Three of the Charnwood slate gravestones in Barrowby churchyard.
Charnwood slate gravestones in Lincolnshire
and the evidence for trade routes
A very brief history of Charnwood slate
Between Roman times and the late nineteenth century slate was quarried in various parts of the Charnwood Forest area of west Leicestershire. Although commonly referred to as 'Swithland Slate', in practice slate was extracted in at least three other parishes (Newton Linford, Woodhouse Eaves and Groby). From Roman times onwards the main use has been for building stone and roofing slates.
The Charnwood slate quarries went into decline from about 1867 when railways made Welsh slate readily available. Canals seem to have had little influence on Charnwood slate distribution – presumably because there are no canals near Charnwood Forest and the nearest navigable river, the Soar, did not have connections with the national canal system until 1814.
Slate, whether from Charnwood or Wales, withstands the effects of weathering exceptionally well. One of the consequences is that inscriptions on gravestones made from slate remain clearly legible, whereas limestone gravestones often lose their inscriptions within a hundred years.
The oldest-known Charnwood slate gravestones commemorate people who died in the 1670s. Predictably these are found in churchyards close to Charnwood Forest. So far as I am aware, the oldest Charnwood Slate tombstones in Lincolnshire are from the 1730s – but more fieldwork is needed!
The heyday of Charnwood slate gravestones is from the 1730s until the mid-nineteenth century, when Welsh slate begins to be available. By the 1880s the Charnwood quarries are in decline. From the late nineteenth century granite and marble begin to take their place in churchyards alongside Welsh slate and limestone.
How to recognise Charnwood slate
For about thirty years I lived about twelve miles from the main focus of Charnwood slate extraction. I became accustomed to distinguishing Charnwood slate gravestones from their Welsh counterparts when visiting East Midlands churchyards.
One of the main clues is the date – Welsh slate is not used for gravestones in the Midlands until the advent of the railways. But there are other clues too, as the Charnwood slate does not cleave as cleanly as the Welsh slate, so the backs of the Charnwood gravestones are not usually as flat and smooth as Welsh ones. Also, the colour of Charnwood slate is subtly different to Welsh slate – more varied and less uniformly purple.
The uneven backs of two of the Charnwood slate gravestones at Bassingthorpe.
Indeed some Charnwood slate is a pale green shade. This 'upmarket' variety was mostly quarried at Groby [pronounced 'grew-bee'], approximately five miles south from the main cluster of quarries near the borders of the parishes of Swithland, Newton Linford and Woodhouse Eaves, although a similar green slate was also quarried – seemingly only rarely – at Swithland.
Because it is exceptionally difficult to say which gravestones were quarried from which parishes, the collective term 'Charnwood slate' is preferable, rather than 'Swithland slate' – although undoubtedly the output of the quarries within Swithland parish exceeded those elsewhere.
What was Charnwood slate used for?
Fragment of a cheese press made from Charnwood slate discovered between Wymeswold and Burton on the Wolds. At least four more examples are known from these north Leicestershire Wolds villages.
The Charnwood slate quarries provided a range of products. Building stone and roofing slates seemingly accounted for the largest part of the output. But slate cheese presses and dairy slabs have also survived. Undoubtedly other items were sometimes made from slate – for example, there was a set of urinals in a gent's toilet near Swithland Woods which were built (probably in the 1950s) from slate; sadly about 2006 these were replaced with stainless steel.
Early examples of Charnwood slate in Barrowby and Grantham
Apart from gravestones, the oldest evidence for Charnwood slate in Barrowby is an inventory dated 10th July 1822 which states that the Rectory is covered with 'Swithland slates'. A date stone indicates this was built in 1558, although the roof may have been renewed between then and 1822. The roof was renewed after 1822 (probably in 1905) and is now plain tiles.
The nearest historic building (so far as I am currently aware – I've not yet looked very hard!) which retains a Charnwood slate roof is the Hurst Almshouses next to St Wulfram's church in Grantham. The Almshouses were built soon after Dr Thomas Hurst's death in 1674. If nothing else it indicates that in the 1670s substantial quantities of slate were transported about thirty miles from the Charnwood Forest to Grantham.
Charnwood slate gravestones in and around Barrowby
Barrowby churchyard has a good number of Charnwood slate tombstones, mostly close to the south porch. The oldest is from 1722 with another dated 1746. Sorry there's no photos but when I discovered them it was too early in the day to get a good photo as it would mean shooting into the light. And when I went back the churchwardens has instigated a 'no mow May' so the grass obscured most of the inscriptions. One of these days…
So far I have discovered others nearby at Allington, Barrowby, Barkston, Bassingthorpe, Denton, Grantham, Great Gonerby, Harlaxton, Ingoldsby, Sapperton, Sedgebrook, South Witham and Syston. I hope to visit more churchyards in Lincolnshire in the next year or so and will be keeping an eye out for Charnwood slates. And, just as important, noting where there are none surviving.
The oldest Lincolnshire Charnwood slate memorial so far discovered is at Great Gonerby and dated 1720; the next oldest is at Barrowby dated 1722. However at Elton on the Hill, Nottinghamshire, eight miles to the west of Barrowby, there is a Charnwood slate gravestone dated 1703.
To the south of St Wulfram's in Grantham are over two hundred Charnwood slate gravestones, greatly outnumbering any other still-extant memorials. The dates seemingly range from the 1750s to the 1850s although it is possible an older gravestone might be found if permission were to be granted for lichen to be scrubbed from the inscribed surfaces. Great Gonerby churchyard also has many dozens of Charnwood slate memorials.
Charnwood slate gravestones in Barrowby churchyard. The left-hand one is dated 1819. The right hand part of the gravestone was no doubt intended to commemorate his wife. But either (a) she moved away and died elsewhere; (b) her family didn't have the money to pay for adding an inscription; (c) she remarried and was buried with her later husband.
Note that by 1819 the formulae 'Here lieth interred… ' and 'Here lieth… ' has given way to 'In sacred memory of… ' or just 'In memory of… '.
Close up of the depiction of Faith. The scriptual reference is to Hebrews 11:1 ' Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' There is a second Charnwood slate gravestone in Barrowby churchyard with a similar depiction of Faith.
This gravestone reveals how a double inscription to a husband and wife appears. John Lunn died (age 63) in 1761 while his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1777 (age 77) making her two years younger. Subtle differences in wording and calligraphy indicate that there was about sixteen years between John's inscription and Elizabeth's.
Charnwood slate gravestones 'signed' by the stonemason.
A Charnwood slate gravestone at Sapperton 'signed' by the stonemason.
At the bottom of one of the Sapperton slates, erected in or soon after 1749, the name of the maker is visible:- 'Green, Denton.' Such inscriptions by stonemasons are often hidden by the soil and, generally, only begin to appear from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. There is at least one slate in Denton churchyard with the inscription 'Green' at the base.
The Charnwood slate gravestones in Allington churchyard have been 'flattened' (laid on their backs). This makes spotting and reading the mason's names much easier. (At least for a few years until the grass grows further over the slabs and lichens increasingly obscure the lettering – problems which rarely arise when slate gravestones remain vertical.) At Allington George Sparrow inscribed two memorials, one dated 1770 and the other 1776 . James Sparrow's name is on a memorial of 1769. 'Colling, Knipton' appears on a double memorial dated both 1857 and 1863 (presumably mostly carved around 1857). 'Geo. Neade Grantham' appears on a memorial dated 1811 and 'Chamberlain. Newark.' on one dated 1818.
If anyone has any information about Green of Denton, George and James Sparrow, Colling of Knipton, George Neade of Grantham or Chamberlain of Newark then please email me:– email@example.com.
So-called 'Belvoir angels' on a Charnwood slate gravestone dated 1728 in the churchyard at Old Dalby, Leicestershire.
A Charnwood slate gravestone dated 1729 with a 'Belvoir angel'.
This is in the churchyard at Nether Broughton, Leicestershire.
This a rare example of the letters being raised rather than incised – a difficult and time-consuming (and therefore expensive) method which soon went out of fashion. Before slate was used for churchyard memorials only timber grave markers were used. In all probability the lettering on some or all the wooden ones was raised. The raised lettering on this slate was therefore a skeuomorph.
The inscriptions, epigraphs, calligraphy and figurative carving on Charnwood slate gravestones reveal evidence of ever-changing fashions. This article is not the place to even summarise all these aspects of social history. However may I draw attention to the small number of the memorials decorated with a winged face.
This motif was first noticed in the Vale of Belvoir area of the Leicestershire-Notttinghamshire borders and so has been dubbed the 'Belvoir angel'. However the distribution extends well outside the Vale of Belvoir and they are not angels at all but a folk art version of the spiritus (intended to signify the spirit of the deceased) found nationally on high status memorials of the eighteenth century.
Although more commonly found on later Welsh slates, some gravestones include a few lines of poetry. Although often maudlin sometimes a little wit shines through.
There is an especially unusual epitaph on a gravestone in Barrowby churchyard. The opening line is slightly confusing:- 'No friend had I of mine upon ye earth'. I'll leave it to you to visit and try to make sense of this yourself!
The Charnwood slate gravestone of 1739 commemorating Michael Willcock. The confusing epitaph is partly concealed by vegetation. Note the hourglass and scythe in the corners.
Seek out Charnwood slates yourself
Few excuses are needed to stop off at the splendid medieval churches in Lincolnshire villages. Next time you do so, also spend some time in the churchyard. Start by looking at the backs of slate gravestones and 'get your eye in' for the ones which are not as smooth as others. The dates – usually seventeenth century or early nineteenth century – will confirm that this is from Charnwood not Wales. Then get used to recognising the subtle differences in colour between Leicestershire and Welsh slates.
Once you've got your eye in for the bumpy backs and differences in colour then Charnwood slates become fairly easy to spot.
Don't forget to admire the calligraphy, carvings and epitaphs that make these memorials such special survivors.
Evidence for early eighteenth century transport and trade
Before the canals and railways the cost of transporting slate would have been a major factor limiting the places where such stone gravestones could be afforded. Nevertheless Charnwood slate tombstones dating back to the eighteenth (and, less commonly, the second half of the seventeenth century) can be seen in most churchyards in north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire. However when I began exploring north Northamptonshire churches and churchyards early in 2009, I was most surprised to discover plenty of examples of Charnwood slate gravestones predating the canals and railways.
Discussions with David Ramsey, who has extensively researched the Charnwood slate quarries, led to him suggesting that the use of Charnwood slate in north Northamptonshire was an example of carters and stone dealers making additional profits from a return load.
The gist of his suggestion is that Leicestershire has no sources of freestone suitable for mullions, quoins and ashlar walls. In contrast north Northampstonshire has plentiful supplies of oolitic limestone (e.g. around Ketton, Kings Cliffe, Harlestone and Weston Underwood). This needed to be transported overland to Leicester. It would be comparatively straightforward for the carters to buy or even collect Charnwood slate to take to north Northamptonshire, thereby greatly increasing the profitability of the round trip. My guess is that the main use for the slate was roofs; kitchen, dairy and pantry shelves; and for cheese presses. But some was clearly sold for use as gravestones.
See the appendix to this article for the distribution of Charnwood slate gravestones in Northamptonshire.
Slates and the Saltway
The presence of Charnwood slate gravestones in south-west Lincolnshire similarly sheds light on eighteenth century trade routes. As with the Northamptonshire examples, we must assume the slate is a return load. But what was being carried from east to west?
Taking ironstone from the Barrowby area to Leicester does not make much sense as there are plentiful deposits in north-east Leicestershire and into Rutland. More plausibly ironstone was worked into iron bars and such like in and around Grantham – but I have yet to discover any evidence for this before the mid-nineteenth century. Instead we need to look at the Barrowby-Grantham area as merely a 'stopping point' on journeys from Leicestershire to and from somewhere further east.
One clue as what that was being carried jumps out by looking at a map. The shortest route from the Charnwood quarries to Grantham follows the Salt Way from Barrow on Soar heading towards north-west Norfolk as Kings Lynn was once a major producer of salt from brine.
Part of this salt way is now the A607 from north of Waltham on the Wolds to Croxton Kerrial where the Salt Way then follows a former Roman road (now Gorse Lane) to Saltersford (more details here) while the route into Grantham is along the A607 through Harlaxton. (Thanks to Matt Pennifold for advising me of errors in a previous description of the Salt Way.)
The origins of the Salt Way are prehistoric. The Romans used the stretch between Barrow and Eastwell/Goadby Marwood (presumably to transport iron products from their quarries at Goadby Marwood to the nearest river at Barrow) and also around Saltersford.
There is every reason to think that salt would be transported in substantial quantities from evaporation pans at Kings Lynn to inland towns such as Leicester. Until the advent of the railways this would be by wagon or packhorse. To make the journey more profitable the carriers would be looking for a return load. In the absence of more profitable options then slate could have been bought at Barrow and sold in Grantham.
Update March 2023
When this web page was first uploaded I suggested that the profits might have been used to buy pig iron (this is long before Bessemer smelting had been invented) or even worked iron artefacts. Such iron could be sold in Wisbech, Kings Lynn and such like which would have needed iron for the extensive agricultural activities – but the only local source of iron ore is the carrstone around Heacham.
But in reality since the later seventeenth century 'pig iron' was being extensively imported from Scandinavia, so would have been readily available in the east coast ports.
In March 2023 I was invited by the Grantham Family History Society to talk about this topic. In the audience was John Manterfield, a noted local historian for the Grantham area. He corrected my suggestion of iron being transported from Grantham to the east coast. Instead he strongly suspects that what was being bought in Grantham and needed in places further east was malt for brewing beer.
After all the early eighteenth century was when the fenland was being drained. This required large numbers of 'navvies'. In part because people avoided drinking water from wells and in part because beer is an excellent way of easily-digesting carbohydrates (much needed when spending the working day digging, shovelling and barrowing) then large quantities of ale and 'small beer' would have been needed. Yet at that time the fenland area would not have had sufficient locally-grown barley nor the numbers of malting ovens needed.
Certainly malt was the main 'return load' along the Grantham canal back to Nottingham. Coal from the Erewash valley was brought to Grantham and malt was sent back to the breweries in Nottingham. The soils associated with the ironstone ridge to the west of Grantham are light and sandy. This is ideal for growing the type of barley used for malting. Grantham once had more than twenty companies supplying 30,000 tonnes of malt a year to the brewing trade. The last of these, Bairds Malt between Harlaxton Road and Springfield Road, closed in March 2021.
Grateful thanks to John Manterfield for his suggestion about malt.
This suggestion about a tripartite salt-slate-malt trade is purely provisional. If anyone reading this has any knowledge of commercial activtities in Grantham from the seventeenth century to the advent of the railways then please email me:– firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update July 2002:
I've created a 35 minute YouTube video about Charnwood slate gravestones and eighteenth century trade routes.
Detailed research on the Charnwood slate industry has been published by David Ramsey (e.g. Newtown Linford Notes and the Leicestershire Slate Industry, Bradgate Books 2002).
Professor Keith Snell at the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester is researching the social history of churchyards and memorials and provided helpful advice.
Ann Schmidt and other members of the Nether Broughton Local History Group have looked in detail at the history of the 'Belvoir angel' carvings at Nether Broughton and Hickling.
Distribution of Charnwood slate gravestones in Northamptonshire
Most churchyards in close proximity to the Leicester-Welford-Northampton and Leicester-Market Harborough-Northampton roads have examples of Charnwood slates, even though these places are up to thirty miles from the quarries as the proverbial crow flies.
My visits to churchyards north of an approximately west-east transect just to the north of Northampton revealed that every one had at least a few examples of Charnwood slate gravestones, with the exception of Long Buckby. However the comparatively late dates at Long Buckby (1789 to 1844) strongly suggest that Charnwood slate was reaching this village by canal. With the exception of Long Buckby there is no clear evidence that Charnwood slate was transported by the Leicester to Northampton canal and none that the River Nene was a transport route.
A corresponding survey of all parish churchyards to the south of this approximately west-east transect revealed only two examples of Charnwood slates (1802 and 1812). Curiously there is an almost complete absence of Welsh slate in these churchyards, suggesting that the masons there were happier using the easier-carved limestone (or simply that limestone was cheaper there than Welsh slate).
Parish-by-parish details in Trubshaw 2011; a copy can be emailed on request.
Leicestershire-Northamptonshire transport routes
The River Nene was made navigable in 1761. However Charnwood and Welsh slates are found only to the north of Nene so this seems unlikely to have offered an effective distribution for either source. Before the Grand Union was constructed Charnwood slate would have to travel down the rivers Soar, Trent and Humber, along the coast and back up the Nene.
The Act for the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Canal (the original Grand Union, commonly referred to now as the 'Old Grand Union') was passed in 1793. Debdale was reached in 1797, Market Harborough in 1809 and the whole route finished in 1814. However the places nearest this canal were using Charnwood slate from the early part of the eighteenth century. Indeed use of Charnwood slate more or less drops off at the time the Old Grand Union is available; whether this is evidence for cheaper stone being brought in by canal or simply a change in fashion is unclear.
With the exception of Long Buckby (where the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century dates of the Charnwood slates correlate well with the opening of the canal there) there are no apparent links between the distribution of Charnwood slate and with waterborne transport. In contrast, the majority of Charnwood slates are to be found in close proximity to the Leicester-Welford-Northampton (A5199, formerly the A50) and Leicester-Market Harborough-Northampton (A6) roads. Presumably a number of carriers operated these routes during the eighteenth century (and later). They may have been accustomed to transporting other heavy Charnwood slate artefacts (e.g. dairy slabs; cheese presses, etc) which are not readily dateable and have not generally survived.
If you think I've got something wrong – or can add additional information or photographs – then please email me:– email@example.com.
Back to top of this page
This website does not gather or store any visitor information.
Copyright Bob Trubshaw 2021–2022
No unauthorised copying
or reproduction except if all following conditions apply:
a: Copy is complete (including this copyright statement).
b: No changes are made.
c: No charge is made.