England Quarrying and Stone Working Occupations (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

China clay working

The most important deposits of china clay (kaolin) outside China are in Cornwall, with lesser ones in Devon. Those around St. Austell were discovered in the mid-18th century and quickly came to be recognized by Wedgwood and Minton, the leading men in the already-established Potteries in Staffordshire who shipped vast quantities there. Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) and Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) have good sections on the extraction process.

Coprolite Mining

Coprolite is the fossilized dung, skeletal remains and shells of prehistoric animals and is an important source of phosphates, in fact the first chemical fertilizers. It occurs as nodules from the size of a pea to a grapefruit embedded in chalk marl in Cambridgeshire and worked from open trenches. The workers turn up on censuses as coprolite labourers/miners or fossil diggers, and earned about five times the average wage of an agricultural labourer in the mid 19th century (Cockett).

Flint Working and Knapping

Perhaps the earliest industrial archaeology site in Western Europe is the area known as Grime’s Graves in Norfolk, a 34-acre Neolithic mining district. Here men entered shafts and tunnels excavated into the chalk to extract flint that was fashioned into axes, arrow-heads and other implements by the process of knapping prior to the discovery of metals. These blades were sharper than those produced from quarried stone. Flint continued to be an important material, especially for building walls of houses and churches in southern and eastern England where it was also excavated in the chalk ridges of the North and South Downs. Flints were also used to strike a light and Norfolk flint knappers produced various sizes of gunflints; one of the local pubs is named The Flintknappers Arms. Useful sources for this occupation include Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981), and Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974).

Granite Quarrying

The south west tip of England comprising Cornwall and Devon is composed largely of granite, an immensely strong and hard igneous rock. It was quarried on Dartmoor in the 19th century by convict labour from Princetown prison, and in the western part of Cornwall, and transported to ports at first by packhorses and then by horse powered tramways on granite rails. It was used extensively in its native rough-hewn form for building churches, houses, roads and kerbstones as well as the familiar Tower Bridge and Nelson’s Column in London and the Eddystone Lighthouse near Plymouth, Devon. When the diamond-tipped cutting edges on circular saws became available granite could be used for finer buildings. Only a few quarries are still in production as other stone is easier to work (Bailey 1982). Stanier (Quarries and Quarrying. Shire Publications, 2000) has a good section on granite quarrying.

Lime Quarrying

Lime was a much-used commodity in cement and mortar for building houses and walls, and in plastering, and as lime-wash to waterproof walls and lighten interiors. Lime was also needed to bleach paper, in the preparation of hides in leather making, to disinfect dung pits and graves, and as an agricultural adjunct to de-acidify soil. Limewater was even drunk as a medicine. Now there are new applications in water purification, effluent treatment and in the chemical industry.

Its use has been noted since pre-historic times but it was the Romans who first used effective lime kilns to burn limestone to produce quicklime. Former lime kilns can be widely found in limestone and chalk districts as well as at coastal ports and canal basins where lime was brought as return loads and there processed. Most are from the 18th-19th centuries, but some date back to the 1500s, and most are small except when abundant fuel was locally obtainable such as from the coal fields of Northumberland. The processes used by the limeburners have been well described and illustrated by Richard Williams (Limekilns and Limeburning. Shire Publications, 1989). The vicinity of the warm kilns were favourite places for tramps to sleep, and is not at all uncommon to find burials for those falling into the kilns or overcome by the carbon dioxide fumes.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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