This is part of the tradition of our Guild.  

Carvings in the guild garden, © Guild of St Stephen & St George Stone Masons

What are the considerations when conserving a skill and tradition as opposed to a more tangible heritage, like an object or building?

In 2003 The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted a convention for the safeguarding of ‘intangible’ heritage. It stated that: “any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus, not on preserving craft objects – no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be – but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others.”

We are the authentic embodiment of this idea.Our Master Mason can identify his Masters by name in a direct unbroken line for a thousand years. The guild system has been successful at transmitting high quality skills over this period. We wish to follow this example; passing our skills onto the next generation, keeping our knowledge alive in the next link of the chain of Masters.

We don't have any funding. We are reliant on the generosity of supporters, together with the income we are able to generate through our social enterprise, Gildencraft Stone Masonry C.I.C. For instance, our landlords, the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, have agreed that we should pay an 'in kind' rent that allows our apprentices to do work on the eighteen churches in their care and, therefore, gain valuable experience. It is through this combination of philanthropy and entrepreneurship that we seek to sustain our abilities and intangible heritage.

What can visitors get excited about this September?

Our Stonemasons' Lodge at the medieval St. Clement's Church will be open for the four days of the HODs event. Our apprentices will be available to talk to the public and talk about their training. In addition, on the Saturday, the members of our Guild Court - Clerk, Master, Prime Warden, Upper Warden and Beadle - will be meeting with visitors. They will be wearing their traditional uniforms and answering questions about the life of a classical craft guild.

Stonemasons’ Guild: Sustaining Intangible Heritage will take place from Thursday the 8th to Sunday the 11th of  September. For full details click here.

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