William Wilson
Victorian Stonemason

On the tombstone erected to his memory in Orton Churchyard he is described as “William Wilson, Sculptor”, a title which his work and accomplishments so richly deserved. The family physician – a local landowner and a Justice of the Peace – added his own epitaph. “Had he lived”, he said, “he would have become famous”.

The village of Orton, in the old County of Westmorland, lies at the centre of an upland farming community spread out over many thousands of acres of fell and dale. Immediately to the north it is dominated by a series of limestone ridges which straggle away for miles in either direction.

To the south are the rounded tops of the Howgill Fells, to the west the more rugged summits of the Shap Fells, Fawcet Forest, and Whinfell Common, and to the east the ridges of Mallerstang. The village is watered by two becks, which eventually unite before tumbling into the upper reaches of the Lune near Tebay.

William Wilson was born in Orton in 1839, the youngest son of William and Janet Wilson. At that time the village was a busy and thriving place of about 350 souls, where sheep and cattle fairs were part of a traditional way of life. A multitude of trades flourished.

William, the father, was a “blue slater” by trade, but came from a line of small farmers long resident in the parish, whose younger sons usually had to find a trade or craft for their livelihood. Young William’s mother was Parkin by name, also born in the parish of a farming family.

By the nature of his trade, the boy’s father had to move about from place to place. For this reason, his wife and family probably endured a somewhat unsettled life, although they retained their roots in Orton. For the same reason the young William had a rather patchy schooling. Nevertheless, his handwriting in later life was fluent and legible, although his spelling was sometimes purely phonetic.

There is a legend in the Wilson family that the young William, having finished his schooling, served his apprenticeship as a stonemason in Perthshire, where the family are said to have links. There is, however, no available evidence to support this belief.

Up to the year 1856, when he would have been 17, his name does not appear in the records of the Wright’s Incorporation, the body through which it is a practice to indenture apprentices. Such lack of evidence may not be entirely conclusive, for after 1856 there is, unfortunately, a hiatus of some years in the records of the Incorporation.

Whatever may have been the actual circumstances of William’s apprenticeship, by 1860 he was in Crosby Ravensworth, five miles from Orton in the next parish, working from alongside his kinsman Robert Hoggarth Parkin, a man 19 years older than himself, who spent best part of a lifetime on restoration work at Crosby Ravensworth during the incumbency, from 1847 to 1887, of the Rev. George Frederick Weston. William was still in Crosby in 1861, for he is shown in the census of that year as living as a boarder, together with another stonemason, with the village grocer and draper.

On His Own Account. By the time he was 21 years of age, William had decided to go into business for himself. He was ambitious, and he was a sculptor of talent, it is said that during his dinner-hour at work he would pick up a block of stone and carve a good likeness of anyone who was willing to sit for him.

He had already executed several orders for headstones in Crosby Churchyard, His notebook contains what appear to be details of deposits with several banks, and there is a memorandum on the purchase of a watch, for which he paid 5 guineas.

In the notebook, too, are a number of practical hints for the builder, among which is one of a quite different nature which suggests that William may have been showing signs of premature baldness. It reads: “How to make hair grow, boil beef suet and sweet oil together, and that will make hair grow”.

Early in 1861 William acquired a noble patron in the person of the Hon. Mrs. Greville Howard of Levens Hall, who owned property in Crosby’s neighbouring parish of  Asby. How William came to the notice of the Hon. Mrs. Howard is not known; the reason is clear, however.

Alexander Forbes, who had been head gardener at Levens Hall for half a century, and had been an authority on ornamental gardening, had died at the age of 77. A tombstone was required, and William got the commission. The design chosen was a coffin-shaped, bearing, as William himself describes it. “a tree up the midel, and cross at top”! Alexander Forbes’ remains lie in Heversham Churchyard.

Three years later, no doubt on the strength of his earlier work for the Hon Mrs Howard, he was called to Levens to do the stonework for some alterations to the school at Levens, which had been built and maintained by the Howard family.

The Rev. Mr. Weston, during his incumbency at Crosby Ravensworth, lost his first wife in 1855, and his second, in 1864, both of them at comparatively early ages. To each of these ladies Mr. Weston had a memorial window dedicated. The are several designs marked “Weston Window” in William’s notebook, suggestions for the memorial window to Mary Weston, the first wife, but, no doubt to William’s disappointment, none was accepted.

Work at Kendal. Several improvements to house property, involving stonework for a bay and plain windows, were noted in 1861 and 1862. Ecclesiastical work, however, had a special attraction for the young craftsman, for it drew upon all his skill as a stone carver.

Not surprisingly, then, in 1863, at the age of 24, he was at work on Kendal Parish Church, replacing the plain, perpendicular-style window in the Strickland Chapel with tracery. William probably received this commission on the recommendation of the Manchester architect J.S. Crowther, who was in charge of the restoration works at Kendal, and was also supervising the rebuilding at Crosby Ravensworth, where he would have had personal knowledge of the quality of William’s work.

William Wilson’s ability to find sources of work, even at a distance, can only be admired. As an example, in 1864 he made detailed noted, illustrated by sketches, of various parts of Furness Abbey, which since the Dissolution had fallen into decay. It was now in possession of the Cavendish family. It is not clear, however, if the work was carried out.

The detailed notes and sketches clearly indicate that William Wilson must have set foot in the Abbey precincts. Furthermore, in his notebook there is a tender in the sum of 90, a considerable amount in those days when a guinea would cover a week’s wages,” for mason at Furness Abbey according to plan and specification”.

Recourse to the surviving “Cavendish of Holker” papers in Lancashire Record Office has, however, disclosed no account for work in 1842, and the question as to whether or not William actually carried out restoration work in that year remains unresolved.

In June 1864, William married Mary Ellwood, a farmer’s daughter from Maulds Meaburn. Each was 25 years of age. The ceremony took place in Crosby Ravensworth Church, some of the masonry of which had been moulded by William’s own hammer and chisel.

The couple went to live at Maulds Meaburn, probably with the Ellwoods as a temporary measure, because William was to be working away from home at the time. He and his wife were still at Maulds Meaburn when their first child was born in February 1866, but by August 1869, when the second child arrived, they were domiciled in Orton.

The headstone carved by William Wilson for his father-in-laws grave at Crosby Ravensworth

Great Mobility. The growth of the railway system had given William the mobility he needed to undertake work at a distance. The Furness Railway, in particular, enabled him to reach places in North Lancashire. Penny Bridge, where he was working on the Church of St. Mary a few weeks after his marriage, was one.

The Church at Penny Bridge consecrated in 1871, had been built and endowed by William Penny in order to meet the religious needs of the considerably increased population at Penny Bridge and at the nearby port of Greenodd, attracted by the iron-founding which had grown up in the neighbourhood and the timber trade and shipping which it generated

In 1864-5, the church was considerably enlarged, the nave being completely renovated by Madeline, Countess Blucher von Wahlstadt, a daughter of Sir Robert Dallas, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleases, and connected by marriage with William Penny, the founder. The architect was E.G. Paley.

According to his notes and sketches, William Wilson’s share of the work involved tracery, mullions, jambs and the sill for a big window which he does not specify, but which appears to have been the west window over the entrance porch, together with the stonework for several small windows, a pillar in the nave, and buttresses at the west end.

The export of locally-produced iron also contributed to the prosperity of the town of Ulverston, a circumstance which led to the restoration and enlargements of the Parish Church of St. Mary. E.G. Paley was the architect, and the contractors at Penny Bridge and William Wilson moved with him.

East Window St Mary's Church Ulverston

William notes “ the 3 'litered' windows took me and Bob Wilson and a labourer 3 week paring and all to gather Ulverston old church tracery”

William was entrusted with the mouldings and tracery for three of the windows, one of which was the large, east windows of five lights. The comment “All my work, Wm Wilson” at the end of his notes and sketches would seem to echo William’s personal satisfaction with his work at Ulverston.

From St. Mary’s Church William moved to the town’s gasworks. First illuminated by gas in 1834, the town had 82 public lamps by 1849. In 1865, due to continued growth of the town, it would seem that an extension to the works had become necessary, for there are noted referring to walling, quoins, and arch stones. Compared to the intricate architecture, it was simple, if to him less interesting work

Stone From Barney. Appleby was a busy market town and the County of Westmorland. The Cumberland and Carlisle Bank had a branch there for many years, but in 1868 the Cumberland Union Bank moved into the town to take up premises next door.

William Wilson was involved in the construction of the new three-storey building, which was faced with a yellow freestone from Bernard Castle – “Barney Castle” stone as he calls it in this notebook.

In 1869 Kendal Parish Church had some further restoration and alterations bestowed upon it. The Hon. Mrs. Howard of Levens has the east end of Bellingham Chapel rebuilt, two new tracery windows being put in, while the three celestory windows above were replaced by a rose window.

The Rose Window Kendal Parish Church.

According to Williams notebook this took 3 weeks to work with 12 mullions and 9 days to work 1 piece of tracery to go round the wheel of the windows 7 feet diameter

Perhaps it was not surprising that, having worked for both the noble patron and the architect previously, William was awarded some of the work. His contribution was the rose window, seven feet in diameter, moulded and carved in “Barney Castle” stone.

Carvings on the house at Newbiggin-on-Lune

The style reveals the man! A substantial residence with what was once a coach-house attached, situated in the village of Newbiggin-on-Lune, attracted the notice of the writer during a chance visit, on account of the pilasters with carved capitals at the front door, the lintel, dripstone, and shield above, and the carvings on the coach-house wall. These items seemed to bear all the hallmarks of William Wilson’s work. Subsequent enquiry confirmed that the surmise was correct, and elicited the date of the building as 1869.

Orton  School

By 1872, having in the previous year and a half been engaged in adding an extension to the village school at Orton,and in building of a new Police Station at Shap, William turned his attention to the improvement of his own residence. The details are truly worth of description.

Originally two of a number of small terraced cottages on Orton’s main street, they were converted into one dwelling, with a two-storey bay, surmounted by battlemented brickwork at one end, and a ground-floor bay at the other. Above the ground-floor bay were windows having a kind of “Gibbs” surround, and lintels enclosing twin Tudor arches and carved with quatrefoils in bas-relief

Old Photo showing Castlelations

The front door was flanked by pilasters bearing capitals decorated with Fleuron’s and dog-tool carving. The lintel bore three quatrefoils, two with fleurons and one with a shield between the cusps. A male face looked out from one end.

High above the front door was a niche, a pillar at each side, surmounted by a decorated arch with human heads as bosses. Inside the niche a shield bore the initials “M.E.” – those of his wife before marriage – and the date 1872. Every details reflected the ecclesiastical work with which William was closely engaged

Even the windows were set directly into the stonework. This idiosyncratic treatment of the house must have made it more than conspicuous among the terraced cottages in the village street.

On the fly-leaf of William’s notebook is the address of a Liverpool stonemason and sculptor. Liverpool in the 1870s was a growing city, a busy seaport, and a commercial centre. Was William thinking of moving to the big city?

Whatever his plans may have been, they were destined not to be fulfilled. In 1875 ill-health began to overtake him, and early in 1877 he suffered an acute attack of pneumonia, exacerbated by an abscess on the lung, to which he succumbed. He died on the 20th April, at the early age of 37 years, leaving a wife and four young children.

Was William responsible for other work around Orton. There seems to be some that looks like his work and at the right time..

William even travelled over to the North East where the ancient church of St. Cuthberts', Corsenside contains two white marble tablets containing the Ten Commandments. They stand either side of the Chancel Arch on 2 pillars marked 'WILSON' 'ORTON' '1874'. At this time Redman Sisson, brother of John Septimus Sisson, was the incumbent at St. Cuthberts' which is probably why William got this commission.


What happened to Mary and his children?

When William died Mary turned Swan Villa into a Temperance Hotel and set up a grocers shop on the premises before moving to Kirkby Stephen to become the innkeeper of the White Lion. Mary died March 17th 1918 aged 79 years and is buried in Orton churchyard with her husband. 

Her daughter Mary at the age of 16 was training as a dressmaker with Mary Bateman in Great Dockray. Her mother noted that “Mary went to Miss Birkbecks 15th  Oct” but no year was noted. By the age of 26, she was working for her mother as a waitress at The White Lion Kirkby Stephen. She married Charles Edwin Betts Lindsay in 1905 and they had two children William and Doris May.


 Thomas emigrated to South Africa and married Francis Josephine Fredericka Mulla and had 5 children, Thomas Ellwood, Edtythe Magdalene, Dorothy Margaret, Ernest Cecil and Violet May.  The youngest daughter was still alive at the time of writing this (June 2013). His mother, records money being received from: Thomas Wilson, Plumstead Drapery Store, Wynbert,Cape Colony, South Africa between 1900 and 1903.

George became a farmer and the innkeeper of the Fleece Hotel (Now the George Hotel) in Orton, married Frances Jane from Liverpool and had 5 children., Albert, William, Frances Mary, Thomas and Horace.

William, their youngest son, was only a few months old when his father died but we do not know ,as yet, what happened to him. His mother made a entry in her notebook that “Willie went to Richardson April 25 1893”. He would have been 16 years old so this was possibly as an apprentice.

What would have happened if William Wilson had survived we do not know but he was obviously a great sculptor.