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Firm turns inmates into stonemasons for church and parsonage renovation

12 January 2018


Tom Tillyard (right) and his business partner, Mark Kennett, outside St Anne’s, Wandsworth, where their team of builders, including some ex-offenders, are working

Tom Tillyard (right) and his business partner, Mark Kennett, outside St Anne’s, Wandsworth, where their team of builders, including some ex-offenders,...

A BUILDING contractor, Tom Tillyard, has found success with an unusual business model: employing former prisoners to renovate and repair churches and parsonages.

Mr Tillyard used to work for a bank in the City of London, but stumbled on to a new career path when he accidentally took part in a one-day plastering course intended for people on day release from prison.

“The guy running it said: ‘Why don’t you employ these guys?’ So I went away and thought about it: who has lots of property, and shares my values?” The answer for Mr Tillyard was the Church.

Working with charities and the probation service, Mr Tillyard’s company, Fraser Tillyard Ltd, has completed about 60 projects in five years, employing dozens of men recently released from prison. “On our first project, St Mary’s, Battersea, we did have a team which was entirely ex-offenders, partly to prove we could do it to the diocese,” Mr Tillyard said. But now he seeks to integrate one ex-offender for every three other workers.

“Now I prefer to work on an individual basis, working with one or two people at any one time,” he said. “If you leave prison, and you’re working for a charity that’s just for ex-offenders, then you’re still employed within the crime-and-punishment industry. The whole point is that we’re leaving that in the past, and moving forward.”

The business, which began by working with the diocese of Southwark, has since expanded into Kent and the diocese of Canterbury, which was how it drew in Mr Tillyard’s business partner, Mark Kennett, a stonemason and architect who has worked on large projects that include Canterbury and Chichester cathedrals.

While working for the charity Changing Paths, Mr Kennett persuaded the management of HM Prison Rochester to let him set up a stonemasonry apprenticeship within the prison, where inmates were trained in a craft that they could use on release.

“Some of the work they did was phenomenal: we produced some good stonemasons,” Mr Kennett said. “What I noticed in particular was that the lads in Rochester had a particularly good focus — it was as though they had no distractions because of the environment.”

As HM Prison Rochester is due to close soon, Mr Kennett has joined Mr Tillyard’s firm and brought some of his former students with him to work on restoring church façades and stonework.

Working with ex-offenders needed “a certain amount of understanding”, he said. “They have unique needs and requirements, which have to be understood and catered for as well. Learning a trade is a good way of dealing with those needs.

“Self-esteem, for example, is really low among prisoners, and to make something that everyone admires is really good. It gives them confidence, and builds them up to find another way in life, other than a life of crime.”

Often, the former prisoners who are employed say that it is the first work opportunity that anybody has offered them. But Mr Tillyard and Mr Kennett insist that the firm is not a charity project but a reputable building contractor.

This is backed up by the Revd Dr Gordon Jeanes,Vicar of St Anne’s, Wandsworth, where Mr Tillyard’s team is currently working. He explained that Fraser Tillyard won the contract through the regular tender process, and their use of ex-offenders was simply a “bonus”. “I’m not sure how many of my congregation know,” he said. “It’s been all so low-key I haven’t even bothered to mention it to the PCC.”

Mr Tillyard said that he had yet to experience any hostility or prejudice to the idea of employing ex-offenders. Instead, he had found the Church to be “incredibly supportive” of his vision. He now has enough work lined up that he regularly goes into prisons to explain about his firm to prisoners still serving their sentences, in an effort to attract more potential employees.

“I think there is a demand for our offer: a building contractor with a heart who is not greedy and has a long-term view,” he concluded.

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