Today I am writing to mark the recent passing of Slythes, which was one of the oldest businesses in Witham. They were monumental masons. Their chief products were tombstones and memorials, but they also made decorative features for buildings. Stonemasonry was a very skilled job, the stone being shaped and inscribed by hand until relatively recent times. Nevertheless, their place of work never looked much from the outside – just a jumble of sheds in a yard between Easton Road and the railway line, as shown in the photo below. It was passed by dozens of commuters every day hurrying between the car park and the station.
The first Slythe to work in Witham was James, who came from Colchester in the early 1840s, and the last was Mrs Nancy Chapman, who died in about 2000, making 160 years in total. In between there was James Braddock Slythe, and after him, James Dunsdon Slythe, The latter died in 1958, aged 88, and his tombstone at All Saints church tells us that he was ’70 years a mason in Witham’.
For most of its time, the business flourished. In 1862 the two solid houses which still stand beyond the yard in Easton Road were built for the family. As time went on, branches were opened in Chelmsford, Colchester and Braintree. And the Slythes’ view of themselves became more sophisticated. For instance, in an advert of 1926, they called themselves the ‘The Essex Sculptured Marble Company’. The illustration shows another advert, from 1933.
James Dunsdon Slythe was and is well remembered by older residents of Witham. One of these was the late Dorothy Hancock, whose information I have been grateful for whilst writing this article. She said that he walked to Chelmsford and back daily for his training, and that he was a great expert in traditional letter cutting. The nearby railway must have been a great asset for transporting the variety of heavy stone needed for the business.
But when smuts from the steam engines landed on his stones, he used to direct very offensive phone calls to John Newman, the railway booking clerk.
When the main entrance to the station was changed from Slythes’ side over to Albert Road, after the 1905 rail crash, James would slide down the bank and cross the rails into the station, rather than use the bridge. This worried Dorothy’s father, the station master, but he couldn’t prevent it.
Some of Slythes’ work in Witham is still in existence, including the plinth for Dorothy L Sayers’ statue, the refurbishment of the War Memorial, and many gravestones and memorials. Sometimes the name of Slythe is carved on them in small letters.
When Slythes left, another firm of masons took over the yard for a while, but now it seems to be used for car and van sales.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in December 2010