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Monday, 28 July 2014

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Keeping the rain out for 150 years

THE long and fascinating history of the Burlington Slate Quarry at Kirkby was outlined in a talk by operations director Rob Irwin at the autumn conference of the Cumbria Industrial History Society in Broughton’s Victory Hall.

The working area of Kirkby quarry is now a single site but was once a whole range of different quarries with names such as Lady Evelyn, Town, Winnow End, Lord Sink, Lord Quarry and Fisher Quarry.

Sites used to be linked with a series of tunnels under the rock but these were made redundant by a new access road cut through in the 1990s and now the old tunnels are used to drain water from the workings.

Today’s giant void of extracted Kirkby blue grey slate has a depth of 120m and is 80m across at its narrowest.

The company, which now includes 11 extraction sites in the county, is owned by the Cavendish family, of Holker Hall, and it was all started by Lord William Cavendish, later the 7th Duke of Devonshire and the first chairman of the Furness Railway Company.

It was established in 1843 but there is evidence of farmers doubling up as quarry entrepreneurs back to at least the 17th century.

The new company built an incline plane system to carry wagons of slate down to the coast and pull empty wagons back up.

By 1846 the railway had arrived at Kirkby and provided new regional and national markets for Kirkby slate.

This resulted in a labour force of 319 men by 1853 – roughly twice the current workforce.

Those tough mid-Victorian workers, who were out in all weathers with little in the way of health and safety, could expect to take home two shillings (10p) a week.
He said: “They put their lives at risk every day of the week.”

Some villagers seemed to thrive on the hard work and in 1917 George Barr died after 80 years of continuous service in the quarry industry.

There are still a few links at Burlington to the old days, including a 1912 slate dressing machine from Porthmadog which is still in occasional use.

Today, the site is thoroughly modern with workers in hard hats and high visibility tops and stone cutting done with a diamond wire saw.

The huge spoil heaps of the past don’t get added to these days and might even prove to be an asset in the future as more ways are explored to make use of the stone pieces with their naturally weathered look.

He said: “We are learning year by year to be less wasteful.

“We aim to use 100 per cent and to reduce the spoil heaps.”

The only waste in the modern quarry system at Kirkby is the soil-contaminated overburden as a new face is worked back.

The current quarry should provide work for the next 55 years at current production levels.

He said: “There is decade after decade of work left in that one quarry.”

The company’s products have been used in prestige projects around the world and there are now showrooms or offices in Texas, Copenhagen, London and Kirkby.
And it is a product designed to last.

He said: “We are happy to guarantee our roofing slate for 150 years.”

Mr Irwin suspects that some of the Chinese alternatives on offer might struggle to last 30 years.

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