Kent Archaeological Review extract

Reigate stone in Kent.
by Paul W Sowan.

With quarries of tough Kentish ragstone at Boughton Monchelsea, East Farleigh, and elsewhere in the Medway valley, Kent had little need in the past to import bulk supplies of building stone; rather, it was at times a net exporter, at least from the building of the walls of Roman London onwards. But for fine carved work and mouldings, a more tractable freestone was required, which had to be sought beyond the county's boundaries. Caen stone from the Calvados department of France answered this purpose well, and could be brought conveniently by water to many parts of the coast, the Thames estuary, and the navigable rivers. Rather more surprisingly, a stone from the Upper Greensand formation in east Surrey, well away from any navigable water, was also used in some quantity. This has usually been called Reigate or Merstham stone, or firestone See Footnote [1]. I am attempting to establish the distribution, in space and time, of the use of this stone throughout south-east England, and would welcome any information on its occurrence in Kent, especially in datable fabric in extant buildings, or strata in archaeological excavations.

Although most often called Reigate stone, firestone is known to have been mined or quarried at various times from no less than nine parishes stretching along the outcrop of the Upper Greensand at the foot of the North Downs escarpment in east Surrey. These mining parishes were, from west to east, Brockham (by Box Hill), Betchworth, Buckland, Reigate, Gatton, Merstham, Chaldon, Blechingley, and God-stone. The most ancient mines are thought to be those in Chaldon, Merstham, and possibly Reigate. Later, mines appear to have been developed in Gatton, Blechingley and Godstone, followed by the remaining parishes. Occasionally, surviving Medieval building accounts See Footnote [2] and See Footnote [3] specify the parish of origin of the stone unambiguously; this is almost invariably Chaldon or Merstham; but most frequently, one suspects, the stone is named Reigate stone simply from this being the nearest place of any importance. It is safest, therefore, to use the term 'Surrey firestone' for this material when it is reported from buildings or excavations, as there is no way in which its exact parish of origin can be traced.

The earliest use of Surrey firestone I have encountered is in Saxon work at Stoke D'Abernon church, Surrey, which is held by Jope See Footnote [4] to imply 'quarrying nearby on a moderate scale in the late 7th or early 8th century.' The stone was still being mined and used for building locally in Surrey right up to the start of the present century, over a thousand years later. Some pre-conquest work in firestone is also recorded in the Confessor's church at Westminster.

It was in the Middle Ages, however, that firestone was exported from Surrey in significant quantities, and found its way into many of the most important buildings of that period up and down the Thames, and in London, Essex, and Kent. Indeed, the stone appears to have found its way much further northwards and eastwards from Reigate than south or west. Surrey's Wealden roads were generally inadequate for heavy traffic, with the possible exception of that from East Grinstead through Godstone to London, known to have been of some importance to the Wealden iron industry. And Wealden and western Surrey had rough building stones of their own -- Horsham and Bargate stones -- and made do with clunch or hard chalk when freestone for carved work was required, or Farnham malmstone.

In the Thames valley and in southern Essex there was little or no stone to speak of; but a considerable demand for such as could be got. Once the difficult 15 kilometres overland journey from the mines, over the North Downs, to the Thames at Kingston or Battersea was accomplished, forward transport by water was relatively easy and inexpensive. Thus we find stone from Chaldon, Merstham or Reigate being used at Windsor Castle (1350), Eton College (1441-60), Westminster (pre-Conquest, and 1250-1509), Baynards Castle (1362-66), the Tower (1241, 1400, 1532 and 1540), and Hertford Castle (1463). In Middlesex and Essex the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments reports dozens of parish churches with 'Reigate stone' dressings and occasionally rather larger quantities, as in the 15th century tower at Barking church; at Waltham Abbey (Norman), and at Hadleigh Castle (1374-77) near Southend.

Isolated documentary See Footnote [2] and See Footnote [3] and architectural See Footnote [5] studies have so far suggested that in Kent, use was made of Surrey firestone from the 12th to 15th or 16th centuries, but that it was most often resorted to in the 13th and 14th centuries. Further evidence for the dates of use, or re-use second-hand, of Surrey firestone in Kent would be most welcome.

It is not surprising to find firestone recorded along the Thames estuary, in both Kent and Essex, the north Kent coast, and indeed in the hinterland of the navigable lower Medway. In the former group of occurrences may be mentioned Eltham palace; Plumstead, East Wickham, Bexley, Crayford, Darenth, and Stone churches; Gravesend Manor; Cliffe-at-Hoo church; Queenborough Castle; and Newington, Milton, Sittingbourne and Teynham churches. In the Medway hinterland there are Gillingham, Strood, and Burham churches; Rochester Cathedral; and Rochester and Leeds Castles. Some trade in second-hand stone with Essex, to and fro across the Thames estuary, is suspected. Rather more surprising are occurrences in inland and upland Kent and on Romney Marsh: Ashford Church; Canterbury Cathedral; Cowden, Edenbridge, High Halden, Hope-All-Saints, Kingsdown, Lydd and Stockbury churches have all been reported to contain firestone.

How closely this corresponds to the actual distribution of the stone in Kent, and how much it merely reflects the survival of documents and the travels and interests of F C Elliston-Erwood, Canon G M Livett and others is not clear. No doubt further occurrences remain to be recorded, especially perhaps from the extreme north-west of the historical county, in view of the widespread use in Middlesex and Essex recorded by the Royal Commission.

The stone is, fortunately, readily identifiable, whether in extant fabrics or in archaeological excavations. It is a calcareous, fine-grained sandstone, and thus will effervesce vigorously on being tested with a drop of acid, but contains fine gritty sandy material which would be left as an insoluble residue even in strong hydro-chloric acid. When freshly mined underground, firestone is soft and a truly startling olive-green colour. But on weathering it turns grey or chalky white, whilst on burial it may of course be stained, according to the nature of the soil. Freshly-mined and much-weathered samples are soft and friable. But when found in interior work, or buried, the stone may be relatively hard and compact. It is almost a true 'freestone', having hardly any pronounced grain to it -- hence its suitability for carved work. However, it was always recommended that it should be placed in a wall the same up that it was found in the ground, to reduce the risk of scaling. Very dark green specks of glauconite may be detectable, and minute shiny, silvery flakes of muscovite mica almost always are.

If any readers encounter any stone of this description, and especially if it is more or less datable, I should be glad to have details from them.


Footnote 1.

P W Sowan. Firestone and Hearthstone Mines in the Upper Greensand of East Surrey. Proc. Geologists' Association 86(4), 571-591. 1976. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

H M Colvin, Edr. History of the King's Works. II. The Middle Ages, 2, pp. 697, 794, 807, and 947-48. 1963. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

L F Salzman. Building in England down to 1540. A Documentary History. 2nd Edition. 1967. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 4.

E M Jope. The Saxon Building Stone Industry in Southern and Midland England. Medieval Archaeology 8, 91-118. 1965. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 5.

Various authors, in Archaeological Cantiana 2, 111-132; 14, 281-289; 20, 137-154; 21,17-72; 95-98; & 103-108; 23, 150-160; 25, 244-250; 26, 51-78; 295-315; 28, lxxviii -lxxxviii; 35, 109-116; 145-159; 37, 177-208; 41, 71-88; 207-216; 42, 61-92; 45, 37-47; 65, 140-143; 72, 202-204; 77, 215-219; 84, 139-160. Return to the paragraph.

Please address information or references to:

P W Sowan, Esq., Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society, 96a, Brighton Road, SOUTH CROYDON, Surrey CR2 6AD.

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