Thousands of men – and it has been mostly men, but more later – have worked in what is often a dangerous and hazardous environment extracting the stone that the rest of us want for our buildings, our roads and, latterly, our garden landscaping.
Some will bemoan the destructive impact that large-scale quarrying has on our the landscape but for as long as we ‘need’ the stone then the industry will continue. Unquestionably the quarries contribute a great deal to the local economy.
Tunstead quarry – which opened in 1929 and was owned by ICI – is one of the biggest limestone quarries in Europe and is now operated by Lafarge Tarmac. There is a huge photographic archive of over 25,000 images relating to the working and development of these massive works. This exhibition shows just over 50 images – mostly taken in the 1930s-1950s – of quarries around Buxton.
The images are mostly posed – underground scenes are carefully lit – and the quality of the printed photos is very good. There are themed panels – headed ‘People’, ‘Blasting’, ‘Loading Wagons’, ‘Trains’, ‘Buildings’ for example.
There is a certain grandeur about the Hoffmann Kilns at Harpur Hill or the emerging terracing at Tunstead, it is easy to feel nostalgic looking at the engines and lorries; but it also evident what desperate work this could be. Even in the 1930s much of the work was done by hand.
Wagons carrying up to two tons of limestone lumps would be loaded manually; one loader would fill 15 such wagons a day. The limestone was sorted and graded by hand; it was hot work. The sweat on the hands and the lime dust would burn the skin; dust in the air would settle on hot necks causing further rashes and burns.
Whilst this is largely ‘man’s work’ women were recruited during the First World War.
We have images of women painting trucks: there is also a photo of one woman – wearing a cap and what may be clogs – drilling stone. This is exhibited alongside a quarryman from 40 years later who is better protected for the work.
There is also a short video to watch – showing scenes of rock being blasted and the artist Graham Sutherland at work. He was, for a while, an ‘artist in residence’.
For anyone with an interest in photography, social and industrial history this is a fascinating and rewarding exhibition. It has attracted many visitors already – including some who worked in the quarries for years. If you visit and you find yourself alongside a retired quarry worker take the opportunity to learn about their experiences – it will add meaning to the many striking images before you.
You can also put in a bid to buy any of the photos. Proceeds will go to Blythe House Hospice and you may get yourself a unique slice of local history to remind you of where that stone and cement came from.
The Quarryman’s Story is at The Green Man Gallery, Buxton until July 10.
By Keith Savage