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Ashford Black Marble

Posted Thursday, June 7, 2007

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The Black Beauty of Ashford Marble (Reflections Magazine 2004)

`The Romans first mined lead here two thousand years ago'

Over the centuries Derbyshire’s rich mineral wealth has been plundered to provide the raw materials for a vast number of products, and a whole range of commercial enterprises have come and gone since the Romans first mined lead here two thousand years ago.

The rich deposits of carboniferous limestone have provided – and are still providing - vast quantities of raw materials for use in industry, including lime, building stone, lead and all its valuable derivatives, including barytes and fluorspar and their by-products used in the metallurgic industries.

`Treasures including silver and small quantities of gold!'

In much shorter supply however, the Derbyshire limestone has yielded other mineral treasures including silver and small quantities of gold, the unique Blue John mined around the Castleton area – and Ashford Black Marble, prized for its decorative beauty and notably the finest of it’s kind to be found anywhere in the world.

Though many commentators claim that it isn’t marble at all, but an impure form of bituminous dark grey limestone (which turns black when polished), the geological encyclopaedia makes it clear:

“Marble (from Latin, marmor - ` a shining stone’) - a term applied to any limestone or dolomite which is sufficiently close in texture to admit of being polished…by accurate writers the term is invariably restricted to those crystalline and compact varieties of carbonate of lime, which when polished, are applicable to purposes of decoration”.

Furthermore the encyclopaedia goes on to say:

“Perhaps the most generally useful marbles yielded by the Carboniferous system are the black varieties, which are largely employed for chimney-pieces, vases and other ornamental objects. The colour of most black limestone is due to the presence of bituminous matter……and the finest kind of black marble is obtained from near Ashford in Derbyshire”.

This once fashionable product was made into a multitude of ornaments like clocks, candlesticks, book-ends, snuff and cigarette-boxes, crosses, inkstands, obelisks and thermometers.

Its black beauty graces many stately homes and royal residences, churches and cathedrals, and since the industry declined in 1905 due to a dramatic fall in demand, it’s products have become prized by both art and antique collectors, and fine examples are on display at major London museums, and locally in museums at Derby and Sheffield.

When England underwent a massive re-building programme, fuelled by the success of the Industrial Revolution during the early Georgian period, easier access was provided into the Peak District with the building of new turnpike roads and canals throughout the eighteenth century, and the exploitation of Derbyshire’s mineral wealth fuelled a flourishing trade in commercial products. Into this maelstrom of commercial activity Henry Watson established the Ashford Marble Mill on the River Wye in 1748, and for one hundred and fifty years until it’s final closure in 1905, the water-powered mill manufactured some of the finest and most sought after marble ornaments and artefacts ever produced.

The main source of black marble was Arrock Quarry, on the Sheldon road from Ashford, and on the opposite side of the river from the marble works. In 1843 William Adam described it in his `Gem of the Peak’ as having,

“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”. In 1832 a Mr. Oldfield had discovered another source and opened a quarry at the Rookery Plantation. Large slabs from both quarries were taken across the river to the mill to be sawn to size, ground and polished.

For almost a century all the decorative work had been done by etching and engraving onto the polished surface, but in 1835 the industry was transformed when William Adam of Matlock, at the suggestion of the Duke of Devonshire who had seen Florentine mosaics while on a visit to Italy, introduced the art of inlaying.

The beautiful floral and geometric inlaid designs proved an immediate success. Inlay material came from many sources, but most popular was Rosewood and Bird’s Eye marble from Sheldon, Corraline and Duke’s Red from Alport, Entrochal and Encrinital from Monyash, blue fluorspar from Castleton, and yellow fluorspar from Crich.

These were later supplemented by imported green Russian malachite, white Carrara, green Florentine and yellow Sienna marbles from Italy, lapis lazuli and conch shells. This resulted in a wider range of designs and local artists produced sprays of roses, pansies, harebells, forget-me-nots, lilies-of-the-valley, fuchsias, birds and butterflies to enhance and heighten the black beauty of the Ashford Marble.

The delicate, intricately skilled inlay work was done by homeworkers called `baublers’, who used metal templates to mark out the chiselled sockets to receive the inlays, which had their edges tapered on grinding wheels. The inlays were then cemented into the sockets by means of a glue made from tallow, resin and plaster of Paris, applied as a powder, and activated by the process of ironing the inlays into position.

The products were then returned to the marble mill where the surface was ground level and highly polished to a perfect finish.

Patronised by royalty, the Marble Works at Ashford became a tourist attraction and demand soared following the outstanding success of Ashford marble at the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Prince Albert himself exhibited three beautifully inlaid black marble tables made at the workshops of T. Woodruff of Bakewell which reportedly put even the Italian Master’s in the shade. It quickly became known that both he and Queen Victoria were patrons and collectors of Ashford black marble.

Following Albert’s death, Queen Victoria’s years of mourning were responsible for creating a vogue which popularised black clothing and adornments, such as Whitby Jet jewellery and Ashford black marble ornaments. But Victoria was familiar with Ashford marble long before this.

As a girl of thirteen she stayed at Chatsworth and admired the marble interiors and massive marble doorways installed in the new wing by the 6th Duke, and thus inspired, paid a visit in 1832 to the Ashford Marble Works with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and made a number of purchases.

Even earlier than this, Bess of Hardwick used Ashford marble for the chimney piece of the Great High Presence Chamber when building Hardwick Hall in 1580, and later in 1687 it was quarried at nearby Sheldon for the columns, altar steps and floor of the chapel at Chatsworth House.

Indeed, from the discovery in 1832 of a dressed piece of black marble from the Ashford area in a prehistoric burial mound at Monsal Dale, it is clear that the product has always been highly prized.

But by the close of the nineteenth century coloured glass was being used as a cheap replacement for the inlay work, and the results were regarded as tawdry and unworthy of the high quality of craftsmanship for which the Ashford marblers had become renowned.

Following Victoria’s death in 1901 demand for the black marble products began to wane and the famous Ashford Marble Works finally closed in 1905, and disappeared forever during road widening in the 1930’s.

Today Ashford black marble ornaments are greatly prized collector’s items, and the dramatic beauty of it’s highly polished black surface still graces the counties stately homes at Chatsworth, Keddleston, Haddon, and Hardwick.

One of the finest examples to be seen on public display, is a prize-winning circular inlaid black marble table, exhibited at Derby in 1882 - which most appropriately stands today in the church at Ashford-in-the-Water.

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