"INDUSTRY" ON BIRKRIGG COMMON

The manufacture of stone axes was quite probably the first industry ever undertaken in the British Isles and it is possible, although not proven, that bronze axes were also manufactured in the area.

In the past, the Common would have been more extensive than it is today. In the 18th century, if not earlier, the practice of enclosing the best land with walls for more intensive agriculture began. This would have restricted the free use of the grazing available to tenants to the higher areas that were not suitable for ploughing. In order to do this numerous small quarries were developed and the Common is now completely enclosed by dry stone walls constructed almost entirely from this stone and pieces of limestone collected from the enclosed fields.

The craft of stone walling is therefore centuries old. On the east side the boundary wall shows the typical "through-stones" that were used in a middle course to give the wall stability and prevent it from bowing (wind pressure from the west can be tremendous on the Common).

A band of limestone to the east of the Common has supported a number of small quarries, in some of which seams of green copper ore (malachite) were discovered. It is therefore a little known fact that Birkrigg once had a copper mine, although it had been worked out by the beginning of the 19th century. Furness copper was exported to Liverpool, as copper goods were extensively used for barter in the slave trade between 1750 and 1807. The same limestone band continues through into Sea Wood and there were attempts to mine copper there in the 1850s. The remains of the entry shaft to a seam are still visible on the Common and pieces of limestone can be found coated in green powder (copper carbonate), as in the centre of the image below. But copper mining could be much older than this; we do not know whether the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Appleby Camp had discovered the copper that existed in the limestone less than a quarter of a mile away.

Each of the bands of limestone has a different composition, colour, hardness and weathering characteristics, leading to different uses. Throughout the 19th century, industrial scale quarrying took place on the north-west and south-east sides of the Common, with royalties being paid to the Crown. The south-east quarry provided the best limestone for building and this stone lasts almost indefinitely (the Ulverston Savings Bank shows no sign of wear after 180 years). John Bolton, a local Victorian geologist argued Birkrigg limestone should have been used for the ornamental parts of the new Houses of Parliament predicting, correctly as it now turns out, that the stone that was used from Yorkshire would crumble.

Some of the Birkrigg limestone is very similar to marble (another form of calcium carbonate) and has been used for carving and sculpture, as on the armorial bearings on the Sir John Barrow Monument. Quarrying of stone for such pieces in the 19th century required a more carefull technique. A fault line was selected and several holes made, often with a hand turned augur or an iron bar and heavy hammer. If the block still did not come away a small amount of gunpowder could be placed in the hole and lit with a fuse. Evidence of this technique still remains in one area on the Common...

In the last quarter of the 19th century the north-west quarry was exploited by the newly-formed North Lonsdale Iron Works. This limestone has a high degree of purity, making it ideal for use as a flux in the blast furnaces. In the early 1970s this redundant quarry almost became a refuse tip.

Perhaps the strangest use of the Common was in 1957 when Lindal Cricket Club was given permission to take enough sheep-grazed turf from Birkrigg to relay their pitch. This caused much criticism in the local press as the club chose to take the turf from the area next to the trig point, but it just proves what Birkrigg could be like with more careful management!

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