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Emily Draper becomes Worcester Cathedral’s first female stonemason apprentice

A career set in stone

Emily Draper, twenty-six, is Worcester Cathedral’s first female stonemason apprentice. Tabby Kinder finds out how Freemason support has helped Emily to carve out a dream career

Perched on a dusty block of stone, Emily is fresh-faced and buoyed from the morning’s assessment with her tutor from City of Bath College. It’s just a few degrees above freezing in the drafty workshop that leans against the south-east side of Worcester Cathedral, but Emily doesn’t seem to mind. Clasping a chisel in her gloved hand, she absent-mindedly smudges dust on her fleece with the other. ‘I didn’t know whether to dress up or not for the photos,’ she says, ‘so I just wore my normal work stuff.’

Chatting to a colleague, a man about twenty years her senior, Emily is charming and sincere. Her youthful presence and the jovial atmosphere of the workshop contrast with the dignified serenity of the cathedral. ‘It’s my dream job,’ she enthuses later, now in the warmth of the on-site office. Her face flushes with the pride she has in her newfound career; it’s her passion for the trade that won her the position as Worcester Cathedral’s first female stonemason apprentice.

‘I’ve got the chance to do something that is not only personally fulfilling but also makes my family proud. It’s a career close to my heart’

The right fit

Funded by local Freemasons and the Grand Charity, Emily currently splits her time between the cathedral, where she is learning the intricacies of sculpting stone under the tutorage of master mason Darren Steele, and City of Bath College, where she studies the theoretical methods of stonemasonry two days a week. When asked about her decision to pursue an apprenticeship in stonemasonry, Emily says: ‘I think it just arrived in my consciousness one day. I’ve always been interested in history, and Worcester Cathedral has always been in the back of my mind because I was brought up near here.’

Emily’s professional journey began after she completed a degree in Fine Art from The Arts University College at Bournemouth. She enrolled in the stonemasonry diploma at City of Bath College, balancing work and college while driving the seventy-five miles between the two. ‘It was a lot to deal with, especially when you don’t know whether you’ll end up with a job,’ she says. ‘It was a risk, but definitely a calculated risk. I hoped that if I worked really hard it would make me employable.’ 

The risk paid off when, in August last year, Emily beat forty-five other applicants to win the apprenticeship at Worcester Cathedral. ‘The head of my course recommended I went for it, but I didn’t think I’d hear back. It was nerve-wracking. When I found out I had been shortlisted, I was over the moon.’

For Darren, Emily stood out as a strong candidate: ‘We had a tremendous amount of interest in the apprenticeship, but Emily came out on top as she showed the passion and enthusiasm in stonemasonry as a career that I was looking for.’

Preserving history

Although Emily’s grandfather died when she was just twelve, she credits him as the main influence in her career path. ‘He was a mechanical engineer and an illustrator, so his trade was very hands-on and creative – but also industrious. It’s clear I get a lot of my passion for stonemasonry from him,’ she says. Coincidentally, Emily’s grandfather was also a Freemason at a chapter in Devon.

For Emily, the fact that Freemasons are providing the funding for her apprenticeship proves she is on the right track: ‘I’ve got the chance to do something that is not only personally fulfilling but also makes my family proud. I only have memories of my granddad from when I was a child, but my work brings me very close to him as I feel like it’s something that he would have liked me to do. It’s a career that’s very close to my heart.’

Restoring a cathedral as grand in size and splendour as Worcester is an endless task. ‘By the time you’ve gone half way round, the bit behind you has started falling apart again,’ says Darren. The work being carried out is particularly impressive because the conservation team at Worcester Cathedral does not use power tools at any stage of the restoration process. Even for the stonemason industry, Emily says, this is rare: ‘It’s sometimes frustrating, but very fulfilling creating something that matters using your hands.’

Using traditional techniques means that achieving something as straightforward as a flat surface becomes an art form in itself for Emily and her team. ‘In order to actually work something by hand and make something that is technically perfect, you have to have respect for the building,’ she says. ‘There’s an argument that you can get the same job done twice as fast by using power tools, but I think it’s important to keep traditional hand skills alive. In a building like this you benefit from having a hands-on approach as you respect the stone more. You want to make it perfect.’

Lofty ambitions

In 2010, Darren and his counterparts founded the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship, a partnership of eight Anglican cathedrals – Worcester, Gloucester, Lincoln, Canterbury, York Minster, Winchester, Salisbury and Durham – created to develop the professional training of new and experienced stonemasons. This unique community, of which Prince Charles is patron, has developed a qualification championing traditional hand crafts, as well as an exchange programme to allow apprentices to move between the country’s cathedrals to try working on different types of stone. Darren has arranged for Emily to spend a fortnight at Salisbury Cathedral in the spring to hone her carving, a skill in which she has shown promise.

For the past twenty years, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Worcestershire has aimed to ensure that Worcester Cathedral always has an apprentice stonemason in training. It’s a worthy ambition but also costly – £25,000 over five years.

Provincial Grand Master of Worcestershire Richard Goddard says: ‘I think it’s very important that we support our heritage and also our roots. We have had a close relationship with the cathedral for more than one hundred and fifty years and it’s something we should continue to support.’

Emily’s first major contribution to the restoration of the cathedral is a large restorative phase on the library parapet wall. She took a sixteenth-century weather-worn coping stone and reworked and replaced it. Emily’s still coming to terms with the sheer scale of work her job entails, but the rewards of contributing to a piece of history make it more than worthwhile. ‘I thrive on the pressure of working with the knowledge that whatever I add could be there for another thousand years.’

Securing the future of the cathedral

Over the past twenty-three years, the entire exterior of Worcester Cathedral, including the chapter house and cloisters, has been systematically restored. The huge project, which began in 1988, first focused on strengthening the tower, then the cathedral’s Works Department moved in a clockwise direction around the rest of the building. The last major restoration project finished in 1874, so the task had to ensure the building could face the next hundred years. A special thanksgiving service was held in September 2011 to commemorate the completion of the work, which cost £10m in total. More than £7m was raised by public appeal and around £3m was received in grants from English Heritage, the Wolfson Foundation, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Worcester and other grant-making bodies.