An edited version of ‘A blast from the past – limestone quarrying in our AONB’ by Anne Hillman in Keer to Kent, Spring 1988, by kind permission of the author
(Page created 19/04/05)
(The Arnside/Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty spans the county boundary. Of the two main quarries referred to in the article, Trowbarrow is in Lancashire, Sandside (SD 491808) in Cumbria)
The history of quarrying in the Silverdale area is concerned almost exclusively with the activities of the Northern Quarries Company Limited, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Limestone, both for agricultural and for building purposes, was quarried before then, in a small way, all over the district. Several limekilns survive from non-commercial burning by local farmers.
The essential factor that led to major expansion in limestone quarrying, in particular at Trowbarrow Quarry, Silverdale, was the opening of the Furness Railway north from Carnforth in 1857. The main face at Trowbarrow was however 600 metres from the railway line, necessitating a tramway and later a chain-operated gravity incline system to reach it. Nevertheless the quarry operation there developed quickly. The company became a significant operator of specialist roadstone techniques, recognised not just locally and nationally, but internationally. It attracted industrialists from Europe and America to examine the processes being pioneered there.
The leading figure in the development of Trowbarrow was James Ward. Building on the work of Macadam he concentrated on pioneering new techniques for the production of paving and tarmacadamised roadstone. By continual experimentation has kept ahead both of developments in the industry and of his competitors. Recognising the importance of quality control, he initiated systems in 1898 for regular chemical analysis and grading of the quarried limestone when he constructed a new paving works at Trowbarrow. Dissatisfied with the variable quality of the tar supplied direct from the distillers for his tarred roadstone, Quarrite, he installed his own tar distilling plant at Silverdale, and the system he developed for producing Quarrite was the first of its kind in England.
Not only did he supply and lay Quarrite and paving in many parts of the North West, including a major contract at Blackpool for the motor track on their promenade, but he also railed his products further afield, to Edinburgh and other places in Scotland. He diversified the company to take on building contracting, supplied bloomery stone and coal as well as lime, and invented a sanitary flooring material with a bituminous composition which he named Puritan.
By 1901 the company was also operating Sandside Quarry, 3.5 miles away, south-west of Milnthorpe and strategically located beside the Hincaster junction railway, giving direct acces to the route east. Here the main products were lumpstone, railway ballast and agricultural lime.
The company was badly hit during the 1914-18 War, as demand for roadstone slumped and rail transport was severely restricted, and was reformed in 1920 by James Ward under the title “The New Northern Quarries Limited”. The availability of rail transport had been a prime factor in the development of the business, but in 1922 the rail companies declined to carry tar products in their own wagons and the company was forced to hire and buy wagons. A gradual change to road transport resulted, and the first loading of Quarrite directly into motor lorries is recorded at Silverdale in 1930. This gave an impetus to road improvements on the narrow lanes linking Silverdale with the main A6 road. By 1947 50% of the output from Trowbarrow was bloomery stone for Dorman Long’s Steel Company at Middlesborough, and this went by rail, but building stone, tarmacadam and agricultural lime went by road. The company became part of the Tarmac Group in 1962.
The value of the quarries to the local economy has been considerable. In 1905 at Trowbarrow the total wage bill for the quarrymen, who were paid by piecework at 4.5 old pence a ton, was £1,270. When the wages of kiln-operators, distillers, clerical staff, on-site haulage workers and, after 1930, lorry drivers are added, the injection of income into the local community is seen to have been considerable.
The environmental impact at Trowbarrow has been minimal, apart from the loss of areas of limestone pavement. The surrounding rocky woodland landscape dwarfs the quarry and there was no settlement close by, except the quarry workers housing. At Sandside, where tourism is also a factor, there have been protests about both dust and the detriment to the landscape. Noise has also been a problem there, and was occasioning complaints as far back as 1906.
The history of the Northern Quarries Company and their successors explores an operation with a dynamic managing director who took full advantage of a beneficial transport facility and initiated new techniques to compete successfully in a specialist field. High capital investment was matched by careful management, enabling the quarry to be kept operational through slump periods in this century, and the company contributed significantly to the local economy for a period of more than 60 years.