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(E.W.Crofts used to write a series of articles on the industries of Penzance. Under the pseudonym of ‘Ouit’ he contributed articles on 22 industries for ‘The Cornishman’ newspaper between 22nd February 1883 and 17th July 1884. The following is an accurate transcript of his two articles published on 7th June 1883 and 14th June 1883 that covered the subject of serpentine manufacture.)

THE INDUSTRIES OF PENZANCE AND ITS NEIGHBOURHOOD. NO. IX

THE MANUFACTURE OF SERPENTINE.

THE ORNAMENTAL STONES OF CORNWALL – THE COLOURS AND GEOLOGICAL CHARACTER OF SERPENTINE – HISTORY OF THE INDUSTRY – PRESENT STATE OF THE TRADE AND NUMBER OF PEOPLE ENGAGED IN IT – LIZARD SERPENTINE QUARRIES AND WORKS – PROCESS OF MANUFACTURE.

Industry pays debts.

Industry needs not wish.

If we are industrious we shall never starve.

Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee.

Drive thy business, let it not drive thee.

Franklin’s “Maxims”.

At Whitby they manufacture jet; at Dawlish and Torquay, madrepore; and at Penzance, serpentine; and of these three, serpentine incontestably carries off the palm of excellence, being admittedly the most beautiful of the ornamental stones in this country. Not only is it manufactured extensively into a multitude of ornamental articles of general utility, but within more recent years has grown much in favour for architectural works, for which it is exceptionally adapted. One of the finest collections of marble shafts in this country may be seen in the cloisters of the New University at Oxford. They are of various kinds, and are intended as geological illustrations. The shafts were set up some time ago, and have since been much exposed to the weather; and it has been found that while the polish of all the others has (with the exception of granite) been much injured and nearly destroyed, that of the Lizard serpentine shafts has in no respect, undergone the slightest change. It is also employed, with the most gratifying results, in this and other countries.

Cornwall and the neighbouring county of Devon constitute a happy hunting ground for the mineralogist and the lapidary. As De la Beche reminds us, in this geological report of the district [*1], it is rich in those ‘finer materials for buildings, such as will advantageously admit of being worked and polished, and also for smaller ornamental purposes’.

Confining myself to our own county of Cornwall, I will just mention a few of the most prominent.

In the carbonaceous series these crystals, commonly known as Cornish diamonds, look very well when set in brooches and seals; and old Carew; in his ‘Survey of Cornwall’, says that they were held in great esteem and used for personal ornaments in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The violet rock crystal, or amethyst, is another very pretty, but scarce stone. The marbles taken from the limestones at Petit Tor, when composed of fossil corals, are known as madrepore marbles, and are worked into a variety of columns, vases, etc. The dillage rock, or Crousa Down stone, is of great beauty and hardness, some varieties having a fine purple tint, and others verge more on green. Near Coverack Cove there are some varieties of this stone, ‘in which saussurite prevails, from which small ornaments might advantageously be worked’.

The granites of the district abound in varieties which, when cut and polished, look extremely well. There is a fine grained sort, of light brown tint, at Castle an Dinas; and another with a purplish felspar, raised at Wheal Damsel, in Gwennap. At Tremore village, near Bodmin, there is worked a beautiful hard elvan, with a reddish base and containing schorl, quartz, and crystal of felspar. Others equally beautiful varieties are found at Barton and Ennis; at Seveock Water, near Chacewater; at Tyecombe, near St. Austell; and at Mayon and Bosava, in the Land’s End district; and last, but not least, comes the serpentine of the Lizard.

Serpentine derives its name from the variety of colours which it presents, and partly, perhaps, from its scaly appearance where a smooth slab is exposed to the air [*2]. The colours themselves are the most beautiful and variegated description imaginable, black and green, perhaps, predominating, with a frequent mixture of dillage; but the choicest sorts are generally considered to be those in which the greatest number of tints are present, and the tints and chromatic combinations are as various and many as the figures in a kaleidoscope. In some varieties veins of red traverse the olive green ground, mixed with lighter tints. Frequently it is studded with spangled crystals of dillage, a mineral of almost the same component parts as the serpentine itself ‘but easily distinguished by its laminar structure and metallic lustre, varying from grey to bronze colour’. This is a beautiful and very hard variety, and when cut and polished shines with a metallic green tint on the reddish base. There is a rich jet black, a purple, a brown, a red, crimson and cream coloured, striped, dappled, or a variously intermixed and blended with one or other tints, and constituting, in some cases, an entirely different looking material. Indeed, as I have said, the variations of colour to be found in this exquisite stone are practically without number.

Mr. J.E.Drew, on the Esplanade, Penzance, has a handsome collection of works of art in this deservedly popular material; and the show rooms at Poltesco, near the Lizard, are well worthy of a visit. But it is almost invidious to make exceptions, as many of the serpentine workers in Penzance and the neighbourhood (which I shall enumerate further on) keep a very fine stock from which to select.

Certain is that the visitor to Penzance should soon think of quitting the neighbourhood without first securing a specimen or two of manufactured serpentine as of leaving Mount’s Bay before he had clambered over the historic rock of St. Michael, or had taken his fill of ozone and the picturesque off the famed Cornish cape.

The serpentine district is nearly a hundred square miles in extent. In the interior of the Lizard country the surface of Goonelly Downs consists principally of this formation, which, as it is known, may be traced by the growth of a particular plant, the erica vagans, a beautiful heath, which seems to find something congenial in a magnesian soil [*3]. The great mass of the serpentine is supported on the hornblende slate with an apparent passage of the one into the other in many places [*4].

Serpentine geologists consider it to be of volcanic origin, and to have been poured together with the dillage rock in the state of fusion into basin formed by the hornblende slate and rock. ‘The true constituent parts of this rock’ says Sir Humphry Davy [*5] ‘appear to be resplendent hornblende and felspar. Of the nature and origin of the veins of steatite in serpentine, which form a curious subject of enquiry, I am inclined to think they are mere mechanical deposits’. I have not by me an analysis of any of the Cornish serpentines, but perhaps the following, given by Dr. Thompson [*6], for the Lizard saussurite (a very beautiful mineral) associated with the dillage rock in the serpentine, may be of interest: -

Silica 82.168

Lime 5.520

Alumina 5.072

Magnesia 4.520

Protoxide of iron with some manganese 2.880

Potash a trace

So much, then, for the geological aspect of my subject, which I have necessarily treated in a brief and imperfect manner.

It will surprise not a few of my readers, I dare say, to be told that it is only within the last 50 years or so that serpentine has been brought into general notice. Strange enough, it seems that this elegant and polychromic stone, which presents such a handsome surface when cut and polished, should so long have remained unknown to practical men.

From information, kindly supplied to my by Mr. Drew, of Penzance, and Mr. Nankervis, of Poltesco, I am enabled to present a brief outline sketch of the serpentine trade, from its origin to the present time.

It appears that Mr. Drew (grandfather of the proprietor of the existing works on the Esplanade) while engaged in the erection of the Lizard lighthouse in 1828, accidentally had his attention called to the serpentine rock of the neighbourhood, and it struck him that this beautiful mineral might advantageously be manufactured into vases and such like useful and ornamental articles. Mr. Drew was not long in giving form to his ideas, and with commendable industry and perseverance at last manufactured an article that was universally admired as well for the unique and lovely character of the stone itself as of the art and excellent workmanship brought to bear on it. The primary difficulty which had to be overcome consisted in a greasy appearance in the stone after ‘grounding’, which was ultimately removed, by the use of emery powder and crocus, in the process of polishing. For many years after the commencement of this new industry, as it was thought that blocks of serpentine, of a large size, could not be obtained, and the manufacture of this material was, therefore, confined to the working of small articles. But after spending about £ 15,000 in deep quarrying, it was found that the size and solidity of the blocks increased with the depth from the surface, and it was then got in pieces of from one ton to thirty tons in weight. Prior to these extensive operations, however, Mr. Drew carried on a very successful business in serpentine, at Penzance.

In 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived in Mount’s Bay, in their steam yatch the Victoria and Albert. After a tour of the Mount the Prince landed at Penzance, at the pier called after his name, but was not accompanied by Her Majesty. The Queen, it will be remembered, graciously showed herself to her loyal Cornish subjects, who came out in boats and vessels of every description, by thousands, and swarmed admiringly around the royal craft. Meanwhile Prince Albert, after visiting Messrs. Bolitho’s smelting works and other places of interest, took a look around the Geological Society’s Museum, which then contained a modest but excellent collection of minerals etc. and was unassumingly located in a large roomy room in the North Parade. His Highness, the Prince, carried away with him one or two specimens of serpentine, for which he professed a particular admiration.

Where upon half a dozen or so enterprising minds with a keen eye to business and a somewhat exaggerated notion of the almighty virtue of royal patronage resolved themselves forth with into a Company, for the further and more extensive development of the Cornish serpentine trade, as yet, indeed, was only an embryo. This Company, after a few years of single existence, was amalgamated with another and a larger concern, and was then called the London and Penzance Serpentine Company. The Company (1851) was the first to introduce the serpentines of the Lizard into the metropolis, and would, doubtless, have been in a flourishing condition at the present day had they been less ambitious at the outset. A commodious and costly building (now used by Messrs. Branwell as a grain store and an artillery drill room) was erected in the Wherry Town and furnished with abundance of machinery etc., and at one time over 40 men were engaged in the premises. Every description of work was undertaken at these works and large orders were received from London, the continent, and all parts of the civilised world. A few years subsequently this company was wound up and another one took over the business. After many and varied vicissitudes, the whole venture, after an existence of ten or twelve years, expired in this last Company, and the scheme of working up serpentine on this scale was finally abandoned.

The business, however, is still carried on by a number of people, and this industry, far from showing any signs of decay, is actually in a state of great prosperity. People generally, I believe judging by the collapse of the large serpentine establishment, and that it has not been replaced in a similar form, are under the impression that the trade has seen its palmiest days, and is at present in a languishing, or at any rate, in a stationary and unsatisfactory condition. Happily this is not the case, and there are, as a matter of fact, more hands engaged at this calling at the present day, than there were when the London and Penzance Serpentine Company were riding on the top of the wave in the hey day of prosperity, and had a monopoly of the trade.

I should have stated that the serpentine quarries formerly owned by the Penzance Serpentine Company, were, some years back, taken over by Mr. Jabez Druitt, of London, who has since erected a large factory at Poltesco, and is now the largest employer of labour in the business. He supplies the serpentine marble for architectural purposes principally, but also deals extensively in ornamental and general works of art, and has secured for the material a large sale and advertisement in London. Considerable quantities are likewise shipped from the district to France, America, India, Australia and all parts of Great Britain and Ireland [*7].

It is surprising, too, how much business in the smaller articles is transacted, by the smaller workers at Penzance, with many foreign countries. Here is flourishing in our midst an industry, of which I venture to say little or nothing is known by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood generally, and which promises to outstrip itself very considerably in time to come.

Below I give the names of the manufacturers of serpentine at Penzance and neighbourhood, with the number of men and boys engaged by them: -

Penzance

Drew - 5 men 3 boys
Brown - 3 men 3

Murphy - 2 men 1 boy

Perraton - 2 men 1 boy

Wildgoose - 2 men 1 boy

Woodfield W F - 1 man 3 boys

Carter - 1 man 1 boy

Woodfield T - 1 man 1 boy

Bond - 1 man 0 boys

Poltesco

Druitt - 17 men [*8] 3 boys

Helston

Polglase - 1 man 0 boy

Lizard Town

Bully - 1 man 0}

Jose - 1 man 0}

Robertson - 1 man 0}[*9] boys

Bosustow - 1man 0}

Total 40 men and 17 Boys

Nobody should visit the Lizard country without appointing to see the serpentine quarries and works; with the latter, especially, he will find much to interest, and the show room contains some very elegant ornaments and chimney pieces in a variety of serpentine, and should not be missed. Mr. Nankervis, the manager, is always most obliging, and ready to conduct visitors over the premises at any time of the year. Among other valuable medals and testimonials earned by Mr. Nankervis and giving indubitable evidence of the skilful workmanship and design attained by our serpentine workers the visitor will see a beautiful first prize medal awarded to him in 1877, when he completed (in serpentine) with England in the Turner’s Company, London, at the same time receiving the freedom of the Company and the City of London. A serpentine worker at Penzance (Mr. G. Bradbury) on another occasion, carried off the same prize, and several others have earned honourable distinction of this kind.

Mr. Druitt owns six serpentine quarries at the Lizard, which are as follows: -

Signal Staff, near Cadgwith;

Treal quarry, near Ruan Minor Church;

Balk quarry, near Landewednack Church;

Long Alley, near Ruan Major Church;

Killavwn and Poltesco quarries, near the works.

These are all in full work, and the colour on the rock obtained from them is mostly of a beautiful black and red, with green intermixed in great variety, except Killavwn quarry, where all the serpentine is of a rich jet black. The quarries are about sixty feet below the surface, and the serpentine is removed from its place by the aid of wedges and lifting jacks, as blasting would seriously injure the material. The blocks of serpentine thus liberated are then attached to powerful cranes, hoisted to the surface, and slung to a large wagon, constructed for the purpose, and drawn by ten sturdy horses. Mr. Ellery, of Grade, has the contract for this part of the business, as also for the cartage of the finished goods to Falmouth or Penryn for conveyance to their destination, which he does at the rate of about 20s a ton. It is then shipped from Falmouth to English and Scotch ports, at the rate of 15s a ton, or by the Great Western Railway for 50s a ton.

The serpentine rocks, on arriving at the Poltesco factory, are placed under the saw frames, of which there are five, and divided into slabs of different thickness, and are carefully stored away until wanted.

These frames, each of which is arranged with about sixteen saws, are kept going by machinery; water and sand are continually applied to the moving saws, and thus gradually fret or cut the stone away, sawing at the rate of about three inches in ten hours, or a day. The frames descend automatically, and are so nicely balanced and adjusted over the blocks to be severed that where they weighed ever so little more they would hang too high in the grooves, while, if less, the saw would pass too heavily on the stone, the sand would be unable to find its way underneath the instrument, and consequently the latter would become hot and soft and unfitted to cut through the block.

Besides these frames there are, at the Poltesco Works, a very large sanding bed, eight feet in diameter, three polishing beds, each six feet in diameter, six turning lathes and circular saws in great variety. The motive power for driving the lathes etc., is derived from a powerful water wheel, twenty five feet in diameter and three feet breast measurement, turned by a stream of water which comes from Goonelly Downs.

At the largest serpentine works in Penzance, viz, those of Mr. J.H.Drew, I have had several opportunities of observing the manufacture of the smaller articles, made from this substance. Here the block of serpentine is first cut up into portable lengths, by the frame saw, as already described. A man then takes one of the pieces, and with the circular saw, connected with a driving wheel, turned by a boy, cuts it into such sizes as may be required. Another man now comes along and selecting one of these pieces proceeds, with mallet and chisel, to make a first rough copy from the design, which he has before him. Next this rudimental vase, tazza, or whatever it may chance to be, is securely fixed on to the metal chuck of the lathe. The lathe is now set in rapid motion, and the workman with the aid of a few simple and primitive iron tools, called ‘points’ cuts into the fast revolving lump of serpentine, and, skilfully follows out the design before him. When the article is thus far finished to the satisfaction of the ‘cutter’, it is released from lathe no.1 and passed on to the ‘grounder’, who has his station before another lathe. Here the rough surface of the stone is first removed by the application of sand and flint, then a finer sand is employed, and next wash leather and emery powder. This finishes the ‘ground’ process. Finally, it is subjected to a laborious polishing by crocus oil etc., and then the ornament, or part ornament, is completed and passed into the adjoining shop and exposed for sale.

The price of the manufactured article, of this latter description, ranges from 4d each to £ 20 and upwards. Shafts, slabs and the like, which are made at Poltesco, fetch about 4s 6d per foot, and very handsome chimney pieces may be purchased from £ 3 10s each.

The annual value of serpentine work turned out at Penzance and the neighbourhood must be considerable, but I have not been able to arrive at any trustworthy figure.

In conclusion, I must express my thanks for information afforded me by Mr. W. Ambrose E Taylor, of the Geological Museum, Penzance.

OUIT.

[*1] ‘Geological Report of Cornwall etc’. Page 494

[*2] ‘A week at the Lizard’. Page 206

[*3] Mr. Magendie in ‘Transactions of the Cornwall Geological Society’. Volume 1; Page 36

[*4] ‘Report on the Geology of Cornwall etc’. Page 30

[*5] ‘Transactions of the Cornwall Geological Society’. Volume 1; Page 42

[*6] ‘Outlines of Mineralogy etc’. Volume 1; Page 891

[*7] The serpentine rocks being rich in the magnesian element, are exported, in large bulk, to Swansea and Bristol for the manufacture of Epsom salts, magnesia etc. There is said to be a probability of it being sought for fire proof paint.

[*8] Frequently 20 to 25 men are employed at these works.

[*9] These are only occasional workers in the serpentine, occupying much of their time in the capacity of guides to visitors of the Lizard and district.


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