Stonemason Lawrence Tindall gets to work on a gravestone using a tool called a Peck — which hasn’t been used for this sort of work in the last 60 or so years. He says that trying to recreate the techniques used by the (mainly convict) original builders of Dockyard has given him a new respect for them. Photo by Andrew Raine
Stonemason Lawrence Tindall gets to work on a gravestone using a tool called a Peck — which hasn’t been used for this sort of work in the last 60 or so years. He says that trying to recreate the techniques used by the (mainly convict) original builders of Dockyard has given him a new respect for them. Photo by Andrew Raine
A gaze across the ramparts of the Royal Naval Dockyard from the Commissioner's House is enough to make most people appreciate that this is a place with history.

But when stonemason Lawrence Tindall takes in the view he appreciates something else too - the hellish hard work needed to build it.

For the last couple of weeks Mr. Tindall - a volunteer worker from the stone city of Bath, England - has been trying to recreate and demonstrate the masonry techniques used during the construction of the west end fort, which was built in most part by convicts during the 1800s.

He was drafted in by the Maritime Museum's Executive Director Dr. Edward Harris, to build a monument stone for the graveyard in the traditional style. "We said: 'Instead of sending the stone away we could do the project here and thereby demonstrate how Dockyard was built,'" explained Dr. Harris.

"This is the first time since 1860 that this type of masonry work has been done here."

The gravestone, which at roughly five feet by 3 feet is like a drop in the nearby ocean compared to the expanse of stone work covering Ireland Island, is to commemorate a dozen members of the Darrell family - whose modern day descendants are the Butterfields (Richard and Susan of Pembroke are the project sponsors).

But working on that five feet slab is enough to fill the modern day stonemason Mr. Tindall with admiration for those unfortunates who last had to carve the hard Bermuda limestone that makes up the ramparts. There is a world of difference in working on hard Bermuda limestone - also known as Walsingham limestone - compared to normal, everyday Bermuda limestone, as Mr. Tindall's found out. The last time he was in Bermuda was when he sculpted the Neptune statue in the Keep out of soft limestone in the 1990s. Now he's back he's finding that this harder variety of limestone is far older in origin, splits unpredictably and takes a mason of ox-like strength to make any impression on it at all.

"I'm getting more and more admiration for what those people were doing," he said.

"I've been doing this one stone for two weeks - and I've got an electric saw. I'm not even strong enough to do it the way they did it - if I did it that way this one stone would probably take me two months."

Electric saw aside, everything else involved in Mr. Tindall's task is exactly how it would have been done in the 1800s.

It seems natural to think of Ireland Island as fairly flat, with ramparts built on top - but as Elena Strong, the Museum's curator, points out, the truth is that the land was originally very hilly. Rather than the ramparts being built on top of the land with slabs of stone, multiple explosions were used to create large craters in the limestone hills. The limestone left surrounding the craters after the explosions would then be chiseled into a smooth wall; Dockyard's Keep, for example, is essentially one big hole in the ground. The process is, in one sense, as much destructive as it is creative.

The process is the same for Mr. Tindall's gravestone. Firstly a large slab of the Walsingham limestone was blasted out of Wilkinson's quarries (near the Swizzle Inn). Then the slab, which has to be much larger than the gravestone it is set to become, was transported to Dockyard, where the stonemason could begin his arduous task.

To get the slab down to the correct size, the stone has to be drilled and split - holes are laboriously drilled into the stone at regular intervals, then feathers (steel sleeves) are inserted up and down the rock. Of course, this being Walsingham limestone, Mr. Tindall's found it doesn't crack quite the way you want it to - the splitting process had to be carried out three times.

Something else

He's trained in working with limestone but, as mentioned, Walsingham limestone is something else - "You'd imagine the skills would transfer," he says, "but in fact it's so different. It's much older than soft limestone and far harder to work with.

"The closest we have is Portland stone, but this (hard Bermuda limestone) is quite a bit harder than that - Portland will split straight, but this stuff is totally unpredictable."

Its unpredictable nature is a big part of the reason working this type of stone is a lost art, he says. Because it splits unpredictably you need to start off with a much larger amount of rock than you plan to end up with - Dockyard couldn't be created again as there simply isn't anywhere with that amount of rock to work with in the first place.

For Mr. Tindall's 5ft gravestone, however, there is still ample rock, even if it takes multiple attempts to get the right sized piece. Then it's on to the finishing work. For this the stonemason uses a tool called a Peck - something that hasn't been in general use in the masonry world for 60 odd years. Shaped a bit like a pick axe, Mr. Tindall says that just the thought of having to use one all day is enough to make you tired. The convicts who used giant sized versions of the one he is swinging, he points out, were fed meager rations despite the physicality of their work. He doesn't appear envious of their lot.

The finishing touches are then made with a claw, as the stone is too hard for a chisel - again a laborious task that makes accuracy difficult. The finish he's going for is known as 'rusticated ashlars' - the cobbled effect that can be seen on the Commissioner's House, which is much more complicated to get right than the straight finishes elsewhere in the ramparts.

His work on the gravestone has left Mr. Tindall in admiration of the convicts who built Dockyard, and it's also explained some of its design. The unpredictable nature of Walsingham limestone is one reason why most of the archways in Dockyard are square, he says. It also elevates the insignia of a crown with VR (Victoria Regina) on a building in the Keep from what looks like a fairly straightforward design into a veritable 'tour de force'.

Curator Ms Strong says that the project has also helped the museum understand a little more about its surroundings:

"Just watching Lawrence chip away has given us an appreciation of how much work was involved in the building of Dockyard - it took 9,000 convicts in the space of 60 years to get two-thirds of the work done, often living in the poorest of conditions.

"It's an insight into how this place came about."