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A brief history of gypsum and alabaster extraction

Bob Trubshaw

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. If you want to know what it feels like, then the sticks of 'chalk' used in classrooms are actually processed gypsum.

Almost all the gypsum produced is used in the construction industry for plasterboard, plaster or an additive in cement. 'Plaster of Paris' and other speciality forms of gypsum are used in food and brewing, pharmaceuticals and for cat litter.

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.

Once the alabaster was worked out the same pits and mines continued in use, extracting lower-grade gypsum.

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 who confused Burton on Trent with Burton on the Wolds means that few people are aware. (See Joan and Peter Shaw's article.)


    
 
    

top left:Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and her infant son, King Pepy II (circa 2200 BCE). source

Three alabaster carvings, possibly produced in Nottingham:

    top right: early fifteenth century depiction of the Nativity. source

    bottom left: fifteenth century depiction of the matrydom of St Thomas à Becket. source

    bottom right: panel from an altarpiece set carved 1450–90 depicting the Resurrection of Christ (with sleeping Roman soldiers wearing fifteenth century armour). source


Distribution and geology of gypsum

Gypsum is widely distributed in England, mostly associated with rocks of Permian and Triassic ages, with some more in the late Jurassic strata. It formed by evaporation from seawater; commercially-significant deposits are a few metres thick.

Commercially-significant gypsum deposits mostly occur in a band from Somerset to North Yorkshire, as well as the Carlisle Basin and the Cheshire Basin. 'Inliers' of Jurrasic deposits in the High Weald of East Sussex are mined at Robertsbridge.


 
Principal gypsum deposits. The figures inside incomplete circles indicate which centuries different deposits were worked. source
 

 
Principal gypsum workings. source


Synthetic gypsum from Flue Gas Desulphurisation

In the early 1990s equipment was installed in five of the UK's largest coal-fired power stations to remove the sulphuric acid causing 'acid rain'. The flue gases passed over crushed limestone, converting the limestone to an almost pure form of calcium sulphate which was ideally suited for making plaster used in buildings. The synthetic gypsum produced by Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FSG) is 96 percent gypsum, compared to about 80 percent for natural gypsum.

The amount of synthetic gypsum produced by FGD greatly reduced the need to extract natural gypsum for about twenty years. Indeed in 2004, when total gypsum usage in the UK was estimated to be 3.9 million tonnes, FGD supplied nearly 1.3 million tonnes. The recent decommissioning of coal-fired power stations means that gypsum mines have increased output by about 50 percent.

Current gypsum extraction

Gypsum extraction in the UK takes place at five mines and one quarry, all operated by British Gypsum (owned by the French conglomerate Saint-Gobain). The open-cast quarry at Kilvington, near Newark on Trent, is the smallest operation. This extracts a high-quality gypsum used for speciality products. Two of the mines are 'far-flung': one at Kirkby Thore, Cumbria, and the other near Robertsbridge, East Sussex. The remaining three are in the midlands: Fauld (to the west of Tutbury, Staffordshire – uniquely this mine supplies the cement industry), East Leake, Nottinghamshire, and Barrow on Soar, Leicestershire (both with plaster and plasterboard manufacturing on the same sites).

The East Leake and Barrow on Soar mines exploit a once-continuous deposit of gypsum about 3.5 metres deep straddling the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire boundary. However a significant geological fault running to the south of the county boundary means that the northern deposits are 80 metres deeper than the southern ones. The locations of the mine entrances were selected to allow 'drift' mining; access to the working faces is achieved down slopes of about 1:50 gradient.



 
The blue lines indicate geological faults, with the most significant fault also shown as a dotted white line. The red lines indicate the limit of planning consent for the Barrow on Soar and East Leake mines. In practice the East Leake mine will, in due course, remove gypsum from the part of the Barrow planning consent which is to the north of the dotted white line.


Modern mining uses the 'pillar and room' configuration, which leaves about a quarter of the deposits to support overlying rocks and clays. All villages are supported on 'islands' inside the mines so are unlikely to suffer from settlement.



 
Point cloud laser scan survey of part of British Gypsum's mine at East Leake showing the 'pillar and room' configuration. source
 

 
The entrance to British Gypsum's drift mine at East Leake. source
 

 
Team leader Gary Oliver and shift supervisor Matt Kennedy with the gypsum-cutting equipment in British Gypsum's Marblaegis mine at East Leake. source: British Gypsum
 

 
Another view of the gypsum-cutting equipment. source: British Gypsum
 
Watch the opening of 'From Rock to Room' (British Gypsum marketing video) to see the equipment in action.


Historical extraction of gypsum

Before the importance of plaster and plasterboard gypsum was used locally as a form of fertiliser (especially the poor-quality 'gypsiferous marl') although most was used for plastering buildings.

In the medieval period the main reason for quarrying gypsum deposits was to extract a fine-grained white or lightly-tinted variety, known as alabaster. Although too soft to be ideal for external uses, alabaster was regarded as an optimum material for figural carvings, especially sepulchral monuments and the finely-detailed religious iconography. 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.



 

 
Sepulchral effigies carved in alabaster inside Quorn church.


In more recent centuries alabaster has been used for high-status ornamental work of various kinds, although natural deposits have mostly been exhausted.

The earliest quarries and mines

The oldest-known surviving example of carved alabaster in England is at Tutbury. The doorway of the priory church, which is from the latter half of the twelfth century, uses the local alabaster for some of the carved heads.

Inside the church at nearby Hanbury is an early alabaster monument commemorating John de Hanbury (circa 1280–1300). This is consistent with gypsum extraction in the Tutbury area.



 
The twelfth century alabaster doorway before recent restoration.


Historical records indicate that by the middle of the fourteenth century working of alabaster had expanded from Tutbury to Chellaston. The stone from both areas was extracted and worked by skilled 'alabasterers', 'alabastermen', 'kervers' (carvers) and 'imagemakers' (a widely-used term before the word 'sculptor' was adopted). These craftsmen worked mainly in Nottingham and Burton, although there were also workshops closer to the quarrying at Tutbury, Chellaston and Derby.

We know that the Nottingham workshops were supplied with stone from Chellaston – the quarry was close to the River Dove and the workshops were adjacent to the River Leen, both tributaries of the Trent. There was also alabaster extraction closer to the workshops, at Red Hill near Ratcliffe on Trent.

Nineteenth century gypsum extraction

In addition to the mines around Tutbury – which had been operating since at least the twelfth century – in the nineteenth century a new series of quarries and mines were instigated to exploit the deposits running south-west from Newark on Trent, to Cropwell Bishop via Kilvington and Orston.

By the middle of the nineteenth century 'The Royal Plaster Works' had been created in the centre of Orston; miners' cottages still survive from this time. In 1866 a much larger enterprise was set up next to the Nottingham to Grantham railway line. Between 1868 and 1871 this quarry and mine accounted for about 8 percent of the country's entire gypsum plaster production; the factory was demolished in 1930.



 
An interpretation of the late nineteenth century map of Orston's gypsum works. source


 
A recent Google Earth view of Orston's former gypsum pits.


A combination of mining and natural dissolving of gypsum deposits has created subsidence problems in parts of the village and also affects the church. In the mid-twentieth century the north aisle was subsiding while in 2018 the tower began to lean to the west.



 
Subsidence affecting Orston's church.


One of Orston's main rivals in the gypsum trade during late nineteenth century would have been the activities at Barrow on Soar, situated close to the Midland Railway and a navigable waterway, the River Soar.

I am not aware of any historical accounts of the nineteenth century gypsum operations at Barrow, although a few photographs have been made available online.

The Barrow 'kippers'

Unlike other gypsum quarries, the strata at Barrow were rich in fossils. These include several excellent examples of Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus species.

In the second half of the nineteenth century dealing in fossil remains perhaps provided as much income as the gypsum itself. One of best-known collectors was William Lee, who provided fossils to the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, and New Walk Museum, Leicester.

These fossils inspired the 'Pleisosaurus' monument on the traffic roundabout at the southern end of Bridge Street – commonly referred to as 'the Barrow kipper'. In addition to the two 'Pleisosaurus' mosaics on the roundabout, there is a third mosaic in Barrow Cricket Club.



 
The 'Barrow kipper'.


Alabaster and gypsum from Burton on the Wolds

The Itinerary of John Leland, written 1535–43, refers to a 'fair quarry of stone 4 miles from Leicester'. This indicates that quarries at Thurmaston were operating at that time as Barrow on Soar pits were about 12 miles from Leicester and Burton on the Wolds another two miles further.

The first reference to gypsum extraction at Burton on the Wolds is in William Burton's book, The Description of Leicestershire (written about 1597 but not published until 1622).

William Burton includes the following:

    Burton, in the Hundred of East Goscote upon the side of Nottinghamshire. Within this Lordship not long since has been found a quarry of alabaster, and white stone, serving for cutters and picture makers for statues, tombs and proportions but not altogether so hard and clear as that stone which is gotten in the Castle-hay Park near Tutbury, or in the quarries at Fauld near adjoining: where in a mount called Nantmorebull, myself have seen a rock of the same stone.

There is no indication that alabaster of a suitable quality was subsequently extracted at Burton on the Wolds, although gypsum for marl and plaster continued to be extracted into the twentieth century (see Joan and Peter Shaw's article).

The paucity of records about pre-twentieth century gypsum and alabaster extraction anywhere in England means that detailed accounts are almost impossible. Joan Shaw's article about Burton on the Wolds reveals that once parish registers become compulsory in the early seventeenth century then the marriages and deaths of the men working in the pits and mines can be identified.

In 1872 legislation was introduced to require statutory recording of abandoned mines; these records provide useful information about nineteenth century workings but, at best, ambiguous information about earlier activities.



 
Abandoned gypsum mine workings around Chellaston derived from statutory records. Additional mines, abandoned before 1872, are also present in the area. source


Bibliography

Alabaster, John Young (Derbyshire Museums Service 1990).

Cut in Alabaster: A Material of Sculpture and Its European Traditions 1330–1530, Kim Woods (Harvey Miller 2018)

Online information

British Gypsum's website

'From Rock to Room' (British Gypsum marketing video)

The BGS Mineral Factsheet about gypsum (published 2006) is a useful summary (including the then-importance of synthetic gypsum from Flue Gas Desulphurisation).

In 1984 the Mercian Geologist published an overview of the geology of English alabaster compiled by Rodger Firman. This includes considerable historical information.

In 1996 the British Geological Survey compiled a report about the Chellaston and Aston on Trent gypsum extraction. (This is a large file which may take time to download.)

The Nottinghamshire Minerals Local Plan for 1995 has a very informative chapter on gypsum.

Plannning review (published 2016) for the Marblaegis Mine at East Leake

A detailed history of gypsum extraction in Orston

Nineteenth and twentieth century gypsum mines around Tutbury

Photos of Barrow on Soar gypsum mill

Barrow fossils

The Barrow 'kipper'

Joan and Peter Shaw's article for the WHO about Burton on the Wolds alabaster

 


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