THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Ann Husler (1803-1874)
Quarry owner and stone merchant, Weetwood
An unsuitable job for a woman? Running a quarry sounds a rough, tough, demanding job, but Ann Husler took it on after her husband’s sudden death and ran the business on her own terms. The story of her life, its successes and challenges, runs alongside the story of the vast demand for building stone during the mid nineteenth century in Leeds and across the country, underpinning growth and development – building mills, factories and public buildings, paving the streets, constructing bridges, docks, and railways. It was boom time for the many quarries across Leeds.
Ann came from working class roots, with little schooling. Born Ann Procter in Armley in 1803, the daughter of a clothier from Calverley, at nineteen she married into a family of quarrymen, strong Baptists also with Calverley origins. Her husband John Husler was a ‘slate-river’, his father a ‘delver’ and all his brothers stone masons. Their first daughter was born later that year, 1822, and eleven more children were to follow over the next 20 years, though three died in childhood. She had her hands full, yet learnt enough about quarrying to take over when the need arose.
John Husler was bright enough to cash in on the greed for stone. From Armley his first move was to Woodhouse, where he took over the huge ancient quarry near the Moor (still remembered in street names). Around 1840 with a partner, John Cliff of Bramley, he also took on a sandstone quarry at Weetwood, and then opened a new larger quarry there, with higher quality stone, he claimed. This was no little local business. He rented a wharf on the river in Leeds for shipping the stone, and a wharf on the Isle of Dogs in London, where Weetwood stone helped to build Westminster bridge and other major works. In Leeds the firm won lucrative contracts for masonry at the new Armley Gaol and the Industrial Schools (now part of St James’s) – big money.
In 1846 Cliff dropped out, leaving John Husler running the business and quarries at Weetwood and Potternewton. The family was prospering, and around 1850 moved to a fine house near the Weetwood quarry: Victoria House (now Weetwood Garden House), in Mill Lane leading down to Meanwood beck. Across the stream John Husler built a row of ‘model’ cottages, ‘Hustler’s Row’ (a ‘t’ crept in), still an extraordinary sight deep in Meanwood woods; and in Far Headingley a fine row of ‘respectable’ houses, Victoria Terrace, all for rental, perhaps as investment. But in 1851, ever ambitious, he embarked on a new venture. With a local partner, William Ellis, he won the contract to build the Kilkenny to Waterford railway in Ireland –a multi-million-pound project in current values. It proved a disaster.
The work in Ireland was beset by disputes and delays, while Ann was left to look after the business in Leeds - their sons Joseph and Alfred were still too young. Then in June 1853, just as they were advertising for 50 more masons, news came that John had died suddenly in Waterford. Straightaway Ann had to take charge of all his affairs, and later was involved in litigation over additional costs on the calamitous railway and disputes over his estate. She chose to run the quarries herself, her name prominent on advertisements over the following years for quarrymen, masons, ‘scapplers’ and ‘getters’, and for carters and wherry-men to take stone to the wharf. At its peak around 1860, 75 men and 18 boys were employed in the quarry – business clearly booming. When the land she rented (93 acres) at Weetwood was auctioned that year, she took out a new 21 year lease of the quarry, ensuring its future.
She took her two sons, Joseph and Alfred (who was profoundly deaf), into the business, but in 1870 excluded Joseph, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving his two children for Ann and Alfred to bring up. Some mystery too surrounds her relationship with John’s brother, Joseph, who died in 1861: impossible to untangle now. She remained head of the household at Victoria House until her death in 1874, aged 71. She left her share of the business to Alfred, together with his bedroom furniture, his father’s portrait, and her two ‘large silver gravy spoons’.
The Weetwood quarry closed in the 1880s and the land was sold for development (Quarry Dene, The Hollies), though the landscape retains its memory. Ann is buried with her husband at Bramley Baptist graveyard – a woman who had to sign the marriage register with a cross (like most women then) but later made her unique mark as a business woman in a man’s world.