The Leicester Quarrymen’s Church

Line drawing of Christ Church
Line drawing of Christ Church by Richard Edkins

Between the 1830s and 1878, the Dalbeattie firm of Curteis and Shearer (later Shearer & Smith) quarried granite at Craigmath and at Craignair Hill, writes Richard Edkins. They also operated quarries at Stead Stone, further down the Urr Valley. Dalbeattie was a comparatively small town, and there was a shortage of skilled granite quarriers. For this reason, from 60 to 80 English quarrymen were recruited from the Rothley, Mountsorrel and Hartshill quarries near Leicester, arriving in Dalbeattie during 1873. In the quarry, the men served as shot-blasters and stonedressers, others working in the masons’ yard as stone polishers and sett-makers, As quarries were frequently worked out within decades, the quarriers were used to travelling from site to site.

Shearers’ developed quarries elsewhere during a brief quarrying boom from 1851 to 1881. Red granite from their quarries at Peterhead, and blue granite from the Newall quarries at Westerly, Rhode Island, were imported for shaping and polishing in the Dalbeattie workshops. The names of Scots and English quarrymen such as Baum, Billson, Goodman, Henderson, Marriott, Newall, Preston and Toon, are to be found in the graveyards of Rhode Island. Descendants of the Marriotts still run the Oneca quarry in Connecticut.

The boom was followed by a recession between 1881 and 1891, during which time Shearers’ folded. However, the descendants of the quarrymen still keep in touch with their Dalbeattie relatives. Despite the recession, some of the quarrymen remained in Dalbeattie, their descendants contributing much information towards this account. Former quarrymen started in other or related trades, notably the families of Goodman, Johnstone (builders), Marriott, Morris, Stuart and Toon.

The quarriers initially lodged in the Town Hall (completed in 1865) but soon moved out to lodgings with local families, or into houses they built for themselves. The houses of the English quarrymen were located within a comparatively small area at the southern end of Dalbeattie’s High Street, at the junctions with Port Street and Blair Street. Some of the quarriers married local women, others had brought their own families north with them; from marriage records, it is evident that many of these English-bred quarriers married the daughters of their English workmates. It is also sadly possible that these newcomers were unpopular, so formed a distinct community in the south of the town. This was probably a consequence of their English origin and Episcopalian beliefs, which were a central part of their community.

To see original footage of the quarry and its workers in action click here

The Construction of Christ Church

It is possible that the firm of Shearer’s had already considered the spiritual needs of their workmen, as they engaged the Reverend William Ramsey, M.A,, Rector of the Episcopalian Church of Saint Ninian in Castle Douglas. Ramsay held services for the English quarrymen in the Commercial Hall. This was a large first-floor room above the present premises of Paterson’s Motorcycles, the hall having been subdivided as a flat since then. Fortunately, the Ledger of this period still survives. A second-hand harmonium was hired from the Glasgow Diocese, and the little congregation bought in a Bible, a prayerbook and hymn books. These costs, – and the clerical fees of Reverend Ramsay, – were covered partly by the collection, and partly by donations from Shearers’ and six local worthies. Even at this early stage, the quarriers appear to have decided to take action to construct their own church, as special collections were taken for this purpose.

Mr. Andrew McEwan owned the plot of land on the south side of the corner of Blair Street, close to the enclave of Leicester quarrymen. He assigned the land to the new Trustees of Christ Church on August 8th 1874. Work on the new Church appears to have started at once, the quarrymen providing most of the workforce. This had to be done at the end of their ten-hour working shifts, but Shearers’ appear to have given some assistance. Much of the stone in the church has inclusions that would have made it of little value, so ‘scrap’ stone may have been donated to the church. The church font also appears to be from the Shearers’ yard, although there are no records to confirm this. The local firms of Messrs. Armstrong, architects, and J. & R. Tait, builders, both were engaged during the construction of the church. In later years, Tait carried out building repairs, and Armstrongs’ made enquiries about completion of the church, the first phase of which was completed in 1875.

As originally designed, the church was to consist of a Nave, a Chancel for the Altar and Choir, an Organ Chamber above a Vestry, and a Tower with Spire above the Church Porch. This was costed at £1,166, – a sum that the Trustees never managed to raise. In 1883, the Vestry were still paying interest on a £250 loan to build the Nave, Porch and Tower. By 1875, the Tower had one storey, of timber, not of granite, – and this temporary ‘Hen House’ remained in place for nearly eighty years. It is possible that the quarrying recession forced an indefinite postponement of the completion. The 1878 Accounts reveal that the Vestry bought a bell rope for 9 pence, but there is no other evidence for the bell that doubtless went with it.

The Episcopalian Church of Christ, Dalbeattie, was formally dedicated on March 20th 1875 by the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, the Right Reverend William Wilson, as a daughter church to St. Ninian’s. This meant that, for Births, Marriages and Deaths, and for Registration of Communicants, the records remained with St.Ninian’s until 1878. The Reverend Ramsay was Priest-in-Charge until the 1878 appointment of The Reverend John Tandy as Curate-in-Charge, at which time Christ Church was recognised as an ‘Independent Mission’. Christ Church remained as an ‘incumbency’ until 1947, only then gaining a Rector.

The Parsonage and Church Hall

Miss Eliza Mary Copland of Colliston made two important gifts of land to Christ Church. The first, on 22nd January 1884, was for the Church Hall, and the second, made on 10th April 1901, was of one and a half acres of land for a Parsonage. Miss Copland and her sister were also responsible for giving Dalbeattie the land for its excellent Colliston Park, much of which was completed by private subscription and local effort. The vestry, aware that it had not enough funds to complete the Church, let alone the Church Hall, agreed on 6th May 1897 to let the land to Mr. George Billson, quarrier, of 2 or 4 Blair Street, as a vegetable garden. Descendants The Reverend Arthur Stephen managed to raise enough money for the present wrought iron railings on their granite footings. As the railings survived misguided patriotic zeal in both wars, their survival makes them an unusual and historic feature.

Construction was concentrated upon the granite-built and slate-roofed Parsonage, which was completed in 1902. ‘The Old Rectory’ had to be sold in 1989 as it was too costly to maintain, the last two Rectors living in a modern Bungalow along the High Street. Between the 1940s and 1991, a small brick and concrete Air Raid Wardens’ Post stood just inside the gate of the Parsonage garden. This Post covered the south east flank of the town, so probably reported the only bombs dropped on Dalbeattie, by a damaged German bomber. The bombs fell about four hundred yards away, near the point where a stream leaves the Plantain Loch. A marshy crater, overgrown by gorse and hawthorn, marks the spot where one bomb exploded. Another bomb exploded on rocks in the woods, a third failed to explode and is under marsh and trees at the side of the loch.

A 500 pound bequest from Mr. John C. Whadcoat of Drumstinchall, made during the early 1900s, finally made it possible to build the Church Hall. The Great War of 1914-1919 intervened, so it was not until 1926 that the Hall was completed. The Reverend Alfred Bromley was Priest-in-Charge during 1916, and wrote to Francis Armstrong of the firm who designed the Church. It is only because of Bromley that there is any written record of the original design, Armstrong’s reply confirming the cost and proposed layout. As the security of records was starting to be a concern, the Reverend H.F. Plant had bought a small fireproof safe to store important papers. The writer acknowledges that these two priests created a vital source of information for researches into the Church’s history.

During the Second World War, the Church Hall was requisitioned by the Army as a soldiers’ canteen for the guards at the munitions works. Within the records is correspondence of then Rector, Reverend E.N. Beresford-Cooke, about the 44 pound rental and a further 79 pounds compensation for repairs caused by damage by the soldiers during the war. This was just the start of a series of refurbishments that kept the vestry raising money. Understandably worried about the Church, they found disposal of the Parsonage reduced overheads.

During 1996 the Church Hall became the new headquarters of the local Sea Cadet unit, ‘T.S. William Wilson’. The congregation still make occasional use of the Hall, but the interior is almost completely naval in character. To their credit, the Sea Cadets have carefully refurbished the Church Hall, which will continue in good order for many years to come.

The Completion of the Church

During the 1950s the Vestry attempted to complete the Church to its original design, assisted by a bequest in memory of Mrs. Isobel Ellis. To stay within their means, they decided to build a semi-circular Sanctuary instead of a Chancel, to forget about an Organ Loft, but to have a small Vestry. A fairly extensive 1950 scheme was completed in 1954 to a smaller scale, and in Fyfestone rather than granite. As the granite industry had declined to sales of railway ballast and road metal, using pre-cast composition was an easier and cheaper option. Fyfestone may well have been pioneered at Dalbeattie, and continues to be used for decoration and strength in new buildings in the town. Whilst researching the Sanctuary, the writer and the Rector were intrigued to find that the Sanctuary was meant to have three windows, honouring the Trinity, but the middle window was left out in favour of a timber panel behind the altar. The two Sanctuary windows are of the Virgin Mary and an Evangelist.

Four years later, in 1958, Mrs. Margaret Hanbury paid for the replacement of the old ‘Hen House’ belfry with a granite-faced concrete-block bell loft. This was constructed by J &R Tait, and blends in with the original design. The loft has three timbered louvres, but no bell is installed; during the 1960s, a record of a bell was played before services, but the amplifier and speakers had to be removed due to damage by damp. Whilst wire mesh excludes pigeons, there are indications that Long Eared Bats may roost in the bell-loft during the summer; a dead one was found near the church in 1994, and many bats are seen in adjacent roads.

During the 1950s a small cement-rendered brick boiler house was built south east of the Church, replacing the old house whose flue had given damp problems within the Church. The boiler has been gas-fired, then oil-fired, and is now gas-fired again. The boiler-house has had a tendency to flood, being at the lowest point of the Church grounds.

It is unlikely that the Church will ever achieve the dignity of a spire, and that it is probably as complete as it will ever be. In 1996, the Rector arranged the installation of polycarbonate sheet to protect the windows from vandalism; broken panes had to be replaced on an all too frequent basis, so this new measure has saved a great deal of money.

© Copyright Richard Edkins 1997.

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