1920 - 1939 Between the Wars



Working Practices - Problems with ‘Fines’ - Text of a 1926 Report on the Calcining Plant -The 1920 Ebbw Vale Conference - The Garden Village Scheme - The Depression Years 1922 to 1935 - A New Beginning - The Finedon Tunnel - The Sinter Plant - The Ring Reservoir - The Buccleuch Quarry - The ‘Split Main’ - Mine Haulage - The New Charging Station - Electricity from the National Grid - Electric Hand Drills - Expanding the Workforce 1937 to 1938 - The Close of Two Decades and Preparation for War

Working Practices
By 1920, the mine was becoming well established, although the output of raw ore fell far short of the originally planned 2,000 tons per day.   There were, by now, 100 ‘places’ (working faces) open, with men working in pairs (a miner and his helper).   Working hours were from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, a total of 46 hours per week.   Around this time, with the working faces lying some distance from the mine entrance, a new point of ingress, known as ‘The Steps Entrance’, was constructed near the Finedon/Irthlingborough parish boundary; from that time onwards underground workers entered the mine on foot by these 147 brick-built steps.   Over the years these became very worn and difficult to negotiate, although they were refurbished shortly before the mine closed.   Surprisingly this portal was left open and unattended for many years, an encouragement for local schoolboys to enter and explore.
     The mine was set out in ’Working Districts‘ [fig. 1], in each of which a Deputy would oversee the safety of approximately 30 men.   He was, in effect, ‘deputising’ for the Manager and was fully responsible for the safety of his men.   Before each shift he would enter his District and visit each working face to ensure that all was safe, before allowing the miners to enter the workings beyond (‘inbye’) the Deputy’s Meeting Station.   He would instruct the men on any ‘dressing-down’ of loose stone required at the faces, and on the position of any pit props which he considered should be erected.   Very few props were, in fact, needed in the ‘first working’ because a band of strong iron ore, roughly 1 foot (0.3 m.) thick, was left in the roof to support the strata of weak clays immediately above the iron ore seam.
     The extraction of the iron ore was carried out by the ‘Pillar and Stall’ system, creating a progressive grid of tunnels.   After this first working, blocks or ‘pillars’ of ore, about 50 feet (15.24 m.) square, were left standing; these would be extracted or ‘robbed out’ later, in the ‘second working’, at which point the tunnel roofs would collapse.   This process will be described in a later chapter.   In the diagram (fig. 1) showing the first working in progress, the panel ‘A’ has been completed, panel ‘B’ is nearing completion and panel ‘C’ is being opened up.
     A miner would have taken two years to become qualified, after which he was solely responsible for handling his own explosives, detonators and lengths of fuse, which he had to purchase from the Company, at a cost slightly less than the cost to the Company itself.   
     Other equipment he must buy included, along with other small items, the following :-
Pick axe
Oxy-acetylene lamp [fig. 2] and carbide
Ball of chalk (for marking each wagon with his own identity number)
In the early years it is apparent, from surviving film records, that neither underground workers, nor the management, wore safety helmets. This film clip tells the story.
     Each two-man team was provided with a ratchet-operated drilling apparatus, known as a ‘Conqueror’ and made by Hardypick, for drilling holes into the working face of the tunnel; he also used a wooden ‘stemming’ rod for pushing the explosives into the drilled holes. The drill, known as ‘hand kit’, comprised a vertical telescopic ‘standard’ which could be clamped between the floor and roof of the tunnel, and to which was attached a ratchet apparatus with handles and a drill.
     When drilling holes [see video] the miner and his helper worked together, facing each other; they would drill one or two holes, 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m.) deep, into which explosives with detonators were placed.    When the exploded gelignite had loosened the rock, this was loaded into the wagons provided.    The miner used his own discretion as to both the number and position of the holes to be made and the quantity of gelignite to be used in each to produce the desired amount of fragmentation; a good miner could thus save money, both for himself and the Company.
     In 1920, the Company carried out a series of experiments using liquid oxygen to replace gelignite.   Professor Louis was sure that, if successful, a big saving could be achieved, but there is no evidence that the experiment was a success.    Subsequently a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpetre), charcoal and sulphur, known as 'Black Powder' was introduced for the topmost holes of the face; it was found that, although more holes had to be drilled to produce the same tonnage, a better size of material was produced.   The powder, known as a ‘ low explosive’ (used principally for military purposes), was produced and supplied by Curtis’s and Harvey Ltd., who leased land for a depot to the east of Thrapston Road, Finedon.
     In the early years, and until about the mid 1920’s, the underground workers were paid weekly, based on a daily rate, along with all other workers.   Later, however, the miner and his helper were normally paid according to the tonnage of ore they could load away each week, but on special driveages, such as in narrow tunnels or on non-productive drivages through clay, they would be paid according to the number of yards the tunnel had been driven during the week.
     Before the P.A.Y.E. tax system was introduced the Company paid the team’s wages to the miner; he then passed on to his helper the amount due to him.
In 1920, a problem arose with excessive vibration in the little British Electric Vehicles [fig. 3] which pulled the full wagons from the working faces to the sidings in each District.   Professor Louis stated,
The problem was evidently solved satisfactorily, these vehicles being still in use when the mine closed in 1965.
Problems with ‘ Fines’
Shortly after the mine opened it became obvious that the iron ore, when broken up underground, included small fragments of less than 1/2 inch (1.27 cm.) diameter.    These had been found to cause problems in the calcining kilns, with a tendency to coagulate and cause clogging.    Tests were carried out during 1920, including the use of fans under the kilns and the building of ‘honeycomb’ flues inside them. [ fig. 4].    When neither attempt provided a complete solution the Company decided to leave as much as possible of this small material in the mine; each miner was provided with a fork with which to load away the stone [fig 5], thereby riddling out the small pieces.    Many of the old workings still contain piles of ‘fines’ along the sides of the tunnels.
        Unfortunately, when the mine was drawing power, only four of the fans under the kilns could be run at any one time and the best that was achieved from one kiln was 55 tons (56 tonnes) of calcined ore per day.    A full description of the working of the calcining plant, written in 1926 (see below), mentioned a potential of 90 to 100 tons (91 to 102 tonnes) per 24 hours.
        The following is the text of a 1926 Report on the Working of the Calcining Plant by Mr. Aubrey Butler
The 1920 Ebbw Vale Conference
On Friday, 13 February 1920, the Company’s General Manager, Mr. Sweet-Escott, having recently visited Irthlingborough, convened a conference at Ebbw Vale to discuss the ways and means of increasing the mine’s output to 4,000 tons (4064 tonnes) per day in order to feed blast furnaces newly built in Wales.
        Those present at the meeting were :-
Mr. A. B. Sweet-Escott General Manager and Chair of the meeting
Dr Henry LouisAdviser on matters relating to the mine
Mr. Guy BarrettBlast Furnace Manager (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. A. LewisEngineer (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. Thos. FalconMine Manager (Irthlingborough)
Mr. F. W. DawChemist (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. Tudor M. HenrySecretary (Ebbw Vale) who recorded the meeting
Mr. J. WinterbottomTraffic Manager (Ebbw Vale)
It had already been established that the extra ore needed should come from Irthlingborough, rather than from outside suppliers.    Dr. Louis was of the opinion that the output could only be increased by the use of mechanical methods, and to this end a drilling rig had already been ordered.    He stated,
He went on to consider the workforce and mechanical methods of loading,
In the matter of manpower Professor Louis was absolutely correct.    Recruitment was to be a problem throughout the whole of the working life of the mine.
     The meeting then went on to discuss the merits of the various mechanical loaders already seen in operation in America.    On this matter there was some difference of opinion.    Mr. Daw and Capt. Lewis favoured electrically driven machines, while Mr. Barrett was sure that compressed air machines would better stand up to the rough and tumble of the mining environment.    It was decided to buy two compressed air loaders with which to experiment (in the event these loaders were not acquired until much later) and to proceed with the drilling trials.    The first electrical Blackett drilling rig [fig. 6] was due for delivery shortly, and a further five were on order; a total of nine of these machines was eventually purchased.
     The system which was planned, using the Blackett drills, but without, as yet, the use of mechanical loaders, involved 10-man teams, each made up of 2 drillers, 1 timber-man (who would also lay the 3 foot (0.91 m.) gauge track), 1 shot-firer (the only member of the team who needed to be a qualified miner) and 6 fillers.
     The meeting went on to discuss the number of additional kilns needed to treat the extra ore.   It was finally established that a further 16 would be required and the positioning of these was discussed.   The final subject raised was the feasibility of moving 4,000 tons of ore per day to Ebbw Vale.  Mr. Sweet-Escott said:-
This, had the movement of 4,000 tons per day been attempted, would have proved an almost impossible task.   In the event, by 1921, the post-war boom had come to an end and the long depression years in the steel industry lay ahead.   The optimistic plans that came out of the 1920 conference were never to be put to the test.
The Garden Village Scheme
A sidelight on the history of the mine is provided by the Company’s plans to put to a new use the 26 acres (10.52 Ha.) which it owned to the west of Irthlingborough [fig. 7] where the quarrying of iron ore had been carried out in the past.    It was its intention to create a Garden Village on the land, to provide houses for the workforce.   In December 1917 detailed plans for the proposed cottages were produced, and an application to divert a right-of-way was made to Irthlingborough Urban District Council.   The idea was later abandoned, and, in July 1921, the land was sold to the local Council for house-building, on the understanding that, when a Council housing estate had been built, the Ebbw Vale Company would be given priority in housing its workers there.   Much later, in 1937, when the Council was having difficulty in obtaining government permission to build a further 60 houses on the site, it appealed for support from the Company in view of its own need to house more workers.   Evidently the permission was granted, and more houses were built forming what is now known as the Allen Road Estate.
The Depression Years. 1922 - 1935
During April and May, 1922, two years after the Ebbw Vale Conference, 330 additional men had joined the workforce, but from September onwards they were being laid off in large numbers; production ceased from April of the following year and for the next 22 months; during this period a skeleton labour force would have been employed to keep the mine open on a care and maintenance basis.   There was a similar occurrence from June to November 1926, during which mining again ceased temporarily, and at one point, besides a skeleton office staff, only 13 men were employed, consisting of 8 labourers, 1 yard foreman, 2 miners, 1 hedge-cutter and 1 electrician.    During the inter-war years, in fact, the output from the mine rarely reached 3,000 tons (3048 tonnes) per week.   The mechanical loaders never materialised and the Blackett drilling rigs were found to produce too many ‘fines’ when attempting to drill a whole face, (some 12 holes at one time).   The system was abandoned, and in 1937, only one of these drills was found to be in workable order.   The drills stood for many years in a disused area of the mine, known as ‘Old Irthlingborough’, and the miners carried on working in pairs as before, and using the old ratchet drills.   Under this system the most that a man could be expected to load into wagons in an 8-hour shift was 6 to 7 tons (6 to 7 tonnes).   This arrangement was to continue until the introduction, in 1937, of hand-held electric drilling machines.
A New Beginning
In 1935, following a period of intense speculation, Sir William Firth, Chairman of Richard Thomas and Co., announced that his firm had taken over the assets of the Ebbw Vale Company, and that it proposed to build, in Wales, the first Continuous Hot strip Mill outside America.   On 3 April 1936, the Irthlingborough Property was conveyed to the new Company.    Later that month a local paper, The Wellingborough News, asked,
(This reference to iron ore fields applies, of course, to the Company’s lands between Irthlingborough, Finedon and Burton Latimer parishes and not, as implied, to the Thingdon Mine which lies between Finedon and Wellingborough.)    ‘Peter Pyel’ commented in his column in the same paper,
Fortunately for Irthlingborough the scheme, if indeed it was ever contemplated, never Stone Cross area materialised.   Had it gone ahead, then thirty years later, when the steel industry in Northamptonshire closed, it could have proved catastrophic for both the town and the county.
     The new Company, later to become Richard Thomas & Baldwins Co. Ltd. (always known as RTB), invested considerable sums of money, instead, in developing the mine in other ways.   Its object was to double the output of iron ore to 6,000 tons (6,096 tonnes) per week.   This could only be achieved, in the short term, by opening up other areas for open cast quarrying; the mine itself was already at maximum production given the available manpower at that time.
     The Company first looked at an area south of Stone Cross on the boundary between Irthlingborough and Wellingborough [fig. 8] where there was an estimated 260,000 tons (264,172 tonnes) of available ore.   It was proposed to bring the ore to the Irthlingborough plant via an aerial ropeway, which would require the purchase of land owned by Higham Ferrers Corporation.   However, having drilled the area and made an assay of it, it was discovered that the ore contained a high level of silica and was therefore unsuitable.   In April 1937, the proposal to purchase land from the Higham Ferrers Corporation, for the aerial ropeway, was dropped, whereupon the land was sold to the Irthlingborough Council for future use as a cemetery.
     The Company then turned its attention to an area to the west of the Burton Latimer/Finedon (A6) highway known as Buccleuch Quarry, with the intention of carrying the ore to Irthlingborough by an overland route.   First, an aerial ropeway was suggested, then, in June 1937, an application was made to Wellingborough Council for permission to construct a level-crossing over Thrapston Road in Finedon, in the vicinity of Bank Farm, [fig. 9] to carry the ore to the works at Irthlingborough.   These ideas for an overland route were soon abandoned and, with a view to bringing the quarry stone through the mine itself, a tunnel was driven to connect the mine with Buccleuch quarry (known as The Finedon Tunnel).
      It was also decided to install a Sinter Plant at Irthlingborough to supplement, and later replace, the existing calcining kilns.
     At the same time the existing power supply at Irthlingborough was considered to be quite inadequate to support these developments, and it was decided to introduce mains electricity.
     These innovations, and others, are detailed as follows :-
The Finedon Tunnel
On 15 September 1937, an agreement was concluded with John Brown & Co. to drive one tunnel from Barlow’s Quarry, Finedon (later to be extended into Buccleuch Quarry), and also two tunnels (to aid ventilation) from Irthlingborough Mine, at £3.50 per yard.   The work was to be continuous, on three eight-hour shifts, headings to be 12 ft. (3.66 m.) wide and 8 ft. (2.44 m.) high and to be driven at least 120 yards (110 m.) per four-week period.   RTB were to provide one Blackett or three Wolf electric drilling machines and also wagons and haulage of the material (iron ore) to the Irthlingborough ore preparation plant.   The ore from the Finedon end of the tunnel was deposited on land north of Avenue Road, Finedon, where traces of it can still be seen today.   The contract was eventually given to Messrs François Cementation Co. Ltd. as sub-contractors to John Brown & Co., and work was commenced both from Barlow’s Quarry, and also from the mine, on 23 October 1937.   The second tunnel from the mine which was driven on the left of the main tunnel, was stopped on the 17th October 1938 to avoid driving two tunnels under Thrapston Road.   On the 17th December, seven individual allotments on the north side of Thapston Road, Finedon, were purchased from their seven separate owners in order to be able to drive the tunnel from the mine under Company-owned land.   A good example of the problems encountered when driving the tunnel from the Irthlingborough end is given in the Weekly Report of 30 September, 1938.
The next weekly report described progress as follows :-
Tunneling from the Finedon end had to stop before the connection of both tunnels, known as a ‘thirling’, could be made, when water overcame the pumps, making access from that end difficult.   In February 1939, the Mine Manager was able to reach the face of the tunnel from Barlow’s Quarry by climbing along a ventilation pipe, where he found the water up to the level of the buffer of a wagon standing there.  Because of the quantity of water lying in that tunnel, it was decided to give notice to the François Cementation Co. to cease the contract on Saturday 11 February 1939, when the tunnel was a mere 50 feet (15 m.) from its connection.   The driveage was continued using RTB miners, under full control of the Company’s Mines Manager, in case there should be an inrush of water when the thirling was made.   A successful connection was made by drilling a 4 foot (1.22 m.) long hole in February 1939, to allow the controlled drainage of the flooded tunnel.   A new Mine Surveyor had been appointed when the Finedon Tunnel had some 711 feet (217 m.) to go to make the connection.
     His note book later records the event :-
In December of the previous year the new Mine Surveyor had realised that a more accurate plan of the mine was required, but it was not until 1958, some 20 years later, that a plan was produced which, in 1966, was used to form the Abandonment Plan; this plan is still in existence.
(See ‘SURVEY RECORD’ section for more information)
The Sinter Plant  
    (For further details see ‘LINKS’ at end of this chapter)
A single strand Dwight Lloyd Sinter Plant [fig. 10] was built during 1938 as an improvement on the calcining method of ore preparation; it resulted in a coke-like material, ‘sinter’, with a higher iron content, and allowed a better control of the process.   The Sinter Strand consisted essentially of a continuous chain grate 6‘ 6" (1.98 m.) wide and 68‘ (20.72 m.) long, composed of a series of 60 pallets, which formed the links of the chain.   This was driven by a 25 h.p. variable speed d.c. motor, and the speed of the grate could be varied by up to 6 ft. (1.83 m.) per minute.   Onto this grate was fed a ‘hearth layer’ 2 inches (5 cms.) deep, consisting of carefully graded iron ore of sufficiently large size to prevent it from falling through the grate.   This provided the base for the top layer of about 8 inches (20 cms.) of ‘fines’ mixed with crushed coke.   In later years other materials were added to enrich the content, such as flue dust, mill scale (from the Company’s rolling mills elsewhere) and Swedish concentrates.   These materials were fed from their respective storage bins by feed tables and conveyors, the speeds of which were directly controlled from a panel on the sinter machine floor.   Small storage hoppers were provided above the sinter machine from which the materials were fed on to the bed.   The total thickness of the bed, about 8 to 11 inches (20 to 28 cms.), according to the density of the material, was controlled by a gate immediately in front of the points of supply.   The mixture then passed under a pressure oil burner which ignited the coke, and so provided a fuel for reducing the burden to sinter.   Induced draught for the combustion was furnished by a Howden (James Howden & Co. Ltd.) twin impeller fan, the capacity of which was 85,000 cubic feet (2,406 cu.m.) of air per minute, driven by a 500 h.p. 970 r.p.m. B.T.H. (British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd. of Rugby) synchronous induction motor.   The air was drawn through the sinter bed via a series of eleven sealed windboxes which pulled air through the bed and thence into a gas main system and finally through a battery of cyclones, which collected dust before the waste gasses passed on their way through to the chimney.   At the end of its travel on the pallets the homogeneous mass of sinter was broken up by spraying with cold water, and would fall over the end of the machine, to be discharged, via a chute and hopper, into an electric skip hoist which conveyed the sinter to a storage bin (one of the former calcining kilns).   A Static Grid removed undersized sinter prior to cooling, and this material would be re-circulated to the Sinter Strand in a proportion of about 37% to create suitable bed porosity.   An important feature of this plant was that a stoppage at any point automatically held up all operations behind it, and so eliminated any possibility of congestion.
     The electrical contracting work was carried out by Marsh Bros., acting as sub-contactors to Huntington, Heberlein & Co. Ltd.   All the motors were of British Thompson-Houston manufacture, the specially designed control gear being made by Wilfred Francis & Co. Ltd.   While the sinter plant was under construction an ore screening plant ( to grade the ore) was built over eight of the existing calcining kilns which would now serve as storage bins for the various materials used in the sintering process.
     A new twin endless-rope haulage system was installed to pull the loaded mine wagons from sidings, where they had been deposited by the main haulage locomotives from the mine, onto a new weighbridge.   The wagons were then weighed, and moved onwards to a twin rotary tippler system [fig. 11] which unloaded the full wagons into the primary crushers at the beginning of the screening process.
     By the end of 1938, when the sinter plant was operating successfully, the miners were now able to use shovels rather than forks to load away the formerly discarded ‘fines’ along with the larger ore; the sinter plant was designed to deal with these ‘fines’, thus contributing to the increased output of each miner.
     The progress of the iron ore, either through the screening plant and on into the sinter plant, or, as larger pieces of raw ore, dispatched by rail elsewhere, was described in the following extract from a report made by the Mine Agent at Irthlingborough in 1942.
The Ring Reservoir
Included in the design of the new Sinter Plant, in 1938, was the proposed construction of a reservoir (fig. 12) to both provide water for cooling the bearings of the fan, and to spray the red hot sinter with cold water as it emerged from the sinter plant.
     The company already owned a clay pit, formed by The Metropolitan Brick & Tile Works when that company dug clay to make bricks in the early 1900’s. It was, however, insufficient to provided the quantity of water needed so a reservoir shaped as a ring 60 feet (18.288 m.) wide was dug to straddle a small brook in land near the railway. In 1938 the reservoir was pegged out in a circle so that a Bucyrus excavator could dig the spoil and plant it in the centre of the island so formed. The excavator was fitted with caterpillar tracks and a gap was left in the circle so that it could return to base when the job was completed. The proposal was planned for a 500 foot (152.4 m.) diameter ring and to be dug to a depth of 10 feet (3.048 m.). It eventually finished up 610 feet (185.928 m.) outside diameter and dug to an average depth of 12 feet(3.657 m.). A round pump-house was erected to house an electrically driven pump to capable of delivering 15,000 gallons per hour (68,191.35 litres) through a 6 inch (0.1524 m.) pipe to the clay pit and also to a 60.000 gallon (922,765.4 litre) square header tank, already constructed near Pine Lodge house. Water from the mine also fed this reservoir and the clay pit with pipes and sluices to control the water.
     In January 1944 the manager wrote in his weekly report
And in June of that year he reported
It was evidently a constant worry that water would not be sufficient for demand unless steps were taken to guard against this possibility.
     The Ring Reservoir was used by the Fishing section of the Sports & Welfare Club until 1952 when the fish were netted and moved to the Clay Pit. After that, the water was let to certain miners who were fishing members. Evidently fish were still present in the pond because in 1955 one of the fishermen landed a 23 lb (10.4 kilogram) pike which was stuffed and mounted to form an exhibit in one of the local public houses or clubs. The fish must have found its way into the reservoir along the small brook which straddled it.
     Local children were attracted to this stretch of water, especially during the summer months. A blind eye was turned to this until, one day, the manager from his office, observed children using the electrical cables feeding the pump as a clothes line to hang up their wet bathing costumes. The power supply was immediately cut and a messenger was dispatched to tell the children that on no account were they to touch the costumes and to wait until the local constabulary would arrive. Instead of running away at this point, the children, about a dozen in number, stood waiting in eager anticipation. The young local constable had to make his way though a considerable amount of rose bay willow herb in full seed and appeared from the undergrowth looking like a snowman. A cheer went up from the children who thought they were well rewarded for waiting to tender their names. This they did with absolute accuracy. In any case the constable probably already knew them all by name. The case was not taken any further but the management hoped that this salutary episode would be sufficient to stop any further occurrence. Swimming still continued regularly until the reservoir was destroyed by the excavation of gravel after 1965.
The Buccleuch Quarry
A project which was to double the output from Irthlingborough during World War 2 was the opening of Buccleuch Quarry [fig. 13] to the west of the Finedon/Burton road.   This venture, which was started in an existing quarry in Finedon, commenced production in May 1939, and, during the next 8 years, produced 2 million tons of ore, much of it brought through the new Finedon Tunnel to be treated in the ore preparation plant at Irthlingborough.   Before excavations could proceed considerable plant and equipment had to be purchased.   The major items of these were an ore crushing plant, steam locomotives, a loco shed and excavators.   The locomotives were delivered in 1939, ‘Whiston’ in April and ‘Neptune’ in July [fig. 14 shows a similar Andrew Barclay Loco., ‘France’ at Irthlingborough].
     A note from the General Manager‘s Weekly Report states,
For excavators the Company chose the Ransomes & Rapier 5360 stripping machine, with a 9 cubic yard (6.88 cu.m.) bucket [fig. 15], and their 4140 face loading machine, with a 3½ cubic yard (2.68 cu.m.) bucket.   These were built on site by the Head Wrightson Machine Co. Ltd. and were completed in February 1939.   By August 1939, problems were already arising with the ‘sticky’ nature of the wet iron ore from Buccleuch Quarry; the only solution found was to alternate wagons coming from the quarry with wagons from the mine.   Various proportions were tried out, although sometimes it was difficult to find enough mine ore to mix with the quarry ore.
     During the latter part of 1938 and early 1939, contractors (Stanton) were called in to sink several boreholes ahead of Buccleuch Quarry in order to ascertain the level, thickness and quality of ore ahead of the excavations.
     The quarry closed in May 1946 but a small tonnage (7,696 tons) was excavated between July and October 1951; Its destination is unrecorded.
The ‘Split Main’
Back in 1920, when the main mine tunnel [fig. 16], which was brick-lined for its first 1,000yds. (914 m.), had reached a distance of 1,273 yds. (1164 m.) from the Adit, the Ebbw Vale Company divided it into three parallel tunnels for ventilation purposes; these were driven in a northerly direction on a Grid bearing of approximately 348º, and were known respectively as West Main, Middle Main and East Main.   It was to reach the East Main that the Steps Entrance was constructed.   Unfortunately the tunnels were driven through ore with a soft top layer.   At some time during the 1920‘s, 420 yds. (384 m.) of the roof of the Middle Main, just south of the A6 highway, collapsed, and that tunnel was abandoned.
     After the opening of Buccleuch Quarry, in 1939, it was necessary to provide a main haulage route underground from Finedon to the Irthlingborough Works.   In the event, rather than digging out the collapsed clay roof of the Middle Main, the Company decided instead to construct a new tunnel between the Middle and East Mains; this was always known as the ‘Split Main’.   It proved to be much the best solution as the driveage itself was producing new iron ore during the process of tunneling.
Mine Haulage
In 1938 the two original English Electric main haulage trolley locomotives were supplemented by three larger 80 h.p. Greenwood & Batley trolley locomotives [Fig. 17] to cope with the increased combined output from the mine and Buccleuch Quarry; an additional G&B was to be purchased in 1941.   During 1938, also, six Greenwood & Batley battery locomotives [fig. 18] were acquired to supplement the existing smaller British Electric Vehicles.    They were 4.5 h.p. machines, always referred to as ‘tractors’ and, like the BEVs, were used for hauling the loaded wagons from the working faces to sidings outside the district, from which they were hauled to the surface by the trolley locomotives.   They were a great improvement on the earlier tractors, and were fitted with springs, better braking, headlights, a bell, sand boxes and a large metal box containing the batteries.   The driver now sat with his legs safely inside the cab, whereas, in the case of the BEVs, the driver’s legs hung precariously over the side of the vehicle.   The track gauge throughout the mine was 3 feet (0.91 m.).
The New Charging Station
To accommodate the new tractors, two short tunnels were dug to form a new underground charging station, known as ‘The Garage’, where the batteries could be wheeled onto benches [fig. 19] for overnight charging.   This work was completed in September 1939.   During September 1947 a further tunnel was dug.
Electricity from the National Grid
By 1938 the existing power supply had become completely inadequate to drive the new installations.   In that year an external supply was introduced from the Rushden & District Electricity Supply Co. Ltd., later to become part of the Central Electricity Generating Board, to supply power from the National Grid.   RTB, however, still retained permission to produce up to 500 kilowatts of electricity with its own existing installation at the Irthlingborough Works, though this facility was never used once the mains supply was in place.   In February 1940 the two boilers and steam pipes of the original power plant were taken out of service and in September 1944 the Bellis & Morcom engines were removed from the Power House by Messrs. Cohen & Sons.    On 4 May 1948 the chimney was felled.   Switch gear was installed in the existing Power House, and an 11Kv. electricity supply was conveyed from it by overhead wires to Buccleuch Quarry at Finedon.   There were four intermediate ‘take off’ points to drive the mine ventilation fan, and to supply power to the underground charging station, via a borehole near Finedon Water Tower.   In April 1938 various agreements were entered into with the Local Authorities to allow the supply line to cross four main roads, either by overhead wires or by underground conduits. The following Report From the Mine Agent in 1942 describes this installation in detail.

(For a detailed plan see ‘LINKS’ at end of this chapter)
Electric Hand Drills
One of the main obstacles in raising the production levels of the available miners had been their use of the slow and exhausting hand-ratchet drilling machines.   By 1937, the Company was evidently able to provide power to the face of each working heading, and miners were supplied with Wolf electric drilling machines [fig 20]; these were purchased in batches from April 1937, although the new mains electricity appears not to have been installed by this time.   It was found that an increase in output from approximately 6 tons to 11 tons per man/shift could be achieved using the new machines.   Because of this increased output the rate per ton that a miner and his helper were paid was accordingly reduced; as a result they themselves felt that they were, in effect, paying for the drills by installments.   It being much easier now to drill holes, it was also recorded that the amount of explosives used per ton of iron ore ‘got’, increased; as the major part of this cost was borne, however, by the miner this was not considered of much consequence by the management.
Expanding the workforce, 1937 to 1938
Without additional miners output would never reach the desired levels, and the Company embarked on a recruitment drive.   Although always volatile, in May 1937, for example, the complete workforce numbered 143, as follows:-
Mine workers:-
1Assistant Fireman
39 Miners
38 Miners’ Helpers
6Timber Men & Roadmen
1Tunnel Roadman
8Tractor drivers
2Trolley Loco. Drivers
1 Rope Runner
1 Battery Electrician
Calcining Kiln Workers:-
1 Charge Man & Car Driver (charging car)
1 Assistant
5 Drawers
1 Tippler Operator
1 Creeper Operator
1 Coal Hand
Surface Workers:-
1 Electrical Foreman
1 General Foreman
3 Fitters & Assistants
5 Smiths & Strikers
1 Carpenter
4 Labourers
1 Steam Loco. Driver
1 Fireman
1 Plate Layer
1 Plate Layer’s Assistant
1 Power House Attendant
1 Stoker (Lancashire boilers)
1 Coal Hand
5 Stock Bank Labourers (unloading raw ore)
Office Workers :-
3 Clerk typists
1 Surveyor’s Assistant
1 Storekeeper
1 Office cleaner (part time)

In addition to the above there would also have been 7 senior staff as follows :-

General Manager
Electrical Engineer
Mechanical Engineer
Office Manager
It should be noted that the number of Deputies underground is not recorded; these may have amounted to 5 additional workers.

The Company estimated that it required a further 162 face workers and 50 other grades.   The men subsequently recruited included a number from South Wales, where collieries such as Berthlwyd had closed; some of the new workers were housed in the recently built Irthlingborough Council houses, and many lived in the surrounding villages.   In the year from May 1937, to April 1938, 274 men were set on, of whom 87 were either miners or miners’ helpers.   Many designated as labourers may have been put with miners, as their helpers, as and when places became available.    In the same period, however, over 100 workers were recorded as leaving the Company, on finding employment nearer their homes.
     In September 1938 a Weekly Report stated :-
A Weekly Report of 1 October 1938 announced the commissioning of the new Sinter Plant, but recorded that, due to minor teething problems, the mine was stopped for two days.   It was later reported that
The Weekly Report of 8 October 1938, however, stated that the Management should tell the men laid off that if they were laid off for longer than two weeks they could share the work.   It is clear that RTB was anxious not to lose valuable labour, as it had done much to recruit a labour force sufficient to bring the mine output up to the acceptable level.   With the Company having proved able, and willing, to lay off miners ‘at the drop of a hat’ it is, perhaps, not surprising that some men might look for alternative employment.
The Close of Two Decades and Preparation for War
Considerable sums of money had been spent in order to get the Irthlingborough Mine output up to the required levels, but the Company was now well placed to pull its weight during the coming years.
     On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, and the first implications for RTB at Irthlingborough were the need to build an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) shelter over the mine entrance, and the urgency of training workers in new wartime skills.    The Report for the week ending 16 September 1939 contained the following passage,
The following week it was reported that,
Other war-time measures included the acquisition of 12,500 sand bags to protect the Power House, Ambulance Room and Transformer Compound against bomb blast.
     The mine had now reached its full potential just in time to face the challenge of the next five years.  Chapter Three will consider the trials and tribulations encountered by the Company and its workforce in the effort to meet their commitments by ‘DIGGING FOR VICTORY’ while the country was at war.
MISCELLANEOUS PICTURES (return by clicking LEFT arrow at top of screen)
OVERHEAD POWER LINE   (              ditto      )