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Northamptonshire Historical Documents

Helmdon Stone

an article by Edward Parry

Two sites at opposite ends of the village provide important - but very different - pieces of information about Helmdon stone. Walk up Jenner's hill and turn left along the 'Jitty'; the footpath takes you into Lukes Backside, a field which stretches to the Weston road. The field is very uneven, pitted by a series of depressions which are up to a metre in depth and much wider. You are walking across the site of Helmdon's stone quarries. The area quarried extended westwards to where the sawmill now stands, into Marrowell hill and across the Sulgrave road.

Location of Helmdon's Quarries
Location of Helmdon's Quarries
Reprinted by kind permission of David hall, Editor of
Northamptonshire Past and Present

The second site is in the north aisle of the church. Here, at the top of an otherwise plain glass window, is a remarkable survival; the medieval stained glass shows a figure using a stonemason's pick on a piece of rough stone. Even more unusual a name - William Campiun - appears above the figure. This glass has been dated to the early fourteenth century and it is contemporary with the window. Here is a Helmdon mason commemorated in a medieval window-which he may well have made and paid for. There is no proof that William Campiun quarried stone from Lukes Backside but it is very likely.

The Campiun window
The Campiun window

Of course the evidence for the quarries is all around the village in the older houses which are built of the long-lasting limestone which they produced. Good examples are Stone Gables, Long Acre and Lukes farm. Some houses in Cross Lane - which can be connected with masons in the eighteenth century - have finely carved details around windows and doorways. A local tradition suggests that some of these features came from Astwell castle when much of it was demolished; if this was so then the stone was coming back to the village where it was quarried.

Window of Dunelm in Cross Lane (Formerly Wigson's Farm)
Window of Dunelm in Cross Lane
(Formerly Wigson's Farm)

Many villages in England relied on their local quarries for their building stone until the middle of the nineteenth century. What made Helmdon special was the quality of its stone. For this reason it was in demand for some very important buildings in the first half of the eighteenth century. Many of the great houses of the midlands were either renovated or newly built at that time and the archives of Stowe, Blenheim and Woburn reveal the names of Helmdon masons working for their aristocratic owners. Stockleys, Baylisses and Blencowes were paid considerable sums for quarrying, carrying and working Helmdon stone for these important architectural projects.

There are unfortunately no documents to connect Helmdon stone with one of the most beautiful large houses in Northamptonshire. However, according to John Morton - the county historian writing in 1712 - Easton Neston was 'built of fair white durable stone from Helmdon'. In his opinion this stone 'is indeed the finest building Stone I have seen in England'. Nearer to the village two other well-known houses - Canons Ashby and Shalstone House - drew on the expertise of the masons, but it is not clear if they worked there with Helmdon stone.

The list of buildings for which the stone was used is growing as a result of the research being done by Diana Sutherland of the Department of Geology at Loughborough University. Among the places she has identified Helmdon stone are the Eleanor Cross and Delapre Abbey in Northampton; other strong contenders which she intends to examine more closely are Cosgrove Hall and the Town Hall in Brackley.

The heyday for the Helmdon quarries was the eighteenth century. Stone worth thousands of pounds was moved to building sites up to thirty miles away. The effects this business had on the village can only be guessed at. Apart from the work of extracting the stone, the material had to be transported and then worked on site by Helmdon men. The area which was quarried expanded; by a lease of 1726 Worcester College, Oxford granted Edward Bayliss land 'upon Marwell Hill … and abutting the Banbury Highway' so that he could 'dig and cast up all or any of the said arable lands … for stones.' The leading masons certainly prospered. Wills and property conveyances show the Wigsons, Stockleys and Blencowes buying land and leaving generous legacies to their children and, in Joshua Wigson's case in 1735, £5 to the poor of Helmdon. They appear among the lists of Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor and are styled "yeoman".

During the nineteenth century the quarries fell into disuse, although four masons are mentioned in the 1841 census returns. The rapid expansion of the railways brought brick to all parts of Britain and the working of small quarries became uneconomic. It may well be that the best - or at least the most accessible - seams of Helmdon stone had been exploited.

Helmdon stone is important not just because some famous houses used it but also because it played a vital part in the economic and social life of the village for hundreds of years. Sometimes we are in danger of assuming that village people of two or three hundred years ago led very sheltered, insular lives but the men who worked at Stowe and Blenheim knew a good deal about the great world beyond Helmdon. Telling the story of the quarries and the men who worked them involves looking at a wide range and variety of historical sources; the landscape and the buildings of the village complement documents and the research of geologists.

A walk through the village and along local footpaths gives everyone the chance to see some of the evidence for themselves and those with a sharp eye for the characteristics of Helmdon stone may well add to the list of known buildings which used 'the finest building Stone … in England'.

Edward Parry

[Article first published in Aspects of Helmdon 4 (2001), pp 164 - 167 inc.]

(A longer version of this article appeared in Northamptonshire Past & Present Vol.VII, 1986-87, No 4. Click here to view the article.)
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