ROCK SOLID. PART EIGHT
I once asked a farmer in Scotland what the difference was between a tidy farm and an untidy one. He gave me a very short answer; “Two thousand tons of concrete!”. What he meant of course was that if yards, gateways and farm roads were paved it made life a lot easier. Can’t you just imagine a Stone Age wife nagging her husband to do something about the muddy entrance to the dwelling and him scattering stones to give a firm, drained area?
Exactly the same principle applied to public roads. When these first started as footpaths between settlements they were just bare earth. As traffic built up, the surface wore and in wet weather became a quagmire. It didn’t take long to realise that some stone on the road helped matters enormously. By medieval times, this maintenance of the roads by stoning them was part of the duty demanded by the manorial lord of his tenants. They had to give so much labour every year to road maintenance or suffer a fine.
This was done by ‘knapping’ stone into the road surface. If you took a reasonable sized stone, laid it on the road and then cracked it with a small pointed hammer it would shatter into small pieces and these were hammered into the road until they were level. If you walk up Lister Well Lane and look carefully you will find surviving areas of knapped stone. You can tell them because it almost looks like a mosaic.
Eventually traffic built up to the point where this method wouldn’t do, it was too time consuming. By the late 18th century crushed stone was being spread on the roads and there were laws which stated that wagon tyres had to be of a certain width so that as the vehicles travelled on the road they rolled them flat. These roads always seemed to be white if there was limestone in the area. I suspect that limestone shattered more easily than gritstone and was easier to use.
No matter how well they were maintained, these roads were dusty in dry weather and muddy when wet. This was no great problem on the open road but in villages and towns it became a serious nuisance. Imagine Church Street on a hot summer’s day. The wind or passing traffic stirred up the fine dust and blew it everywhere, into the shops and on to uncovered food stuffs. Remember that mixed in with this dust was horse and dog muck, the droppings off the scavenging and night soil carts and ever other nastiness you can imagine. It was realised that this was a serious public health issue. By the end of the 19th century this problem was being tackled by paving the streets with stone blocks about nine inches square called ‘setts’.
If you want to see a nice piece of road history in Barlick, go and have a look at Hill Street. The slope at the bottom end down to Bank Street is still the original setts. If you look closely you will see the remains of the gas tar, a by-product of the gas works, which was poured into the joints to seal them when they were laid. One thing to note is that when they were laid, the setts weren’t rounded like they are now. They had rough faces and sharp edges, the rounded appearance you see today is the result of years of wear.
In very large towns wood blocks were used instead of stone as this quietened the sound of carriage wheels. A lot of streets in the City of London were paved like this. In the 1920s the first black top roads were constructed. The very earliest ones were made by simply spraying hot tar on the road and rolling fine stone into the soft surface. This is still used on country roads today. In towns, some streets were capped with Trinidad Lake Asphalt, a naturally occurring mastic which is still used to this day for flat roofs. As more roads were capped, tar macadam, a mixture of hot tar and small stones, was used and this is what we still see on modern roads.
The first streets in Barlick to be paved were in the town centre, Church Street, Rainhall Road, Station Road and Newtown were early examples. These were surfaced with a fan shaped pattern of setts and one of my pictures this week shows a remnant of this which was revealed when Rainhall road was re-surfaced eighteen months ago. The best example I know of this pattern is outside the Piece Hall at Halifax and a pavior once told me that the trade name for it is Durex. Funnily enough, Billy Brooks told me that when they were first paved, the local carters protested because their horses were slipping on the hard surface. It didn’t take long for the farriers to start making horseshoes with cleats at the back and front to give the horses a better grip.
One strange by-product of the tar boiler was that it came to be seen as a cure for whooping cough. I can still remember the lovely smell of hot gas tar from when I was a lad and many old people have told me of children being held over the boiler so that they got a good dose of the fumes to ease their cough. There are of course the tales about children struggling and falling into the hot tar but I have yet to find any firm evidence for this. Happily, I came across an old tar boiler only a week since so I can show you what one looked like. They always remind me of Stephenson’s Rocket!
So what’s all this got to do with Jack Platt and the quarries in Barlick? I’m setting the scene for the next thrilling instalment of his life story, The streets of Barlick, Barrowford, Nelson and Burnley weren’t paved with gold, they were covered with Tubber Hill setts. Next week we’ll have a look at how they got there.
SCG/23 March 2003
ROCK SOLID. PART SEVEN
One of the big changes after the First World War was the appearance on the roads of cheap ex army wagons. Sagars soon realised this and bought two, a Dennis and a Roma. To our eyes, these were very primitive vehicles. They had solid tyres, oil lamps, no protection for the driver apart from canvas screens and very poor brakes. They could carry about four tons and were limited by law to 12 miles an hour. Despite all these drawbacks, they were faster and cheaper to run than horses. My picture this week is of an Albion army wagon but gives a very good idea of the type used by Sagars.
The regular driver at the quarry in the 1920s was Billy Spensley who later married Jack’s sister Annie. It was common practice for him to take a mate with him as all the stone had to be unloaded by hand and Jack used to do this job from time to time. It gives some idea of how free and easy things were in those days if I tell you that Billy would let Jack have a go at driving on these trips despite the fact that he hadn’t got a license. Jack took to driving like a duck to water and even though he didn’t know it at the time, the pattern of the rest of his working life was set.
A word here about wagon driving. We hear a lot nowadays about the psychology of driving and the fascination it can hold for us. As a long term sufferer myself I can tell you that the disease is far worse when it concerns wagons. We used to call it being ‘cab-happy’ and I can understand exactly what happened to Jack because I was just as bad myself. If you’re that way inclined, there is nothing nicer than being captain of your own ship and hauling heavy loads. The bigger the wagon and the longer the journey the better! When I got my last wagon in 1978 it was the biggest in Barlick and I was at least ten feet tall. Jack came round and admired it and then said to me “Don’t forget Stanley, the bigger the wagon, the bigger the fool that’s driving it!” He was right and I knew it. My wage hadn’t gone up and I had twice as much to clean!
In about 1923 Sagars bought a new Leyland wagon and sold the old Roma. Billy took the new wagon and one morning John Sagar said to Jack “Take a load of random stone to Foulridge with the Dennis”. So Jack did as he was told. Only problem was he was only 17 years old and hadn’t got a license! Over the next few months he was caught three times driving without a license and fined ten shillings for each offence. Eventually John Sagar must have realised it would be cheaper to get Jack licensed so he gave him five shillings and told him to get one. Jack wrote off to Skipton, asked for a license and enclosed a five shilling postal order. No questions, no test, but the magic piece of paper arrived back by return of post. Our hero was legal.
It is very hard for us to realise nowadays just how primitive conditions were in the early 1920s. Apart from a few roads paved with setts in the middle of the town, all the roads were like farm tracks. Jack said that the setts on the main road started at Barrowford. The vehicles were dreadfully under powered, the maximum speed empty was about 15 miles an hour. The lights were oil lamps and had a distressing habit of blowing out as you were driving. A good illustration of both these facts is that Jack was driving home one night through Barrowford and ‘Ginger’, the local bobby, overtook him on his push bike and shouted that his tail light was out! Jack had to stop, clean the lamp and trim the wick and get it going before he could set off again.
The wagons had no brakes as we understand them. The only means of stopping was a combined hand and foot brake that worked on the transmission. These picked up a lot of oil and once a week a careful driver stripped the brake down and boiled the brake lining in strong alkali to clean it and ensure a reasonable brake on Monday morning. Driving down Tubber Hill with a load was a dangerous occupation. You stopped at the top, engaged bottom gear and crept down using both the engine and the brake to hold you back. Even so, Jack said he regularly had to put a wheel in the dyke at the edge of the road to stop himself running away.
There was no cab as we know it, simply a backboard and a primitive roof and canvas side screens. One of Jack’s regular jobs in winter was to plough snow off the road for the Council. The snow plough was kept on the side of the road near the Dog and was a simple wooden wedge with iron sole plates that was hitched to the back of the wagon with a chain and towed along the road. Jack’s regular stretch was from the Dog to Standing Stone Gate and he told me he got to Whitemoor one morning in winter and when he looked he had lost the plough! They went back and found it sitting in the middle of the road at Tubber Hill.
Brushes with the law were an everyday event. Sometime in the mid twenties Jack was courting Mona and was hurrying back home through Nelson because he was going to a party with her. He was caught in a speed trap doing seventeen miles an hour, got a summons and was fined fifty shillings or 14 days in gaol. His wage was only thirty shillings a week and he had to threaten to leave before old John paid his fine. Mind you, he got to the party and in 1928 married Mona and moved to a cottage at Tubber Hill. Things were looking up!
SCG/22 March 2003