A Railway Of Stone

Gerry McLister researched the history of the Stone Railway – a Crags engineering feat which is now almost 300 years old. He came across the following, taken from A Railway History of Denaby & Cadeby Collieries, written by A J Booth and published by the Industrial Railway Society in 1990.

One of Conisbrough’s important industries was the lime kilns, situated on the opposite side of Doncaster Road from the railway station, across from the western end of the platforms.

Limestone was obtained from a large quarry on top of Denaby Crags, and a 3ft-gauge, double-track railway was laid on the steep hillside connecting the quarry to the kilns.

It was initially a self-acting incline, about a quarter of a mile long, whereby the weight of the loaded wagons going downhill pulled empties back up the hill by means of an endless rope.

From the mid 1850s, a stationary haulage engine was installed. The line’s claim to fame, however, was that it was a railway itself made of stone, laid sometime about 1745 to 1760, and was in operation before iron was thought of as a useful rail material.

Each rail was a piece of solid limestone, varying in length from 1ft 9in to 2ft 9in. The stones were chiselled to a section like a letter L laid flat, with the running surface on the inside angle of the L cut very smooth and regular, and the joining edges precisely fitted to give an even ride for the wagons. The ‘flange’ was on the rail, not on the rolling stock wheels, and the railway was therefore classed as a plateway.

Unfortunately the line was closed down in 1902, and the quarry was later used as a firing range. The original stone blocks could still be seen in 1990, adjacent to the quarry at the top of the Crags.

They are well worth examining, for the Conisbrough Stone Railway was one of the only two ever to have operated in Great Britain. The other was the 13-mile Hayter Stone Railway, between Bovey Tracy and Teignmouth.

In the 1970s, Northcliffe School teacher Eric Copley led a party of students in the hugely successful dig, shown in the pictures opposite, to unearth the railway after decades of it being buried.

Eric – who was originally from Wath-upon-Dearne, but then lived in Swinton – was head of the school’s handicrafts department.

He had been a pattern maker at a Sheffield steelworks prior to his move into teaching, and he curated a lifelong interest in industrial archaeology, which he studied part-time, at Sheffield University.

It may well be that the work was carried out with some help from senior students from the university or other groups, but Eric and the Northcliffe students certainly played their part.

In the 1980s, Eric went on to do considerable research into the work and lifestyle of the people of the hamlet of Levitt Hagg, much of which was kept in the Northcliffe School archives  by Neal Fitzgerald – now the Historian to Friends of the Crags. Neal also rescued photographs donated by a former resident Levitt Hagg. The present De Warenne Academy should still have his work.

In 1954, Derick Bayliss’ “Guide to the Industrial History of South Yorkshire” described the tramway as a: ‘Double track of L-shaped limestone blocks with flanges outside wheels, worked as cable incline from quarry to lime kilns which have gone, as has much of track. Post 1850, closed by 1901’.

The carts which transported the limestone down the incline were known as ‘drotts’, and they had wooden wheels. Later, a winch was installed at the top of the incline, where a single man kept the drotts in motion by turning the winch handle.

With the inception of Sheffield as the world’s ‘steel city’ in the 19th century, the highly-prized local dolomitic lime was in massive demand – since Sheffield produced half of ALL Europe’s steel, and 90 per cent of that made in Britain!

What became of the ‘railway’?

So – what became of the ancient stone railway? Well, lots of it is still believed to be buried under the scrawling scrubland outside Windsor Road, Denaby – close to where it ran.

And the remainder appears to be.. in Windsor Road gardens!

Friends secretary Alan Brocklehurst went in search of the lost stones – and managed to snap these wonderful, historic remains which have survived more than three centuries.

And Alan helpfully drew up a plan, showing where he located the tramway pieces.

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