Philanthropist Hamish Ogston has given a $37 million gift to heritage skills training, breathing new life into dying crafts and addressing the chronic shortage of specialists who can prevent historic buildings from deteriorating beyond repair.
It is the largest private single commitment to the heritage training cause and will enable up to 2,700 new heritage conservation apprentices and trainees to learn centuries-old techniques.
Historic England listed almost 5,000 buildings and sites on its 2022 Heritage at Risk register. It has previously warned of further deterioration without training a new generation of craftspeople with heritage skills.
Carpentry, plastering, roofing and stonemasonry are among traditional crafts that differ from modern construction methods. The sector has long warned that many vital skills are at risk of being lost for ever.
The “endangered” register of the Heritage Crafts Association lists barely a handful of specialists in flint knapping, the shaping of flint for masonry.
The funding will go to English Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, and the Commonwealth Heritage Forum and the Cathedrals’ Workshop Fellowship, supporting everything from hands-on practical work to learning how to create financially sustainable historic attractions for the general public.
English Heritage alone will receive over $14 million, which will enable a “groundbreaking apprenticeship program” that will “save the skill of flint working from extinction”.
It will start by establishing a training centre in East Anglia, with more than 50 apprenticeship roles as well as traineeships. It means the future of 34 flint castles and abbeys in the east of England will be safeguarded.
Support from the Hamish Ogston Foundation will now allow English Heritage apprentices to work directly on Baconsthorpe Castle, a landmark site in north Norfolk that is currently closed due to a “high-level failure of masonry”. Without comprehensive repair, it would be “at risk”.
Similarly, they will be able to work on the mainly 14th-century remains of Leiston Abbey, among Suffolk’s most impressive monastic ruins, using flint and stone. The site is now highly vulnerable, with large areas currently fenced off.
Masonry flintknapper Duncan Berry of Berry Stonework in Chichester, West Sussex, welcomed the funding news, saying there is a “big shortage” of flintknappers, although he would want to train more if he had the space: “We’re inundated with people wanting to learn.”
He added that there was huge demand for flint work, both for historic and contemporary buildings: “Flint has been used from the earliest structures. Even Roman buildings used flint. So it’s been used as a building material ever since they worked out that you could stick things together with lime mortars. It’s an amazing building material because it’s actually carbon neutral as well. You just pick it off the fields and stack it up.”
The funding will also enable a scheme for stonemasonry students at Durham, Gloucester and Canterbury cathedrals, learning from the “very best” heritage professionals.
Robert Bargery, the heritage project director at the Hamish Ogston Foundation, said the charity was addressing a “skills deficit”. Apart from helping historic buildings “that need help”, it is particularly reaching out to people from deprived parts of the country, among other possible recruits.
“There could be some very good people who need a bit of a leg-up. The point of this program is to help them do that, actively to go out and encourage people to look at heritage skills they might not otherwise have thought about as a career.”
Ogston, a former businessman, has bequeathed his entire fortune to his foundation, established in 2019 to support health, heritage, and music.
He said an “ecosystem of heritage conservation expertise” was needed to ensure the survival of some of the greatest historic buildings: “With this new funding, we hope to establish such an ecosystem, so that more young people, no matter who they are or where they come from, can access the unique opportunity of a career in heritage conservation.”
Hamish Ogston was appointed a CBE in 2011 for services to business and the community in York. In 2001 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Ogston has also been awarded Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Financial Services Award in 2000 and Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award from University of Manchester in 2002.
In 2010 Ogston was presented with a ‘Proclamation of Resolution’ by Councilwoman Janice Hahn on behalf of the Los Angeles City Council. It was awarded in recognition of his long-standing relationship with the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, his business relationships in America and his altruistic and philanthropic efforts.