England Occupations Quarrying and Stone Working (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Quarrying and Working with Stone Cont.


The traditional miller needed the skills of a millwright for the dressing and setting up of millstones critical to efficient usage. Different stones were used for different seeds, such as barley, wheat, oats, rye, or beans and for different products such as animal feeds or flour. The most widely used were the gritstones from the Peak District of north Derbyshire, but French stones were preferred for white flour milling. In the late 19th century composition millstones were developed from cement and a granulated material such as emery, and metal roller mills also became common. Further information is given by Arnold (All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), Watts (Corn Milling. Shire Publications, 1998), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), and Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981) The development of watermills and windmills is addressed by Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968) and Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), and an index of millers, mills and millwrights is available.


Prior to the development of concrete and tar macadam, pavio(u)rs were responsible for paving the streets (roads) and pavements (sidewalks) with either square granite blocks or rounded beach cobblestones, both embedded in screened gravel or sand. In London this started in the early 15th century, but only the major arteries were so paved at first. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) gives a description of the work, and the London Pavio(u)rs’ Company apprenticeships 1568-1800 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 20. Paviors’ Company 1568-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998).


The quarrying of slate has been a major industry in north Wales, the Lake District, Cornwall and also at Swithland in Leicestershire, the latter since Roman times. It began around Snowdon in Wales in the mid-18th century and production peaked about a century later, and it continues in this region which has one of the biggest and best slate deposits in the world. A slate mining village like Corris, Merionethshire must have been a dreary place in which to live: up in the cold, bleak hills surrounded by piles of slate mine waste and everything the same dark grey since it was all made of slate—houses, roofs, chapels, fences, the bridge and even the tombstones!

Slate is admired because it can be cleaved into thin wafers which are therefore light in weight, and it was used throughout Britain for roofing houses and factories. Other uses include writing slates in schools, kitchen sinks, mantelpieces, millstones, cheese presses and it is particularly good for tombstones as the inscriptions do not weather easily. Nowadays it makes an attractive medium for engravings of local scenes and wildlife for the tourist market (Dixon). Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982), Stanier (Quarries and Quarrying. Shire Publications, 2000) and Merfyn Williams (The Slate Industry. Shire Publications, 1991) have more about the slate industry.

Stone Quarrying and Stone Masons

There are hundreds of small quarries all over Britain, each a formerly important feature of the local economy. The nature of the rock usually dictated production of specific kinds of stone for building, millstones, grinding stones, roofing slates, etc. The most useful stones for building are the sedimentary Jurassic limestones which run in two parallel bands north to south from the North Yorkshire Moors to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Portland Stone is one of the world’s finest building materials, having been quarried from the 14th century and transported by water for use in such places as Exeter Cathedral, and the Tower of London. In the quarter century after the Great Fire of London (1666) 50,000 tons of Portland stone were shipped to London to rebuild the capital. Sandstones are also sedimentary rocks, the strongest being the coarse-grained millstone grits of Derbyshire and the Yorkshire Pennines; these were used for making grinding stones for the Sheffield cutlery trade and for wind and water mills. The fine-grained, softer and thus more easily worked limestones and sandstones are known as freestones and are used for ornamental work on buildings etc. Stanier (Quarries and Quarrying. Shire Publications, 2000) has good sections on limestone and sandstone quarrying.

The advent of canals and railways enabled these heavy products to be transported more economically and thus supply a wider area, which meant that larger quarries came into being in the 19th century (Hey). Stone has now become very expensive compared to concrete, brick, and other synthetic materials for the building industry, and more deserted quarries are encountered. Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) and Stanier (Quarries abd Quarrying. Shire Publications, 2000) all have good information on quarries and quarrying and Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974) also deals with stone roofs.

‘The business of the stone-mason consists in the art of hewing or squaring stones and marble; in cutting them for the purposes of building, and in being able to work them up with mortar’ (Hurley 1991). The masons were the most important of the mediaeval building craftsmen as they designed and superintended the whole construction much as a modern architect would. Their work was largely seasonal; they stayed at home with their families on their smallholdings during the winter but in early spring started travelling to their various building sites. The 19th century censuses were taken in the travelling season so masons are frequently enumerated in a different place from their families. Each mason placed his own distinctive mark, about two inches long, upon the stones he had dressed and it is thought that registers of these marks were kept by the masons’ guilds to identify workmanship and wages due. Sometimes marks were passed from father to son.

Descriptions of the stone mason’s work are found in Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949) and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and Dixon describes the making of gravestones. Stonemasons are frequently found in turnpike trust records being paid for building or repairing bridges, tollhouses or milestones. There is an index of stonemasons, and another of West Country stone and quarrymen which includes related occupations such as builders and plasterers as well. The early records of the London Mason’s Company are at the Guildhall Library and 1,881 apprenticeships from 1663-1805 are indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 27. Masons’ Company 1663-1805. Society of Genealogists, 1999).


Salt was necessary as a food preservative from early times as well as for other purposes such as producing soda for soap making. Anciently salt was extracted in many coastal areas by boiling seawater, and from inland brine springs in Droitwich, Worcestershire and in Cheshire. The suffix -wich, as in Nantwich and Middlewich, is a good clue to the existence of former salt workings in this area. Ancient pack-horse tracks called saltways were used for transport of this valuable commodity. In the 17th century rock salt was discovered in Cheshire and thus mining and chemical extraction replaced evaporation as the favoured production method. The industry is ongoing and interested visitors can visit a salt works and museum in Northwich (Bailey 1982). Lloyd (The Salterns. Lymington Historical Record Society, New Milton, 1965) has written on salt pans in Hampshire.


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