*** DEBUG END ***

Heritage crafts close to extinction

10 November 2023

Traditional skills used in church buildings are at risk. Pat Ashworth meets the people trying to save them

Holy Well Glass

Window from Birmingham Cathedral (News, 3 November) being worked on by Holy Well Glass, a conservation craft firm based in Wells

Window from Birmingham Cathedral (News, 3 November) being worked on by Holy Well Glass, a conservation craft firm based in Wells

HERITAGE craft skills operate like an ecosystem, Mary Lewis suggests. She is the endangered-crafts manager of the national not-for-profit organisation Heritage Crafts, and leads the research for the organisation’s biennial Red List of endangered crafts.

“If we lose one part, it could have devastating consequences on other parts of the system,” she says. “If we allow endangered crafts to disappear, then we seriously diminish the opportunities for future generations to create their own sustainable and fulfilling livelihoods and deal with the challenges of the future.

“If one business closes, or one craft becomes extinct, it can have a knock-on effect on other allied crafts. The fear is that, if we continue to witness this haemorrhaging of skills, we may soon get to a tipping point beyond which the collapse of heritage crafts in the UK accelerates exponentially.”

There are 163 crafts on the 2023 Red List, including 17 new additions. Sixty-two are classified as “critically endangered” — at serious risk of dying out in the next generation — and 84 as “endangered”: currently having enough craftspeople to transmit the skills to the next generation, but with concerns about onward viability. The remainder are “currently viable”.

The making of traditional stained-glass windows, of encaustic tiles (critically endangered for the first time), and of bellropes, and bell-founding (also critically endangered) are all crafts on the list which are associated with churches and other religious buildings. Organ-building is deemed currently viable.

But the knock-on effect of which Ms Lewis speaks is illustrated by the one craft that has become extinct in the UK since the publication of the last edition. Mouth-blown flat glass was produced by English Antique Glass in Birmingham until 2022, when pressures to reduce workshop space forced the company to stop production. Makers and restorers of stained-glass windows now have to buy from suppliers in France and Germany, and prices have doubled overnight as a result of import taxes and the energy crisis. It is one of the reasons that the making and restoration of historic stained-glass windows has also been added to the Red List, as being “in dangerous decline”.

The windows are the traditional painted, stained, and leaded windows, typically for use in historic buildings and churches. Complex skills are involved in making these on a large scale, as opposed to contemporary or architectural stained-glass windows, which are generally made from a single sheet of glass and coloured with enamels.


EACH craft on the Red List is examined for the number of practitioners and current trainees who are employed in it. Stained glass has between 11 and 20 in training with accredited members of the British Society of Master Glass Painters (BSMGP). There are nine postgraduate and degree courses on offer in the UK, but none is dedicated to stained glass. Swansea College of Art is the only institution teaching a full curriculum of stained glass at a higher-education level.

Heritage Crafts describes that situation as “a shocking fact. . . Even colleges and universities that offer glass courses, such as UCA, in Farnham, and the University of Sunderland, don’t offer traditional stained glass as an option,” it says. “It has become something of a fringe activity, often being absorbed into broader studio glass and ceramics curriculums.”

The organisation describes some core skills, such as taking templates, laying out a drawing, designing, cartooning, painting, staining, glazing, and fitting windows as “rarely being taught”. But, as well as the decline in educational opportunities and courses, many other issues affecting viability are also identified. These include loss of construction skills; ageing practitioners; fewer opportunities for skilled makers to pass on their skills; and, with the closure of some established studios, lack of training and employment opportunities with larger companies.

Relevance is also considered to be a factor: historic buildings, such as churches, are financially challenged and not commissioning many new works of art. Current building regulations are also deemed a factor.

Steve Clare, who chairs the BSMPG, said: “Obviously, there are mixed emotions on receiving the verdict from Heritage Crafts that this important strain of our craft is endangered. On one hand, it confirms our view that, despite our efforts to encourage the next generation of artists and craftspeople to join, we are now at dangerously low levels of professionals to protect the UK’s heritage of stained-glass making.

“On the positive side, we hope that this announcement will allow the society to shine a light on the problem, and to galvanise others to help us create a renaissance in the use of stained glass, and to therefore provide a future living for apprentices coming into the craft.”

BSMPG’s vision is to increase commissions, and, with it, the numbers of young people who will see stained-glass design and making as a viable career option. By bringing new buyers and practitioners into the sphere, it seeks to provide the limited pool of established stained-glass makers and artists with new opportunities, so that they are able to take on apprentices and directly transfer their valuable knowledge and experience to others.


THE making of encaustic ceramic tiles is critically endangered for the first time. The earliest examples in Britain date from the mid-13th century, and were mainly confined to monastic and royal buildings. They were at their height of popularity in the Gothic Revival, spearheaded by Herbert Minton. By the early 1950s, the technique had again died out, but it was revived when many of the early floors needed replacement in the 1960s and ’70s.

The current number of professionals whose main income this provides stands at between one and five. There are similar numbers of artisan makers for whom this is a sideline, and serious amateur makers. It is a very hands-on skill, using a hand-carved plaster mould inside a mould box, pressed either by hand or under a power press.

Craven Dunnill JackfieldFilling green slip on the mould during the making of encaustic tiles

After a few minutes for the clay to dry, the mould is lifted away, and the textured surface of the tile is filled with a liquid slip of a contrasting colour. The tile is then dried for about a week, after which the surplus clay is milled and hand-scraped from the surface to reveal the inlaid patterns. It is fired in a gas kiln before finally being cut to size with a wet-cut diamond saw.

Training and recruitment issues are identified as a key factor in viability. There are currently no apprenticeships in ceramics, although there is a Level 3 craft assistant (Ceramics) apprenticeship currently under development. Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd (CDJ), based in Ironbridge, is the only UK maker of encaustic ceramic tiles.

There are degrees that include an element of ceramics, including the University of Creative Arts, Farnham, and Cardiff Metropolitan University. Some universities offer an MA in ceramics or ceramics in glass, including Staffordshire University and the Royal College of Art.

There is also acknowledged to be “a gap between expectation and reality in the making. This form of tile making is very hands-on, and uses almost no technological input — however, most new potential entrants come with design degrees, and want to be able to use their IT and design skills. This makes it challenging to recruit the right people for the job.”

Market issues are a factor, too: while there is a continuing demand for encaustic tiles, there are often issues of funding and procurement for heritage and restoration projects. Some clay ingredients, such as lead and barium, are becoming difficult to source, and there are also problems with the supply of tools and equipment.

It could be a gloomy picture. But talking directly to the makers reveals a story that is much more upbeat and resilient, demonstrating an enthusiasm that can drive confidence in the future. Chris Cox, the head of production at CDJ and recently awarded the status of Master Craftsman by the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers, has enthusiastically embarked on several potential routes towards sustainability.

He has been making encaustic ceramic tiles for 30 years — a skill that he was responsible for reviving and growing in the 1990s. It was on a B.Tech. course at Eastbourne College of Art, in 1987, that he “sort of fell into discovering clay”, and he pursued a developing love of Victorian encaustic tiles through taking an HND in ceramics at the Harrow Potter Studio in 1991.

This increased when he restored a cowshed and set up a workshop on his parents’ smallholding in Pembrokeshire, from where he started selling his floor tiles to the museum shop at the Jackfield Tile Museum, his “place of pilgrimage”. CDJ was making encaustic but not floor tiles, and took up his half-serious suggestion that he should do that for them.

They gave him a workshop, and he set himself up as the Encaustic Tile Company in 1997, selling it to CDJ in 2000, so that all resources could be pooled and shared. He is fervent about promoting, teaching, and preserving the skills, including “passing on everything I know” to eager students on the Building Arts Programme, part of the Prince’s Foundation.

“What they do with it is entirely up to them — it’s about sowing the seeds and seeing what grows — but we’ve had some success stories,” he says, referring to a student who has gone on to make her own encaustic tiles after an extended placement, and who continues to engage with mosaic workers.

There is no supported apprenticeship scheme for ceramics, but he is pleased that, as CDJ is currently “up to the gunwales with work”, it is able to take people on. “Somebody new started this week and, literally the day he started, was pressing encaustics,” he says with satisfaction.

“It’s all about pushing it on. I love it. I love the process. I’ve done nothing else — I’ve spent my whole working life making encaustic tiles, and intend to spend the rest of my working life making them, alongside other people. It’s not just about the restoration in churches and cathedrals and public buildings: we also work with artists and designers on modern installation.”

Recent ecclesiastical projects have included St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where they are delighted to be restoring tiles made by CDJ in the 1920s — “We opened the box and said, ‘Welcome home’” — and at the Immaculate Conception, Penzance. The crowning pleasure has been the 13-year contract, signed in 2007, which meant that the floors of the Houses of Parliament were retiled exactly as Pugin and Barry created them.

“Coming at it from a maker’s point of view is very different from a conservator’s point of view,” he suggests. The job involved 120 tonnes of a new, slip-resistant clay recipe, 10,000 litres of slip (a mixture of water and clay), and 40,000 individual handmade tiles, all made at CDJ. It soon became obvious that it couldn’t be “me hand-pressing some of the tiles on my little work bench in the workshop”, he says.

“That very quickly became unrealistic. We had to create a team here that could make the clay, the slips, and the inlays, because there’s no one else doing it. That’s passing on the skills, and it’s hugely enjoyable.” CDJ’s encaustic tiles are all over the world, from New Zealand to New York City. There is no sense of lament to be found here, and quiet hope for the future.


WITH a worldwide decline in the demand for church bells, year on year, bell-founding is also on the critically endangered list. John Taylor’s Bell Foundry is the last survivor in the UK since production at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was transferred to the Westley Group, where the casting of church bells continues using contemporary sand-moulding techniques.

Whitechapel cast its last batch of tower bells in March 2017 (News, 9 December 2016). After years of struggling against economic pressures and the high cost of maintaining the listed premises, it decided to sell and redistribute the business to ensure the continuation of its products into the future (News, 6 July 2018).

The craft of casting bells has remained essentially unchanged since the 12th century, with bells cast mouth-down in a two-part mould. Bells are cast in bell metal, an alloy of bronze. The bell is designed and measured out, the mould constructed and the bell then cast. Once the bell has cooled, it is tuned and the clapper fitted (Features, 19 December 2014).

Craven Dunnill JackfieldBrushing into the detail, during the making of encaustic tiles

Loss of skills is one issue affecting viability. Loam casting — a mixture of loam clay, goat hair, and horse manure — is traditional to English bell-founding, and not widely known in Europe. There are probably no more than four people in the UK regularly employed in loam moulding, an ancient and now largely redundant method of mould-making.

The shrinkage of the bell-founding and bell-hanging market is mirrored by the decrease in the number of active tower bell-ringers and musical handbell-ringers. It can also be a challenge to find people to take on the craft who are enthusiastic, have some basic skills, and are prepared to learn, say the compilers of the Red List, noting that there is a need for people with engineering, woodworking, and rope-making skills.

But here, too, can be found a story of boldness and resilience. An estimated 20 million people in Britain, and hundreds of millions worldwide, hear a Taylor’s bell — renowned for its beauty and purity of tone — every day. The Loughborough Bell Foundry Trust was founded in 2016 to restore and protect the historic foundry buildings, archive, and museum collections for future generations.

The buildings were in need of extensive upgrading, and estimated costs stood at upwards of £8 million. In 2020, the Trust was awarded £3.45 million from the National Lottery to complete the renovation works and implement a training and education programme. Funds have come from the Pilgrim Trust, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Garfield Weston, and many other trusts and members of the public. Total project funding is £5 million, and the work is progressing apace.

The current projects list shows work on the books for 33 churches the length and breadth of the country, as well as international work; and a recent news announcement welcomed Sam Weaver to the design team as “one of a number of young people who’ve joined us in the past couple of years, and this bodes well as we pass the business to the next generation”.


WHEN it comes to the sub-craft of bell-rope-making, another of the critically endangered crafts, there is a plea to church bell-ringers as far as viability is concerned, as loss of skills is an issue. Heritage Crafts says that it “would encourage the organisations to promote ringing and training people to ring church bells, as it provides a customer base for future generations”.

Three specialist companies making English-style bell-ropes remain: Ellis Ropes Ltd, Avon Ropes Ltd, and Mendip Road Makers Ltd. Issues affecting viability include supply of raw materials, and the market. “It is very hard to make a profit out of church bell-rope-making, but there is a need, and there is a very small global market,” the Red List compilers say.

“With the decline of church attendance, a lot of bells are falling silent, and demand for church bell-ropes is also dwindling. Even when churches are being repurposed, they usually retain their bells, which are still rung occasionally and therefore require ropes.”


THERE is a growing acknowledgment in the world of cathedrals of the need to cultivate and perpetuate critical craft skills in the UK. The Cathedrals’ Workshop Fellowship (CWF) welcomed its 12th member in August, when Lichfield Cathedral began to establish a works department and workshop facility in its grounds — the latest to establish such a facility since Chester Cathedral in 2019.

A generous grant from the CWF will go towards the training of two stonemasons: an initiative that, the cathedral says, “represents a resolute commitment to the preservation and enhancement of ancient crafts, as well as a forward-looking approach to maintaining and enriching the nation’s architectural heritage”. It will set the stage for further expansion and the cultivation of a flourishing community of artisans. “Both the stonemasons have started, and we are encouraged by the opportunity this presents,” the Acting Dean of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, said.

Heritage Crafts was founded in 2009, and set up an Endangered Crafts Fund in 2019 to seek to ensure that the heritage crafts in the UK most at risk were given the support that they needed to thrive. The fund is used to support makers and trainees who wish to develop or share their skills in the crafts that have been identified as being most endangered.

To date, 57 projects have been funded with support from the Pilgrim Trust, the Radcliffe Trust, the Dulverton Trust, Swire Charitable Trust, Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, and the Garfield Weston Foundation.

The Hamish Ogston Foundation was at the forefront of funding for the craft industry, but has recently been embroiled in a scandal involving its founder, the British entrepreneur and philanthropist. Mr Ogston is currently being investigated by the Metropolitan Police after “allegations of exploitation and drugs offences” — including trafficking vulnerable women for sex — were raised in a report by The Sunday Times earlier this month (News, 6 October).

Mr Ogsten, who denies the allegations, has rescinded his chairmanship, and several church and heritage organisations, including CFW — which has received more than £1 million from the Foundation — are reviewing their links with it, and, in some instances, returning significant donations, which affects ongoing craft projects (News, 13 October).



Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)