Our Tameside reporter, Bob, revisits a time when he would get on his hands and knees to carry out “stoning the step” for his 6d a week spends and discovers that the main component he would use was actually made just down the road from where he now lives.
Blue Plaque Transcript
TAMESIDE METROPOLITAN BOROUGH
DONKEY STONE MANUFACTURERS
The firm of Eli Whalley, the last mass producer of donkey stones
in the country, closed early in 1979 and was based here at Donkey Stone Wharf.
Donkey stones are scouring stones, named after the trade-mark
of one of the earliest firm. Reads of Manchester,
and were cream, brown and white.
Originally used to put a non-slip surface on greasy
stone staircases in the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and later
by proud housewives, who made stoning the front doorstep
a form of decoration and competition.
Eli Whalley’s trade-mark, the “lion brand”, impressed
on the stones was taken from a photograph of
a live specimen in Belle Vue.
Unveiled by The Mayor of Tameside
Councillor Frank Robinson
on 17th April 2000
ELI WHALLEY THE DONKEY STONE MANUFACTURER
Eli Whalley was born on 26 June 1847. He was the son of Henry Walley and Jane Ellor. His business was founded in Ashton-under-Lyne during the 1890s and his small premises sat on a small area of land beside the Ashton Canal named ‘Donkey Stone Warf’.
One of the earliest donkey stone manufacturers was ‘Reads of Manchester’, who used a donkey as its trade-mark, but when Eli Whalley started manufacturing them he chose a lion as his trade-mark, which was modeled from an actual lion that he saw on one of his many visits to Belle Vue.
Donkey stones came in cream, brown and white with intermediate colours being made by mixing different coloured stones. It is thought that some of the stone used in the manufacture was quarried from both Wigan and Northampton, which would have been sandstone. Limestone quarried from Dove Holes in Derbyshire was also used and this would have been transported via the Peak Forest Tramway and Canal.
The quarried stone was first ground in a stone mill and water was added to make a slip. Next, cement and a bleaching agent were added to the mix to form a paste, which was then pressed into rectangular moulds then sliced into individual bars, before setting.
Originally used in textile mills, donkey stones provided a non-slip surface on greasy stone staircases. However, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were used by housewives, to make their front and rear doorstep decorative, but they only had a choice of cream, brown and white stones to select from.
At its peak, during the 1930s Eli’s factory was producing around 2.5 million donkey stones every year. Donkey stoning or “stoning the step” was a mainly northern tradition, which expanded to stoning window sills and pavements as well, and it became a bit of a competition between neighbours to see who had the best looking external décor.
I can say, from personal experience, it was quite hard work ‘stoning’, and something that I was tasked to do from the age of 8 years- at our terraced house in Ardwick, Manchester each Saturday to earn my 6d spends.
Donkey stones were about the size of a large bar of soap and they were used by wetting with water and then rubbed over the surface. As the surface dried you were left with the colour of the stone that was used in its manufacture. This task had to be regularly repeated, as the finish was not very long-lasting. The stones would cost around ½d each to buy from the local hardware store, but more commonly they were obtained from the ‘Rag and Bone Man’ in exchange for some old clothes and you could barter for the odd goldfish in a plastic bag too.
By 1973 the factory was being run by Gilbert Garside and his son Harry and they were the world’s last manufacturer of donkey stones, but production had shrunk to around 720,000 stones a year. In 1979 the factory finally closed its doors for good due to lack of demand for the product – a sad day indeed.
The Friends of Tameside Museum Service have saved the machinery that was used to make the stones and today is housed at Portland Basin Industrial Museum in Ashton-under-Lyne. Watch the video produced by them here: https://vimeo.com/87953449
If you have memories of “stoning the step” or any other childhood memories that you’d like to share with our readers then please sent them to [email protected]