The quarrying of slate on the fells of present day Cumbria goes back to the time of Henry VIII and there is even evidence of the use of slate as a building material by the Romans. Burlington began life as a company in 1843 under the ownership of William Cavendish, the Second Earl of Burlington - later to become the 7th Duke of Devonshire. The company is still owned by the descendants of the Cavendish family. The current chairman of the company is Lucy Cavendish, who has recently taken over from her father, Lord Cavendish of Furness DL. Lord and Lady Cavendish still retain an interest in the business and its success.
During the early years of Burlington Slate Quarries (as the company was then known) the slate was ‘won’ from the rock face using hand tools and explosives. Natural faults were exploited to ensure that the block remained as large and solid as possible.
Because the quarry formed a deep hole in the hillside, a series of tunnels were driven in order to access the quarry and provide a means of removing the rock. Horse-drawn bogies were used to carry the slate blocks from the quarry to the splitting sheds (in those days almost all the production was roofing slate).
In later years the horses were replaced by small diesel locomotives and eventually one of the tunnels was enlarged so that bigger earthmoving machinery could move waste material more efficiently.
At the same time, wire sawing was introduced as a more efficient method of extracting the rock. This involved the use of small tunnels between which a thin steel wire moved at high speed fed with an abrasive material such as sand. The wire slowly cut into the rock until the whole of the working face was freed. It was then simply a matter of drilling along the cleavage plane and splitting the block from the face.
These methods continued until the advent of diamond wire sawing (a technique pioneered in the Italian marble industry). Instead of tunnels, holes were drilled and instead of the steel wire a rubber coated cable with diamond impregnated beads was used. This process is now used in all of Burlington’s quarries.
From being a single quarry company, Burlington during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s acquired two more slate operations - the Lakeland and Broughton Moor Green Slate Companies. These brought five more quarries into the group - all within the National Park. These were to be followed by a further green slate, a silver grey slate (Brandy Crag) and a limestone quarry (Baycliff). Finally the introduction of the quarrying rights at Petts Quarry and Brathay Quarry (previously owned by Kirkstone Quarries Limited) added a further 3 stones into the product range.
Also during this time there were many changes to the ways in which the various slate products were manufactured. Much of the hand splitting was mechanised (although the final split and inspection is still done by hand) and machines now trim the slate to size.
The architectural side of the business began in the late 1950’s with the introduction of diamond-tipped circular saws. These were used for cutting the slate to size and other machines were later developed (often in-house) for polishing and shaping. Eventually some of these processes became computer-controlled and this is the case to the present day.
The result of all this progress has been to make more use of the raw material with less manual handling and more efficient production, something which all at Burlington are very proud of.