Rededication of the Memorial of John Board, Friday 24 July 2015

Report by Bernice Lashbrook

John Board is perhaps one of the most important figures in the history of Bridgwater as an innovator and experimental pioneer. His work, part of broader effort in the development in reinforced concrete, would later change the world. Yet he is relatively unknown. The Friends of the Wembdon Road Cemetery held a service of remembrance, where his recently repaired memorial was rededicated, to honour this great man.

The Board/Akerman memorial, the tallest in the cemetery, a Victorian-Gothic obelisk, recently repaired by the Friends and Fine Memorials.

On Friday 24th July, despite heavy rain, some 30 people attended the re-dedication of the restored monument of John Board. The ceremony was attended by the Mayor of Bridgwater Councillor Leigh Redman (who is also our Honorary President); the deputy Mayor, Councillor Alex Glassford; Ms. Clementine Cecil, Director of SAVE Britain's Heritage and Mr. Chris Balme, their architect, from Ferguson Mann architects. SAVE own Castle House in Castle Street, Bridgwater, which stands today as a unique example of the pioneering work John Board carried out in the production of reinforced concrete, which they are in the process of conserving.

Representatives from other groups including Somerset and Dorset Family History, the Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society; Fine Memorials, South West Reclamation and, of course, some of our own members also gathered to pay tribute to this remarkable man.

In view of the poor weather conditions, the planned Order of Proceedings had to be abandoned. In his lifetime a member of the Unitarian Chapel, Dampiet Street, Bridgwater, it was fitting for the prayer to be given by Mrs. Eleanor Dixon, Hon. Lay Pastor (retired) from the church. The floral tribute was laid by the Friends' Treasurer, Mrs. Astrid Wilkins. Eleanor's prayer:

"Everlasting Spirit, eternal God, we gather in this special place which has been resurrected from decay by the hard work and commitment of a small band of dedicated people, to honour John Board of this town; to pay him tribute and re-dedicate his memorial.

"He was a man of Bridgwater, a non-conformist, whose freedom of thought and creativity led him to become a power for good in the community.

"His pioneering work with cement and reinforced concrete went on to transform the building industry both at home and abroad allowing, into the future, the creation of all kinds of structures worldwide, in housing; business; leisure; manufacture; hospitals and other humanitarian areas.

"We salute him here today and pray that the spirit of selfless public service be strong in us and our present day community, also to strengthen the resolve to work for a future where prosperity goes hand in hand with the good of our town's people and give us also, we pray, a continuing and responsible strong sense of service and citizenship.

"Warm summer sun shine kindly here,
Soft western wind blow sweetly here
A blessing on all who lie here."

"And now, O God, we ask for holy and everlasting piece which lays to rest all the troubles of our lives, to abide with us now and for evermore. Amen"

Those present were then invited to adjourn to The Malt Shovel inn for a welcome cuppa and biscuits.

It was in this comfortable (and dry setting!) that we heard the background of John Board's life and words of tribute which had been prepared by our Honorary Adviser, Mr. Harry Frost. Harry shared the findings of his long-term research on the life of John Board (1802-1862), charting the development of his career, the business and his innovations.

Born in 1802, John Board came from a farming family, he married into a another involved in lime burning and he developed an interest in experimenting with cement production from the blue lias stone of the Polden Hills. For centuries lime had been used not only as a building material, but as a key ingredient in bricklayer's mortar. However, John Board realised the further potential of this natural resource in the versions he created of both Roman and Portland cement.

Board founded a cement works in Puriton near Dunball in 1844 and as far as can be ascertained he became the first pioneering experimenter of ferro-cement in Britain. He did this by encasing metal rods within cement or concrete to make a very strong and relatively cheap building material. John Board used iron rods simply because at that time Henry Bessemer was still yet to invent his ‘Process’ that would make steel production financially viable. These early experiments by John Board would lead the way to the production of what we know today as re-inforced concrete. Realising the possibilities of the material he was developing, he also experimented with pre-cast building materials, decorative elements such as statues, corbels, tracery - even skirting boards. From moulds he could easily and quickly cast a feature that it might take a stonemason days to carve.

All of these experimental techniques were used in the construction of Castle House erected in 1851 just seven years after his production of cement began. Castle House also known as 'Portland Castle', and 'Concrete Castle', was built in Queen Street, Bridgwater. In essence it was a show home to demonstrate to prospective customers the versatility of this material. It was also the residence of his eldest daughter Julia Savage Akerman and family and the registered office of the firm until at least John Board’s death in 1862.

Unfortunately for Board, although his cement business was successful, the full possibilities of his techniques and material were not realised in his lifetime and did not find full expression until the twentieth century. Considering that he died in 1862, he was well ahead of his time. He was successful as a merchant, cement manufacturer and brick and tile manufacturer and his memorial in the Wembdon Road Cemetery expressed this modest success. It had been badly vandalised, toppled and broken, so its repair by the Friends of the Wembdon Road Cemetery, carried out by Fine Memorials, means it can properly stand again as a fitting tribute to this great man.

We also heard from Clementine Cecil about the urgent work they had been steadily carrying out over the past 2-3 years in maintaining Castle House. SAVE bought the house for £1 back in 1999 and have been working on it for the last 16 years. Perceptions had been that not a great deal had been done for the building in recent years and fears persisted that the fabric was deteriorating. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that so far, a great deal of money has been expended in ensuring its future stability. With the promise of future sponsorship, further work on the building is planned, although it is a very long term endeavour. They are still seeking a settlement for the final use of the building and finding a body interested in taking it on. Once this is found and a clear future vision is in place, securing funding will be that much easier.

Chris Balme, the architect currently working on Castle House then gave us an update on the current works and some insights in to what makes the building really special, in its innovative use of materials, structures and forms. He also shared the considerable problems these were causing, as they were having to spend a great deal of time experimenting to replicate the original methods!

To conclude the proceedings, the Mayor, on behalf of the town, gave his thanks for the ongoing work of the Friends in their efforts to bring the cemetery back to some of its former state; that of a 'true garden of remembrance'. He also expressed appreciation for the care and support of SAVE Brtiain's Heritage which he and the local Councils fully supported. All in all it had been another successful event in celebrating the life of another 'son of Bridgwater' whose experimentation and 'thinking beyond his time' was to have such a powerful effect world-wide.