A Lost Industry: Devon marble

Dead Man’s Bay, Dark Ashburton, Fossil Clouded Petitor, Plymouth Black, Pomphlett, Devon Siena, Prince Rock, Little Beltor Pink, Red Ogwell. The names are as diverse as the colours and textures of the stone to which they refer: Devon marble. Not a true marble, it’s quarrying and working was nevertheless an important aspect of the Devon economy throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In geological terms the Devon marbles are limestones that can take a high polish. Real marble is metamorphosed limestone, that is, limestone transformed by the heat and pressure of geological activity to the extent that it completely recrystallizes. The recrystallization process gives marble its distinctive texture, hardness, and variety of colours. It also destroys any fossils, so fossil content is a reliable indicator of whether a stone is true marble or not. Most of the Devon marbles contain fossils, particularly corals, and are hence known as Madrepore (coral-rich) marbles. Nonetheless, the limestones of Devon were exposed to sufficient geological heat and pressure to allow a partial reconfiguration of their structure, and, since they could be cut and polished to imitate marble, were referred to as such.

The main marble producing areas of Devon were those around Plymouth, Ipplepen and Torquay. During the nineteenth century these quarries were some of the most important in the country and stone extracted and worked here was used for monuments and buildings throughout Britain and overseas. Each location produced highly distinctive and often colourful stones. Writing in 1916 John Watson noted that the marbles at Babbacombe and Newton Abbot ‘are red, grey with white and yellow veins. A rose-coloured spar is found at Kitley Park. Black and white marbles are quarried at Bridestown, South Tawton and Drewsteignton. Black, with large white veins, are quarried at Staverton and Berry Pomeroy.’

The seaside towns of Teignmouth, Dawlish, Torquay and Babbacombe produced a variety of marbles which were worked into small gift items such as boxes and paperweights for the tourist market. The coral content of the stone gave it a feathery appearance which was well suited for such decorative work. Fossil Clouded Petitor was pink and red with many fossils; other local marbles were rose to yellow in colour.

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Left: marble paving slabs in Plymouth. Right: Ashburton marble was used in the 19th century conservation work to the west front at Salisbury Cathedral.

Ashburton Marble is perhaps the most famous of all the Devon marbles, grey to black with white and pink veins of calcite. Formed by earth movements during the Carboniferous period and the intrusion of the Dartmoor granite which crushed and deformed the surrounding stone, it contains the fossil remains of creatures that lived in the Devonian sea 360-380 million years ago, principally corals, crinoids and brachiopods. In its unpolished state it was used for walls and can still be found as kerbstones along East Street in Ashburton; in the rain the colours are striking. It was often used for fireplaces, architectural features and monuments (examples occur in the cathedrals of Exeter, Chichester, and Guildford), and in 1967 was used for the decoration of the central staircase and lobby of the Canadian National Library in Ottawa.

Quarrying and working the stone led to the creation of prominent and successful companies. One of these was The Phoenix Steam Marble Works based in Plymouth who owned the nearby quarries at Pomphlett. In 1881 they employed 47 men, 6 apprentices and 5 women. At the other end of the scale were extremely small scale quarries, probably employing no more than a handful of people and opened where the stone outcropped near the surface. Remains of quarries such as this can be found throughout the south of the county.

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Left: a weathered Ashburton marble memorial, St Andrew’s church, Ashburton. Right: alternate slabs of Ashburton and Torquay marbles near the high altar, Exeter Cathedral.

The South Devon marble industry collapsed in the face of cheaper marble being imported from overseas in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly the white variety from Carrara in Italy. This marble began to be favoured by the memorial industry which was supplied by Italian companies with pre-carved tombstones and effigies, considerably lowering the price for an impressive monument. The greater variety of colours and patterns in the marbles from overseas was another factor in the demise of the local industry. Nevertheless, Devon marble is still a beautiful and sought after material and provides a revealing insight into an industry that once flourished in the locality.

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