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Building Stones of London

Nelson's ColumnThe City of London is in an area that has no indigenous building stone; its underlying layers of sand, gravel and clay are poorly consolidated materials that are not suitable for use as building stones.

Despite this, stone has been used as a major construction material in London since Roman times.

The building stones of London takes you on a journey from AD 200 to the present explaining what materials were used in some of London's great buildings:


Remnants of the Roman defensive walls near the Tower of London.

Remnants of the Roman defensive walls.

London’s status as a capital city dates from Roman times, but earlier settlements developed principally because of their riverside location on a major trade route.

One of the few substantial early stone structures that is still visible above ground is the impressive remnants of the defensive walls, built principally of Kentish Ragstone (Lower Cretaceous), that protected the Roman city.

Archaeological digs, however, regularly reveal evidence of a wide range of other stone-built structures, essential to the development of any Roman city.

An amphitheatre, basilica, forum, temple, villas, bath houses, and stone quaysides have all been revealed under present-day London. Consequently, like many other capital cities of the world London has had to rely for the whole of its history on importing of building stone from further afield.

Transporting the stone

The River Thames remained the principal means of access to the growing city for the transport of building stone up until the development of the railway network in the early 19th century.

Such early stone structures show a variety of stone types. Most common are the sandy limestones of the Kentish Ragstone (Hythe Formation) sourced from extensive quarries around Maidstone in Kent; flint nodules (Upper Cretaceous) from the Chalk of the Downs or reworked into the river-borne gravels of the Thames.

Fragments of Purbeck Marble — as tombstones — (Dorset), Lincolnshire Limestone, White Lias limestone (Cotswolds), Welsh Slate, black Tournai (Belgian), white Carrera (Italy) and other coloured marbles, together with Egyptian and Greek porphyritic igneous rocks, discovered at many sites suggest, not only a growing knowledge of Britain’s own building stone resources, but also that a thriving trade in building stone was already underway with the rest of the Roman Empire.

Remnants of the Roman defensive walls near the Tower of London.Norman masons

The White Tower (of London) was constructed using Kentish Rag rubblestone, with Caen and Quarr limestones, and Reigate Stone sandstone dressings.

The Normans, after 1066, introduced both new masonry skills and new stones into the city.

The extensive use of Caen Stone (Middle Jurassic limestone), sourced from underground quarries in Normandy, is one notable import, which probably reflects as much on the poor state of the overland communications routes between London and its provinces, as on the quality of the limestone itself, which did not prove to be very durable.

The first priority of William I was defence, and the White Tower (of London, c.1078–1097) was one of several castles constructed in the city. The principal stones used were Kentish Rag rubblestone, with Caen (France) and Quarr (Isle of Wight, Palaeogene) limestones from France, and Reigate Stone (Upper Greensand, Surrey) sandstone dressings.

The medieval reconstruction of Westminster Abbey (originally built, it is believed, of Reigate Stone), for example, used Caen, Kentish Rag, Reigate and Clunch (Upper Cretaceous Chalk, Cambridgeshire), together with the ubiquitous decorative columns of fossiliferous Purbeck Marble (Upper Jurassic).

With the exception of Reigate ‘freestone’, which was carried overland, the other stones were brought in by sea and river. The façade we see today of the Abbey has, however, been largely re-faced in white Portland (Upper Jurassic) and yellow Bath (Middle Jurassic) limestones (Somerset).

Similarly the Guildhall (Kentish Ragstone) which possesses the largest and most spectacular Collyweston Stone (Middle Jurassic, Northamptonshire) slate roof in the country, is of medieval origin, but has been largely rebuilt, at least above ground level, since that time.

The Guildhall's roof is a recent replacement following fire damage during the Second World War.

Roman WallBuckingham Palace originally constructed principally of Caen limestone has been refaced with Bath Stone.

The Guildhall is protected by the largest and most spectacular Collyweston Stone slate roof in the country.

Great Fire

Changes in building styles and materials over two millennia have been frequent in London and were often driven by events outside the city, most notably the Roman and Norman invasions.

However, in 1666 a more local catastrophe, the Great Fire, lead to a fundamental change to the face of London’s buildings. Medieval London was a place of narrow streets and timber-framed houses, and the fire destroyed thousands of such properties.

However, one of the ‘benefits’ was that in the aftermath a raft of legislation was introduced to ensure that such devastation could not happen again. The new legislation required streets to become wider and straighter, new buildings to be built principally in brick or stone and to ensure roofs were no longer of thatch.

Before the fire white Portland limestone (Dorset) was a comparative rarity in the city’s buildings, although Inigo Jones had first used the stone for the Banqueting House (1619–22), part of the never completed Palace of Whitehall.

The need for rebuilding on a vast scale required a massive expansion in local brick production (London Clay Formation) but Portland Stone became the material of choice for buildings of consequence.

Using this white limestone Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh began to transform the devastated face of London by the construction of 51 new churches to replace those destroyed in the Great fire.

Among so many churches the most famous is probably St Paul’s Cathedral (1675-1710), constructed almost entirely of Portland Stone, and quarried from the royal quarries of the Isle of Portland in Dorset, this ooidal limestone has proved to be more durable than most in the city’s building stone.

Georgian architecture

Chandos House, Royal Society of Medicine, is constructed using grey Craigleith sandstone from quarries in Edinburgh.

In the 18th century came a further transformation of the city’s stone architecture.

The Georgian city corporation and local aristocracy, through their patronage of the new ‘Palladian’ architectural style, commissioned many new classically styled buildings — Burlington House, the British Museum, Somerset House, the Bank of England and the Mansion House are all constructed of Portland Stone and grey Cornish granite.

An exception, however, is Chandos House constructed instead of grey Craigleith (Carboniferous) sandstone from quarries in Edinburgh.

It was not until the 19th century that we see a move away from the almost exclusive use of Portland Stone for all the important new buildings in London.

The city’s growing wealth from the proceeds of its overseas empire encouraged its continuing development as a major port. New quay and docksides were built with Cornish and Scottish granites and Yorkshire sandstones (Jurassic and Carboniferous). Tower Bridge was constructed using Cheesewring granite from (Cornwall).

The gradual arrival of the mainline railways into London from every corner of the country, opened up markets for stone from other sources. These new (to London, at least) stone resources could now readily compete with the Portland quarries which had no suitable rail link.

The railway companies advertised their success with a series of new railway stations and luxurious hotels such as St Pancras Station.

St Pancras Grand Hotel displays red bricks made from clay worked in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, sandstones from Derbyshire, limestones from Lincolnshire, roofing slates from Leicestershire and granites from Cumbria; all counties served by the Midland railway company.

Tower of London Guildhall St Pauls St Pancras Station

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