1914 - 1920 Beginings
(LINKS TO FURTHER ILLUSTRATIONS ARE GIVEN AT THE END OF THE
Prologue - Geology - Getting Started - Company Officials Visit the Site - the Option to Purchase - First Operations -
The Main Mine Tunnel - Surface Structures at Irthlingborough - [ The Electricity Generating Plant - The Calcining Kilns - Other Surface Buildings ]
Wednesday 11 August 1920 proved to be an important milestone in the history of Irthlingborough,
with the official opening of the Irthlingborough Iron
A special train from Euston
brought numerous dignitaries to join, among others, Mr E. H. Barker, Chairman
of Irthlingborough Council, and Dr. W. W. Robb at the
The local newspaper reported that over eighty important gentlemen watched as, at noon,
Mr Fred Mills,
the Chairman of the
Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Co.
Rt. Hon. Lord
former President of the Board of Trade, to perform
the formal opening ceremony.
Pushing open the gate at the tunnel entrance Lord Ashfield pronounced "I have very great
pleasure in announcing that this undertaking is now open, and I would venture to
hope that its products will be an ever increasing part in the trade and markets
of the world".
The party went on to view the calcining plant [fig. 1], and some were taken
underground to see the workings in operation.
gathered in the garden of the works offices, Pine Lodge,
where a marquee had been erected on the tennis lawn, and luncheon was served at
Speeches followed the Loyal
Toast, and a presentation was made to Lord Ashfield of an ink stand, a replica
of the one he had used in office, while Mr Mills acknowledged his valuable
encouragement, as President of the Board of Trade, in bringing the project to fruition.
The opening ceremony, he explained, had been
postponed from the time of the actual commencement of mining in 1917 because
of the continuing World War and, later,
of Lord Ashfield’s ill health, but "the deferred event would be all the better
for the delay, for it was much better to have the opening when things were
going nicely than before a commencement had really been made".
The mine, often familiarly referred to by
local people as ‘The Ed-Vale’, was set up by the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron &
Coal Co. Ltd. to provide ore to feed its blast furnaces some 150 miles (240 kms.) away in South
By the time of the 1920 opening ceremony it had been in production for almost 3
years, and had already dispatched to Wales some 150,000 tons (152,000 tonnes) of ore.
Northamptonshire Ore - its Geology and Extraction.
(SEE LINK 1)
The iron ore seam worked at Irthlingborough lies immediately above the Upper Lias Clay, and occurs from Towcester,
in the south of Northamptonshire, through the length of the county and into Lincolnshire as far north as Lincoln itself; it is known as the
Ironstone [fig. 2].
Although there is evidence that the stone
was used by the Romans to make iron in various parts of Northamptonshire, its
use as an iron-making material in this area was later quite forgotten.
It was, however, used extensively as a
building material, and can be seen in old buildings throughout the county in
places where the seam outcrops to the surface.
It was not until samples of the ironstone from nearby Woodford were
displayed at the
of 1851, that interest was again shown in this
material by the ironmasters of the time.
Shortly after this, small-scale open quarrying of the ore began in Irthlingborough, in an area west of the
In 1916 Irthlingborough was principally known for its
leather-dressing works and for the manufacture of boots and shoes.
It had, nonetheless, also become familiar over the years
with the effects on its landscape of mineral extraction as a result of the quarrying of
ironstone and limestone, sand and gravel working and the digging of clay for
brick and tile making.
When the underground mine opened in 1916 it began a new, and far more important phase in Irthlingborough’s industrial history, which was to
the next 50 years.
That iron ore mining ever came
to Irthlingborough was due to the foresight of two
outstanding figures in the industry.
The first of these was
Prof. Henry Louis,
Milburn Professor of Mining at Armstrong College,
Durham University, and consultant mining engineer to The Ebbw Vale Company; he had, from the outset, showed great
interest in the potential of working the ore bed around Finedon.
At the same time Mr. Frederick Mills, as Managing Director of the Company in
Wales, and under the pressure of wartime steel production demands, was the man to make
the momentous decision to go ahead with the project, with little evidence that
the Company could make it into a profitable enterprise.
The Ebbw Vale Company was a
relative late-comer to the County.
By 1914 much of the iron ore bed in Northamptonshire had been taken by other steel companies.
It was not until the spring of 1914, only
months before the outbreak of war, that the Company first considered the
benefit of securing its own supply of British ore, rather than importing it
from abroad or buying from rival companies at home.
When, in September of that year, a body of
ore came on offer in the vicinity of Finedon and Denford, in Northamptonshire [fig. 3], the Company
approached Professor Louis for his expert opinion on the extent, and potential
yield, of the mineral deposits.
The ore around Irthlingborough itself was not, at this date, under
In a letter dated 7 September 1914 the
Professor pointed out that "this proposition is of great
interest because it is very rare to find Northamptonshire iron ores offering
[i.e. becoming available]".
However, he wrote, of the probable 4 to 5 million tons in question, the majority of it
situated around Denford, about 1 million tons would
have to be ’got‘ by underground working.
The offer was actively considered by Mr. Mills, who found several
serious problems which must first be addressed.
Firstly, the initial offer fell far short of the 12 million tons of ore needed for the enterprise to be
It would be imperative to
investigate the possibility of purchasing adjacent areas of land.
These became available soon after, but prior
to final purchase an option to buy was agreed with the vendors, with rights to
prospect by sinking trial pits and boreholes, so allowing the assessment of the
potential quantity, quality, and marketability of the ore.
Secondly, despite the knowledge that local firms at Corby, Wellingborough
& Islip were already making steel using similar material, it had to be proved that it would be
possible to make this ore into pig iron in the blast furnaces at Ebbw Vale, and
to convert this iron into steel by the particular Bessemer process in use there.
Finally, there was the stumbling block of transporting the ore, initially to a local railhead and subsequently on
the long haul to Ebbw Vale.
These three main considerations
brought into question the marketability of the ore.
Mr Mills pointed out that, in the option
agreement, the word ‘marketable’ might mean ‘marketable’ at the point of
extraction but that it might not prove to be so after adding the cost of transporting the ore to Ebbw Vale,
and the vendor should be made to appreciate this.
Transport to a railhead was seen
as the most pressing problem to be solved.
This was, of course, an obligation on the part of the vendor, who had
already suggested that the ore from the Neville’s Lodge Farm area in Finedon, lying just south of the A6 highway, might be
extracted by sinking shafts
into the iron ore seam, then transporting it by
tramway across land already being mined by the Wellingborough Iron Company, to
sidings on the Midland Railway north of
Wellingborough, known as Neilson’s Sidings [fig. 4].
At this stage Professor Louis accepted this suggestion, though he expressed his
preference for an aerial ropeway across this route, rather than a tramway over
This plan was summarily
abandoned when Professor Louis , after a day’s stroll
over fields south of Neville’s Lodge on the 17 December 1914, wrote to Fred Mills a few days later with the unusual suggestion of driving a
tunnel in a north-easterly direction into the side of the valley of the River Nene at Irthlingborough
(within the area of the present Pine Trees residential development) at a
suitable level to gain the ore; this could be dispatched to Ebbw Vale via the nearby Northampton to Peterborough branch
He also established that
there were, in that area, some "large continuous brick kilns apparently of
modern construction, with about thirty chambers and well-built stack", left
behind after the closure of the former Metropolitan Brick & Tile
Works (these were later demolished in 1919).
This installation was for sale,
and might be used profitably to experiment in calcining the ore.
If the project were to proceed,
he proposed that the Company lay down an electricity generating plant, install
an endless ropeway and purchase nearby Pine Lodge House for use as
It only remained then for the
vendor to accept and act upon this new solution, by both buying and leasing the
land between the minerals they wished to sell, and the railway at Irthlingborough, and by then transferring these acquisitions
to the Ebbw Vale Company.
Company Officials Visit the Site
In November 1914, shortly before
Professor Louis’s new plan emerged, he had urged the Ebbw Vale Company
officials to visit the whole site in view of the complex decisions they must
The iron ore that they
would consider would not, of course, be visible, as it lay some 60 (18 m.) to 80 feet (24 m.)
There were, however, outcrops
being worked in quarries in the Irthlingborough, Finedon and Burton Latimer areas, which surrounded the
site, though the nature of this very shallow quarried ore, which had oxidized
over millions of years, was quite different, both in colour and chemical composition,
from the deeper blue-grey stone they were considering, known as the ‘carbonate
On the 20th November Henry Louis implored Fred Mills to "even pay a flying visit", together with other board members and officials; he
that, if nothing else, it would show to the vendor that the Company was
Fred Mills thought that this was perhaps too premature, and that there needed to be some sort of
proposition on the table "even if not signed"
It is quite evident, from the correspondence at the time, that Professor
Louis was very keen for the project to proceed.
On the 10th December 1914, just before the visit, Fred Mills
wrote to Professor Louis "I
presume the agreement [the option to purchase and permission to prospect] is practically
ready, and that we are not going on a ‘wild goose’ chase in such vast
Eventually, four hectic months after the first approach was made by the vendor, a site meeting was
arranged and 8 rooms were booked at the Hind Hotel, Wellingborough, for the
night of 15th December, together with a private sitting room where
dinner could be served.
The Hind Hotel would send its own car to the Station, as usual, to meet the London train, while cars were hired from a
local garage (Wallis John Ford of Wellingborough) to transport the group to
the Finedon and Burton Latimer areas the following day.
Among the party were the Blast Furnace Manager from Ebbw Vale, the Company Solicitor, the vendor’s agent and,
of course, Frederick Mills and Professor Louis. What transpired on that day is
unrecorded, but on the following day Professor Louis spent his time looking over the
local terrain; he wrote to Fred Mills five days later with the new and detailed
tunnelling solution already described.
Much of what he suggested was later carried out.
The Option to Purchase
By April 1915 an option to
purchase had been signed, giving permission for the Company to dig trial holes
on the properties; the first was sunk on Poplar Lodge Farm.
This land had been added to the original
offer, together with several other areas, to enhance the probability that 12
million tons of ore could be proved.
The vendor’s agents were also confident that they could achieve, by further purchases
and leases, a way to get the ore to the Irthlingborough rail-head;
in the case of Denford there was no problem as the Northampton to Peterborough
line adjoined the property.
The ore in Denford was never exploited, however, and was kept by the
Company as a strategic reserve to be opened quickly at any time should the need
In February 1915, even before
any trial holes had been put down or any furnace trials completed, a crisis
occurred in the Company.
A sufficient supply of Spanish ore was in doubt, and the cost of its transportation to England had become so
prohibitive that Mr. Mills questioned, in a letter to Professor Louis dated 24 February 1915, "whether the loss will not be so appalling that
it is going to
be cheaper to stop, [making steel] and I don’t think it is patriotic to do that
if there be a way out".
Nothing yet had been established as to the quantity or quality of the
ore at Irthlingborough but on 1 May 1915 Fred Mills
telegraphed Thomas Falcon, who was to become the first Manager of the mine,
"Have summoned special meeting tomorrow morning Ebbw Vale House eleven
Think most important you all
return for that
Am quite satisfied to
base decision on result of trial shaft which I am glad to know is
Please wire me thickness of Iron Ore bed".
So, on that day in May 1915 the
idea of Irthlingborough Mine was born.
It is recorded that, after the
end of the First World War, in the 1921 New Year Honours, Frederick Mills was created a Baronet to honour his
patriotic attitude and his appreciation of the country’s difficulties during
the First World War.
His decision to
proceed with the mine no doubt had a bearing on the award of this honour.
On 9 November 1915 The Ebbw Vale Steel,
Iron & Coal Co. Ltd. purchased its first
area of land at Finedon and Irthlingborough,
now increased from the 22 acres (9 Ha.) of the first offer to some 900 acres (364 Ha.).
Finedon and Irthlingborough alone were proved to contain the 12 million
tons of ore required, without the need to consider Denford.
Within a few days men were already being
recruited to work on the initial operations of sinking ventilation shafts and driving
the 3/4 mile (1.2 kms.) tunnel from the Nene Valley to reach the ore.
The first body of men numbered 14 (9 labourers, 1 miner, 1 miner‘s helper, 1
loader, 1 horseboy and 1 smith).
By the end of June 1916 a
further 43 men, mostly labourers, had been added to the workforce, which was
now deployed as follows :-
2 Foremen (1 from Wales)
1 Horse keeper (a 60 yr old skilled labourer)
2 Horse boys (lads aged 15 yrs)
5 Miners (one of whom was the first Cornishman to come to Irthlingborough)
1 Miner's helper
1 Blacksmith's striker
1 Time keeper
Most men lived in Finedon or Irthlingborough, though
one man came from Isham, two from Ringstead,
one each from Burton Latimer and Denford and five
Recruiting continued throughout 1916, and by the end of the year there were 91 employees,
while 8 men had already left.
By the spring of 1917 2 Clerks had joined the Company; the son of the local Rector,
The Rev. H. K. Taylor, was appointed as Mining Pupil, but had left by April 1917.
During 1917 and 1918 nearly sixty Cornishmen arrived from such places as Roche, St Blazey, Bugle, Tregonissey, St Austel, Nancledra, Enniscavan,
Charleston and Lostwithiel.
Among them were eighteen experienced miners and one blacksmith.
They did not stay long; half had gone before their year end and all had left by the spring of 1919.
The Main Mine Tunnel
In April 1916 a 21-year Mining
Lease was established with the Premier Cement Co., who owned the stretch of
land north east of Wellingborough Road, Irthlingborough, which linked the Company’s minerals at Finedon
to the land, adjacent to the railway in Irthlingborough, on which the calcining
plant would eventually be built
This enabled the Company to drive a tunnel [fig. 5] into the side of the valley, continuing
under this newly leased land, to open up the mine.
This essential lease would
make possible the getting of the ore through the tunnel to the surface works
and on to the railway.
During 1916 and 1917 the mine
tunnel was developed by sinking two shafts at intervals just off the line of
the proposed tunnel and, from
them, driving four tunnels (two in opposite
directions from each shaft
joining up with each other and with a fifth tunnel driven
from the side of the valley).
The tunnel sections were brick lined as they progressed, and end to end the completed
tunnel was to be about 3/4 mile (1.2 kms.) long.
It was driven to a rising gradient into the mine of 1 in 210, and a water channel was
formed in its base so that during the early years water could drain from the
mine with the minimum of pumping [fig. 6]. The
gradient also assisted the haulage system, as the heavy trains of ore were
brought to the surface down a falling gradient.
By October 1916 the tunnel had advanced 75 feet (23 m.) from the surface
entrance, and the connection from the surface to No. 1 Shaft was completed in
the spring of 1918.
By the end of August 1917 work
had already started on opening up the mine in the district called ‘Old Irthlingborough’, beyond
the two shafts.
The first ever tonnage of this ore was
brought up No. 2 Shaft in October 1917 and conveyed to the works via a surface
railway laid across Wellingborough Road, there being, as yet, no
The No. 2 Shaft was
eventually utilised as the Up-Cast Ventilation Shaft and continued in use until
the final closure in 1965.
Although the impetus for opening
the mine was the need to help the war effort, it is doubtful whether there was time for much Irthlingborough iron to actually
reached the Front in the form of armaments or munitions.
During the next few years more land became
available from various sources, and by the middle of 1919 the Irthlingborough Estate extended to over 2,000 acres (800 Ha.) in the Parishes of
Irthlingborough, Finedon, Burton Latimer, Little Addington and Little Harrowden [fig. 7].
Surface Structures at Irthlingborough see LINK 2 below
1. The Electricity Generating Plant
The power plant, which was built primarily to
provide electricity to the main-haulage overhead trolley locos and to the
battery-charging plant underground, comprised two ‘Galloway Patent’ Lancashire
boilers providing steam to two Bellis & Morcom engines [fig. 8] which drove
Siemens generators, producing
250 volts of electricity.
The generators were housed in the Workshops
building, while the boilers and a water-softener were situated in buildings
The chimney for the boilers
was raised between 8 and 23 October 1917 using seven
specialist chimney erectors, some of them from London and one coming from Head Crofty mine in Cornwall.
They were joined by one foreman and a half-time boy.
This work was evidently done by direct labour
as the men involved were recorded in the Company’s employment register.
In the mine, near the ventilating shaft, an
Electrical Substation with charging bays was installed, to charge the ‘British
Electric Vehicle’ (BEV) battery tractor locomotives with electricity; the power was brought
from the surface power plant through cables resting on hangers fixed to the
wall of the brick-lined tunnel.
These locomotives were used to pull the wagons
of ore from the working faces to sidings inside the mine where they linked up with the main haulage system.
In 1916 two electric overhead trolley
locomotives were ordered from Schenectady in the U.S.A. [fig. 9]; it was
always said that these
vehicles had been on a ship sunk by enemy action on its
way to England, were dredged up, restored by the General Electric Company and belatedly
delivered to Irthlingborough.
They provided the main haulage system which
pulled the trains of ore from the sidings in the mine to the surface.
It is interesting to note that while the main tunnel was being driven horses had been
used underground, and their use continued until the first British Electric
Vehicle (BEV) was bought in March 1919 and after some 20,000 tons (20,320 tonnes) of iron ore
had already been extracted.
2. The Calcining Kilns
The calcining of iron ore is the process of concentrating the ore by roasting it with small
This process has the effect of driving off
moisture, carbon dioxide, etc., and of oxidising the ore from ferrous
to ferric oxide, ready for smelting in a blast furnace.
At Irthlingborough it was particularly important to carry out this process, as it had the
additional benefit of reducing the weight of the ore by removing unwanted
constituents, so saving on the considerable freight charges.
Calcining was often done by laying down clamps of iron ore, mixed with slack coal, over a foot-thick (0.3 m.)
layer of coal, and then igniting them.
This method, however, was difficult to control so it was decided, at the outset, to
build 16 steel kilns, lined with refractory bricks, to better manage the process.
Capt. R. A. Lewis, Chief Engineer to E.V.S.I. & C. Co. Ltd., was responsible for the design of the structure and the
apparatus used in the working of the plant.
The kilns were supplied by Messrs. Head, Wrightson
& Co. Ltd. of Thornaby-on-Tees.
The designs for the concrete work
and its reinforcement, which consisted of indented bars, were supplied by the Indented
Bar and Concrete Engineering Co. Ltd., and
erected in 1919 by Messrs. G. Henson & Son, Ltd., of Wellingborough.
At the time it was believed, by many eminent
engineers, to be the finest structure of its kind in existence [fig. 10].
There were two reasons for choosing to use reinforced concrete; firstly, it reduced the
amount of steel used, at a time when it was desperately needed for the war
effort, and, secondly, the framework would not be subject to corrosion from the
highly acid fumes given off in the calcining process.
The 16 kilns, each of 25 feet 6
inch (7.8 m.) diameter, were laid out in a line, eight to each
side of a central structure.
The loaded wagons from the mine were attached to an inclined creeper system [fig. 11] and
hauled up to a level above the top of the kilns; they were emptied by rotating
over a charging car which, when slack coal had been added, traversed over
the kilns in each direction, depositing the mixture into each in turn.
After the burning calcined ore had gravitated through the kilns it was discharged via chutes into waiting
railway hopper-wagons for transportation to Ebbw Vale.
3 Other Surface Buildings
In addition to the kilns and electricity generating plant there were also built at this a locomotive shed, a
laboratory and an explosives magazine
Rail tracks (standard gauge and 3 foot gauge) - (1.435 m. and 0.91 m.)
were also laid.
All the specialist work was given to outside contractors, and it is surprising that, although the
country was at war, so much manpower was available at that time.
To identify the location of these buildings see LINK 2 below.