Historically, three main players have dominated the quarrying industry on Mendip, namely John Wainwright & Co., Foster Yeoman Ltd., and the companies now embodied in Hanson Aggregates. A fourth group, now incorporated in Aggregate Industries also accounts for a number of current operations. Furthermore John Wainwright & Co. Ltd., Foster Yeoman Ltd. and Morris and Perry & Co. are unusual in all being independent, locally based companies, although Foster Yeoman has been recently taken over by Aggregate Industries. A further feature is the retention (until recently) of quarries by the County Council.
Tracing the historical development of Mendip quarries is far more complicated than it would appear today.
The prize for longevity must go to John Wainwright & Co. John Wainwright became involved in quarrying in the 1880s when acting as a trustee for a farmer at Downside, just north of Shepton Mallet — some of the stone from this quarry being supplied to the nearby prison for stonebreaking as punishment. With the aid of finance from the Luff family (who became partners), Wainwright purchased land near Windsor (sometimes spelt Winsor) Hill Tunnel on the Somerset and Dorset Line and began operations in about 1890, later moving on to the neighbouring Ham Woods Quarry. The key acquisition, that of Moon's Hill Quarry, came in 1897, but by 1902 when the company was incorporated, in addition to these three sites, they managed units at Cheddar, Wells and Titwell, giving them sources of limestone along the length of Mendip together with the key igneous rock quarry in the area. The lease of one of the largest sites, Vobster Quarry was acquired (along with the colliery estate and railway) in 1904 and another site at Shores Hill, near Gurney Slade was also worked. By 1912, operations at Cheddar had succumbed to environmental lobbying and closed and Titwell ceased before 1914.
The most fundamental change came in 1934 when John Wainwright & Co. pooled their limestone undertakings with those of many other Mendip concerns, to create Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. However John Wainwright & Co. not only retained the only igneous rock quarry on Mendip — the nearest hardstone source to the western Home Counties, they also acquired a significant shareholding in the new consortium. A member of the Luff family had a position on that board into the 1950s, as well as continuing to manage Wainwrights. John Wainwright Ltd. is still a very active independent company, and the only producer of igneous rock on Mendip.
The origins of Hanson in this area are as follows. The Teign Valley Granite Co. Ltd. was incorporated in 1910 to run hardstone quarries between Exeter and Newton Abbot; much of the product was already being sold into south Somerset and the Hampshire/Dorset areas.
In 1924, reflecting a wider spread of interests, the company changed its name to Roads Reconstruction Ltd. It made its first acquisition in Somerset, Mendip Mountain Quarries Ltd. (at Waterlip and also at Windsor Hill) in the mid 1920s, followed before 1927 by the Sandford Quarry Co. (operating Sandford Hill and Churchill Limestone quarries at Winscombe and Conygar Sandstone Quarry, Clevedon). By 1927 Roads Reconstruction Ltd. had totally refurbished and upgraded Waterlip, but the prospects there were to prove short-lived.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the economic depression was biting hard, forcing some companies out of business and others to turn to combining interests and reducing spare capacity by closing older, run down plants.
In 1933, having by then also acquired the Somerset Quarrying Co. (operating at Vallis Vale), Roads Reconstruction Ltd. set about establishing a new company, Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. (referred to below as RR (1934)) by taking in the Emborough Stone Co. (1928) Ltd., Bryant and Longford Quarries Ltd. (with interests outside the county), Mells Stone Quarry (also known as Bilbao Quarry, owned by the Beauchamp family) and C. Dalley & Co. Ltd. at Binegar.
Interestingly, Tarmac attempted to acquire RR (1934) Ltd. in 1941 but talks eventually failed, and despite some small interests, Mendip is one area in Britain where Tarmac never really gained a firm foothold.
In 1942 Read and Son, Binegar Quarries was purchased and in the following year, a major works and rail depot at West Drayton near Heathrow, was acquired.
Meanwhile, along the Welsh border and in Gloucestershire, the British Quarrying Co. (BQC, formed in 1929) was dominating the market from the Forest of Dean to London, as far south as the A4 and Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation (ARC-registered in 1935) was the leader beyond Mendip to the southwest. Each had built up a string of quarry assets.
By the mid-1930s trade began to pick up in preparation for War and the County Councils took over responsibility for all rural roads and key urban routes in 1929, and trunk roads came under the Ministry of Transport in 1936. These three large quarry groups, each serving distinct geographical sectors, from specific source areas, set the pace over a large segment of the English market south of a line from Birmingham to London. This enabled RR (1934) to reassess its assets and, (like other leading companies just mentioned), close down smaller inefficient units nearing exhaustion. Instead they concentrated efforts on a virtually 'greenfield' site, namely New Frome (later known as Whatley) Quarry. This began life in 1939, and is now one of the biggest quarries in Europe. Talks about merger between ARC and RR(1934) in the late 1930s failed to come to fruition, but ARC and BQC merged in 1946.
In 1960, Batts Coombe Quarry Co. was taken into the company. In the same year, Roads Reconstruction (1934) became part of Thomas Roberts (Westminster) Ltd., (reverting to the old name: Roads Reconstruction Ltd.) which in 1967 in turn merged with Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation. ARC made a bid for Amey, an Oxford-based family-run contract and quarry company, gaining control in 1972. This brought with it Cooks Wood Quarry near Stoke St Michael and Cloford near Holwell. The full title of ARC was changed to Amey Roadstone Corporation.
With ARC's purchase of the Bath and Portland Group in 1985 came Doulting Quarry but the lease reverted in 1993/4 and the owner still works the stone.
ARC itself was acquired by the Gold Fields Group which in turn was taken over by Hanson, the British based multinational, in 1989. Latterly ARC has begun trading as Hanson Aggregates.
The third key player followed a very different route. Foster Yeoman, one of the sons of a Hartlepool shipowner came home from World War 1 with a burning desire to alleviate the problems of unemployed ex-servicemen. After a spell managing blast furnaces, in 1923, he took on the leases of quarries at Dulcote from the Great Western Railway and the adjacent owner (who also had other quarries at Wells, at one time operated by Wainwrights). Key to success in all the early ventures on Mendip was rail access; not only did this site have sidings on the GWR, but it also supplied rail ballast. Yeomans also acquired a stake in the tar refinery at Mells Road Station, shared with others in the 1920s. Despite successes in the 1930s, on the death of Foster in 1949, his son John (then aged 21) took over the management of a near bankrupt company. By 1955, the quarry and plant was mechanised and in 1960, capacity had been further greatly increased.
Throughout this period Dulcote had always posed geological challenges in its operation. Yeomans began to look for other opportunities and in 1958 acquired the heavily rundown Merehead Quarry at East Cranmore. By 1964 an entirely new plant was up and running producing 2000 tons per hour. With the direct connection to a new railhead in 1970, operations began to take off, making the renamed Torr Works one of the largest in Europe with a current output of about 5 million tonnes per year. Most of this stone finds its way to rail depots between East Anglia and the south coast, stone being hauled by company locomotives and trains. To meet the shortages of very hard stone, particularly for road wearing courses and high strength applications, Yeomans pioneered the concept of the coastal super quarry at Glensanda, Argyll. The first shipments were made in 1986, shortly before the untimely death of John Yeoman in 1987. With his widow Angela Yeoman and his son managing the company, production of Glensanda has risen to 5 million tonnes per year.
The 'Big Three' were not the only players.
One of the distinctive features of the industry through the history of this area, almost to the present day has been the operation of local authority quarries. Until the establishment of the county councils in the late nineteenth century, parishes and turnpike trusts had responsibility for maintaining roads. Other quarries were opened up under land enclosure acts to supply stone for constructing field walls or for general building use, exclusive to those living in the parish or having common rights. So 'parish quarries' became commonplace to meet local needs only. Throughout the early years of the Twentieth Century, roadmaking and mending duties were taken from the parishes and split between the county, rural or urban district councils. Some of these parish quarries were in turn operated by those new authorities so for example in 1896, fourteen of the fifty or sixty quarries listed in the Mendip area were worked by local authorities. By the early 1900s, the surfaces of Somerset roads were amongst the poorest in the country. Until 1906, local surveyors used the nearest available source almost regardless of the robustness of the stone — so that for example, the relatively soft Inferior Oolite was widely employed.
Having started as a backward highway authority in the very early days, after 1906 and long before many other authorities, Somerset County Council required all county roads to be surfaced with hardstone (robust sandstone or igneous rocks), rather than the more slippery limestone. As more and more highway responsibilities fell to the County Council (for example in all rural areas from 1929), so the smaller authorities gave up quarrying. From its inception until very recently, Somerset County Council has had a policy of operating some of its own quarries 'in order to monitor costs'. At one point between the Wars, the County Council proposed to supply other local authorities, but this was ruled to be ultra vires. Until relatively recently the Council ran Underwood Quarry at Wells. Some of the parish quarries eventually became commercial undertakings.
The other national group operating at a significant scale in the area is Aggregate Industries, with quarries at Callow Hill and Holwell. The first was previously operated by the Callow Rock Lime Co. Ltd. (established in 1919 by London bankers, the Tiarks, to alleviate unemployment). The cluster of workings at Holwell were mostly opened up in the Nineteenth Century by the Coleman family. ECC Quarries Ltd., based in Exeter acquired these. After several changes of title (CAMAS, Bardon), the company settled on Aggregate Industries plc, based in Leicestershire and now part of the Swiss based Holcim Group. In 2006, Aggregate Industries took over Foster Yeomans, thus merging two of the three main players.