(LINKS TO FURTHER ILLUSTRATIONS ARE GIVEN AT THE END OF THE
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
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
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
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
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 :-
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 Louis
Adviser on matters relating to the mine
Mr. Guy Barrett
Blast Furnace Manager (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. A. Lewis
Engineer (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. Thos. Falcon
Mine Manager (Irthlingborough)
Mr. F. W. Daw
Chemist (Ebbw Vale)
Mr. Tudor M. Henry
Secretary (Ebbw Vale) who recorded the meeting
Mr. J. Winterbottom
Traffic Manager (Ebbw Vale)
It had already been established that the extra
ore needed should come from Irthlingborough, rather than from outside
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 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
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
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
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
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
which would require the purchase of land owned by Higham
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
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
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
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
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.
(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
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 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)
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:-
Timber Men & Roadmen
Trolley Loco. Drivers
Calcining Kiln Workers:-
Charge Man & Car Driver (charging car)
Fitters & Assistants
Smiths & Strikers
Steam Loco. Driver
Plate Layer’s Assistant
Power House Attendant
Stoker (Lancashire boilers)
Stock Bank Labourers (unloading raw ore)
Office Workers :-
Office cleaner (part time)
In addition to the above there would also have
been 7 senior staff as follows :-
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
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
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
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.