Site of Penarth alabaster mine

Site of Penarth alabaster mine

Photo of Margam tomb chest made of Penarth alabasterAn alabaster mine was accessed through an opening in the cliff near here. The entrance collapsed long ago. Please don’t leave the coast path to explore the cliffs, which are unstable.

Alabaster is a fine-grained type of gypsum. It was widely used for decorative stonework such as tomb chests and wall memorials in churches. It’s soft, easy to carve, takes a fine polish and looks like marble. It’s white in pure form but is often coloured from traces of other minerals, particularly iron.

Alabaster outcrops between Penarth Head and Lavernock Point were quarried for hundreds of years. The stone featured a mottled pink colouring. Until the mid-19th century there was a regular small-scale trade in local alabaster. In the 17th century it was used for chest tombs in Margam Abbey church (see upper photo). Other early examples can be found in some Vale of Glamorgan churches.

The most extensive use of “Penarth alabaster” dates from the early 20th century and is at 54 Mount Street, London (see lower photo). The property was the London home of Lord Windsor (Earl of Plymouth) and is now the Brazilian ambassador’s residence. Other examples survive at Cardiff University, Cardiff Castle, Insole Court in Llandaff and St Margaret’s Church, Roath.

Photo of Penarth alabaster at 54 Mount Street, LondonThe mine accessed from the cliffs near here was opened c.1872 in an attempt to exploit local alabaster on a larger commercial scale. The mine was not a success and soon closed. It features in the 1889 novel The Wreckers of Lavernock by Annie Jenkins (now available online).

In 1906 the abandoned mine was home to a Samuel Baldwin, aged 58, who had left his wife. He called his residence Alabaster Villa! He was arrested there in December 1906 for failing to give his wife maintenance money, as ordered by a court. He spent two months in jail, later returning to live in Alabaster Villa. He moved to lodgings in Penarth after butcher Charles Barrow took pity on him and gave him odd jobs to do. After suffering a severe influenza attack, he became depressed and killed himself in January 1908.

With thanks to Michael Statham, author of 'Penarth Alabaster', published by the Welsh Stone Forum in 2017

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