Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 40: the Alston Limestone Company Limited

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A hundred years ago, right next to Alston Station there was a large quarry operated by the Alston and Nentforce Limestone Company. The company had started life about 1890 and by 1901 it had become the Alston & Nentforce Limestone Quarry Co. Its typical output was illustrated in 1906 when consignments of limestone chippings for road making totalling 426 tons were delivered by the North Eastern Railway to Slaggyford, Coanwood, Lambley Crossing and Gilsland. The railway was helping in its own demise.

The North Eastern Railway was also the company’s biggest customer for stone to be used as railway ballast. To fulfil these orders quarrying activity had to be extended to a new quarry beyond the gas works on the other side of the main road to Hexham, which involved construction of a railway siding through a new tunnel that still exists under the road from Alston Station.

As well as this expansion in working, another change was in the air for the company. Negotiations for its sale must have been contemplated for some time for in March 1908 an agreement was made with William Walton of Coanwood, for the purchase of the Alston & Nentforce Limestone Company as going concern from Walter C. Reid for £4000. Reid was to stay on as an advisor. The company changed its name to “The Alston Limestone Co. Ltd.”, and had a nominal capital of £5,000. £2,000 of shares were issued initially, with J.M. Clark, agent in Haltwhistle, and William Walton as the major shareholders, each holding £400 worth.

In April Walton tried to insert clauses into the lease to his advantage without consulting the other parties involved. He was informed that this was not on. Walter Reid wrote to J.M. Clark on the 19th May that Walton was haggling and delaying over the size of contracted stone chippings and he urged an early settlement with Walton because the current “option without payment”, he wrote, was “injuring my present business”.

The directors of the new company met in Haltwhistle on 21st September when it was reported that; production was about 100 tons per week; Cumberland County Council had agreed to the tunnel under the road; the new contract with the NER was signed, and; consideration was being given to the purchase of new machinery.

Into October Walton was still delaying the sale by attempting to assert a right to determine the lease but by the 24th November all parties were in agreement and the following Friday was fixed for completion.

The first general meeting of the new company was held at Church Gates in Alston when it was reported that the Managing Director’s salary was £150 per annum. A loss was reported for the first year of £59.4s.3d. with an overdraft of £444.8s.2d., but this was taken in the company’s stride and the mood was one of optimism. Trials would be undertaken for new machinery and so far the new plant had run pretty smoothly when tested empty.

The company was also acquiring land for future use. In 1910 a field had been purchased at Gossipgate near Alston for £300 but it was not proposed to work it immediately, rather it was an investment that would extend the life of the quarry. A field to the north of ‘Old Lowbyer’ had also been acquired and a lease for ‘Jockey’s Field’ was being negotiated.

Towards the end of 1912 it was acknowledged that there had been “unfavourable trading results for the year”, a lot of which was the result of the contract with the North Eastern Railway. Clark was delegated to offer terms to the NER and if he didn’t succeed to secure a substantial increase in price of stone he had to offer the business for sale. Whether or not this was an empty threat will never be known for the company continued to trade.

However, after a year, November 1913 saw the sending of telegrams and urgent calls for meetings. Walton wrote to a Mr. Bengough, engineer of the NER at York, on the 21st that the “quarry must close next week unless arrangements are made.” Bengough replied to Walton, “Propose meeting you at Alston Thursday 27th. Wire if date convenient”, to which Walton replied, “Quite convenient to meet you at Alston 27th instant.” Then on the 24th Bengough wrote to Walton that he was ill but if he were unable to come to Alston the Assistant Engineer, Mr. Triffit, would attend.

By the first week in December the company had ceased quarrying. Walter Reid had been taking an active interest and he must have visited the quarry because he wrote to Walton commenting that the water level in the empty quarry was rising and the company’s assets were deteriorating. Reid also requested early payment of interest due to him, “otherwise”, he said, “I am losing on all sides by the delay.” The major problem in all this was probably the railway company, which was withholding payment.

On February 6th 1914 Reid observed to Walton that the railway company was allowing matters to drift and that they should be pressed. He suggested giving up “the waiting game”, which the railway could afford to do best. Then on the 21st there was news that Mr. Bengough of the NER would probably arrive for an “interview” soon.

The meeting was duly held and must have had satisfactory results, for on the 2nd March, Walton sent Bengough samples of the Alston stone. Unfortunately Bengough replied on the 9th that the samples contained a lot of small material, which had led to a good many complaints being received. However he was willing to resume taking supplies up to the following September and to experiment with screening stone to Walton’s sizes, but, he said, “I am not prepared to go on after September 30th under our present agreement.”

This should have been good news for the short term but Walton was bitterly disappointed. He wrote to Clark on 11th March enclosing Bengough’s letter with the comment, “I don’t see the inducement to go on under the circumstances.” But Reid was made of sterner stuff and sent a telegram to Clark saying, “We think should agree recommence now under agreement pending negotiations for extension this would enable test quarrying arrangement also secure other waiting orders.” Then, much to the company’s relief, on 13th June a contract was agreed with NER for in excess of 25,000 tons per year.

On October 1st Walton wrote to Clark that he had met Walter Reid and his son, Hugh, and told him, “… you will note (from enclosed balance sheets) we have made a little (profit) since the restart.” This would have been good news for the shareholders at the AGM held on the 3rd of the month at Blackburn and Main’s solicitors’ office in Alston.

The rest of the year and that of 1915 passed uneventfully but the company was not out of the mire; the Great War was having its effect. The NER had suspended orders for ballast due to the shortage of labour to deal with deliveries, so the company resignedly “… assumed a probability that said suspension would continue until the close of the War.” At the October AGM Hugh Reid was appointed sole agent for sale of stone in the Newcastle district and it was reported that 12,875 tons of stone had been quarried that year.

In February 1916, a meeting of the directors was held in Clark’s office at Haltwhistle. Proposals made by the Admiralty for working the quarry were considered, following which Walton, as Managing Director, wrote to the Greenwich Hospital, “… the directors see no hope of making a profit”, but they recognised, “… that it is not desirable to discontinue work and to close down, or wind up under present circumstances. We will therefore continue working - provided no further loss is made.” For the company’s part Hugh Reid suggested to Walton that a bonus be paid to increase output.

Since the quarry had worked only 8000 tons in the past year and the rent of £100 was too expensive at 3d per ton, concessions were requested from the Admiralty, who reduced the certain rent due from £100 p.a. to £5 p.a., “for the duration of the war.” It was promised that two workmen would be released from military service because, “the Company was now almost exclusively employed in working limestone for the production of munition steel for certain controlled works.” By December the men had still not been released, but eventually they were, “after lengthened correspondence.”

In October 1917 Reid suggested the manufacture of tarmac by the company, he also advised pumping the Low Quarry. Balance sheets for 1917 showed production of 648 tons 19 cwt of roadstone, chippings, stock and ground, sold for £146.15s. at a cost of £136.4s.2d., making a profit of £10.10s. for the year. It was estimated that with new grinding plant the profit could be increased to an estimated £77.18s.

Revenues must have deteriorated again in 1918, for in October J.M. Clark sent a pessimistic note to William Walton about an arrangement for disposal of the debenture shares following which he said, “in this way if the company is wound up we get one half of the assets.”

During November there must have been a suggestion that Hugh Reid should take over the running of the company as Managing Director, but his father Walter Reid wrote, “I feel that it is rather an uphill task to take over the management while the company is hampered with loans as well as Bank Overdraft”, and, “I would like to see the prospect that a few years work would put the company in a better position and make its shares of some value”, he then suggested a scheme for repaying the liability. Hugh Reid was appointed manager and in August 1919 he sent a report to J.M. Clark that gave an interesting view of the day to day running of the quarry:

“The quarry is jogging along at present with eight men and a boy, and is making a little profit each month, but there are certain repairs to belts, etc., needed, and these are costly items at present, and the constant trouble and cost over the belts ought certainly to be permanently cured by having the plant further covered in before the winter weather. There is also the question of the Admiralty’s account for dues and permanent damages (to land), which will have to be faced within a few months now no doubt. This state of things can continue, but it is easily seen that it will do no appreciable good to anyone, and as you once expressed it, it practically means postponing the evil day, although one must admit that things are better than they were at that time. The trouble is that owing to high wages at the pits we cannot increase the men at the quarry.
By making certain drastic improvements at the quarry, and either reopening the Station Quarry, or as an alternative selling off the plant there and looking further up the hill for a supply of limestone for Nent Force, to be got by an aerial ropeway, and also adding efficient grinding plant for ground limestone, the prospects of present profit, and a future for the concern, might be assured, but this cannot be done without capital, and with loans and Bank Overdraft &c the Company is not in the best of positions for considering such schemes.
A third proposal would be to sell out your interests to a practical man and if I had a definite offer to do this I might be able to do something in the matter, but it is always a difficulty to get anyone to take up a place that has done no good and gone on for years accumulating loans and losses.”

Then in October Hugh Reid informed Clark that, “the men have had a rise in wages recently, but I have also fixed a substantial rise in prices.” The finances showed a profit of £735.9s.4d. on the Balance Sheet, and an income of £1545.10s.3d. on the Trading Account, but there were outstanding loans of £1,075.

Another sale of the company was in sight; 2,300 shares of £1 each were to be transferred to Mr. George Armstrong of Hexham, the proposed purchaser. A meeting at J.M. Clark’s office in Haltwhistle on 23rd October led to a draft agreement for the sale of the company on the 28th. “In the meantime,” Hugh Reid told Clark on the 1st December, “Mr. Armstrong and I will keep things going.”

The agreement was made with Mr. Armstrong and January 1920 saw another change of ownership for the company which retained the name of “The Alston Limestone Co. Ltd.” and Hugh Reid stayed on as secretary for the time being. At the AGM in December that year only George Armstrong and Hugh Reid were present, the subjects they discussed were the transfer of shares to George Armstrong and very modest salaries of £25 p.a. each from 1st January 1921 - to be drawn only when funds permitted. The company was still at a low ebb.

The rest of 1920 and the succeeding years were quiet but the company was improving at last. In February 1924 a dividend of 331/3% was paid, less tax, and the directors’ salaries had increased dramatically to £500 p.a. At a directors’ meeting in November accounts showed a loss of £2,100, but this included “the cost of dismantling plant at various places and erection at Humshaugh, together with the development on Moss Kennels Quarry”.

The Company carried out a stocktaking exercise in the later years of the 1930s which revealed that it held land at Alston and at other places in the Tyne valley. In 1937 the company had contracts at West Rainton, South Biddick, Blaydon and Whickham. Quarrying had ceased at Alston at an unknown date before then and there is no further mention of Alston in company records. The last entry for the Alston Limestone Company in an Alston trades directory was in 1934.

In April 1939 the Alston Limestone Company Ltd. was sold to Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation Ltd. and was associated with Alston in name only. The company, thenceforward known as ALCO, prospered greatly. In 1977 it was purchased by the Thomas Tilling Group, who owned TILCON. ALCO’s ultimate parent company was Anglo American PLC that purchased Tarmac in 2000.

Throughout this time the Alston Limestone Company was an independent subsidiary company, trading independently with its own board of directors and registered as a separate limited company at Companies House. In the year ending 31st December 2005, ALCO’s turnover was £12.2m. What would Messrs. Walton, Clark, Reid and Reid have made of that?

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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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