Coniston Stonecrafts: Slate Workers – An Endangered Species?

“Cumbria’s rich slate workers and craftsmanship faces extinction,” warns the Heritage Crafts Association, and Coninston Stonecrafts’ owner, Brendan Donnelly.

Cumbria (which is well-known for its picturesque landscapes and its rich heritage) is home to a traditional craft skill (slate masonry) that is at risk of disappearing forever. The Heritage Crafts Association (the HCA) has updated its Red List of Endangered Crafts, which has revealed a concerning reality for slate masonry.

The latest 2023 edition of the Red List shows that there are a mere eight working slate masons left in England, and at least three of them based in Cumbria. This dwindling number raises concerns about the future of the craft. The HCA believes that without the training of young craftsmen and women in traditional slate-cutting and carving skills, the craft could vanish within a generation.

Brendan Donnelly, the owner of Coniston Stonecraft (a renowned company with a slate workshop nestled on the slopes of the Coniston Old Man) emphasises the urgent threat that is facing the craft: “we’ve only been here for 47 years, but people have been quarrying and carving slate in Cumbria for centuries. If we let these skills die out now, we will lose them forever,” said Brendan.

According to the HCA, Coniston Stonecraft is one of three companies in Cumbria still working with Cumbrian slate, alongside Lakeland Stonecraft, and Honister Slate Products. However, the viability of slate masonry is undermined by the industry’s aging workforce, which exacerbates the risk of extinction.

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Donnelly points to cheap imports of slate products from abroad as the primary reason that traditional craft-trades such as slate masonry face such dire circumstances: “If our shops are full of kitchenware made in China, and house signs carved in Spain, our traditional skills will be lost,” said Brendan.

With a total of 146 traditional British crafts on the 2023 list, the urgency to preserve these heritage skills becomes even more evident. Over the past fifteen years, four crafts have already been classified as ‘extinct,’ including cricket ball making, gold beating, lacrosse stick making, and paper mold making.

Coniston Stonecrafts creates hand-crafted house signs, clocks, cheese boards, place mats, rolling pins, and other kitchen pieces from slate quarried down the road. They derive their slate from local quarries, and their power comes from a hydroelectric station on Church Beck, just 100 yards away.

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