September 5th, 2016

Stratford stonemasons still going strong after 125 years

Updated: 7:24 am, Aug 11, 2016

BUSINESSES come and go with increasing regularity these days – but not Stratford stonemasons Geo Clifford and Sons.

The family firm has been based in the same Sanctus Street yard in the heart of Old Town for 125 years, and is still going strong thanks to the fourth and fifth generations of Cliffords.

Stuart is the current Clifford at the helm, and sons Jake and Tom also now work for the company, making mostly headstones as they have been for the past century and a quarter since the firm was founded by George Clifford Snr in 1891.

“A real character” is how Stuart describes his great great grandfather. “He was a superb carver, and in between letters he would have a sip of beer or whisky.”

George Snr was obviously a hugely talented man, but he could never have imagined, as he carved away, that he was hammering out the foundations of a firm which would still be thriving in the 21st century.

George Jnr, one of the founder’s three sons, was also a character.

He had a deep mistrust of hospitals and refused to allow his wife to be admitted for a gallstone operation. Instead, he got the surgeon to come to the yard and perform it there. It was successful and the removed stones still sit in a jar at the yard.

The firm quickly became a byword for quality, and shortly after the end of the First World War the company was approached by the War Graves Commission to provide headstones for those who had fallen on the battlefields of the Western Front.

Little could Christopher and Jack Clifford – Stuart’s grandfather and father respectively – have known they would still be carving headstones for those involved in the Great War at the outbreak of the Second World War – some 20 years after the original commission.

Stuart and his dad Jack actually visited the war graves of the Somme and Ypres to see some of the tombstones the firm produced.

“We had traced rubbings of some of the headstones, so we went and found them.,” added Stuart. “It really was quite amazing and very moving.”

All of the war grave commissions were done to a rigid specification, but Stuart says he can still walk into any churchyard and immediately tell a Clifford headstone.

“As soon as I see the lettering I can tell it is one of ours,” said Stuart.

Stonemasonry is an art, but Stuart says there are people with a knack for it who are capable of reaching a high standard in about a year.

The firm is unusual in that it does not just carve stones, but makes them from scratch, cutting them from blocks sourced in Italy and closer to home in York.

But he does fear for the future of the stonemason’s art, with mechanisation increasingly being used for carving headstones. It is now possible to order ready-lettered headstones from China. No prizes for guessing Stuart’s view – “rubbish.”

He does however accept the need for the firm to have a website and son Jake is currently setting one up.

GEO Clifford & Sons is that now all too rare example of a traditional firm which does things the traditional way, and with a real pride and passion.

The current eight-strong firm were joined by guests at the yard on Wednesday for a celebration to mark the anniversary.

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