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.]
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.
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.
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.
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 …