HISTORY OF THE MAIN MENDIP QUARRY COMPANIES
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.