A Quarryman’s Life

Introduce yourself

Starting work in the quarries was no great shock for me as my family were, or used to be Quarrymen themselves, and as kids we would watch the men working at their trade, in fact it was what I wanted to do.

First day

I well remember my first day when a couple of us boys had to report to Dr. Rix for a medical, medical? More of a drop yer trousers cough you’ll do sort of examination. Then being taken by Ned Lynham to where  my crew (gang of men) were working, for me this was Star Quarry situated under Avalanche road.

What father had told me

 I already knew the names of the men I would be working with and my father had prepared me by telling me “don’t take any notice of what that girt silly bugger Ginger Green tells yer,” he could not have been more wrong as I’ll later tell you of some of our exploits together.

Starting work

As you can imagine a boy of 15 weighing-in at 9 stone learning how to use these tools resulted in a lot of aches and pains, first off the constant wear on your hands reduced them to a mass of blisters and the skidding off of the twybel when picking the stone left us with legs so scarred we will carry the marks to the grave, it also learned a nipper to swear rather than to cry.

As a trade

As a trade quarrying soon learns you about leverage, slinging, estimating weight, and capacities, but the biggest lesson is how to be a man.

In the hut

  My second home for most of my life was a wooden hut about eight feet square shared with half a dozen men and full of baccy smoke, a stove in the middle on which we toasted our bread and cheese, yes everyone ate bread and cheese, now and again Ginger would bring in pigs trotters this resulted in him and myself being sat next to him getting covered in jelly much to the amusement of the other members of the crew.

The hut was a place of laughter, discussion, and above all the telling of tales most of which were too risqué to be re-told to these genteel ears. Oh and of course a place to learn how to play cards, if you remember most pubs had a card school and it became a social requisite to be able to join in and play properly.

If for whatever reason we were late coming out of the hut to start work the General Foreman would throw a stone at the hut to let us know it’s time to get out. I remember one time in the 60s when séances were popular, and just like “Last of the summer wine” a few quarrymen decided to try to make contact with those on the “other side” so, the hut was darkened and they sat round a table with hands spread and fingers touching when someone asked “is anyone there,” can you imagine at that very moment, yes you’ve guessed it BANG the foreman threw a stone. I can assure you it was the quickest a hut has ever been emptied.

Me smoking

As I have said when I started almost all the men smoked so, it seemed natural for me to start the filthy habit and I duly took to smoking a pipe, in time I tried to work and smoke at the same time, not a good idea I had smoke coming out of my nose ears eyes, every orifice, made myself giddy as a ram and sick as a dog, but it never stopped me smoking.

Trev smoking

One of the characters I worked with was our crane driver who would arrive in the morning, sit down, take out the Daily Mirror, light a cigarette which would remain between his lips and start coughing until his face turned purple, then announce “thats better.”

Hours worked

Monday – Friday our day began at 8-00am we worked until 10-00 when we took a break (for our bread and cheese) then re-start until 12-30 one hour dinner break then back to work until 5-00, Saturday we finished at 12-00 noon, home to wash then probably up to Portland’s ground to watch the football.

Experience in the job

I’m sure you have seen or heard of films of quarrymen working and can appreciate a lot of hitting or driving of wedges, drilling with jack hammers and picking of stone was the usual humdrum day, what you cannot see is the vast experience required to work the quarry to enable us to earn a living, if I can put it like this, the reading of the stone where at a glance a quarryman can assess the effort required to win the potential reward locked within.

Shifting crane

We worked under a derrick crane powered by electricity, with a lifting capacity of about sixteen tons, which, when the task of stone was worked out (as far as the crane jib could reach) would be shifted in a unique way, by dragging itself along a run-way of railway sleepers and metals prepared by the quarrymen, this task was paid for by the company at a day work rate and usually took a few days to a week to complete.

What we got up to

During this operation all manner of escapades took place, like races up the stays of the crane, tightrope walking along the wires, we even had a boxing match between Ginger and myself, Ginger at 16 stones and 50 years old, myself at 10 stone and 19 years old, we were both bleeding from our noses after several blows when with a mighty uppercut I put him down, unfortunately I had slipped and was disqualified for a low blow.

Seagull egging

 At different times of the year when carrying out this operation we might go seagull egging, usually me to go over the cliff and Ginger as the anchor man. On one occasion after bringing our haul back to the hut someone said that it was impossible to break one of those eggs by squeezing it from either end between your hands, its not true, Ginger tried it and one of the others had it all over him.

Mullet spotting

Or during the winter months we may go Mullet spotting, these fish gather together during the cold weather and to an experienced eye, appear as a discoloured patch of sea, if any were seen some of us would go off in the boat to shoot a net around them, the catch was then brought ashore for others to sort out while we went back to work.

Off to the races

Even when Ginger and the Rigger (he was the overseer of this crane shifting operation ) decided to go to Wincanton races the rest of us would carry on with the work, I must stress at this time these misdemeanours were considered normal happenings among  the crew.

Back to work

But anyway back to work, at the time I started the quarry was being re-opened after having laid dormant since before the war so the first month or so was spent shovelling and clearing the debris to expose the rock. Then drilling  holes  with jack hammers up to to a depth of four and a half metres which were charged with explosives to blast first, the “Cap Stone” then the “Roach.”

The blaster

 The “Blaster” was Arthur Wallis a cantankerous man who would come and fire the shot more or less when it suited him, he had most of his fingers blown off on one hand, the result of carelessness whilst crimping detonators onto fuse and he would cheerfully tell that he had seen some men biting them onto the fuse, can you imagine how dangerous that practise was? Of course I’m talking about fuse that was lit by a match, but by my time electric detonators were the norm.

Now -a -days the blasting is performed by contractors, who, due to health and safety regulations have to, first profile the proposed area and then design the “shot.”

Build the bank, Whit Base beds

These overburden beds were used to build the “Bank” and were shifted by slinging the large pieces with chains and shovelling the small debris into skips for dumping. The removal of these topmost beds exposed the two beds of stone that has made Portland stone famous the world over, namely, the Whitbed and Basebed.

These beds vary in texture, colour, and hardness from where ever they are quarried on the island, and to a trained eye are instantly identified. The extraction of these beds is undertaken with a lot more care than that of the Cap and Roach, because the block stone produced has to be taken to the factory for processing for what-ever job its required. 

Natural joints

The quarry is worked according to the natural joints , these are given local names, the main ones that run more or less south west are called Gullies, these are great open fissures that gives us room to take  the first rock out, others are east- and-westers,  southers and rangers, the geometry of these joints determine the way the quarry is worked, usually from left to right.

Drilling & splitting

 Most of the work of cutting and shaping of the stone is done by drilling a series of holes with a jack hammer then inserting wedges locally known as plugs and feathers, when these are driven in with sledge hammers they would cause the stone to split.

I couldn’t wait to catch hold of a jack hammer and drill some holes, but the first chance I had, I had to hold the hammer at head height drilling horizontal holes, when the chap I was working with asked if I was ready I nodded and he switched it on. I never realised how heavy and powerful those hammers were, it almost tore my arms from my shoulders besides shaking my head so much I couldn’t see, of course the reason he got me to drill those holes was because he didn’t want to drill them himself. Another lesson learned.  

Picking the stone

The picking of the stone (to straighten the sides) could be done a lot quicker with two men working together left and right handed, alternately swinging their twybels, I was naturally right handed but was made to try working left handed so as to be able to fit in with another in the crew, what a disaster, I let go of the tool which flew up in the air, I shouted “look out” and it only just missed the man I was working with, I’d never been sworn at like that before. Another lesson he learned.

Down hole

Eventually I became a “getter” down-hole, as opposed to a “maker” on the bank, there I worked and learned my trade alongside “Skiff” Otter and “Ginger” Green, almost everyone had a nickname, not many dull moments I can assure you.

The “down holers” who won the stone from the ground with wedges and explosive, were also the planners of how the quarry should be worked, what natural joints should be worked to, where to build the bank from the spoil and waste of the quarry,  and, where to position the crane for the next “Task.”

Pay day

In the early days before I had a part share in the “piece work” earnings, once a month I would have to go outside and wait while the men opened their dockets and decided how much they would give the crane driver for a “drink” and if I was lucky myself as well.

The total money earned by the crew was calculated by the amount of cubic feet of block stone produced, measured daily, every block of stone has its own number and cubic measurement painted on it together with the quarry mark to show where it was produced.

The area of overburden shifted, was measured once a month, and day work pay, was paid for several different tasks, and discussed and agreed on by the general foreman, the total minus the debits, (these were the explosive and blacksmith bills,) were issued to the crew who decided who earned what, and handed back to the company who then paid out the individual earnings.

Paying off

A very special time in the quarry was when a crew member or child of a crew member got married, then, a flag (the bigger the better) was strapped to the jib head to announce to those on the company that refreshment was available here, all thought of work would vanish and the booze would begin to flow, this was called “paying off.” However, if a member declined to pay off a coal bag was hoisted aloft which was a signal to all that “so and so” is a tight bxxxx, and I have seen one hoisted.

 A chap needs some pretty thick skin to stand the jibes that will last a life time should he not pay.

Fishing

At sixteen years of age me and my best friend started fishing for crabs and lobsters from Church Ope cove in a very small fibre glass boat, what-ever we caught we would take to the George inn and put on the cards, the money earned we saved towards a new boat that we planned to have built and we eventually moved to Durdle pier where our boat was launched by means of a hand crane. With the money earned from this boat we bought a larger one and fished from Castletown, and the same thing again, with the money earned we built our last boat which we fished and worked for several years. Now I’m well aware that this talk is about my life as a quarryman, but several men worked in the quarries and fished as well, so it seemed a natural thing to do, and when you’re of the right age hard manual work comes easy.

Loading boats / trains

At various times our crew would be called on to load a cargo of block stone onto a ship down at Castletown, or load block stone onto railway trucks at Victoria station, which has long since disappeared. This only happened very rarely but the change of scenery and having your bread and cheese in a pub made a great break from the quarry, and lots to talk about when we returned.

First redundancy

 

After working with the same crew for about fifteen years the trade took a down- turn and we were made redundant, however, I was asked if I would go and work with another crew who were being kept on and I jumped at the chance of staying in work, because by now I was married with a young family, so began another chapter of my working life.

Eddistone light

I soon fitted in with my new crew and the money was better than before so off we go again towards many more happy years and adventures. One particular time I remember was when we were dressed up in period costume for the filming of a programme on the building of the Eddistone lighthouse, I don’t know if any of you saw it on the television, now when working at our trade, the clothes we wore, were, to say the least shabby, but to put on the clothes from that era as well as a wig made us self conscious and camera shy, but we were told we gave a good performance.  Once again, much more to chew over in the hut.

Formed another crew

After many very happy years with this crew the trade picked up and the company asked myself along with two others to form another crew, and work under a crane which was on caterpillar tracks and so we became a mobile crew able to shift to where the company wanted us to work very quickly and easily.

About stone always

By this time the cap and roach beds were removed by great big mechanical diggers and dumpers and taken to be crushed for aggregate which meant we were “about stone” as we used to say, immediately we arrived at any place of work and our earnings reflected this change.

Taking redundancy

We worked happily for several more years then the company decided that they would do away with piece work in the quarries, and offered redundancy to anyone who wanted it, I duly accepted a fistful of dollars and joined the Albion Stone Company to continue my trade.

New bench saws

The new company was more innovative than the previous one, and after a while introduced different machines and different methods of extracting the stone, like Bench saws, these are huge chain saws that cut a channel about thirty five MM wide three metres deep and as long as required.

Hydra bags

Hydra-bags are then placed in the channel and inflated with water at a very high pressure which as they expand force the rock apart and loosen it so the huge diggers can prise it out.

Diggers wire saws

The massive lumps of rock, up to sixty tons in weight are then carried or pushed to where the wire saws are waiting. These saws consist of a loop of wire threaded with diamond beads that is wrapped around the rock at the desired place of cutting, drawn tight and then rotated at tremendous speed whilst being cooled and lubricated by water, the saw travels backwards away from the rock and by electronic sensors keep a steady tension on the wire which slices quickly through the stone.

The digger is then used to dump the off cuts and re-position the rock for more cuts should they be necessary, when the wire saw operator is satisfied with the shape and quality of the block it is marked with a number its size and reference ie; base bed whit bed or roach.

Mining

The latest innovation is mining the stone, which of course doesn’t disturb the ground above and is more eco friendly, lots of new procedures have to be employed to win the stone and at the same time the safety measures are much more stringent. I was fortunate to have been there when this procedure was first begun, and as time has gone on has improved dramatically, the weather is now irrelevant in stone production, no rainy days underground, although I must confess I did miss the occasional time off due to inclement weather, also because of operating machines, the close camaraderie we enjoyed in those earlier times was not there anymore.

Ladies and gentlemen that concludes my very potted life as a quarryman, thank you for your attention, I will of course try to answer any questions you may have.   

                                                                                              RALPH STONE