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Ancient articles put on display

15 March 2001

Being such an ancient industry, stonemasonry has some quaint old customs associated with it and none more so than the Shrove Tuesday gathering of the Ancient Order of Purbeck Marblers & Stonecutters, as George Willey reports.

On Shrove Tuesday (27 February this year) there was an opportunity to see some ancient documents on Purbeck, Dorset, as the island\'s quarrymen and stone workers held their 450th annual meeting in Corfe Castle Town Hall.

Ancient rituals take place in association with the annual meetings - like the handing over of a pound of pepper to the land owner (it is where the term \'peppercorn rent\' comes from) to secure the quarrymen\'s right of way to the sea for the transportation of stone. And apprentices pay £1/3 each (these days, 34p) and are given a loaf of bread and a quart of beer.

It is an indication of the standing of stonemasons in society and their earning power in days gone by that an apprenticeship in the craft should have cost £1/3 (6s 8p in pre-decimal currency).

Every year on Shrove Tuesday the Ancient Order of Purbeck Marblers & Stonecutters meet in the morning at Corfe Castle to discuss matters involving the stone industry.

Afterwards they enact the old tradition of playing a game of football in the street before kicking the ball to the now derelict Ower Quay, where, in medieval times, stone was loaded on to boats for dispatch to London and other towns.

This year was special because it marked the 450th anniversary of the signing of the articles of the Ancient Order.

The Articles on display for the anniversary were signed on 3 March 1651, but the craft guild goes back a lot further than that. Although the Articles displayed represent the earliest documents still existing, the preamble on them gives testament to earlier documents, saying they were drawn from ancient records.

The man who currently holds the office of Warden of the Order is David Burt of Langton Matravers.

He says: Drawing up a new document at that time may have been significant. It was during the interregnum - the period when England was ruled by the Commonwealth Government of Oliver Cromwell - and the Marblers Company may have been anxious to reaffirm their ancient rules to the authorities of the Commonwealth.

This document and others of a similar vintage have, for more than 25 years, been stored at the Dorset Record Office for safe keeping.

On the Isle of Purbeck (a peninsular of south Dorset although it does have a ferry connecting it to Poole) the famous limestone has been quarried for millennia, as attested to by the many Purbeck floors, walls, roofs, ruins and graves that still remain.

Purbeck Marble, a hard, polishable neomorphic limestone rather than a true metamorphic marble, appears in many of the country\'s most important buildings, both temporal and pastoral.

Medieval stone bridges were built at Wareham to enable the stone to be transported inland by road while a fleet of sailing barges took the stone all over the British Isles and on to the Continent.

Although it is not known for certain when the Ancient Order of Purbeck Marblers & Stonecutters was originally established, an early 19th century writer records seeing the original articles of agreement of the Company or Marblers dated March 3, 1551 and signed by a large number of quarrymen, those who could not write making strange hieroglyphics as their mark . . .

The surviving books keeping the minutes of the meetings of the Marblers and Stonecutters date back well over 100 years and for several years from 1837 the records were kept by Warden Robert Burt, an ancestor of the present Warden.

These books contain lists of those admitted to the Ancient Order. The rules of the Order ensured that control of the quarries was kept exclusively in the hands of the \'Freemen of the Isle of Purbeck\'.

Members had to be the legitimate sons or grandsons of Freemen and \'of the age of one and twenty\'. Before joining the Order they worked in the trade and gave their wages to their parents.

At the annual meetings of the Marbles & Stonecutters discussion centres on the trade and any developments in it. These days that includes planning applications and the county council\'s minerals plan. The Ancient Order issues apprenticeship certificates and in some cases settles disputes between quarry owners. The annual meeting is also the time for electing officers.

Then, sometimes to the amazement of passers-by who know nothing of the local traditions, they engage in friendly scuffles as new apprentices have to carry a pint of beer from the pub opposite (the Fox Inn) to the Town Hall while the older men jostle them and try to spill the beer. The street football match and the move to Ower Quay to pay the Pound of Pepper are followed by more informal proceedings in the Fox Inn."

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