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In the bleak midwinter

Arkell William Joscelyn Arkell (1904-1958).  From the Society’s portrait collection.

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers why the people of Stonesfield loved winter and rough weather

Stonesfield slate – not a true slate in the geological sense, but a Middle Jurassic limestone facies present around the village of Stonesfield in Oxfordshire –  graces the roofs of many vernacular buildings in NW Oxfordshire and covers the roofs of many of the Oxford Colleges.  Production of  the 'slates' began during the 17thC, when it was discovered that freshly dug blocks of this lens-shaped deposit of sandy limestone – extending roughly two miles from east to west and one mile from north to south – around the village of Stonesfield, could be easily split after exposure to frost. 

Building boom

Thanks to a building boom, Stonesfield slate mining really took off during the 19thC and proved to be a real money-spinner for small landowners.   Around two dozen pits are known to have existed in Stonesfield, and the mining industry became an important source of both full and part time employment in the area. 

Working underground all day in galleries just three to five feet high, with little opportunity to stand up, may not be everyone's idea of a good time; but local stories describe how the old men loved the work.  As the geologist and palaeontologist W J Arkell (picture) reported in his book Oxford Stone, they ‘looked forward to it almost like the annual migration into the mountains by the Alpine shepherds’ even though they often had to crawl on hands and knees to reach the working face. 

Grim though it might sound, slate mining was a convenient seasonal winter employment and by working underground miners were sheltered and kept warm for half the winter.  The discovery of a 19thC beer-mug in one of the mines suggests that though refreshments were not exactly available 'on tap' underground, the miners did find ways to keep their spirits up. 

Seasonal cheer

Quarrying began at Michaelmas and continued until Christmas.  The blocks of stone, known as pendle, were loaded onto an iron-wheeled trolley and hauled up the shaft to the surface by a windlass where they were wetted and covered with earth in clamps to keep in the ‘quarry sap'.  Then it was all down to the weather.  The thin slabs of stone that form the slates are riven from the pendle by the action of frost, so a bleak midwinter – when frosty wind makes moan – was critical.  One week of hard frost in January ensured  well-split slates and plenty of work to keep the 'slatters' – the men who shaped  and holed the thin layers to produce the batchelors, whippets, muffities, short, middle and large cocks used for roofing tiles – in employment until the following Michaelmas. 

To make the most of their possibilities, when there was a chance of freezing temperatures mine owners employed a man to run through the village ringing a bell to summon all available manpower to turn out to uncover and spread out the pendle.  Arkell records that ‘If a hard frost began unexpectedly at night the church bells would be rung to summon the people from their beds’. 

If the frosts didn't come, a smaller quantity of coarser and cheaper slates – known as ‘presents’ –  could still be made from a thin layer of fissile brownish sandstone above the pendle.  But because resorting to production of presents meant that the slatters wouldn't be employed for a whole season, they were not the sort of presents anyone in Stonesfield really wanted to receive. 

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season!


Thanks to Philip Powell for suggesting the topic for this seasonal vignette.  Sources include:  The Geology of Oxfordshire by Philip Powell [ISBN 1904349196]; Stonesfield from slates to chips published by Stonesfield Parish Council [ISBN 095396230X], Oxford Stone by W.J.  Arkell, published by Faber and Faber in 1947, and the Stonesfield Slate by M.A.  Aston, Oxfordshire County Council Department of Museums Services Publication No.5, 1974

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG).  For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter, visit the HOGG website at:, where you'll also find abstracts for the talks and posters presented at the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting, April 2011 available free to download as a pdf file.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford and who lives near Stonesfield.