Portland comes to Suffolk

Ipswich Society Portland stone Post Office sculpture 2017

Ipswich old Post Office, Cornhill

You may have admired Ipswich’s fine old Post Office on Cornhill, but did you know where its gleaming white stone came from? Many people know about the white Portland stone buildings of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace. Far fewer know that some of that Portland stone has found its way to Suffolk. Suffolk has its brick and timber-framed buildings. If stone was needed in medieval times, there was flint. Other stone for churches was traditionally brought by river and sea from Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. But by the nineteenth century stone from the tiny island of Portland off the Dorset coast had become very fashionable. London was busy building government and public buildings of Portland stone and others across the country were following London’s example. Architects and builders were realising that Portland stone is very strong and weathers away more slowly than many other stones. Improved transport meant that stone could be obtained more easily and mechanisation helped to keep costs down.

Portland stone was formed from deposits on the floor of a warm shallow sea about 150 million years ago. If you look closely at it you can see that it is made of small spheres of limestone that built up around fragments of sand or shell. If you are lucky you may even find the cast of a fossil. You can find the stone in buildings and monuments across Suffolk.

Ipswich Cornhill is a good place to start a Portland stone spotting expedition. There is some Portland stone on the Town Hall, although the bulk of the building is of stone from near Bath, with pillars of Mansfield stone. The Corn Exchange, behind the Town Hall was cleaned in 2009, showing off the white Portland stone and pilasters of Scottish sandstone. But the star is the old Post Office. 

In the 1870s Ipswich was growing fast and its old public buildings were becoming too small. Ipswich Corporation decided to have a new Post Office built on Cornhill, on the site of the old Corn Exchange. Following an architectural competition, and advice from the Royal Institute of British Architects, a design by John Johnson of Queen Victoria Street in London was chosen to provide space for a Post Office and offices for other public purposes. Money was raised and D.C. Jones of Gloucester was chosen to erect a splendid Portland stone building with four figures over the portico, representing industry, electricity, steam and commerce. The building was leased to the Post Office in 1880 and was until recently a bank. 

Each piece of stone used to build the old Post Office will have been quarried by hand, typically by a team of four from the same family.

It will have been pulled by horses to the top of a tramway and carried by gravity down the steep slopes of the island. The individual stones were most probably cut to shape on the island, possibly at the new steam-operated saw mill that opened in 1877.  

They may have been transported from the island on the recently opened railway, but it is likely that they were loaded on to a barge for shipment to Ipswich.

Elsewhere in Ipswich, smaller objects are made of Portland stone. For example, Ipswich Old Cemetery has many Commonwealth War Graves Commission Portland headstones. 

Ipswich also played a role in providing the Portland headstones for many war graves around the world as Saunders of Ipswich had a contract to produce some of them. After the Second World War these gravestones will have been quarried by hand in the traditional way, although by then mechanised cranes, excavators and drills were starting to be used in peripheral activities. Masonry works prepared quarried stone for use and were becoming highly mechanised, with saws, planing machines and overhead gantries.

Ipswich Society Portland stone Linda Thomas sculpture 2017

'Innocence' (courtesy Linda Thomas)

More recently, Linda Thomas used Portland stone for her sculpture in Christchurch Park known as Innocence. Carved in 2007 out of a single piece, the sculpture is intended to be touched and a hole, inspired by the windows at the entrance to Christchurch Mansion, provides views into the Park. Linda’s stone was from one of the few surviving quarries on Portland. It came from Bowers Quarry where stone is cut in the open air by giant saws attached to tractors. Today a great deal of the Portland stone is mined underground, minimising damage to the environment and to the stone itself.

Elsewhere in Suffolk there are Portland stone window sills, steps, doorways and memorials to be found by the keen Portland stone spotter. It is difficult to know where to start, but a few examples may help. 

At the end of the High Street towards Cambridge, Newmarket has an impressive Portland stone drinking fountain, about five metres high. It was erected in 1910 in memory of Sir Daniel Cooper a merchant and philanthropist who had a house and owned race horses in Newmarket. Nearby, a new bronze statue of the Queen with two of her horses standing on a Portland stone base was unveiled on 3 November 2016. 

In Bury St Edmunds a Portland stone sundial and a drinking fountain, used as a planter, is to be found in the Abbey Gardens. It was donated to the town in 1869 and moved to its present location in 1939. The south facing side has a normal sundial whilst the west has a diagram showing how many minutes to add or subtract to get Greenwich Mean Time.

Nearby, The Suffolk Record Office in Raingate Street is a listed building built between 1963 and 1965. It is built of brick with Portland stone dressings. 

Scattered around Suffolk there are many Portland stone war memorials. The eighteen foot high memorial at Framlingham is particularly well-maintained. It was completed in 1921 after much debate about its location, style and stone. The Portland stone soldier on Mildenhall war memorial is also quite striking. Some Suffolk churchyards, for example Southwold, Haverhill and Brandon also contain war graves with Portland stone headstones.           

Gill Hackman

Further information on Portland Stone

Bettley, James and Pevsner, Nikolaus: Buildings of England, Suffolk:East and Suffolk: West volumes, Yale 2015

Bury Society (www.burysociety.com)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org)

GeoSuffolk Times, December 2009: Ipswich Town Hall and Corn Exchange

Hackman, Gill: Stone to build London, Portland’s Legacy, Folly Books, 2014

Historic England, Listed Building records.

Ipswich Journal archives

Ipswich Borough Council Minute Books, Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich

Newmarket Local History Society (www.newmarketlhs.org.uk)