BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th June 1995 (p1 & back page), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: ASHFORD MARBLE

Strictly speaking, Ashford marble is not a marble but an impure form of limestone naturally impregnated with a bitumen. Because it changes from grey to a glossy black when polished it found popularity as a decorative material. Its existence was known in prehistoric times, for a dressed slab was found in a tumulus on Fin Cop above Monsal Dale.

Moving into recorded history, in 1580 Bess of Hardwick, always loyal to local products, used Ashford marble for the chimney piece of the Great High Presence Chamber at Hardwick - reputedly the most beautiful room in Europe.

Just over a hundred years later her great-great grandson, the 4th Earl of Devonshire, used the marble for interior building work during his major rebuilding of Chatsworth. In the 1830s, the 6th Duke had massive marble doorways executed at Ashford for his new wing at Chatsworth, as well as ornamental gritstone balustrades for the stairs and external battlements.

Ashford marble mill had been set up by Henry Watson on the River Wye in 1748. Six years earlier he had bought out a marble mason's works at Bakewell but the mill at Ashford became his main concern. By 1847 the Bakewell mill was being operated by John Lomas, who held the lease on another black marble quarry, beside the Bakewell/Monyash road, from the Duke of Rutland.

Glover's History and Gazetteer of Derbyshire (1829) refers to marble works at Ashford and Derby, where the material 'is wrought into articles of domestic elegance and into monuments, chimney pieces are sold at various prices, from 30s to upwards of £60, and beautiful tables of black marble, enriched with elegant engravings, are also made there.' At that time, etching and engraving were the only methods used to decorate the marble.

The industry continued to thrive and in 1832 a Mr Oldfield began mining another source, in Rookery Plantation on the other side of the river. Demand was set to soar, for within a few years inlay work was introduced and the glowing floral and geometric designs were an immediate success. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 the quality and beauty of Ashford marble put even prestigious Italian workmanship in the shade. Trinkets and jewellery, paperweights and snuff-boxes, crosses, obelisks and barometers were on sale as far as the capital itself.

A great deal of the inlay work was carried out by homeworkers in Ashford but workshops were also established in Matlock, Bakewell, Buxton and Castleton - all busy tourist centres with a constant demand for souvenirs.

The craft utilised coloured minerals from various localities. From Nettler Dale in Sheldon came rosewood marble - white with reddish bands which produced the effect of grained wood when polished. Bird's Eye, a fossil-bearing rock cut to show the cross-sections of crinoids, came from Wetton and Sheldon, and a mottled and veined grey marble, varying in tint from faint blue to deep azure-purple, from Monyash. Different shades of barytes were brought from Arbor Low, Bradwell and Castleton, which inevitably also supplied Blue John.

The most prized marble was the rare Duke's Red, found in very limited supplies in the Ashford locality. The entire supply was stored at Chatsworth on the orders of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, since which time details of its source became lost. In 1970, Duke's Red marble was incorporated in the Cavendish crest - a serpent - laid near the Great Display House at Chatsworth.

OBLIGED TO MINE

The main source of black marble was Arrock Quarry, beside the road to Sheldon. The quarry was described by William Adam in The Gem of the Peak (1843). Adam had been shown around the marble mill, with its massive wooden machines driven by powerful waterwheels, before crossing the Wye - 'a turbulent stream' - over a plank to the quarry, which 'had a bearing of at least forty feet above it of bad measures, as they are called, and the good black consists of nine beds, varying from three to nine inches in thickness.... It is difficult to raise a perfect slab of more than six or seven feet long, and from two to five feet wide. The bearing above the quarry is now so great that they have been obliged to mine it, and support the roofs by the offal stone and strong posts, which makes a visit to it now more interesting.'

The blocks of stone were taken across the river to the mill to be sawn to size, ground and polished. By the time Adams' book was published, the plank over the Wye had finally been replaced by a bridge.

Ashford marble remained popular throughout the reign of Queen Victoria - the widowed Queen herself set the vogue for black adornments and jewellery. Towards the end of the century, turbines were installed at the mill but the industry had already peaked and tastes were changing. The mill and quarry closed in 1905 though inlay work continued for a few more years until the reserves of marble were used up. The site of the marble works was partly lost in construction of the A6.

Today examples of the craft are prized by stately homes, museums and collectors. In Ashford parish church stands a prize-winning table of 1882 to remind the village and its visitors of a time when local skills carried the name of Ashford to all the fashionable cities of Britain.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th June 1995.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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