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Quarrying in Calderdale: speaker, George Bowers MBE

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The beautiful stone buildings of the Calder Valley are part of our everyday life, but we rarely think about the work that was entailed in extracting and working that stone. For George Bowers, chairman of Northowram Local History Group, old stone quarries were part of his childhood, an exciting adventure playground scattered with the debris of an old industry.

Quarrying in Calderdale

Although the quarries are largely abandoned, the industry has left its mark on the landscape, as George told the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, in a hugely enjoyable talk.

The two types of stone used in Calderdale were the Elland flag stones, which split easily and provided most of the roof slate, as well as the highly prized ashlar stone which often fronted buildings, and the millstone grit used for most buildings in Hebden Bridge. Both are tough and long-lasting, withstanding the effects of weather and pollution.

Extracting stone was an arduous and dangerous job. Most of the quarries employed a team of about fifteen men who had their own specialisations - extracting the stone, working and splitting it on site, to form the roof-slates and building stone. Their simple hand tools contrast markedly with the high precision laser cutters of today. At first stone would have been worked from the surface, but the better stone was deeper, and cranes were used, bolstered with iron or wooden supports, to lift the huge blocks to the surface. There was even some stone mining, using shafts to reach the deeper, more valuable stone.

Little of the paraphernalia of stone quarrying has been preserved. One old crane which used to stand proud on Mount Tabor was eventually taken for scrap, though one still survives in working order in Greetland. And modern stone merchant Marshall's proudly keeps the working tools of the founder, Saul Marshall. An old stone waggon which was kept open to the weather at Shibden Hall inevitably started to decay.

In the landscape there are still signs: some stone beds where the old cranes were secured; occasional banker sheds where the masons worked the stone in bad weather, and most notably the huge judd walls that were built to secure the waste stone. One such wall revealed an inscription that would thrill any local historian: a date and the name of its builder.

There is also evidence of the dangers in carrying loads of stone down Calderdale's steep hills: George has identified upright stones set at the side of roads which he believes acted as emergency stops for runaway waggons.

The stone may have been long lasting, but the delvers and masons were short-lived. The constant dust was the killer. George's grandfather had been a 'beer lad' at the quarry, fetching beer in buckets for the men to wash down the dust; his father's death certificate revealed the danger – he died at 30 of silicosis and tuberculosis caused by his work in the quarries.

The magnificent Halifax Town Hall, built with 24,000 tons of local stone from the Ringby quarry above Boothtown, stands as a monument to the stone workers, and George Bowers' researches help us to remember the work of the men who got that stone.

The next meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, at 7.30 on Wednesday 26th February in the Methodist Hall Hebden Bridge, will hear Dr Steve Caunce talk about the industrialisation of the Calder Valley landscape. All welcome.

Details from the Local History website

Many thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

Previously, on the HebWeb

Calder Valley Buildings of the Seventeenth Century: the craftsmen and their patrons Read more (27 Jan)

Some thoughts on historic buildings and their repairs by Alan Gardner

Anne Kirker tells of Sam Hill of Making Place, Soyland Read more (22 Dec)

Local History Talk: A Postcard from Sunny Bunce's, a local destination that became known as the playground of the north. Read more

Withens Reservoir, the subject of the latest Local History Talk, was part of a fascinating story . . . not so much Cragg Vale's reservoir as the property of distant Morley. Read more (19 Nov)

Local History talk on Witchcraft in the Upper Calder Valley: As make-believe witches come knocking on our doors John Billingsley, folklorist and author of many books on the subject, told members of the Local History Society that to our ancestors witchcraft was very real indeed. More info (27 Oct)

Local History talk on Mytholmroyd's Moderna: Joan Laprell spoke to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society where she recalled the village within a village that was the Moderna Blanket Factory in Mytholmroyd, where she worked for ten years. More info (12 Oct)

Local History talk on maps: The first meeting of the new season of lectures for the Hebden Bridge Local History Society was launched by Tony Morris speaking about the history of maps and map-making as well as cartographic crime. More info (30 Sept)

Bridge Mill: History on our doorstep. Justine Wyatt, with the support of the mill's current owner David Fletcher, has uncovered more of the story of the building, and gave a fascinating talk to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society. Read more (3 April)

Working from home in 1825; Working from home is not a new concept, Malcolm Heywood told members of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society. William Greenwood's described his several different occupations. Read more (20 March)

The Grave of Robin Hood: mysterious goings-on in Calderdale. Kai Roberts told the local history society about Robin Hood in Calderdale and especially the monument known as Robin Hood’s Grave. Read more (11 March)

Todmorden Weavers and the Great War. Alan Fowler, former lecturer in Economic and Social History, told a meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society that the local Weavers’ Association had 4000 members at its peak. Read more (19 Feb)

Our Railway Station in the 19th century. David Taylor told a meeting of the Local History Society about how the early railway developed in Hebden Bridge. Read more (28 Jan)

Untold Stories: A glimpse into the lives of local people - Tony Wright has for the past ten years been collecting personal life stories on film and audio tape. Read more (18 Jan)

City in the Hills - Corinne McDonald and Ann Kilbey told a meeting of the Local History Society of Dawson City, the building of the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and the publication of a new book. Read more (16 Dec)

Lament for the Mills - Robert Cockcroft, poet and academic told of his childhood spent close to mills owned and operated by his grandfather, John Cockcroft and his father, Keith. Read more (2 Dec)

How much thought do you give to a war memorial? - Mike Edwards told a meeting of the Local History Society, war memorials can be found in many forms and in unusual places. Read more (17 Nov)

Clubhouses: self help and co-operation - A small row of houses in Old Town, called Clubhouses, encapsulates some of the history and spirit of the Calder Valley explains Julie Cockburn. (30 October 2012)

Small Town Saturday Night - The story of a love affair with rock 'n roll at its peak in the 1950s and 60s from speaker Trevor Simpson.

The world of Cornelius Ashworth, speaker Alan Petford, Local History talk of 10 October 2012

Hebden Bridge Local History Society

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