A recent message on one of the forums reminded that for, some time, I had been mulling over a piece about Stonemasons. Who and where were they? What were the particular skills of their craft? Was this a trade (or craft) that was handed down from father to son, or could any likely lad become apprenticed?
It is believed that the early stones were carved by local, non-Jewish, stone masons and that the bereaved family would visit the mason, look round his work and select something that most closely matched their needs. Certainly it’s fair to say that there are symbols that are used both on Jewish headstones as well as Christian ones, and similar themes, in particular those representing a young life lost with broken columns, cut flowers, cut branches etc.
I wonder how they managed with the Hebrew inscriptions and whether that would explain some of the anomalies that crop up from time to time? Did the deceased’s family write out the Hebrew for the stone mason to try and copy?
It seems more likely that it would have been the responsibility of a Synagogue functionary since, according to the Laws of the Congregation of the Hambro Synagogue published in 1844, the Rabbi of the Burial Society would check all inscriptions, before they were engraved, to ensure that the wording was correct and proper. In the event that he allowed a stone or tomb to be set that contained an error, he would apparently have been liable to pay for any alterations or corrections; a powerful incentive to get it right!
It would clearly be extremely difficult to trace these early masons but slightly simpler to find out about more recent practitioners
We have on site the details of James Samuel founder of J. Samuel and Son monumental masons who lived at Jews Burial Ground, Stepney according to the 1841 and 1851 census.
In 1873 J. Samuel and Son advertise as Monumental Masons and undertakers at 147 Sidney Street, Mile End. Established over fifty years (so before 1823) and providing headstones, tombs and monuments for all cemeteries, in stone, Aberdeen granite and marble, with the 'imperishable lead letters'. Although I doubt any one came back to complain I think its fair to say that the lead letters were not entirely imperishable.
Other's I have found are:
Barnett LEVY stonemason of Princes Street Coverleys Fields who had Sun insurance in Feb 1815.
In 1858 the partnership of John Lyons undertaker of 1 Alie Street, Goodman's Fields and Philip Levy, sexton and stonemason at Wellington Road Forest Lane was dissolved.
1861 the bankruptcy of Levi Lee 1 Carlton Road, Kentish Town.
1873 Barnett Levy monumental mason of 10 Sion Square advertises alongside J. Samuel and son in the Jewish Chronicle. A year later in 1874 there is E. Harris & Co at 1a Braumont Street, Mile end. E. Harris is advertising immediately below J. Samuel and son and includes in their advert "18 years at Messrs J. Samuel and Son"
In 1875 there is a change, E. Harris is now Harris and Barnett monumental masons. Their advert includes the "18 years with J. Samuel and Son".
1879 and John W Legge, sculptor of Aberdeen, advertises monuments and tomb furnishings, 'best quality from £5'.
By 1883 there are three London stone masons advertising. A. Van Praagh of Leman Street, Whitechapel along with J. Samuel and son, and Harris and Barnett monumental masons. All three saying that they provide designs on application.
1894 Directory has B. S. Polack of Bow E, Lincoln House, Lincoln Street, with his works at Gough Road, Stratford, adjoining the Jewish Cemetery: A. Van Praagh of 14 St Mark Street and works at Baron Sclater Street.: Harris and Son (rather than Harris and Barnett) at 1 Beaumont Street: and J Samuel and son at 147 Sydney Street.
Most of the above firms are clearly Jewish, but were the Masons employed to do the actual carving also Jewish?
This is very much a work in progress and it would be greatly appreciated if any of you out there who have further knowledge of London Stonemasons and their history would make contact.
Sources: London Gazette, Sun Fire Insurance, Jewish Chronicle, Directory of Jewish tradesmen 1894.