At its peak, Torbay’s decorative stone industry had the glory of a gold medal at the Great Exhibition and there is still an active industry to this day using the same skills, if not the same stones, however you could be forgiven for not having heard of it.
Unlike the much-lauded potteries, little had been written about it until a few years ago.
The industry developed due to the local geology.
The limestones found in cliffs and quarries of South Devon show a huge variety of colours and textures formed by fossils of extinct sea creatures and corals.
This gave both interest and colour to the items made and by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, there was an established industry making a variety of item from large architectural fittings to jewellery and paperweights.
The growing tourist trade in Torbay brought customers and soon there were numerous marble works ranging from small domestic workshops to large companies employing 100 or more staff. These were mainly based in Babbacombe and St Marychurch, with much of the stone coming from the costal quarry at Petit Tor.
Many of the items produced went on sale in specialist shops and showrooms both locally and in London, as well as being exported around the world.
Items were even bought by Queen Victoria after a visit by Prince Albert in 1852; one of which, an intricate goldfinch platter, is now part of Torquay Museum’s collections.
The Devon marble industry is often undeservedly overlooked. Although it is possible to see Devon marble everywhere, from the plinth of Grand National trophy to Salisbury Cathedral, there is still a lack of recognition of the industry.
Items are regularly misidentified as having been made in Derbyshire or Italy, where there were better known decorative stone industries.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of recognition is the difficulty in identifying Devon items; there are not many items identified in museum collections and marked items are incredibly rare.
The only public collection of any size is held by Torquay Museum and a selection of the collection is on permanent display.
It is also possible to see the architectural uses of the stone in buildings across the country, All Saint’s Church in Babbacombe being an excellent example.