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.
Although the quarries are largely abandoned, the industry has left its mark on the landscape, as George told the Hebden Bridge Local History Society.
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. Some was mined.
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.
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.