Tape 175. Talk by Dorothy Hancock about Slythes the stonemasons, of Witham

Tape 175

Dorothy Hancock gave her talk about Slythes the stonemasons, of Witham, on 5 February 1996, to Witham History Group.

She also appears in lecture 166, and interview tapes 178 and 179.

For more information about her, see Hancock, Dorothy, in the People category.

The original recording of this talk is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk or 033301 32500.

[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]

Side 1

Good evening everybody. I hope you’ll forgive me if I sit down to give this talk. There can’t be many family businesses, with have continued over the centuries[?] and are still carrying on, at least not in Witham. I was particularly pleased to be asked to give this talk about the firm of J B Slythe, monumental masons of Witham, as the two most recent heads of the business have been old friends of my family. If you enter the churchyard of the former Anglican church of All Saints in Guithavon Street, which is now the Holy Family and All Saints Catholic church, you will see only one grave in the [???]. All the other tombstones have been removed. The grave is near the south wall of the church, in the form of a white marble cross surrounded by green railings. The inscription reads ‘James Bernard Slythe, born March 22nd 1835, died June 13th 1912. J B Slythe was the founder of the monumental masons’ business, with office, yard and house in Easton Road. He was the head of the business from its inception in 1885 until his death. There were branches at Braintree, Chelmsford and Colchester. This photograph, which is here, it hangs on the wall of the office, and you’ll see his typical stern Victorian [???] with his luxurious beard. He’s said to have had a family pew in All Saints church.

When he died, his son James Dunsdon[?] Slythe became head of the firm, he was then aged 42. He will be remembered by many of us older residents of Witham. He had been given a thorough training at the Chelmsford branch, where he used to walk from Witham and back every day. It seems incredible doesn’t it. He was expert in the art of letter cutting by the traditional method, and he trained Gordon Blake, who continued as the firm’s letter cutter and managed first the Colchester branch, and when that closed he managed the Chelmsford branch until his retirement after fifty years with the firm. J D Slythe was a retiring but highly individual character, always in a hurry. He would have remembered the time when the entrance to Witham station was in Easton Road, quite near his house you see, and this was closed after the disastrous crash of the Cromer Express in 1905, and after that a new entrance was made in Albert Road. It was typical of Mr Slythe, always in a hurry, that he never went round to the new entrance, he preferred to scramble down the steep embankment outside his yard, then cross the rails of the Maldon line, and climb onto the up platform to take the train to Chelmsford, where he visited every week. My father who was then stationmaster could never persuade him to desist in this dangerous habit. In the days of steam and steam engines, specks of soot were sometimes blown onto the stones in the yard, which was a great cause of annoyance to Mr Slythe, and when John Newman worked in the booking office, he was often the recipient of telephone calls from an irate Mr Slythe, cause there were engines letting off steam again. (John Newman: ‘His language I wouldn’t repeat in front of ladies’) [laughter] His grave is in the rear of All Saints churchyard. It has a headstone of red polished granite. The inscription reads ‘James Dunsdon Slythe, over seventy years stonemason, born 1st of January 1870, died 11th of July 1958’. On his death his widow Mrs Anna Slythe, became head of the firm, and continued until her death in 1978, and the title then passed to her daughter, Mrs Nancy Chapman, who is still in charge.

Stonemasonry must be one of the oldest crafts in the history of man. The art of letter cutting continued into this century using hand tools in much the same way as the Romans, and [??] the Assyrians before them. But like many other traditional skills, [???]. Very few men are prepared to take it up, so this has led to a new technology using computers and sandblasting. The computer is used at all stages, from selecting the type of lettering to layout, producing examples for the customer to choose from. Then making a rubber stencil of the whole inscription with the lettering cut out. The stencil is then stuck onto the stone, and subjected to sand blasting, it goes into a special little house, little shed, in the yard, which contains the blasting equipment, and they feed the stone[?] in and it has the blasting, it makes a terrific noise, and the sand bounces[?] off the rubber and cuts out the actual letters. There’s a range of stones for tombstones. Granite is the most popular now, it is also the most durable. Most granite is imported from South Africa, but some comes from quarries in Cornwall and Scotland.  Black granite comes from India, granite is also available in three shades of grey, also red [???] and blue pearl. Marble used to be most favoured, this came in white [???] and [???], both from Sicily. Then there are Portland sandstones, and York sandstones, from Yorkshire and the West Country. Slate is also used, black slate from Wales and Westmoreland green from the Lake District. Granite is so hard that it requires special powerful machinery to cut into shape, so it has to be delivered already cut. But Witham yard is equipped to cut all other kinds of stone to the required shape. It used to be the practice to hammer lead into the letters, as protection from weathering. Nowadays enamel paint in a variety of colours is found more satisfactory. The lead used to wear and get weathered and fall out.

Each denomination, Anglican, Roman Catholic etc had its own regulations, as to permitted designs for tombstones. The more ornate sculptured angels etc beloved of the Victorians are no longer allowed. An application has to be submitted to the appropriate authority for permission to carry out the chosen specification. But there is more latitude in what can be put up in public cemeteries and parish council burial grounds.

Most of the work done at the yard is inscribing and fixing new memorials and cleaning, repairing and sometimes refixing old ones. Originally a great deal of work was found for the building trade, local authorities and private residents. Some of these ledgers contain entries from the last century for work done for the Local Board of Health. There are two such examples for Witham. One in 1864 was for boundary stone, June 1st, W P cut in the same [???] and June 6th [???]. Presumably W P stands for Witham Parish. Another in 1872 records what was to be done and materials to be used for [???] of the conveying of the supply of water from the springs rising in a field at the back of Blunts Hall, Blunts Hall farm, to a well in the yard near the engine house of Witham belonging to the Local Board of Health. I don’t know where that is. A recent job was providing an inscribed base of York stone for the statue of Dorothy Sayers. The most recent task undertaken for the town was the reconditioning of the War memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, opposite the Grove in Newland Street.

The cross which surmounts the panel, the bronze plaque depicting a kneeling soldier, with St George as the background, was set up using York stone to commemorate the men who fell in the 1914-18 War, and their names are inscribed on the curved wall sections on either side of the cross, I expect most of you have seen it, you’ll remember the very tall cross in the middle and the plaque, and then it’s like a wall with two curves. And on the inner curves are the names of those who fell in World War One. And then the other curved sections on the outside are those for the 1939-1945 War. The old inscriptions had to be removed and the surface smoothed using a sander. The new letters had to be sandblasted onto the clean surfaces using a specially made portable sandblasting cabinet. Black lacquer was used as a protectant instead of lead, and you could have the lacquer in any colour. I think it’s red used for the Dorothy Sayers inscription. It was after much persuasion by the Witham branch of the Royal British Legion that Braintree District Council put the work in hand. I think they were sort of agitating for it for about two years before it got done, but it looks very nice now. And the Women’s branch are responsible for the flowers placed on the steps in front of the memorial. Apparently the trees were overshadowing. They said you could hardly see the cross for the trees, and one of the Legions, men in the Legion said ‘We used to go there, you know, to pay respect to, you know, the people who had fallen, and you could hardly see the inscription in those days, so that is an improvement.

There are many entries for works done for private residents, such as supplying and fixing marble fenders, chimney pieces, doorsteps, water pipes, stone sinks etc. An interesting example is the following work done for Dr Gimson, in 1873. ‘Taking up old stones in stable, relaying with new bricks with cement, altering drains and time, cement, sand, bricks, junction pipe, [???] two large iron traps, iron grate, a thousand bricks, six pounds eight shillings and fivepence. [laughter] Seems a very low price for all that work. This Dr Gimson may have been the father uncle of the famous doctors Ted and Karl Gimson, because I expect some of you remember they practised in Witham in the early part of the century, and some of my contemporaries still remember Dr Ted with great affection. He came and saw me when I had mumps.

Loading, unloading and fixing tombstones is a job requiring great skill and precision. It is done by Henry Wattam{?] and Victor King, and sometimes the manager Eric Brown joins the team. First the precast concrete foundation or plinth, measuring about thirty-six inches by fifteen inches, is sunk below the surface of the grave. Then a base is made of the same stone as the headstone, cemented onto the plinth. In this base are two holes, into which galvanised iron dowels, fixed in the bottoms of the headstones, have to be lowered. The headstone is made secure by cementing to the base, so that’s why they don’t fall over.

The growing use of cremation means that churchyard burials have declined over recent years, and the three branches gradually closed, but the Witham yard continues to thrive, run by a staff of three men, the manager Eric Brown and his assistants, Henry Wootton and Victor King. And there is also a young lady book-keeper Mrs Anne Lee. All presided over by Mrs Nancy Chapman, who keeps in close touch with all the work of the firm. At one time there was a representative, Mr Geoff Brown, who started with the firm as a boy under Mr J D Slythe, that’s the one in the photograph, and for many years he used to visit customers in their homes to help them to choose suitable memorials for their loved ones. He was very well known.

They don’t have anyone travelling now, but it’s a very personal business calling for a tactful and sympathetic approach, and customers still receive this when calling in the yard. This is testified by a large sheaf of letters of appreciation from grateful customers. Those photographs  [probably of the War memorial] are of the old inscriptions, they had to take photographs to manage for the, plan for the new inscriptions. They’re not alphabetical, I’m surprised that, I imagined that they put them in order in which they died, so lots of well-known Witham names there of course. [Audience member] ‘There’s one civilian. Just one’. Do you know I hadn’t noticed that. Is there ‘Just one’. Another member of the audience, Sid Gurton ‘Do you know who it was?’ ‘I’ve forgotten’. ‘Well, it was a man who was killed when an unexploded bomb went off on a Sunday morning up in Cressing Road, where the school is now. It was Council workman by the name of Burmby’. Was that World War One? ‘No, World War Two’. Oh, I remember Mrs Burmby. Well that is all I have to say. You might like to look at the ledgers and so on, fascinating.

[Various comments from audience, not noted]

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