Cathedral Works Organisation - Saving our heritage

PUBLISHED: 13:39 16 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 February 2013

Cathedral Works Organisation - Saving our heritage

Cathedral Works Organisation - Saving our heritage

On a modern industrial estate in Sussex is a company that plays a vital part in maintaining the historic fabric of the county and beyond. CWO, Cathedral Works Organisation, has been restoring and caring for ancient buildings since 1965.

CATHEDRAL Works Organisation is a business with a mission. A mission to save our history for the next generation and beyond. Established in 1965 by the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral it has since expanded and changed ownership to become a haven of craftsmanship in the 21st Century.
The management bought the company from its most recent owners, the Osborne Group, in October 2006. Since then they have grown its turnover from 5million a year to around 10million.

They employ 99 people, at least 75 of them trained craftsmen. This includes the managing director, Bernard Burns, and operations manager Richard Mitchell. The company has come a long way since its humble beginnings in a hut in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral. Richard Mitchell was there from the start.

I joined the Dean and Chapter as a carpentry apprentice nearly 45 years ago. After a few months they set up the Cathedral Works Organisation and asked if I would like to join as an apprentice stonemason. Ive been here ever since.

Shortly after CWO was set up it moved in 1966 to the Terminus Road industrial estate on land owned by the Dean and Chapter. The company has been there ever since and is currently doing work to expand the office space on the site.

The Dean and Chapter divested themselves of CWO in 1991 when it was bought by Geoffrey Osborne of the Osborne Group. It remained in Osbornes control until the management buyout. Now the company has expanded beyond its origins as a body set up to maintain the fabric of Chichester Cathedral and is an historic buildings contractor to the whole of the
South East.

It was awarded a Royal Warrant as Stonemasonry and Restoration Contractors in 1995. MD Bernard Burns is the Warrant Holder. The company works on the Royal Palaces, including Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle.

We did a lot of work after the big fire at Windsor Castle and we are restoring the inner courtyard at Buckingham Palace at the moment, says Mr. Burns. The companys work in Sussex includes a return to where it all began, at Chichester Cathedral where a 500,000 restoration project on the Cloisters and St Faiths House is being finished and the Bell Tower is being surveyed for a possible further major project.

In some cases the staff enjoy an ongoing relationship with the historic building or monument that they care for. Richard Mitchell has spent most of his working life caring for the historic Chichester Cross.

He said: Ive been looking after it for 45 years on and off. Weve just finished 1,000 of maintenance work on it. The company does a lot of work on war memorials before Remembrance Day, tidying up the memorials and in some cases renewing the inscriptions or adding new names from current wars.

The need for their work will continue, some of it fuelled by mistakes made in the past. One of the commonest mistakes made by previous generations of restorers, dating back to Victorian times, was the use of cement for patching.
This continued into the 1960s. The cement does not breathe like the original fabric of the building and imposes undue stresses leading to problems including structural cracks.


The company has worked on many of the famous buildings and churches in Sussex as well as further afield. Some of the more recent projects are:

  • Chichester Cathedral Cloisters and

  • St Faiths House

  • Restoration of the Petworth

  • Ionic Rotunda

  • Christs Hospital School, Horsham

  • Goodwood Golf Club

  • St Josephs RC Church, Brighton

  • St Mary De Haura, New Shoreham

  • Temple Bar, Paternoster Square,

  • City of London

  • The Monument, City of London

  • St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle

Glossary of masons terms

Here are a few of the many technical terms used in stonemasonry:

Ashlar: squared building stone
Baluster: short post or pillar supporting a rail
Cill: lower horizontal member of a
door or window frame
Coping: top course of masonry in
a wall, often sloping
Cornice: ornamental moulding
Finial: ornamental top or end of
a roof or gable
Mullion: vertical bar dividing the
lights in a window
Parapet: low wall at edge of roof,
balcony or bridge
Plinth: lower square slab at the
base of a column
Quoin: cornerstone
Tracery: ornamental stone openwork
Transom: horizontal bar across
a window or top of a door

A modern base for a medieval craft

The buildings on the Terminus Road industrial estate in Chichester house the companys offices as well as a stoneyard and workshops. All the work is as green as possible with excess stone being taken for road building and water being reused.

At least 25 tons of stone from the quarry arrives every week at the base before being cut into blocks by machine.

After the machine work, the craftsmen take over. The company takes on apprentices and trains them from scratch in the age-old and modern techniques of stonework.

Some of the workplace equipment, such as air extractors to take away the dust, and computer controlled saws, would not be familiar to medieval masons but other techniques and tools would be recognised by the men who built the cathedrals.

The plans may be drawn up by computer and the basic cutting of the stone done by machine but in the end the fine work, the craftsmanship, is still done by hand.

Some of the traditions live on. They still put a time capsule inside their larger projects and each mason has their own individual mark which they carve onto each piece they complete.

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