The Working Life of a Stone Mason
Colin Smith proudly calls himself a
Yarmouth Bloater and has lived his
entire, different sort of life in and
around that town. Without any notes
he chatted his way through his
experiences, entertaining our large March audience.
Showing skills in woodwork at school, his father hoped that his son would follow him into the garage trade, but Colin had other ideas. If you can carve wood, why not stone? Off to “youth employment”, and next thing he knew he had a job with an undertaker, earning £2 3s 2d a week, and giving nearly half to his mum.
We heard how he started off cleaning gravestones in churchyards – no chemicals, but a careful skimming of the surface. He then learned to carve letters on an old slab, all done by eye and hand, using tools he still has today, 55 years later. Whilst he progressed towards the real thing he found himself carrying coffins, carting great chunks of marble and granite kerbing on his shoulder and digging graves. He had a shock when, jumping down into a nearly finished grave he dropped a further fifteen inches into the coffin of a previous occupant. That may have been the day when he found himself, aged sixteen, being treated to a succession of rums and blackcurrant by his boss in the nearby pub.
He moved on in due course to another firm where he learned ornamental carving, producing, among other things, a triumph spitfire, a London taxi and a dove which he had brought with him. Among the oddities that he has carved onto gravestones was the Pink Panther, sitting in an armchair whilst reading the News of the World.
Aged nearly thirty Colin branched out on his own. He did less funeral-related work, although he has, in total, produced 15,000 memorials, including that of his own parents. It has sometimes been a rather sad occupation.
Perhaps the work of which he is most proud is that done for the Borough Council. Major items include the Freedom of the Borough plaque, the carved list of Great Yarmouth Mayors and that of High Stewards of the Borough. Stone carved plaques about the town are almost certain to be his work, including the site of the Market Cross, various places along the sea front, and that in memory of wartime casualties in King’s Road. The unveiling of some of these has led to Colin’s meeting with some notable people, including John Major and Her Majesty the Queen.
Nearing the end of his career he has one major concern. In spite of technology much reducing the time and effort required, the younger generation seems loathe to take up the stone mason’s tools. Colin had wondered why he was asked to speak at a History meeting. Easy. The work he does leaves a record of people, places and events that form part of the history of this place. Carved in stone – what better?