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Torbay's Maestros of Marble

calendar20th June, 2024 by Barry Chandler

On the 6th July Torquay Museum will open a small but important addition to its permanent galleries with a space dedicated to the ‘Artisans of the Torbay Marble Industry’.

It is not often we can use the phrase ‘most important in Britain’ about Torbay but when it comes to our local geology and the marble industry that was connected to it this is certainly a fitting description.

Torbay’s decorative stone industry rose from supplying the early 19th century tourists to the area with polished pebbles and fossil brooches to a nationally and internationally recognised decorative stone industry. Dynasties of local families spanned generations working firstly local marbles from quarries at Petit Tor and Ogwell to imported stones from Europe, Russia and the Americas.

Torbay’s artisan marble workers are something that the area should be extremely proud of. The Woodleys, Blacklers, Jenkins and Grants to name just a few, developed skills which rivaled the stone working industries in Italy and were unique in this country. These maestros of marble were in demand from top architects for the embellishment of many nationally important building projects.

Henry Jenkins and Sons business for example, spanned 1865 to 1995. Two of Henry’s sons became leading artists and architects and another son Walter who took over the business grew the company to over 400 employees with many Italian craftsmen. Their projects included many local buildings like Oldway Mansion, but also national monuments such as the Queen Victoria memorial outside Buckingham Palace and the Cenotaph in Whitehall. They held one of the finest stocks of high-grade marble in England.

Our project has allowed us to research more about this incredible local industry and contact local people who have contributed images and stories of working for these local companies. This research was made possible by the work of the late Prof Gordon Walkden who published a two-volume work on the Devon Marble Industry in 2015. This unlocked much of the background not only of the geology of Torbay that allows us to understand origins of the different marbles but also the family histories of the marble workers.

One truly remarkable local family is the Grants. Joseph Grant first started a stone polishing business in 1836, a business which is still owned and run by the 7th and 8th generations (Mark and Martin Halliday) of the same family in 2024. 

Grants of Devon Ltd, as it is now known, is without doubt the country’s most prolific manufacturer of high quality decorative stone objects. From its factory in Watcombe, established in 1847, it produced a staggering range of goods initially in local stones but then in malachite, onyx and lapis. Its objects are rarely marked as Grants but they were made for luxury retailers and jewelers around Britain and Ireland including Asprey and Dunhill. 

Our project has produced a film with Grants to take you through their history and show you how they still make and restore beautiful stone objects today.
Our new gallery space includes most of the Museum’s collection of Devonshire marble objects with some new acquisitions including the Nick Crawford Collection of Devon brooches. There will also be loan objects from private collectors which we hope to change every few months. 

Our website will also be updated and will include a guide to identifying locally made stone objects and an interactive map which will lead you to buildings around Britain with Devon marble interiors.  

This project has been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Torbay Local Heritage Grant Scheme and supported by Torbay Culture and the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark. 

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