For more than three centuries, stone cutting was a steady, even lucrative source of work for Bermudian men. Scenes of men at work in quarries all over Bermuda, sawing and chiseling away at giant blocks of stone captivated visiting artists, photographers and literary luminaries like Mark Twain.

Stone cutting has gone the way of farming—only a handful of men now work in the trade. While the farms that remain are thriving, there are no working quarries left. Excavation is the main activity carried out at old quarries, while at the Government quarry in Hamilton Parish, stone and roof slate are collected from other sites and stored for use when wind storms, hurricanes and tornadoes wreak havoc on houses.

Still, the trade that had men working from sunup to sundown is alive and well in the memories of stone cutters such as Robert Lee and Leon “Pickles” Furbert, and in the imagination of people like 49-year-old builder Larry Mills, who believes their contribution to the economic life of Bermuda is of such importance, their stories should be preserved for posterity. “Stone cutters were never given their due,” says Mills. Get 73-year-old Robert Lee started on the subject and it’s hard to get him to stop.

“I was practically born in the stone quarry,” says Lee, whose father Stowe Benjamin Lee as “one of Bermuda’s best stone cutters.” It’s a lineage that guaranteed Lee and his four brothers would be put to work in a quarry virtually as soon as they could walk. Lee says his father, who was born in 1895, had many jobs: “He did it all—he was a farmer, sailor and stone cutter. He did everything to take care of his family.”

Most stone cutters were black and, despite the hazards, the work gave men a degree of independence during the era of segregation. Those with a big strong business streak could thrive despite economic restrictions because they could keep most of the stone they cut—even if they didn’t own a quarry. The quarry owner received 10 to 15 per cent and the stone cutter was entitled to the rest, Robert Lee says, and was free to sell or stockpile it for his own use. Many, including his father, became full-fledged builders and operated quarries as part of their business.

Like Stowe Benjamin Lee, Leon “Pickles” Furbert, 86, has worked in many areas. He’s been a shoeshine boy, served pickles at Elbow Beach Hotel, sailed with the British Merchant Marine and run a plumbing business. He also cut stone.

“Practically everybody cut stone,” says Furbert. “That’s the way things were. At that time, you had to do something to build a house. They (Bermuda’s merchants) only lent you money if you voted for them—or if they thought you were.”

Larry Mills, who restores old Bermuda houses and has a keen interest in architectural history, has never worked in a quarry. He has vivid childhood memories of men working in quarries along the Southampton railway trail and in areas where the Bermuda Institute and Riviera Estates are now located. He’s gained an appreciation for their work because he’s sought out stone cutters to listen to their stories first-hand.

He’s also collected tools of the stone cutter’s trade—the chisel, saw and jigger are the main ones—and display them at his Southampton home.

John Darrell, Kruger Brangman, and Bysie Burchall, who was killed in a quarry accident, were well-known stone cutters in Southampton, says Mills, while Leon Furbert, who lives in Warwick, recalls stone cutters from his parish—men like Rufus Astwood, the James Brothers and John Edness, the grandfather of retired politician Quinton Edness. John Edness’ operation was so substantial, it is still known as the Edness quarry, despite its sale in the 1980s to SAL owner John Berg.

Leon Furbert says quarries existed all over Bermuda. Quarry owners put their children to work in the family business. People like Sir James Astwood, former chief justice, and current president of the Court of Appeal, MP El James and his brother Lloyd, the St. George’s Cup Match cricketer, all cut stone as children, Furbert says.

Larry Mills says stone cutting was labour intensive, but men needed brain, brawn and technical know-how to make a success of it. He says: “It was a special kind of person who had the constitution to be a stone cutter. You needed stamina, the emotional strength to put up with the physical work and intellectual ability. To cut the stone required not only strength, you needed the technical ability to make a clean cut so that the stone could fall neatly.”

Robert Lee agrees: “Any Tom Jack could push a saw. You had to have a leader. You had to have someone who knew what he was doing.” A wrong move could result in death, says Lee, who also spoke about the quarry counterpart to the canary in the mine—a piece of cedar brush. When a giant block was painstakingly cut from the quarry, a piece of cedar brush was placed between it and the hillside. If the branch fell, the block was moving, and about to fall to the ground, so men knew to move quickly out of the way.

“Bermuda is a coral island, with a six-inch crust of soil on top of it, and every man has a quarry on his own premises. Everywhere you go you see square recesses cut into the hill-sides, with perpendicular walls unmarred by crack or crevice…”

When Mark Twain gave his impressions of quarries in “Some Random Notes of an Idle Excursion” in Belgravia magazine in 1877, he was writing about an activity that had been the bedrock of Bermuda’s building industry from the earliest days of settlement.

The first houses were made of cedarwood, but a high demand for cedar and concerns about fire prompted the switch to stone, historian Michael Jarvis wrote in Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage—St. George’s. The settlers had a strong incentive—from 1693, residents of St. George’s who replaced a wooden cottage with one of stone received a permanent grant of the land.

The stone was hewn out of the limestone rock, Dr. Edward Harris writes in Bermuda Forts 1612-1957, and was first used to construct forts. “After a time nearly all Bermuda homes were made of this stone, with slate roofs of the same, cemented and washed with lime, which bonded the roofs into a very heavy unitary structure,” he said.

“Such substantial buildings,” Harris also wrote, “allowed Bermudians from the early decades of settlement to begin the accumulation of capital wealth…”

The first stone cutters were often enslaved or indentured labourers, according to The Traditional Building Guide, published last year by the Bermuda National Trust and the Department of Planning. After Emancipation, the trade was often in the hands of West Indian and Portuguese immigrants and subsequently, black Bermudian masons.

The Building Guide also described quarrying: “To begin the quarrying process stone cutters would try and determine how the stone was bedded. They would select a suitable starting point and chisel and rake out a three inch trough around the first stone to be cut.

“The first stone, called the head stone or key block, was like the first piece of a pie. Getting it out was the hardest part of the job. The rest of the blocks were much easier to remove.

“The bottom of the blocks were riven with hardwood wedges or undermined in wedge shape with chisels and pried loose. They were allowed to fall on the ground where they landed on a bed of scrap stones called ‘jacks’ or ‘slipes.’ These absorbed the impact of the fall. The blocks, which were as large as 12 to 15 feet high, were then sawn or riven along the grain into building stones of different sizes.”

Robert Lee says it would take about three days for a team of two men to quarry a large block of stone and another week to saw it into building stones. One large block could yield between 1,200 and 1,600 building stones or about 1,000 pieces of roof slate.

Standard building stones measured 6 inches high by 24 inches long, and were cut in widths of 12, 10 or 8 inches. The ‘12s’ and ‘10s’ were used for the foundation and walls closer to the ground. Stone cutters also used an irregular size, 24 inches long, by 8 inches wide by 9 inches high, they called 8s by 9s. Because the so-called “poor man’s stones” were higher than regular sizes, you could build a house with fewer stones and less mortar.

“I built my first house out of 8s by 9s,” says Lee.

Stone cutters worked long hours. In the summers, they would start at 5:30 a.m. to beat the heat, work until 11 or noon, take a break until mid-afternoon, then work until the sun set. In winters, they worked from first light until dark with a shorter break for lunch. Robert Lee says the work was laborious—his father took cat naps right in the quarry and woke refreshed and ready to start again. He also cooked meals right on site.

Quarried stone was also burnt in quarry limekilns, and turned into lime, which was then mixed with water and sand to make mortar.

Nearly all traditional Bermudian houses are built of the soft quarried stone “called sandstone,” says The Building Guide. The buildings in Dockyard, although the harder stone found in the west end—and also in Hamilton Parish—had to be blasted out of the hillside.

Quarrying was a common practice up to the 20th Century, but new discoveries, such as Portland cement, which was patented in 1842, brought changes to building practices. Over the next century in Bermuda, there was a slow, but gradual move away from the use of Bermuda stone in favour of cement block. Then in 1959, Walter Horsfield, a British engineer who had retired to Bermuda, patented a stone-cutting machine that took him six years to develop.

He formed the Bermuda Stone Company with son Colin, who in a 1960 article in The Royal Gazette, spoke about record stone-cutting time—a crew of three could cut 1,700 blocks a day.

The stone for house rising in the background is being quarried directly on the ground. The resulting excavation will be used as a tank. 

Five years later, in a Supreme Court case that was billed as the first trial involving a patent, the Stone Company won an injunction against John Clarke and Eldridge Simmons, preventing the duo from using the stone-cutting machines.

Puisne Judge Hector Barcilon, in his ruling, explained the advantages of the stone-cutting machine: “The speed of production of building blocks is increased considerably; the process is far safer than the old method in the execution of which men have been known to get killed; the building blocks are turned out uniformly to the required dimensions, avoiding the necessity which sometimes occurred under the new method of trimming and squaring off a block.”

The Horsfield invention meant the beginning of the end for the men of stone. There were other developments as well. Concerns about indiscriminate quarrying led to a law, passed in 1965, requiring a permit to build a quarry.

Two years later, William Hamilton, the head of Government’s fledgling planning department, said less stone quarrying would be permitted in the future to protect the landscape. At the same time, he was holding meetings with building industry representatives in an attempt to find alternative building materials to replace traditional Bermuda stone.

Intense development from the 1960s onwards has resulted in the near exclusive use of cement block in buildings, although slate is still used for roofs. Bermuda stone is now used for decorative accents and for walls. There are only about six stone cutters on the island.

Jonathan Cumberbatch, 40, is one of the largest quarry operators—even though he doesn’t own a quarry. He cut stone as a child—along with his brothers and sister—and followed his parents John and Dorothy into the business.

He carts his machines to privately-owned building sites, excavates and cuts stone, setting aside an agreed-upon amount for property owner. He keeps the rest for his own inventory to sell or stockpile like the stone cutters of old. Cumberbatch recognises the centuries of tradition on which his business in based. “Our business theme is keeping our heritage alive,” he says.

Robert Lee, who moved from stone cutting to construction, feels it is important to keep the stone cutting story alive as well and willingly gives talks on the subject to students and anyone else who’ll listen.

Larry Mills is an heir to Bermuda’s building heritage as the houses he restores, including his own, are very much in keeping with traditional methods. In his view, it would be a tragedy if stone cutters’ stories were lost. “I have three sons,” he says, “I don’t think they would want to go and work in a quarry, but they would never know about it if I didn’t tell them.”

Meanwhile at the old Edness quarry, planning permission was recently granted for a new housing development.