Lancashire | Archive | 2003 | April | 22

Donkey stones were 'pride of the doorstep'

From the Bolton Evening News, first published Tuesday 22nd Apr 2003.

IT wasn't much to look at. A ramshackle old shed which looked as if it lived in dread of the next high wind. But the place was unique -- the last donkey stone factory in the world.

But in 1977, the clanking, creaking crushing machine, which had been made at the Bolton ironworks of T.T. Crook an unknown number of years before, shuddered into silence for the last time. It was the end of an era.

Anyone of perhaps more than 30 or 40 years old will remember donkey stones. Millions of housewives used to go down on their knees to rub the soft wet stones on doorsteps, windowsills, the flagged kitchen floor, and even the paving stones outside their terraced homes. "Doing the step" was an ideal occasion for gossip between neighbours, as well as a source of rivalry.

Women were proud of their donkey stoning. They would be disgusted if someone failed to keep her patch looking clean and fresh. They'd feel she'd let the whole street down.

At one time there were more than a dozen donkey stone factories in the Manchester area, but over the years demand felt to practically nil until in 1977, the last one, in Ashton-Under-Lyne, closed down.

The "rubbing" ritual was part of the lives of the housewives of old, in the Bolton district as much as anywhere. Like putting hair in curlers, cleaning out the rarely used front parlour once a week, sending the old man off to work with a sticky mix of tea, sugar, and condensed milk in the bottom of his brew can.

I am sure that some younger readers, though, are scratching their heads and asking: "But what were donkey stones?" Let me enlighten you. They were scouring stones originally used in the textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire which sprung up in the early 19th century, to provide a non-slip surface on greasy stone staircases.

They were available in three colours -- cream, brown and white. One type of sandstone came from Northampton which produced the brown colour, and a light-coloured stone came from Appley Bridge quarry near Wigan. Bolton women wanted white (Manchester, Oldham and Ashton preferred cream), and to get it a dollop of Dolly Blue went into the putty-coloured mash of crushed stone and water, and the colour changed to white. The crumbly stone applied to a greasy surface would give the area grip as well as a good lustre.

The special soft stone was crushed to a fine powder by steel-faced concrete rollers. Then sufficient water was added to make a toothpaste-soft mix for pouring into moulds to be stamped with the Ashton firm's "Lion Brand" imprint. In summer it took about four days for the stones to dry out, but in cold damp weather it could take up to a month.

The stone took its name from one of the earliest manufacturers, Reads of Manchester, who produced a stone with a trade name of Read's Donkey Brand, so named because of the hard work performed by the stone.

Yet by 1977 the donkey stone was on its last legs, so to speak. In its heyday, the Ashton factory turned out two and a half million blocks a year. Placed side by side, the annual output would stretch all the way to Blackpool -- and back again. In its last few months, it produced only the same number that it would have done in a morning previously.

Donkey stones were sold at every corner shop, and rag-and-bone men used to give them in exchange for jam jars and old clothes. One by one, the donkey stone factories closed down, thrown on the affluent society's scrap heap to join the dolly tub and the mangle, and other items overtaken by modern inventions.

It may be that on the high, back shelves of an old-style hardware shop somewhere that a donkey stone still remains, but it is unlikely. Another part of old Northern life which fell on stoney ground.

I have been trying to find a picture of someone actually using a donkey-stone, but have failed miserably! Does anyone have a photograph that I can borrow for use in this column?

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From the Bolton Evening News
© Newsquest Media Group 2003

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