A study of limestone quarrying at Llanymynech
Written in 1984 by Harvey Kynaston
Since I began this study I have been surprised and alarmed at now quickly knowledge and memories of the local limestone quarrying industry have disappeared. When I began searching for information in 1979 I discovered only two men surviving in the area who had worked in the quarries above Llanymynech. Luckily, even though both men were in their eighties they still held some vivid memories of the brief spell they worked there as boys. Since I talked, with these men, both have sadly passed away - Bob Morris of Pant; in July 1983 and Cecil Corfield of Llanymynech who died in April of this year (l984). With these men goes a vital link with the past - a thriving industry which only ceased seventy years ago. Many of the facts and stories contained in the following pages were told to me by these two men, there has been surprisingly little information from any other source. The odd photograph comes to light now and again but there are few artefacts to be found in the quarry or around any of the kilns, - much of the metal work - rails, trucks, wheels, etc. was taken away and used for the war effort.
You can approach Llanymynech Rocks from the lane opposite the café in Pant. [Café since closed – lane is by Methodist church] The village itself is littered with small disused quarries which were privately owned, but by far the largest was the one owned by Thomas Savin who owned the Porthywaen Lime Company. This eastern end of the imposing rock face is perhaps the oldest part of the quarry. A tramway (now a footpath) leads away to cross the main road at the café, where it joins an inclined plane. At the top is a partly restored gin wheel the purpose of which was to lowers loaded trucks of limestone down to a set of six kilns lying at the canal side. These were probably constructed shortly after the Montgomery branch of the Ellesmere canal arrived at Pant towards the end of the eighteenth century. They were abandoned well before 1895 as a painting shown later in the study shows. Before the arrival of the canal, lime stone was fired "on site" at the quarry or carted away to be burnt at the kilns elsewhere. Not all of the stone was burnt, much was needed for constructing canal tow paths or roads. A Mr. R. Davies a native of Pant recorded in the 1950's his memories of the village in a period 1870-74. He wrote: "I wonder if there is still the same amount of quarrying and lime burning going on as there used to be. I don't think so, as for one thing for a long period we made up a train of as many as 12 or 15 wagons of stone per day sending it via Llanymynech and the Potteries Railway to the Staffordshire earthenware works and I am told it is not used now, and there always seemed then to be work for all who could do it in the quarries, if bad weather didn't stop it."
In front of the cliff face there is a patch where one a tramway ran. In dry weather the grass grows better where the sleepers once lay and the course of the track can be clearly seen. From here the scale of quarrying becomes obvious. The vertical cliff rises to almost 200 feet in places and is made up of horizontally bedded carboniferous limestone. All of these beds were given name sin Welsh or English by the quarrymen after their colour or size. One, quarried for flux in the iron smelting process was called the "Flummery- Red". They all vary in texture from coarsely crystalline to finely grained compact limestone, and they all vary in depth. One of the largest beds is 13 feet thick and lies about 30 feet up the face.
About 150 men were employed in the quarry during the summer months but this figure dropped to around 50 during winter, who would be employed cutting and dressing building stone. The weather, it seems, played a determining factor as far as employment was concerned. Bob Morris was only 13 when he started work at the quarry in 1912. He was called the "nipper" and would be employed leading horses and trucks to and from the winding gear, or taking tools or messages from one part of the quarry to another. For this he was paid a mere five shillings [25p] a week, and when he happened to enquire about a rise on his 14th birthday the reply was that the only rise he would get would be up the cliff face! This must have been enough to keep him quiet for a while for the men working on the cliff face drilling shot holes were often suspended on chains anchored at the top of the cliff. The days must have seemed long since their working day was from 6.50 a.m. to 5.50 p.m. on weekdays, 6.40 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. on Saturdays with Sunday as a day of rest. Only one set of workers, the packers down at the rotary kiln at Llanymynech operated on a shift system, working through the night to keep the kiln fed.
After the drillers had performed their task, the explosives were set, the fuses were lit and a section of rock was blasted from the face. I have been told that black powder was used for this purpose, being not as "violent" as dynamite. However, I remember as a child discovering a box of strange looking white sticks beneath the surface of a pond in a disused quarry above the Powis Arms public house. I can still vividly remember the label when I drew a stick from the box - it said "Polar's Anon Gelignite."
Whatever explosives were used, they were kept in a powder store in the top quarry. Hewn from the rock, it is a small rectangular room. One man would be in charge here and he would have a team of men working for him. Unfortunately there was once an accident at the Porthywaen quarry when a spark from a quarryman's hob nailed boot resulted in the powder magazine exploding.
With the blasting over it was time for the stone breakers to move in. Mr. Morris remembers these workers being on piece work, in other words paid for the quantity of rock smashed up. Occasionally large boulders were taken away in one piece and taken by rail to the Welsh coast where they were used to protect the railway from the sea.
The rocks were taken from the face to the gin wheel in large rectangular wooden trucks. The only two remaining trucks or vans on the site now are small V shaped side tippers used to tip the rubbish or raffle into heaps away from quarrying operations, although it was also used in the construction of canal towpaths. More than one letter complaining about the quality of this raffle was sent by the Canal Company. At the top of the inclined plane, which ran down to a huge line kiln at Llanymynech, four trucks at a time were hitched together at the gin wheel. Bob Morris sometimes had the job of "brake boy" - making sure the trucks were securely hitched before their journey down the line began. Halfway down the incline was a trap, a safety feature which meant the trucks would be stopped unless a lever was pulled to let them pass. It was fortunate that this mechanism was installed since Bob once made an error of judgement and four trucks of limestone went crashing down the line to hit the trap, cascading stone down the main road. One wonders if Bob got his five shillings that particular week since it was the rule that any tools broken or lost were paid for by the quarryman responsible!
Occasionally in cold weather the "nipper" was sent down to the kiln by the men in the rest room at the side of the gin to fetch a bucket of coal for the fire. Bob recalls riding back up the incline on the train of empty trucks and if he was quick enough he might earn a halfpenny for his troubles.
Another feature of interest in the quarry is the Blacksmith's shop which now lies derelict under vegetation. Its blackened end wall show clearly where the blacksmith stoked his fire. He would have been responsible not only for shoeing the horses which were used to pull trucks around the quarry, but also for the upkeep and repair of all the quarry tools; drills, picks, hammers, nails, etc. The horses used in the quarry and at the kiln were stabled at the rotary kiln [the Hoffman]. Again the stables are in a dilapidated state but looked capable of housing five horses, some of which were led up to the quarry each day and back down in the evening. You can still pick up pieces of discarded leather harness at the kiln site, - one piece of harness found yielded a brass nameplate with the name "Pierce, Saddler Llanymynech” engraved on it.
Mr. Corfield remembered that Harry Herbert was the horseman in the quarry.