Making your mark

The 1774 graffiti
The 1774 graffiti

It was an insignificant example of 18th century graffiti that first got me interested in studying Bath stone in slightly greater detail.

Walk to the blind end of North Parade Buildings – formerly Gallaway’s Buildings – as the incised lettering just above the ground floor windows indicates – and you will come across IG 1774 . 

The initials are carved into one of the long and short rustic quoins that mark the corner of each block and were added just 24 years after the terrace was built.

According to Michael Forsyth in his Pevsner Architectural Guide to Bath, this Georgian terrace was completed in 1750 – in a handsome blind alley set at an angle against the medieval wall – and was probably designed by Thomas Jelly to a plan instigated by an apothecary called William Gallaway who then lived in one of the houses.

Was IG a relation of Mr Gallaway’s – as a mason wouldn’t date his mark years after requiring payment for his work!

BC Great Pulteney StreetSpeaking of masons’ marks takes me to Great Pulteney Street – Thomas Baldwin 1788-93 – and the initials BC which you will see in several places.

They are carved above the doorway into number 88 and at the point where nearby Darlington Street and Vane Street meet.

According to the Wikipedia on-line entry for ‘Masons’ Marks’…. ‘The exact purpose of mason’s marks is unclear, although it is generally assumed that they mark the working of a piece of masonry by a particular mason, in order to claim payment.

Others are assumed to indicate the position in which a stone should be laid. It has also been suggested that marks indicate the origin of the stone, or the location in which it was worked.’

The BCW mark above the tap
The BCW mark above the tap

Local historian and author Kirsten Elliott also came up with some other suggestions including  Bath Corporation or Bathwick Church and – even more interesting – she tells me that just above King Edward’s School on North Road there is a gate and if you go to it you will see an old spout with the initials BCW which most likely stand for Bath Corporation Water which of course predates the Wessex Water Authority that manages and maintains supplies now. 

While we are talking about masons’ marks let’s go onto the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal as it passes through Sydney Gardens  and was constructed around 1799. The whole length was open for navigation from Bath to the Thames at Reading in 1810.

A triangular mason's mark
A triangular mason’s mark

While l was busy investigating 19th century graffiti l soon became aware of a mass of markings. They were mainly triangular in shape but examples of other markings also incised into the blocks of cut Bath stone.

I made contact with Elaine Kirby who is Archive Administrator for the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust and she told me : ‘These are Masons marks, used by the stone masons to mark where their work was and for others the identify the individuals work.’

Elaine referred me to a paper  entitled ‘The Kennet and Avon Canal and its marks’ written by a Major Gorham just after the First World War. He explains that work on the canal’s construction started in 1794 and took sixteen years to complete.

Triangular markings
Triangular markings
 He says: ‘After considerable trouble and much correspondence the author has been unable to ascertain who were the actual masons employed. It was considered that records of the contract for building might have been among old papers of the Canal Company; and such old papers did exist at one time and were kept in the old canal house over the tunnel by Sydney Gardens.’
Seems the papers were lost but Major Gorham was keen to picture the scene.
‘Carrying our imagination back to the years 1794 to 1810 we see the “gangs” of navvies digging out the canal and we can see the Operative Mason at work, preparing the stone for the locks, houses, bridges and aqueducts and erecting them.
The canal buildings afford one of the most striking and perhaps, one of the last examples of those Masonic operations in which the architect had directed that the “banker marks” and other marks should be made on the outside or “face” of the stone, and as such a large percentage of these marks are plainly visible today, it has been considered worthwhile to make a record of them.’
That’s what the Major did and recorded in sequence all the way from Bath to Devizes.
‘Most of the marks are undoubtedly those of the Operative stone masons who cut the stone and such marks are preferable called “banker marks”. There are, however, many other examples of small marks which are assuredly marks of approval of “passing” the work, and the Greek cross is undoubtedly used for this purpose in the canal works, as are also the triangle and square.’
It is interesting to read that its thought Bristol masons were involved in the work but that
‘there is a tradition that Scottish operatives were called in for making the stonework on the canal – especially the large aqueducts.
We know that John Rennie was the architect and that John Thomas was superintendent of the works. The stone itself is local, but endeavours to trace the quarrying of stone for the canal works have been unavailing.’
J Hodges 1862
J Hodges 1862

Meanwhile there is quite a history of graffiti along this stretch of waterway. I have mentioned the inscription of 1807 elsewhere on the Virtual Museum.

It is the year  the Abolition of Slavery Bill went through our Parliament.

J ? BITTON 1840
J ? BITTON 1840
Another date inscribed was J Hodges 1862 – a year during which the American Civil War was raging.
Further along J. ? BITTON 1840 – the year Victoria married Albert, Britain issued the world’s first postage stamp – the Penny Black – and novelist Fanny Burney died and was buried at St Swithins in Bath.
Let me know if you find anything more of interest and enjoy your walk through history along the canal towpath.