The Border Historical Society (BHS), in collaboration with the Friends of the East London Museum (FELM), held their monthly talk at the Majorie Courtenay-Latimer Hall on Tuesday evening.
Titled Southernwood Quarry, the talk was presented by East London resident Dennis G Jenkinson and examined the history of the titular quarry which was first opened in 1897.
The idea for the talk came to Jenkinson after reading a letter in the Daily Dispatch asking for information on the “Selborne Quarry”. This interested him since when the quarry was first opened, East London hadn’t even developed further than Southernwood.
In fact, the land where the quarry was located was still commonage at the time.
Jenkinson’s investigation was slightly hindered by the fact that old municipal records are currently stored in Cape Town, but he was still able to piece together a fairly good record.
Rather than focusing on “dates and events” for his talk, Jenkinson instead opted to discuss the “living history of one of EL’s historical sites”.
Specifically, Jenkinson looked at his time working for the quarry as a municipal efficiency expert during the 1960s.
At the time, the quarry manager was Jock Downey who was assisted by superintendent Tommy Bow, affectionately known as the “Master Blaster”.
According to Jenkinson, Bow was well -liked by the rest of the crew and had a reputation for taking their safety very seriously.
“One good thing about his [Bow’s] record was there were no fatal or serious injuries during his time in office,” Jenkinson said.
A standard working day in the quarry began the afternoon before when Downey and Bow would plan the next day’s drilling operations.
Bow would then rise at 6am the next morning to mark out the spots where the drillers were to work and by 7am, the drilling would begin.
The drillers started with a small 2-foot (60cm) bit and switched to increasingly larger sizes as the hole got deeper.
“Drillers were good at their work despite the extremely uncomfortable conditions,” said Jenkinson.
There was little cover up on the rock face so drillers were often fully exposed to the elements. They worked without safety harnesses since there was no place to attach them and had less than a meter of standing room.
This was in addition to the incredible physical effort required to control one of the massive drills. Jenkinson said he once tried to operate a drill, but found the vibration “almost unbearable”.
“The skin on my arms and chest itched for about an hour afterwards and I was covered in dust,” he said.
By 3pm, the drilling was complete and Bow plugged the holes up to prevent them filling with loose rocks and sand.
The next step was to fill the holes with dynamite, a job which required the strictest safety precautions from Bow.
“I once asked if I could use the [dynamite] plunger and was met with a decisive ‘No Way’. It was Bow’s responsibility and he took it seriously,” Jenkinson said.
The explosion could be felt 100m away and “fist-sized rocks” would often hit the shelter where the superintendent hid when detonating.
The rocks were then carted off to the crusher on the other end of the quarry to be crushed into various sizes.
These crushed rocks were used for local road maintenance, as well as in the tram tracks that ran through town at the time.
Blasting was stopped in 1971 although the crushers were still in use. Without the blasting going on, the pump that diverted water from local streams was shut down and the quarry was allowed to fill with water.
Quarry staff were fond of their new lake and made a surprising decision: they turned it into their own private game reserve.
The staff stocked the lake with fish which they then fed and cared for. Fishing was strictly prohibited and even joking about it “put your life at risk”, said Jenkinson.
Over time, other species began returning to the area around the lake, such as ducks, weavers and snakes.
The quarry was shut down for good in the early 1980s and is now the site of residential units, including the famous Quarry Lake Inn.