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CRACKING BRITAIN'S KERBSTONE SYMBOL CODE

Nowadays, we all move so fast, with our heads down and our eyes firmly fixed on our smartphones, but right beneath our feet an entire landscape of lost craft knowledge remains virtually unexplored. Although we walk over kerbstones everyday, without giving them a second thought, some of these apparently mundane objects display deeply cut letters and a wide range of curious geometric symbols. Similar marks were carved on pyramids and tombs in Egypt over 4000 years ago, but closer to home, they appear on the walls and pillars of medieval abbeys, cathedrals and churches all over the UK. They can be found in almost every town and city in Britain. But who carved them and what on Earth do they mean?

Only a handful of people have even attempted to explain the meaning of the kerbstone marks and most experts admit they are at a loss as to what they represent. Even the Geological Society regard their original purpose as a conundrum. They can be found in every major city across the UK and especially concentrated in Glasgow and London. Many can be found in South Kensington, Earls Court and Bloomsbury containing Maltese crosses and dots and around Baker Street and Soho variations of Greek Crosses and triangles are many. Glasgow’s south-side has many examples especially round Queens Park and Battlefield and around Byres Road in the west end. Some experts believe they indicate the presence of wartime utilities such as electricity couplings, gas pipe connections and water hydrants. However, others suggest they are Freemason’s symbols guiding visiting Freemasons to secret underground Lodges. Ashley offers a much more down to earth solution accounting for all the symbols.

Five years ago he spotted a carved letter ‘H’ on a kerbstone in London’s Baker Street and the following week spotted a second almost identical mark in Glasgow’s George Square. He embarked on a five year research project photographing the kerbstones and recording their exact locations. Having walked over 3000 miles across the streets of Glasgow and London he has correlated the world’s largest database of photographs and GPS coordinates of the symbol stones. The photographs include yellow parking restrictions lines, water drains and garbage to help perceive the size of the carvings. 

By October 2013 enough data had been correlated and to help analyse the results Alex Laing, a Glaswegian programmer, was commissioned to create an algorithm enabling Cowie to shoot kerbstone symbols with his smartphone and for the image to be streamed to interactive Google maps on ashleycowie.com.  A pattern slowly emerged on the maps suggesting the placement of the symbols was systematic, and not random. This project reveals that the kerbstone symbols are a neglected database of raw historic information - hidden right beneath our feet in plain sight. Before exploring what these symbols actually represent, these are four commonly recited, but incorrect, theories about the carved symbols.

The British Museum Got it Wrong!

Soho Square in London has many examples of kerbstone carvings but they have been missinterpreted.

In 2009, New York born artist Lauren Drescher discovered similar marks in Soho in London and wrote a research paper on the kerbstone crosses exploring her own theory that the kerbstones may have been carved as gravestones to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of people who fell victim to the pestilence. “The markings do appear religious in nature and are reminiscent of gravestones…there are Maltese crosses, dotted crosses, rectangular crosses and ones with arrows. When a fifth of London’s population was wiped out in the plague and fire just around the corner, the corpses were dumped in mass pits and unmarked graves.”

A map of their locations is now on display in the Museum of London and both she and the British Museum have hoped someone would come forward and corroborate her theory. However, the results of this project suggest Drescher’s theory is incorrect. This is primarily because she selected a small sample of carved symbols from which she drew her conclusions. Ms Drescher handful of kerbstone symbols appear to fit a possibly predetermined ‘religious’ theory, but having failed to account for the hundreds of thousands of other symbols carved on kerbstones across the UK which bear initials, circles, arrows, squares and triangular symbols.


Ordinance Survey Benchmarks 

Before the days of GPS and satellite earth measuring technologies map makers, surveyors and architects measured altitudes above sea level and took measures of verticality using triangular marks with a single horizontal line – known as benchmarks. In the Victorian era over 35’000 ordinance survey benchmarks were carved through out the UK and their locations are recorded in the OS database. Benchmarks were never carved kerbstones which could be moved at anytime due to flooding or road changes, but into static vertical structures like walls, bridges and buildings.


War Time Utility Signs 

During WW1 many kerbstones were painted white to assist people moving around during bomb raid blackouts but not a records of any carved kerbstones exists. Another common claim is that the marks indicate the location of war time utilities such as water hydrants and bomb shelters, much the same as steel street signage does today. However, if this was the case, at least one single piece of recorded evidence should be presented to support this idea.

 


Cryptic signs leading to Masonic Lodges and places of worship.

Kerbstones leading to places of worship, especially in rural communities, were often incised with carved crosses and over time people have associated these symbols to Freemasons, claiming the marks guide travelling brothers towards secret Masonic Lodges. Although this theory is no more than is spurious bullshit, the relationship between stonemasons and freemasons cannot be ignored because it an essential component when interpreting these marks.


What do these kerbstone marks found peppered across the UK’s streets actually represent?

In the 12th century highly skilled European stonemasons arrived in the UK to work on the many castle, cathedral, abbey and palace building projects. Over the following six centuries master masons protected their highly valued craft knowledge by only ever teaching apprentices ‘trade secrets’ orally and through demonstration. Every stonemason had a unique sign, letters or a monogram, which they carved onto their finished stones and at the end of a workweek, masons presented their ‘stone-mark’ to the quarry master and received wages according to the number of dressed stones they had produced.

Mason's Marks from Melrose Cathedral.

But masons marks were also used to issue penalties for poor workmanship. Guilty masons could be singled out and his wages were docked, rather than reprimanding an entire crew of conscientious workers. Over time, stonemasons skills became more valuable and in 1598 William Schaw, Master of Works to James VI of Scotland for building castles and palaces, issued rules and codes of conduct for stonemasons stating; “upon admission to the guild of Stonemasons, every mason had to enter his name and his mark in a register.” The kerbstone marks seen on the streets of Glasgow and London are mostly the initials and lapidary marks of Victorian stonemason’s.

Why do some kerbstones display letters and others have symbols?

Most Stonemasons were illiterate and they signed of their work with a unique symbol rather than letters. But some of the marks are “signature” marks pertaining to a particular gang of masons or a workshop. Others are ‘Layout marks’, especially the triangles, crosses and arrows, which were used to delineate the position of a piece of stone in an overall building or street plan. It also has to be considered that many quarries and stone merchants used such marks to brand their products.

What is the connection between Freemasons and stonemasons?

Stonemasons have been around for several thousands of years and their legacy can be seen in crumbling pyramids, tombs, cities, temples and monuments all over the ancient world. These hands on workers are referred to as Operative Masons and Freemasons are known as Speculative Masons. Freemasonry is a late 16th century fraternal order that adopted an analogy to stonemasonry for much of its organisational structure. The symbols of Freemasonry reflect stonemason’s tools, but their meaning was allegorised and the tools usage were presented as symbolic of the steps a person might take to lead a morally rich life. In the 17th century stonemasons lodges were formalised and stonemasons in distant regions formed guilds which later became associated. Exactly why stonemasons decided to allow non-stonemasons to join their lodges in the 18th century is not clear although may theories exist. 

What was a Victorian stonemasons life really like? 

In the 1800s, most Victorians worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. There was no sick leave, no holiday leave, and employers could sack employees at any time, without giving a reason. Working outdoors in all weathers stonemasons were renowned as a hardy breed of man, physically and mentally.

Quarries sometimes employed hundreds of stonemasons with a wide range of skill sets. ‘Lumper Uppers’ risked their lives prising massive sections of rock from quarry faces. Teams of ‘cutters’ hammered, sawed and split rocks into approximate kerbstone shapes. These rough stones were chipped by ‘scelpers’ before being passed to ‘dressers’ for polishing. In such an unpredictable and extremely hazardous environment loss of limbs was commonplace and many stonemasons were crushed to death.

 

KERBSTONE PROJECT

Ashley inspecting stonemasons marks on University Avenue in Glasgow's west end.

Working between Glasgow and London in 2012, I began photographing every kerbstone mark I came across. Recording these marks photographically began as an artistic project, but having also recorded the GPS coordinates of every symbol I was able to undertake a study of their placement to determine if any underlying systems or patterns were present. However, care had to be taken because our minds are predisposed to find patterns, not to discount them. This was often essential for survival, for example; if a person was walking in the jungle and glimpsed a pattern of light and dark stripes in the shadows, it would be prudent to assume that the pattern was a tiger and act accordingly. The consequences of incorrectly assuming that the pattern is not a tiger, far outweigh those of incorrectly assuming that it is. But when applied to random events, this survival ‘skill’ leads to errors.

Having correlated thousands of photographs and GPS coordinates, Glaswegian programmer Alex Laing was commissioned to create an algorithm which would enable photographs of the kerbstones to be streamed to interactive maps on this website. After several weeks of coding certain symbols were seen to form patterns, revealing a lost historical database- right beneath our feet.

A key observation is that in the oldest Victorian streets in Glasgow and London, in certain areas, every 11 to 14 kerbstones, symbols and letters are found to repeat. If these marks were quarry marks, where the top stones on prepared pallets were marked, their placement on the streets would be random. But to find a pattern suggests the symbols were more probably carved by individual stonemasons or gangs of masons after being set in the street, perhaps marking a day(s) work – like a Victorian factory clocking system.

In Shawlands, on Glasgow's South Side, the most common incisions are the letters J, H & T. Pairs and triplets of these letters are very common; J.Z –  J.A. –  J.P. –  J.H. – H.T. – P.J. – and H.T.J being most prevalent. Several finely carved kerbstones bear all four letters; H.T.J.T. and less frequently the letters E.H.V are observed. The most common symbols in Glasgow and London are plus (+) signs and variations of triangles and arrows. Around Marylebone Station and Soho in London variations of the Greek cross and some very complex geometric symbols can be observed.


Summary

Explosives, computerised stone cutting tools and heavy machinery have almost eradicated our requirement for stonemasons. But the next time you’re out walking, look down and keep your eyes peeled. Kerbstone symbols are mini monuments to a very hardy, resilient and clever type of man, with a massive memory capacity. The stonemasons who built Britain worked in the harshest life threatening conditions, facing death everyday, to survive and feed their families. So the next time your out walking, remember, the legacy of the stonemasons is not only present in the buildings above you, but its imprinted on the kerbstones right below your feet. If you happen to find one, please attach your photograph to an to email and send it to ashley@ashleycowie.com and it will be added to the database of symbols. The following maps is an example of the geographical detail being achieved with each kerbstone photograph.

South Kensington, West London.

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Shawlands and Pollockshields, South Glasgow