Caen Stone: Part Three – 20th and 21st centuries

Once they became mined out, the underground quarries of Caen stone generally presented no problems.  They were excellent for producing mushrooms on a commercial basis.  However, with pressure to build for an expanding population in the mid-20th century, many of the voids had to be filled in before building could take place.  Several quarries, however, played an important and very positive role in the 1940s.  During the bombardment of Caen by the Allies in 1944 these quarries provided safe refuge.


Refugees (including dogs) from Allied bombing on Caen in June 1944. Image courtesy of “Le Parisien” newspaper.

Although nearly 2000 inhabitants of the city died within two months of the D-Day landings on 6 June, many hundreds more owed their lives to the redundant quarries where their forefathers may have worked for many generations before them.

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Caen Stone: Part Two – 19th century

In the 11th century, the honey-coloured French limestone used in Sussex may well have come from quarries beneath the centre of the town of Caen itself. William of Normandy had his own quarry at the foot of his castle in the town.  Other quarries opened and closed over the centuries. 

Today there are over 250 hectares (600 acres) of mined galleries beneath the streets of Caen and its suburbs. In a somewhat unpatriotic statement, an inhabitant of the town has compared the area to a certain Swiss cheese: Le sous-sol de Caen est devenu un véritable gruyère constellé d’anciennes carrières. [Underground Caen has become a veritable gruyere cheese, with its constellation of ancient quarries.]

Rouen Norwich Club

A quarry somewhere in Normandy in 2017. Image courtesy of the Rouen Norwich Club.

Being a “monumental” stone, the variety from Caen was rarely used during the 18th century or early 19th century in Brighton. Neither the Royal Pavilion (completed 1823) nor St Peter’s Church (1827) originally contained any Caen stone.  When the construction of these two building was first planned, the Napoleonic wars had barely ended and it was probably thought more patriotic to use render on brick (Pavilion) or Portland Stone (St Peter’s).

A few years later, however, Caen stone became very fashionable in Brighton. There seem to have been two reasons for this: first, the development of the ports of Shoreham and Newhaven and the railway lines from these two ports to Brighton (opened in 1840 and 1847 respectively); second, the fact that import duty on the stone had been lowered in 1845. 

Brighton is fortunate in its close sea links with Normandy.  It was relatively easy to import the stone by ship.  This was not always without mishap.

In the afternoon of Sunday 5 October 1852 the 150-ton schooner Honoria left Caen “laden with a cargo of stone”.  The next day‚ Brighton “was visited with a tempest of unparalleled violence.  During the whole of the day the rain descended in torrents”.  And that was just on land.  At sea, the Honoria was battling the elements “her sails all torn and hanging in tatters from her mast.” By 8pm she had lost her battle, having been out of control and driven onto the rocks at Blackrock just east of Kemp Town. 

The vessel suffered catastrophic damage. The crew lost everything except their lives.  Fortunately all five of them were saved.  But what of the cargo? “Her cargo being stone, will, in all probability, roll out when the ship goes to pieces, and the greater part of it recovered when the tide goes down again.”

Just one month later, the Brighton Gazette carried this advertisement:


The mid-to-late 1800s were a boom time for the use of Caen stone in Brighton, coinciding with a spate of church building to cater for the still rapidly expanding population.  The following examples are the tip of the iceberg:

1846:     Cornices and parapets of the London Road Viaduct topped out in Caen stone.


Image courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

1847:     St Paul’s West Street Brighton: “In the south aisle of the church is an octagonal font of Caen stone, with a beautifully carved panel on the eastern side representing the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. The exterior of the church is built of flint and dressed with Caen stone.” 11 November 1847 Brighton Gazette

1850:     In St Peter’s Church, Brighton, there is a memorial to Emily Jane Crozier: “over the north-east aisle … a gothic Caen-stone monument has been placed; and in the niche is a white marble female figure … weeping over an urn.” 13 June 1850 Brighton Gazette

1851:     Royal Pavilion:  On 14 September 1850, the Pavilion Committee of ten local male worthies made a major decision.  The committee would accept the designs of sculptor John Thomas for “Chimney Pieces in Caen Stone for the two Galleries in the eastern front & the breakfast room.”  Mr Thomas’s estimate for the work at £120 was also accepted. At the same meeting it was “Resolved That Messrs Cheeseman do supply Caen stone Chimney pieces … to the Long Gallery.” In all, the committee was to authorise six new chimney pieces in Caen stone.

Banqueting room Chimney Piece 1987

© Royal Pavilion and Museums Review, 1978 Number 2

I am indebted to David Beevers (Keeper of the Royal Pavilion) and Alexandra Loske (Curator (Royal Pavilion Estate and Archives) for information about the fate of these replacement Chimney Pieces:

“The two in the Banqueting Room are still in place and there are two in the Red Drawing Room. The North Drawing Room was renamed about 20 years ago and is now called the Music Room Gallery. It has two Caen stone chimneypieces.

The Music Room chimneypiece was replaced in 1987-8 with a fibrous plaster replica of the original The South Drawing Room is now called the Banqueting Room Gallery. This room no longer has its Caen stone chimneypieces. They were removed in the 1980s and replaced by replicas of the originals.”

The sad news is, according to Mr Beevers and Dr Loske, that not only are the 1850s Chimney pieces “now at Buckingham Palace” but that also “one is in pieces in the basement, and in about 2005 the other was placed in an upstairs room called the Prince Regent Gallery.”

1852:     All Saints Church, Compton Road, Brighton: “The walls are externally of cracked flint, with dressings of Caen stone; internally of the same stone dressings, with plaster.” 12 August 1852 Brighton Gazette.

[By 1904, the building was in need of much repair: “Messrs Jacob Elliott and Sons, Patent Stone Manufacturers, Hastings, have just restored in their Patent Stone Composition the Decayed Natural Stonework (Caen Stone) to the west side of All Saints’ Church, Brighton … Some of the stonework was so badly decayed as to be thought to be beyond repair being decayed to a depth of five inches.” This report in Hastings and St Leonards Observer confirms the general observation that only the very best and hardest Caen stone is suitable for outside masonery.  All Saints’ Church was built to serve the railway workers from the nearby Brighton station and loco works.  Had it been built on the cheap? The church was demolished in 1957.]

1861:     St Mary Magdalen Church, Brighton: “Internally the walls are stuccoed, and Caen stone is adopted for the pillars, arches, windows ,&c.” 24 July 1861  Brighton Guardian.

1871:     St Anne’s Church, Kemp Town: “A reredos carved out of a block of Caen stone 8ft. long and 4ft. high, weighing nearly 20cwt. And bearing a representation of the Last supper.” 30 May 1872 Brighton Gazette. The church was demolished in 1986.  The reredos could not be saved.

1878:     St Mary the Virgin Church, Kemp Town, Brighton “the Caen stone pulpit at the north-east corner of the nave with panels [depicts] Biblical subjects including: Satan and the Tree of Knowledge and Christ with the Woman at the Well; carvings by Bennett and Nicholls costing 202 pounds.” Historic England listing.

St mary's pulpit with flash sized

Pulpit, St Mary’s Church, Kemp Town Photo: S. Hinton

Caen stone can be found across the city in many other forms such as the Memorial tablet to 1st Duke of Bristol in St Mark’s Church, Kemp Town (1860) and the columns flanking the proscenium arch of the newly reconstructed (1866) Theatre Royal in New Road.

So popular did Caen stone become, especially in England but also in the United States, that by the late 19th century, nearly all the quarries were exhausted.  Was Brighton ever to use Caen stone again?

To be continued …

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Caen Stone: Part One – Mediaeval

You have taken off in a small private plane from Brighton City Airport at Shoreham-by-Sea.  The plane heads directly due south.  About 40 minutes and 177 km later you pass over the coast of France at Ouistreham.  Your pilot follows the course of the river Orne.  Below you, you spot a white gash amid the pattern of green fields. 

L'Ourc Google image

The port of Ouistreham, the Orne river and its canal. In the bottom left-hand corner, the modern outskirts of Caen. (c) Google

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Hove Francophiles

Great to see Œuf café open once more. English afternoon tea (egg sandwiches, anyone?) and a beautifully secluded garden in Third Avenue.

Let’s hope that the name of this house [My Dream] in Marmion Road lives up to its occupants’ expectations.

Do the owners of La Mouette [The Seagull] in Windlesham Avenue support Brighton and Hove Albion, or do they just love the bird?

Brighton-Biarritz 1938 and 1946

This badge is tangible proof of the fact that there was once a close link between Brighton and Biarritz going back nearly a century.


Delegates badge 1938 – Courtesy of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Biarritz had hosted a delegation of Brighton worthies in 1932 with a view to forming tourism and cultural ties between the two towns.

It was now Brighton’s duty to return the French hospitality.  Not an easy or cheap task for Brighton to emulate the generous hospitality of the French town.  At first, a visit to Brighton was projected for 1933 but did not take place.

There was talk of a reciprocal visit at Whitsun 1936, but the death of King George V in January and then the abdication of Edward VIII at the end of the year put all the arrangements on hold until 1938 when at last Brighton could show off her many and varied attractions.

The late May sun of 1938 shone down on the Biarritz delegation as it made the long journey by train from Biarritz to Paris, from Paris to Dover, from Dover to London and finally from London to Brighton.  First there was a reception in the Royal Pavilion at which all the delegates were handed Des insignes, veritable bijoux sur émail, aux armes de Brighton sur fond aux trois couleurs françaises, avec ces mots “Brighton-Biarritz Entente” [Jewel-like badges in enamel, showing the Brighon crest on a background of the three French colours and bearing the inscription “Brighton-Biarritz Entente.] (See image above.)  The badge was valuable, not only as a souvenir, but it allowed the delegates free travel within Brighton and free entry to all the municipal-run tourist attractions of the town.

BTNRP_BHSHVol 77 Biarritz facilites for visitors 1838

Courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and The Keep, Brighton

The reception was followed by a banquet for 200 people in the exotic surroundings of the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion.  More entertainment followed:  a trip to see the Derby at Epsom, a visit to Arundel Castle as the guests of the Duke of Norfolk, a “business” meeting between the aldermen of the two towns.  The golfers in the French party even manage to retain the Coupe de l’Entente Brighton-Biarritz at the Hollingbury Golf Course.  But an event which perhaps most touched the French delegation came at the end of a music-hall performance of “Crest of the Wave” at the Hippodrome … the whole audience of 2,000 people rose to sing La Marseillaise (followed bien sûr by God Save the King).

Yes, there were mutters in the local Brighton press about the cost of such a visit, but oh! the free publicity for the town.  It far outstripped the expense.

Brighton Councillor J. C. Sherrott was outraged on behalf of Brighton ratepayers:

Of all the foolish, crazy, mad and wasteful bits of expenditure this Council has ever entered into, commend me to the Biarritz delegation. Just fancy! That small, almost forgotten seaside town on the Continent, coming over here and having good English money spent on them to take them to the Derby, and members of our own Labour party, who are supposed to be proponents of democracy going to enjoy the Sport of Kings at the expense of the ratepayers of Brighton.  It fills one with nausea. West Sussex Gazette 16 June 1938

Described as “one of the town’s financial brains”, Cllr J. C. Sherrott even went so far as to demand a Ministerial enquiry.  This demand was rejected by a special meeting of the Town Council. We must assume that for Brighton, as for Biarritz, the free publicity was worth the outlay.

And then there was World War II.  Biarritz was occupied from June 1940 and the town heavily fortified as part of the Nazi Atlantic Wall.  It was not completely liberated until August 1944. Tragically, this liberation was achieved at the cost of Allied bombardment of the town with the loss of at least 90 lives and much destruction of property.  On 1st September 1944, the Mayor of Brighton was one of the first to send to Biarritz “a message of congratulation and hope for a glorious future.”

After the war, there were hopes of reviving the Entente Brighton-Biarritz and in April 1946 the Mayor of Biarritz again extended an invitation to a large party from Brighton. Despite the damaged appearance of the town, the Biarots (townsfolk of Biarritz) were keen to have English guests at the inauguration of a memorial to Edward VII and one to his mother, Queen Victoria – the former a replacement for the monument destroyed during the war.  Brighton Town Council decided that there was not enough money in the coffers for a large contingent to go to France, but that the Mayor, the Mayoress and the Town Clerk should act as their representatives at the inauguration.

Eight years after his last outburst and true to form, now ‘former Councillor’ J. C. Sherrott was up in arms again and quoted as saying: “Surely at the present time, austerity in all directions is being preached and forced upon us by the Government; when Sir Stafford Cripps is telling us that it is impossible for women to have fully-fashioned stockings or even necessary household linen; when women have to stand for hours in shop queues on the chance of getting the bare necessities of life, it is not desirable, even for the Mayor and Town Clerk to go abroad.”

Clearly, in ex-Councillor Sherrott’s mind, the saving of three rail fares to Biarritz would solve the problem of affordable fully-fashioned stockings. True, rationing was draconian in Britain in the late 1940s, as it was in France to a slightly lesser extent.  But both towns saw this event as a move towards a brighter future.  The visit was a success. Being an agricultural country (and benefitting from the European Recovery Programme – more commonly known as the Marshall Plan) the French were able to supply the delegates from Brighton with simple but elegant banquets… even though Brighton paid for at least one of those banquets. Lunch on the day of the inauguration was:

Hors-d’Œuvre à la Française

Saumon de l’Adour Froid Sauce Verte

Poulet Reine Poëlé Ramuncho

Cœurs de Laitues

Fromage du Pays

Gâteau Basque


Lunch on the last day, 30 April, was equally refined, with wines supplied, free of charge, by the best vignerons (wine producers) of the area.  The Town Clerk, Joseph G Drew, was so impressed that he kept two of the menus during the stay, including one signed by many of the attendees. These documents are held in The Keep in Brighton.

During the six-day stay, Mayor Cllr Walter Clout and Mayoress Mrs Lillian Clout were ably supported by Joseph Drew who kept careful notes of when speeches needed to be made, what alterations had been made to the programme and indeed who they were to meet, including the British Ambassador who had come for the unveiling of the monuments.

Other activities on the programme included films (in French), a toro del fuego [“illumination of the cliffs”] followed by a ball, there was a boxing match and a game of pelota as well as a visit to Pau via the village of Ascain where the party had lunch.

Hôtel Etchola breakfast room

(c) Suzanne Hinton

The Union Jack flags on the tables do not show up well on this post card. The French and British parties probably did no more than drop into the Hôtel Etchola for le goûter [afternoon tea].

Joseph Drew O.B.E. was a careful man.  He was mindful of the criticisms that ex-councillor Sherrott might raise.  He kept a meticulous, hand-written account of all the expenses incurred by the Mayoral party, noting down the payments for everything in both pounds and francs (at what seems to have been the going rate of 480F to the pound).  As well as the items shown in the short extract below, these expenses included breakfast on the train (15 shillings) and ‘sending cables to Brighton’ (£1.3.0).  Luncheon for the Mayor of Biarritz and other local dignitaries set the party back a hefty £90.0.0 (44,000F) although laundry was a mere £1.0.0.  Most importantly, there were ‘tips to chauffeurs £1.0.0 per day’ as well as a tip to the conductor of the Paris-Biarritz train (£1.0.0).

Town Clerk's accounts

Courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and The Keep, Brighton

On returning to Brighton, Mr Drew presented a long report to the Council, stressing the advantages to Brighton of a close relationship with Biarritz, both for tourism as well as cultural and educational exchanges.

And that seems to have been that. 

Brighton is not, and never has been, officially twinned with any overseas town – despite a petition in 2019 in favour of twinning with Nouakchott in Mauritania.  Hove has been twinned with Draveil, near Paris, since 1990 but the link is no longer run under the auspices of the Brighton and Hove City Council.

All the hard work and friendship that had been build up over many a long year seem to have vanished in post-war austerity and not returned, not even during the halcyon years of Britain’s membership of the European Union.