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The 'forgotten' alabaster of Burton on the Wolds
Most people who know this part of Leicestershire are aware of the British Gypsum mines at Barrow upon Soar and East Leake.
Gypsum is a soft sulphate mineral composed of calcium sulphate dihydrate. It is the main constituent in many forms of plaster. The sticks of 'chalk' used in classrooms are actually processed gypsum.
A fine-grained white or lightly-tinted variety of gypsum is known as alabaster. This has been used for sculpture in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Classical Rome and the Byzantine Empire. More locally, Nottingham was famous in medieval times for the alabaster workshops making low-relief religious scenes to go behind altars and different styles of sepulchral effigies. In more recent centuries alabaster has been used for high-status ornamental work of various kinds.
left:Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and her son, King Pepy II (circa 2200 BCE). source
right: panel from an altarpiece set carved (probably in Nottingham) 1450–90 depicting the Resurrection of Christ (with sleeping Roman soldiers wearing fifteenth century armour). source
Until at least the early nineteenth century, one of the sources of alabaster was on the western edge of the Leicestershire Wolds. Except an error by a 1920s art historian means that few people are aware. Lower-grade gypsum was extensively worked from the same pits.
Joan and Peter Shaw
The first reference to alabaster being mined in Burton on the Wolds is in William Burton's book on Leicestershire, published in 1622, but written about 1597.
Fauld in Staffordshire was a Burton family estate, and William Burton retired there so it is reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about.
However, in her book English Church Monuments 1510–1840 (published in 1926) Katherine Esdaile seems to have confused Burton on the Wolds with Burton on Trent and since then successive authors have used her book extensively as a source; thus alabaster from Burton on the Wolds is largely unknown.
There isn't much doubt that William Burton was referring to Burton on the Wolds since it is the only Burton in the Hundred of East Goscote.
Burton on the Wolds has no church; its chapel, St Peter's, fell into disuse in the seventeenth century and there were no separate registers. The alabaster pits we know about were mainly situated between Burton village and Cotes. Cotes had its chapel until around 1700 but although it almost certainly had its own registers they do not appear to have survived. What information we have gleaned about the men working in and around the mines comes from the registers for the mother church at Prestwold. Occupations were only recorded for a few years, and there would be many whose names do not appear in the registers at all, non-conformists and others who neither married, died nor had children baptised at Prestwold. In any case, most of the men working in the mines would have been lost among those described simply as 'labourers', men who earned a living by taking whatever work was available. The following entries refer to men who were probably connected with the alabaster in some way:
In 1592 Edward Steward of Burton, labourer, who was digging deep into the earth, was killed and dashed to pieces underneath by a movement of the earth and was buried 22 July.
In 1603 William Pratt of Burton was buried by a sudden movement of earth 22 June.
In 1614 Mattheus Gisbourne, late of Titbury (Tutbury) died 1st February.
In 1623 Gulielmus Werall 'Black Will of the plasterpitts' was buried on 1 May.
In 1699 Henry Stewardson, wid, of Duffield, Derby, stonecutter, was married to Elizabeth Burbage of Prestwold.
In 1700 a son of Benjamin Long, mason, of Burton, was baptised.
In 1704 a son of William White, mason, of Burton was baptised.
In 1667, 22-year-old John Storer inherited estates in Walton from his father and the 'title and term of years in a Close of Pasture in Burton on the Wolds called Plaster Pitt Close'. John later became a local benefactor and is commemorated in the name of John Storer House in Loughborough. Perhaps some of his wealth came from Burton alabaster.
When the Burton Hall Estate was put on the market for the first time in 1834 it was advertised as having 'beds of alabaster and limestone'. The catalogue reads 'there are thick beds of excellent alabaster and lime-stone to a great extent, in parts of the estate, which are very valuable, and may be gotten at a moderate expense'.
A large area of land at the bottom of the present Barrow Road and another large area to the west of the Barrow/Prestwold Road (eleven fields in all) are noted in the estate schedule as 'Plaster Pits' and old maps mark 'Plasterpit Barn' close to the junction of the two roads. Fields in this area show mounds reminiscent of spoil heaps, and alongside the footpath you can still see one of the pits (used later as a rubbish tip).
The 1905 Ordnance Survey map with the location of fields in the 1834 schedule.
In 1840, just a few years after the Burton Hall Estate sale, Thomas Rossal Potter of Wymeswold published his book Walks Round Loughborough. In his chapter about The Bandals, he talks about the Bandals Farm 'with its steam-engine, brick-yards, and plaster-mines', and goes on to say 'the strata of gypsum, beautifully exposed by a deep section of the earth, are perhaps as curious "fragments of and earlier world" as Leicestershire contains'. The brickyard site he refers to is marked on several old maps and now forms part of the Natural Burial Ground.
There are two other places in Burton where alabaster and gypsum may have been mined but for which we have no proper evidence. One of the county archaeologists has suggested that the ponds in Fishpond Plantation (now our community wood) were possibly formed or created from old mine workings.
Ponds in 'Fishpond Plantation' which may have been created by gypsum extraction.
Photographs by Paul Sutton (top) and Bob Trubshaw (bottom).
There is also a pit or hollow – again marked on old maps – to the north of the village above the modern Orchards housing development. We have found no evidence of alabaster being mined here but it is certainly worthy of further investigation.
Nor it seems were the pits confined within Burton parish boundary. There was a Limepit Close in Walton and both an East and a West Plaster Pit Close in Prestwold.
You can come across gypsum pebbles around the various sites, but we have never been lucky enough to find anything that we could identify as Burton alabaster. We imagine it was all worked out years ago.
The most exciting thing of course would be to find a statue or monument made of Burton alabaster but here again we have been unlucky. A few years back we took Mr Ray State to see the monuments in Prestwold Church. Mr State has made a study of East Midlands alabaster and was able to tell us which quarries the alabaster in the church were likely to come from. He did not think that any was from our local beds (R.H. State, The Alabaster Carvers, 2017). But the tombs at Prestwold all commemorate members of the gentry and we imagine a local stone would not carry the same status as one from a better-known and more important quarry. It is perhaps more likely that the Burton stone would have been used by a yeoman or a wealthy farmer.