1914 - 1920 Beginnings


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 Ore Mine.    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 mine entrance.    The local newspaper reported that over eighty important gentlemen watched as, at noon, the Chairman of the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Co. Ltd., Mr. Fred Mills, invited the Rt. Hon. Lord Ashfield, former President of the Board of Trade, to perform the formal opening ceremony.    Pushing open the gate at the tunnel entrance Lord Ashfield pronounced
The party went on to view the calcining plant [fig. 1], and some were taken underground to see the workings in operation.    Later everyone 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 two o‘clock.    Speeches followed the Loyal Toast, and a presentation was made to Lord Ashfield of an ink stand and blotting pad, replicas of the ones 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 that 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 Wales.    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.
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 Northampton Sand 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 Great Exhibition 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 town.
Getting Started
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 through the effects on its landscape of mineral extraction, as a result of the quarrying of ironstone, 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 last for 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, shown 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 Northamptonshire.    By 1914, much of the iron ore bed in the county 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 consideration.
     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 viable.    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 reach the 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 undermined land.
     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-westerly direction into the side of the valley of the River Nene at Irthlingborough (within the area later to become Pine Trees residential development) at a suitable level to gain the ore underlying the land around Finedon.   This could be dispatched to Ebbw Vale initially via the nearby Northampton to Peterborough branch line.    He also established that there were, in the area which was to become the Pine Trees Estate, just south of Lakeside,
These had been left behind after the closure of the former Metropolitan Brick & Tile Works (they 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 offices.     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, Professor Louis, shortly before his new plan emerged, had urged the Ebbw Vale Company officials to visit the whole site [fig. 4] in view of the complex decisions they must shortly make.    The iron ore that they would consider would not, of course, be visible, as it lay some 60 to 80 feet (18 to 24 m.) beneath them.    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 ore’.
     On the 20th November Henry Louis implored Fred Mills to "even pay a flying visit", together with other board members and officials; he considered that, if nothing else, it would show to the vendor that the Company was actively interested.     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
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 tunneling 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 arise.
     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,
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,
So, on that day in May 1915, the idea of an Irthlingborough Mine was born.
     It is recorded that, after the end of the First World War, in 1920, Frederick Mills was awarded a Baronetcy 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.
First Operations
On 9th 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 41 men, mostly labourers, had been added to the workforce, which was now deployed as follows :-
1 Engineman
2 Foremen (1 from Wales)
2 Horse keepers
2 Horse boys (lads aged 15 yrs)
1 Mason
3 Gangers
33 Labourers
5 Miners (one of whom was the first Cornishman to come to Irthlingborough)
2 Miners' helpers
1 Blacksmith
1 Blacksmiths' striker
1 Time keeper
1 Loader
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 from Wellingborough.    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, two Clerks had joined the Company, while the son of the local Rector, The Rev. H. K. Taylor, was appointed as Mining Pupil, but had left by April 1917.    On the 5th and 6th of June 1917, 15 Cornishmen arrived, most of them to work as labourers, although there were two miners and one blacksmith among them; they came from such Cornish areas as Nanpean, St. Austell, Charlestown and St. Blazey.    On average these Cornish workers stayed a mere eight and a half weeks, one indeed leaving within a week; all but two had left by April 1918.
The Main Mine Tunnel
In April 1916, a 21-year Mining Lease was established with the Premier Cement Co., who owned a stretch of land, north west of Wellingborough Road, Irthlingborough. This linked the Company’s minerals at Finedon to the area, adjacent to the railway in Irthlingborough, on which the calcining plant would eventually be built.    The Company was now able 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 13 foot diameter (3.96m.) shafts 1,100 feet (335.28m.) apart and each 30 feet (9.14m.) to the north-east of the line of the proposed tunnel.   From each of these shafts four tunnels (two in opposite directions) were driven to join up eventually.    A fifth tunnel was 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.   The points where each tunnel eventually joined, known as 'a thirling' could hardly be discerned. This entailed great accuracy on the part of the surveyor at the time. 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 continuous tunnel.
     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 actually to reach 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
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 close by.    The chimney for the boilers was raised between the 8th and 23rd of 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; 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 coal.    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, [fig. 10] 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 the kilns were 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.    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 and hauled up to a level above the top of the kilns; they were emptied by rotating them 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 site, 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.