Georgians in Stone

28th April 2021

In 2019 the P.C.C of St John the Baptist in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire was awarded a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to discover and share the secrets of Georgian history in Bishop’s Castle, a notorious Rotten Borough with an unusual number of beautiful monuments from the period within the churchyard. This project included a wide range of activities to involve people and Caring for God’s Acre staff have been organising these. Despite the restrictions of Covid-19 there has been song-writing with school involvement, town guides giving tours, film making, churchyard trails, an information board as well as a seminar on Georgian times. The last event, a final celebration, which will take place on Zoom on 15th May. Please join in with this celebration which should be great fun (email anna@cfga.org.uk to learn more) and if you would like to learn the songs, written by renowned folksinger John Kirkpatrick, go to the Castle Carols website and click on Georgians in Stone (https://castlecarols.com/georgians/).

Included within this grant was the renovation of those monuments which have been Grade II listed by Historic England and the specialist firm of Elliott Ryder Conservation have undertaken this highly skilled work.

We asked Susanne Ryder and Kieran Elliott to tell us about their work.

‘We have nearly completed the conservation of 11 listed Georgian Tomb-chests in the churchyard of St John the Baptist Church in Bishop’s Castle Shropshire, under the management and guidance of Caring for God’s Acre – Director, Harriet Carty. To have such a large collection of listed memorials as this in one place is unusual.

We specialise in the conservation of sculpture, church monuments, churchyard memorials and architectural works of art and have been involved in conservation for 56 years between the pair of us. This interesting project involved slowing down current rates of deterioration, partially or wholly dismantling and re-building several memorials which were unstable, due to failure of old materials and lack of maintenance of local materials that ultimately don’t weather well. It was neither possible nor desirable to remove biological growths in the forms of aged lichens which give the objects their pleasing patina of age. Many of the surfaces were too deteriorated to undergo even the gentlest cleaning, with only mosses removed manually, as they act as a sponge, retaining excess moisture in place, on deteriorated, aged surfaces.

The original designers and crafts people who undertook these commissions and created the memorials, which are at least 190 years old (The Georgian Period running from 1714 – 1830) would have used local materials where possible, to save the costs involved in transporting more ‘exotic’ or fashionable materials; with time often elapsing between the date of manufacture and building, and the passing of the person being commemorated. The size and scale of these memorials hints at the status of those celebrated when compared to more simple, cheaper headstones, although this churchyard also displays other headstones of exceptional carved quality, the like of which we have seldom seen.

The craftspeople that made and built these memorials would have used the best materials at the time, there is no doubt, with the Georgian masons and carvers probably unaware of the poor weathering characteristics of this local stone in the long-term. Some, but not all of the iron fixings used to secure structures together had been covered, or set-in with molten-lead during building, in an attempt to mitigate against the known effects of moisture on iron. Introducing hot, liquid lead is extremely dangerous if the stonework is even remotely damp. Having watched it done on the West Front of York Minster I can understand why it is a technique rarely used now, and only under strictly controlled conditions, such are the health and safety implications.

Everything deteriorates with age at a greater or lesser rate, and our job as conservators is to slow down those rates and preserve objects as they exist, replacing as little original material as possible. The local stone used for the majority of the memorials takes an edge well for carving and lettering, but deteriorates badly along natural sedimentary bedding-planes. The large slabs are at 90 degrees to their naturally stronger plane (known as ‘face bedded’) and have suffered significant deterioration as a result. Moisture causes chemical reactions and deterioration processes including: delamination, flaking, disaggregation (sanding), efflorescence (soluble salt activity), metal staining and the corrosion and expansion of iron. We encountered all of these processes on this project!

Churchyards rise upwards, with grass, weeds, tree-leaves decaying annually, with many of the moulded plinths now all but lost visually as they are slowly subsumed. It was a chance conversation with the second generation grave-digger, who informed us in previous decades it would not have been possible to dig the now requisite 6 foot in parts of the churchyard; the bed rock was closer to the surface. This may account for the settlement we saw in some of the tomb chests, as the interments beneath deteriorate.

Dismantling an object is always a last resort as it is so invasive, however some of the memorials were unstable, literally being forced apart by invasive ivy growth or expanding and broken iron fixings. These ones had to be carefully dismantled and subsequently re-built to ensure their long-term integrity and safety. Such objects are measured and photographed beforehand, to aid re-building. There is hardly ever anything of archaeological interest inside a tomb chest although we always hope for gold coins or maps indicating where the gold is buried! However one of the tomb chests was full of historic crisp, sweet and ice-lolly wrappers, perhaps an indication that the churchyard is a shortcut to the local school.

There is no British Standard for conserving tomb chests and much of it is down to common-sense and experience and using the best techniques and materials at our disposal. We re-built, dismantled tomb chests on new re-enforced concrete pads, instead of the original system of thin stone slabs laid on top of one another with very little mortar, which made uneven settlement all the more likely. We used lightweight blocks and thin-bed mortar to incorporate new internal supporting cores to bear the weight of heavy, fragile lids, previously borne by weakened, delaminating stone panels. Previous dowel-holes were cut by chisels or round, star-shaped jumper chisels, that acted like drill bits. We made holes and channels deeper to give better embedment for the new fixings and make structures stronger. We secured side panels and fixed broken stone elements with marine-grade stainless-steel that doesn’t corrode even near seawater, used the best modern external-grade epoxy-resins, that are not affected by excess moisture and we employed repair mediums and pointing mortars compatible with the host stone. All of this will slow-down the relentless, inevitable affects of moisture and weathering over time.

This once in a generation intervention generously supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund will ensure the long-term integrity of this regionally important collection of Georgian memorials’.