by Roger Baker
(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 23/11/17)
It is likely that slate has been worked and used in Cumbria since man first appeared here in prehistoric times. It certainly has a long history. There is evidence of its use from the time of the Romans – at their fort at Hardknott for example – through to important buildings e.g. Calder Abbey in medieval times. Outcrops of slate on the surface would be the source initially, developing into open quarries, although later the “metal” would be mined underground via a level driven through to the vein.
Workable slate is obtained from two main geological deposits:
1. The cleaved tuffs of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group of the Ordovician series which give the silver-grey slates of Coniston Old Man; the green slates of Broughton Moor, Hodge Close and Kirkstone; and the blue-black slates of Brathay and Longsleddale.
2. The more recent (in geological terms) upper Silurian sediments from which are won the blue-grey slates as at Kirkby-in-Furness.
The massive expansion of the industry through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in response to the demand for slate roofing as a result of the growth of industrial towns in Northern England. It depended however on two factors influencing supply – an effective transport system away from the quarries and mines, and advances in technology within them.
Horse and human power were the prime movers initially, transporting the riven and dressed slates by cart or sledge down to water. This could be a relatively short journey as that down to ships waiting on the Duddon Sands from the Kirkby Moor quarries above. Or it could be a long and arduous trek. Honister was linked by a graded pack horse route ( called Moses’ Trod after a famous quarryman) over the high fells to reach the shores of Wasdale and then eventually the coast at Ravenglass or Drigg some 14 miles or so away. Slate from the Troutbeck Park quarries was similarly taken down to Windermere, along the lake to Waterfoot, overland to Haverthwaite and then by lighter to ships at Greenodd or Ulverston. Mass movement depended on the arrival of the railway, for example the Coniston branch of the Furness Railway in 1859, although many locations like Honister were still remote from the nearest railhead, and would rely on motor transport.
Slate was originally won by hand, with gunpowder introduced from 1800 and compressed air drills from 1910. Diamond tipped saws replaced the cutting of blocks by hammer and chisel from the 1930’s. Various methods of moving the rock around were developed including inclines – both external as at Yew Crag, and internal as at Honister – and aerial ropeways, as at Hodge Close and Coniston Old Man. Massive earth-moving equipment has since replaced both of these.
In their working arrangements the quarries were primitive in the extreme, with no provision for the comfort of the quarrymen and very little for their safety. Until recent times it was a labour-intensive industry, The large pieces thrown down by a blast were themselves bored and blasted until reduced to manageable proportions, after which further hard work with the aid of sledgehammers and wedges was required to produce pieces which could be carried away to the riving shed. Here the river split the stone into thin sheets, and the dresser shaped them into slates with a special heavy knife. It was a dangerous occupation, even for someone at the end of the process:
Barrow Herald. Saturday May 1st, 1869
“Accident at Burlington Slate Works to a Slate Dresser, John Preston, Soutergate. It is the practice of the Hill Men (i.e. those who rive or split and those who dress slate) to assist in the Quarry when not a sufficiency of work on the Hill. It appears that Preston, who is deaf and dumb, had gone for this purpose, when a large stone slipped and caught him, fracturing his leg below the knee. Mr.Dennison of Penrith was telephoned and reduced the fracture. We understand that the poor fellow complained of the pains, the jolting the cart gave him in taking him home, and in these days when so many appliances are adopted by the medical profession for the relief of the injured it is surprising that no better means are used for conveying them home than taking them on a jolting, springless cart”. There is an obituary in the Barrow Herald saying that John Preston (35) died on the 18th May, so he only lived for three weeks after his accident.
The industry today is only a fraction of its size at the turn of the century, but still active at Kirkby, Broughton Moor, Elterwater , Kirkstone in the south together with a number of smaller operations on both sides of the Tilberthwaite Valley. Honister is open again in the north.
Follow this link to quarrying for a list of sites of historical importance
The slate industry : Merfyn Williams, Shire Publications, 1991
Slate from Honister : Alistair Cameron, Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society, 1993
Slate from Coniston: Alistair Cameron, CATMHS, 1996
Honister, the history of a Lakeland slate mine : Ian Tyler, Blue Rock Publications, 1994
Torver : John Dawson : Phillimore & Co., 1985
Burlington Blue-Grey : R.Stanley Geddes, 1975
The Tilberthwaite Trail (leaflet) : Alistair Cameron, CATMHS
Slate mining in the Lake District : Alastair Cameron, Amberley Publishing, 2016