Quarrying in Purbeck

Quarrying has been important to Swanage and the Isle of Purbeck since at least the 1st century AD. During the Roman occupation the stone industry grew with Purbeck marble being used for their villas and tomb slabs in buildings as far away as London.

The demand for Purbeck marble grew again in the 12th century as the marble was used in the construction of many large churches and cathedrals during this period.

The stone was used to build many of Dorset’s older cottages and was extracted from small local quarries.

Purbeck limestone which is more commonly known as “Purbeck Stone” has been used in construction locally since the earliest quarries in the area.

The first quarries were shallow open cast workings but once the available stone was removed the quarrymen began to access the stone using shafts which went up to 125ft (38m) underground. The oldest of these underground workings date from around 1650.

Stone was brought to the surface in many quarries using wagons powered by a horse or donkey which turned a large capstan winch at the quarry shaft entrance. Durlston Country Park has a replica capstan winch between the Country Park and Swanage Lighthouse on one of the disused mine shafts.

The extraction of Purbeck stone increased in the 17th century with the arrival of more modern quarrying techniques. The stone was used as paving in London after the great fire in 1666 and the stone was loaded directly onto ships on Swanage seafront.

 Quarrying in the Isle of Purbeck reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. The stone was transported via ships and the larger quarries where located on the coast where the stone could be lowered into waiting ships using a “whim” which is a type of wooden crane. 

Along the coast between Swanage and Kimmeridge there are a number of coastal quarry workings including Tilly Whim at Durlston, Dancing Ledge which is now popular with climbers and Winspit near Worth Matravers.

The quarry at Winspit was worked from the early 1700’s until 1953 with the west quarry having a large underground gallery.

There are a number of abandoned mines along the South side of the valley between Swanage and Worth Matravers along the Priests Way bridleway.

Today Purbeck stone is still quarried in the Isle of Purbeck using open cast methods and all of the quarries are along the Southern ridge along the valley.

Many of these quarries are family owned have been worked by generations of quarrymen with some quarries being worked by the same family from the mid 1600’s.