STONE MASONRY is one of the most ancient building crafts, involving the cutting, shaping and construction of masonry walls and moulded surfaces in a variety of stones. The fraternity of Freemasonry has it roots in this craft, and although the early-modern master mason did not yield the same operational control as his medieval counterpart, this continued to be a prestigious and fundamentally important trade throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In his portrait by Godfrey Kneller the master mason Edward Strong, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren for almost forty years at St. Paul’s cathedral, is depicted as a man of  skill and status; along with the masons tools, the compass and set square, he holds what appears to be the scrolled plans for a building.

In early-eighteenth century Edinburgh, an apprentice mason was required to demonstrate competence in both the design and execution of whole building schemes when submitting their test or essay pieces, before being accepted into the mason’s guild.

Changing practice

Changing architectural tastes transformed the practice of freemasonry in the early eighteenth century, with a growing interest in the use of dressed-ashlar stone facings, and classical decorative mouldings.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE

Tapering columns, finely carved capitals and enriched entablatures elaborated entrance fronts. Curved console blocks increased a sense of visual support, while sculpted balustrades terminated rooflines. Moulded plat-bands and sill courses punctuated facades and precisely shaped architraves, graduated voussoirs and blocked surrounds defined windows and doors, each element individually crafted to fit into the overall classical assemblage.

Rustication or ‘rustic work’, an antique decorative technique which had been revived by such Renaissance practitioners as  Sebastiano Serlio, in his treatise Architettura (1537-) or Andrea Palladio’s vigorous display at the Palazzo Thiene, (1542-1558), became a highly expressive means of articulating the wall surface. ‘Bossage… otherwise called Rustick work,’ according to the Builder’s Dictionary (1734), consists of ‘stones which seem to advance beyond the Naked of a Building, by reason of Indentures of Channels left in the Joinings.’ Vanbrugh employed this technique to dynamic effect at Castle Howard in Yorkshire (begun 1699), juxtaposing smooth-faced ashlar with emphatic horizontal banding in the main block and pavilions, while the contrasts in texture and the modelling of  light and shade in the granite wall surface at the Parliament House in Dublin (1729-1739) increases the sense of theatricality in this colonnaded space.  There was a considerable difference in terms of the cost of this treatment; at the Parliament House in 1731 ‘superficial rustick work, stone and workmanship’ was priced at 1s. 2d. per foot, whereas ‘superficial plain ashler [sic.] work, stone and workmanship’ would be done for only 10d per foot. (JHCI vol. viii, p. 1068).

Although architects like James Gibbs illustrated numerous examples of ‘rustick’ work in his Book of Architecture (1728) and William Chambers later prescribed the ideal proportions of height and joint in A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759), contemporary builder’s manuals are fairly silent on the practical application of these techniques. How then did these ideas translate into built practice? By what means did the mason acquire skill or pass on tacitly learned practices?

There is considerable variety in the quality of handling between schemes, which may point to differing skill levels, or perhaps the choice of materials employed. The simple square profiles and wide-channelled rustication on the basement of Giacomo Leoni’s additions at Lyme Park, near Manchester (1720s), lacks the geometric rigour of the crisply chamfered Portland stone rustication of the Printing House at Trinity College Dublin (1734). An earlier example by the same master mason, Moses Darley, in the arcades of the Library at Trinity College is less assured, almost hesitant its shallow articulation may be due to the use of local Calp limestone.

A skilled workforce

The introduction of a new classical decorative vocabulary into Irish architectural practice in the late seventeenth century called for a workforce skilled in the technical execution of this architectural language, leading to an increasing influx of immigrant craftsmen, largely from Britain, to supplement Ireland’s indigenous building trade. Of the four principal stone-cutters employed at the new Parliament House in Dublin in the early 1730s, three are believed to have come from England.

WILLIAM BORRADALE, who first appears in Dublin in 1724, was employed at St. Michan’s parish church, and worked at the Parliament House from December 1728. On December 24th 1729 he was paid £747 15s 10 1/2d for stonecutters’ work carried out over the course of the previous year, in addition to a further sum of £6 16s 2d for supplying ‘mountain stone’ [Granite] for the same (JHCI vol. viii, p. 1065 f.47). Having been admitted as a freeman  of Dublin in 1730, he was later employed as a stonecutter at the Royal Hospital in 1731 and at Dr. Steevens’s Hospital from 1733-34. Although as yet unproven, William Borradale and his brother Anthony, who was also a mason, practicing in Dublin, may have had connections to the port town of Whitehaven in Cumbria, and the nearby sandstone quarries at St. Bees.

THOMAS GILBERT, who was admitted as a freeman of Dublin in 1734 had worked at the Parliament House from August 1730. In the following September he was paid the relatively small sum of £14 9s 31/2d, indicating a lesser extent of involvement (JHCI vol. viii, p. 1065 f.117). Gilbert appears to have been descended from a family of masons who had significant quarrying interesting in the Isle of Portland in Dorset, and had been involved in the supply of Portland Stone for St. Paul’s cathedral from 1678-1702. In Dublin, Thomas Gilbert formed some sort of partnership with Moses Darley to  supply Portland Stone for the Printing House at Trinity College Dublin in 1734, and was also involved with another of Castle’s early works, at Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow. (TCD, MUN/P2/68/17).

BENJAMIN SIMPSON, who was entered onto the Freeman’s register by Act of Parliament in 1730, implying that he too was not a native of Dublin city, is an even more shadowy figure. He had worked in the Parliament House from February 1729 and was paid £461 7s 9d on July 24th 1730 for stonecutter’s work (JHCI vol. viii, p. 1065 f. 60). He may have been related to the master plasterer Edward Simpson, who was admitted as a Freeman of Dublin in 1727, and was perhaps the same Mr. Simpson, stucco-worker who reputedly acted as Richard Castle’s barber (Anthologia  Hibernica, 1793).

NATHANIEL WHINREY appears to have been the only native stonecutter employed at the Parliament House. The son of JOHN WHINREY, a prominent master mason, who had worked extensively with Thomas Burgh, surveyor general, at the Royal Hospital, Barracks and at Dublin Castle in the early eighteenth century, Nathaniel seems to have trained under his father. In September 1731 ‘Nathaniel Whinnery’ was paid the sum of £706 6s 8d for stone-cutters work carried out at the Parliament House since the previous August (ref  JHCA vol. vi, p. 1065 f.116).

The DARLEY family, perhaps the most prominent Dublin-based building fraternity operating in the eighteenth century, enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the supply of stone and masonry services at Trinity College. Originally from England, they had settled in Newtownards, Co. Down, in the late 17th century, where Henry Darley, a mason by trade, acquired a local sandstone quarry. His sons Hugh and Moses Darley moved to Dublin in the early 1700s, where they and later generations developed significant interests in granite quarries in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains.

Organisational Practice

Although there were some differences in organisation, Irish masonry practice tended to follow English examples. As with other building trades there was a degree of fluidity within the operational boundaries of the masonry trade, yet in theory the craft was divided into distinct areas of responsibility:

QUARRYMEN were responsible for extracting blocks of stone from the quarry, an often fraught and labour intensive task which involved splitting sheets of rock from the quarry-face using iron wedges and occasionally small charges of gun powder, then carefully extracting the resulting block of hewn stone, and preparing it for transportation.

ROUGH MASONS  or COMMON MASONS were employed onsite, to construct structural walls and utilitarian structures out of roughly hewn stone, rubble or bricks. Lime mortar, often burned at local lime kilns was applied using mortar trowels, and long thin tuck pointers and margin trowels. Rough masonry and brickwork was measured by the volumetric perch as opposed to cut-stone facings which were paid by a running foot of complicated moulding, or by surface measure of the square foot.

BANKER MASONS, sometimes referred to as FREEMASONS in England, or  STONECUTTERS as they tended to be known in Ireland, were based both in the work-shop and on site. They specialised in shaping the cut-stone into precisely dressed-ashlar facings and carved mouldings, ensuring that the bedding of each piece of stone was correctly orientated in relation to the other elements. Life-sized templates and bed moulds were used for this task, ranging from simple chamfers to more complex jambs and detailed classical mouldings. Compasses, timber rules and plate iron T and set squares were used in setting out or squaring up the stonework, alongside a variety of hand-powered cutting tools, from chisels and claw tools, mallets and masonry or punch hammers for shaping and finishing stone mouldings. More complex elements such entablature blocks, capitals and rustic work fell to the most highly skilled master masons or stonecutters, and these elements were costed accordingly.

At the Parliament House in Dublin, for example, moulded architraves, impost blocks, fascia and coping were valued at 1s. 2d. per foot;  ‘plain circular workmanship in sefeats [sic.] of two large arches’, at 1s. 8d. per foot, while plain moulding in the  ‘upper face [of a dentil course] wrought with a drip’ were valued at  1s. per foot. (ref  JHCA vol. vi, p. 1068).

FIXER MASONS were required to position and fix the cut-stone facings and mouldings onto the building surface, using hand-powered lifting tackle, such as an iron lewis and crane, or lifting block. As well as lime mortar and grouts, metal fixings such as dowels and cramps were also used to fix the ashlar facings in place, occasional showing through as rust marks on older masonry.


  • James W. P. Campbell, ‘The supply of stone for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral 1675-1710,’ Construction History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2013), pp. 23-49.
  • William Chambers, A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, volume 2,  with Illustrations, Notes, and an Examination of Grecian Architecture by Joseph  Gwilt. London: Priestley and Weale, 1825.
  • Arthur Gibney, Livia Hurley and Edward McParland (eds.), The Building Site in  Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017.
  • John Gifford, William Adam 1689-1748: A Life and Times of Scotland’s Universal Architect, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1989.
  • William R. Purchase, Practical Masonry: A guide to the Art of Stone Cutting. London: Routledge, 2015.
  • The Builder’s Dictionary: or Gentleman and Architects Companion, 2 Vols. London: Bettesworth and Hitch, 1734.
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