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The History of the local Quarries

A continuation of the presentation by John Waller

 

picture from the Sheffield Independent of 24 September 1912

Continuing his research into the quarries John has uncovered the above photo, and more detailed facts regarding the history of Stone Quarries in the area. On this page you will find corrections to the previous page, and a couple of myths laid to rest

The area around Ravenfield and Thrybergh has long been associated with coal mining. This once powerful industry that shaped most of the communities in the area has now vanished, leaving only a few traces of its existence. However, prior to this the quarrying of stone was a major industry and it too has left few traces of its activities.
Locally, Wickersley has a always been associated with the quarrying of millstones, giving rise to pub names such as the Masons Arms. However, what were actually quarried were grindstones for use in the Sheffield steel industry. To give some idea of the scale of this enterprise, 5,000 stones were reported to have been carted to Sheffield in 1820.
The more well known Millstone Grit draws its name from the use it was put to and is sourced in Derbyshire. It is a very coarse rock that produced stones that were used for roughing out work and had limited uses. The expanding industries of Sheffield needed the finer Wickersley grindstone for sharpening and finishing the vast range of produce made there. Evidence also suggests that some local grindstones were exported to Europe through the port of Bawtry and later to Pittsburgh USA.
The whole sandstone bed underlaying the area takes its geological name from here and is called the Wickersley Sandstone. This same Sandstone is found under Thrybergh and Ravenfield and was also an used as a building stone. It was only a matter of time before the two villages were also quarrying the stone, that can be best found between Ravenfield Hollings Lane and the Thrybergh Top Club areas, for building and grindstone production.
Looking at the local genealogy on John’s site reveals a lot of quarry men and quarry owners, giving a clue to the scale of this activity in a rural area. Many of the quarries were small affairs, the remnants of which can be seen to this day without realising their origins; most local lads will remember the ‘basin’ in Silver Wood because there was usually a rope swing hanging from the trees. This never developed to any size; the stone quality was perhaps poor; because it does vary.
 

 

 
 

The scale of quarrying at Hollings Lane was massive but evidence of it’s true scale was never visible because unlike the huge limestone quarries at nearby Maltby the quarrymen backfilled old excavations with overburden (topsoil etc.) and waste from the dressing process.
The 1850 O.S. map shows the first of the Silverwood Quarries just inside the woods. Over the next 100 years this spread to encompass the whole area and extended both sides of the road. The old tennis courts and later the new houses opposite the Ravenfield Arms were built on this
Precise information on the history of stone getting in the twentieth century is surprisingly scarce but in the course of this research one of the local myths I uncovered has been laid to rest.
Reputedly the masonry needed for the restoration of Rotherham All Saints Church about 40 years ago was sourced from the quarry on the southern side of Hollings Lane where the petrol station now stands. One look at the church quickly reveals the redness of the stone that is certainly not from the Wickersley bed.
There is good reason to doubt the suitability of the stone for building at all because its soft friable nature that made it so popular for grindstones means that many of the stone buildings in the area have not retained the same crisp lines they had when built. Whole stones have just crumbled away over the years in some places.
A recent article in the Rotherham Advertiser sought an explanation for the mysterious structures in Silver Wood on the fringes of the quarry complex. Most people walking through the woods will have seen them over the years and in the past they were explained these as being the foundations for WW 2 anti-aircraft guns or searchlights. The thought; the citizens of Ravenfield blazing away at the invading hoards is nice but the truth is less romantic.
An old photograph from 1912, taken when the quarry was working shows them to be the base of one of the cranes used to manoeuvre the large blocks prior to cutting and finishing..

 

 

The above picture from the Sheffield Independent of 24 September 1912 carries the sub text :- The above huge piece of stone, weighing thirteen tons, was taken from the quarry of Messrs Wadsworth and Sons, Silverwood.  It is being prepared for the sawmills and will eventually be made into grindstones for the Sheffield trades The chap on the handle is the quarry owner, Alvery Wadsworth, son of John Wadsworth. The Wadsworths moved into the cinema trade and the quarries are reported to have closed in 1914. This is not correct although once again I have few precise details.
I do know that one of the last enterprises was probably Rodiss’ Stone Mill on the site of the old tennis courts and that it was working certainly until the late 1930s and perhaps beyond?
All local engineering workshops had a wet grindstone for tool sharpening, as did farms. When the stone was worn Rodiss at Ravenfield would cut a new one to whatever size was needed.
The final demise of the quarries was due not to lack of stone but the total introduction of synthetic grindstones in industry.
While one chapter of the story closed another was beginning. Although the quarries were backfilled by the quarrying activities the removal of stone naturally left large unfilled pits and commercial tipping was already underway by the early 50's, while indications show that the site was still active.
One area was filled with household waste, which burned slowly beneath the topsoil to produce gently smoking craters that “were going to spread under Ravenfield ” (we were only kids). On a cold winter day you could always brave the smoke and get warm in the craters. Later this area was given to the Cavalier pub to create a football pitch and machinery was brought in to level a pitch-sized area and fill in the small craters. A lot of effort was then put in, galvanising the locals into raking the area ready for seeding with grass and many of the local kids spent a of time helping. Unfortunately there was no soil; only stones and the project fell through.
Arial photographs still reveal the area within the surrounding scrub.
One of the first companies to use the quarries as a tip was a local oil recycling company that used two of the quarries to tip the heavy waste extracted from the cleaned oil. One quarry was already part filled so they soon finished the job and the ‘tar’ oozed through the covering layer of soil for many years afterwards. I was told that at one point the company transported the oil from Rotherham in open backed lorries that often spilled over onto the road leaving the ‘pit hills’ a slippy smelly mess. Local pressure put an end to the practice.
The local bakeries would often throw away huge rolls of the greased paper used to wrap bread. These were duly dragged home and many a man had his snap wrapped in paper from the quarries. 20 years later I remember seeing the same rolls of bread wrapping paper only is was now plastic. The range of tipping was diverse and my sister recalls actually bringing food such as jars of pickled onions and tinned sardines home at times. Anything that had rolled down into the "tar" was stoned until it sank in the ooze. This food was reputedly bankrupt stock and no one was poisoned - that I know of.
When oil tipping stopped in the remaining quarry the apex of a large tripod crane was still visible, rising out of a black sea of floating junk. The quarry was taken over by the NCB, who owned the woods, and used to dispose of old conveyor belt trimmings from their belt workshops at Manvers. Larger pieces were used to make a variety of things and most miners will have had belts, battery pouches and tool bags from this source at some time.
Partly worn belting was also trimmed down to narrower widths for re use in the pits. The excess was dumped in the quarry. A fair amount of this was recycled even further to create swings in the adjacent woods.
Throughout the period lorries fly tipped during the night. No one knows what they left but it probably was not very nice, we saw some fascinating and unusual things and as kids we usually checked it out. The quarry nearest the road was never used as a commercial dump and was ideal for locals to dispose of the odd car or so.
A local company acquired the rights to tip in the quarries and after a period where old tyres were disposed of, they over-tipped by about 3 feet above the surrounding area. This caused the toxic brew in the bottom of the quarries to be forced up to the surface and the company was asked to redress the problem.
If my memory serves me correctly the tip was in the name of an elderly family member who was declared unfit to respond to the notices served on her to sort the job out and so the local authority had to step in.
In 1977 my uncle, Ken Wallers, was a councillor and was on the team who went out to assess the situation. Coming out of the follow up meeting he almost fell over – the heel on his shoe had dissolved after he had accidentally stepped in some of the ooze.
As a direct result of this investigation the tip area was urgently sealed off and on 25 October 1977 all the residents of Birchwood Drive, which backed onto the tip, were evacuated to the adult training centre in Eastwood, Rotherham while scientists clad in protective clothing and gas masks carried out tests on the ooze. Police sealed off Birchwood Drive and traffic was prevented from stopping on Hollings Lane. Passes were issued to residents to allow access into the area past the police cordon. Fortunately everyone was allowed back home after 2 days. The treatment for the tip was longer term, however. Along with other toxic substances the main pollutants were acid and cyanide and the treatment was to excavate the site, take away the over-tipping then treat as much of the waste as possible with limestone dust, neutralising the acids. The houses of Birchwood Drive looked like they were covered in snow for weeks. Throughout the exercise no pickled onions were recovered though.
Eventually the whole area was capped with clay to seal in the foul brew resulting in a site for Ravenfield’s first football pitch.
Of the quarries only a few small scars remain visible but during the cleanup one lone grindstone was uncovered which now stands rather neglected at the entrance to the area.

Above text copyright John Waller

 

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