1939 - 1945 The War Years


Problems with the Workforce - Air Raid Precautions - Shortages and Other Problems - Finedon Railway - Other Constructions - A Typical Hand-Mining Working Face 1937 to 1965 - Looking to the Future

Problems with the Workforce
During the war years the mine produced nearly 2 million tons of ore, equivalent to the tonnage produced during the whole of the previous 20 years.   Considering that all this ore had to be lifted from the floor into wagons by muscle power alone, and given all the wartime problems which arose, it is astounding that this output was achievable.   It was a highly labour-intensive enterprise and, maintaining a sufficient labour-force was always difficult, particularly during the early wartime months when young able-bodied men were still free to leave the Company to join the Forces.   To produce the tonnage required by Ebbw Vale the mine and quarry ran two shifts daily, and the Sinter Plant worked continuously on three shifts.
     Under the Essential Work Order which was introduced nationally in March 1941, men, when ‘called up’, could opt instead to work in essential industries.   Under this Order the Irthlingborough Mine began to draw new workers from, in particular, the shoe factories and building firms in Irthlingborough and surrounding towns, though some men were recruited from further afield.   These recruits were consequently known as ‘optants’ (not to be confused with ‘Bevin Boys’ who were compulsorily selected by ballot to work in the coal mines after 1943).    Unfortunately many of the men who were sent to Irthlingborough Mine were unsuited to the arduous work required.   For instance, in July 1940 two coal miners from Deal in Kent, not local optants, arrived to be set on as helpers; a fortnight later, however, they each tendered their notice saying that the work was too heavy.   A Belgian worker, taken on in 1943, appealed to an organisation in London claiming ‘work too big, pay too little’.   In March 1943, following further appeals against working conditions by a number of disgruntled optants, the National Service Officer visited the mine, with a colleague, to see for himself the working conditions underground.   He expressed surprise that conditions, on the contrary, were so congenial, having regard to the statements made by many applicants for release.   Later a Ministry of Labour official called at the mine to assess manpower needs, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that prospective underground workers should be of the ‘navvy’ type; optants received to date were not assisting, were a liability and miners were refusing to work with them (a miner with an inefficient helper would find his own potential daily earnings reduced).   By 1945 nearly 20% of underground workers were absent during the week.   On Saturdays it was even worse with up to 36% of the men not arriving for work.   These men felt that it was hardly worth the time and effort spent travelling to the mine and walking up to one mile underground to their working place, to load ore for only half a day and, in effect, be doing little more, they felt,than ‘earning money for the Tax man’
     Whilst labour relations were usually amicable, the following example, recorded in the Weekly Report for 5 March 1945, illustrates the type of dispute that could occasionally arise.
The following list shows the number of workers employed at the mine in January 1942, their home town or village and its distance in miles from the Steps Entrance.   At that time there were a total of 472 employees.   (In October the following year the workforce had risen to 530 men, the maximum number ever employed).
Distance in Miles Distance in Kilometres Numbers Employed
Irthlingborough 1 1.6 160
Finedon 2 3.2 125
Wellingborough 4 6.4 75
Burton Latimer 4 6.4 85
Kettering 8 12.9 15
Higham Ferrers 3 4.8 10
The Addingtons 3 4.8 10
Rushden 4 6.4 7
Raunds 5 8 7
Irchester 4 6.4 7
The Harrowdens 6 9.7 5
Woodford 5 8 5
Ringstead 6 9.7 4
Stanwick 3 4.8 3
Cranford 7 11.2 3
Earls Barton 8 12.9 3
Wilby 6 9.7 2
Thrapston 10 16 2
Lavendon 13 20.9 2
Bozeat 9 14.5 1
Wollaston 7 11.2 1
In May 1943 the Mine Manager was driven to compose a series of 14 exhortations which were to be placed in the men’s weekly pay packets.   He appealed to their patriotism with such stirring words as :-
Unfortunately these appeals did not appear to have any effect; absenteeism continued to rise, and only returned to a normal 5% after all of those men, who had been previously directed to work underground, had returned to their peace-time occupations.
     Another problem, which had to be addressed in February 1945, was the late arrival, and early leaving, of miners from the Steps Entrance.   A Mine Deputy was appointed to keep a record of offenders at the entrance for one week.   On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 26th. of February, a fight broke out between a miner and the Deputy, who suffered a cut cheek.   No record of the early leavers was made that afternoon as a result, and the miner was prosecuted at Wellingborough Magistrates Court the following week.   Miners maintained that if they had used up all their explosive there was no point in remaining at the face, and they objected to carrying more than 5 lbs. (2.27 kg.) of explosives.   Eventually, after opposition on their behalf by their Union, miners were persuaded by the management to carry more powder.   By September 1944 absenteeism and short-time working had reached such high proportions that the management felt obliged to take strong action.   On one occasion the Under Manager and the Mine Agent talked directly to the face workers on the afternoon shift at their various Meeting Stations underground, and told them that, henceforth, offenders would be reported to the Ministry of Labour for prosecution.   Other workers would be confronted in the following week.   This problem was not confined to Irthlingborough Mine, as the following notice, posted at the Steps Entrance, shows :-
The following week it was reported laconically :-
Air Raid Precautions
In the event of an Air Raid the Company was given an early ‘Purple Warning’ before the public air raid siren was sounded and, in order to reduce the glow from the Sinter Plant, work on the plant had to stop.  Problems were also caused by the glow from the kilns, which had been brought back into use in March 1940.   The Weekly Report of the 19 October 1940 noted:-
In the same week it was reported :-
In December 1940 the Sinter Plant Superintendent discovered that, if the speed of the sinter strand were to be reduced to 40 inches (101.6 cms.) per minute, the glow was reduced and sintering could proceed during raids.   In June 1940, 2 inch (5.08 cms.) water pipes were laid on top of the kilns so that, should an air attack be imminent, water could be sprayed into the kilns to extinguish the glow.   These air raids were particularly disruptive during 1940, but became less so as the war progressed.   During the week ending 9 August 1940 nearly 30 hours were lost due to enemy action.
     As it happened, the Irthlingborough Works were never attacked, and the nearest the war came to the plant was at 1 am. on the night of Thursday 4 June 1942, when a Whitley bomber of 297 Squadron, Netheravon, Wiltshire crashed, after engine failure, behind the Ebbw Vale Cottages on Wellingborough Road.   The plane normally carried a crew of five. Two men survived the crash and were able to tell the rescuers that there were no bombs on board. Sadly, the other three airmen perished in the flames.   It only just missed the cottages but damaged 12 yds. (10.97 m.) of hedge and severed the overhead electricity supply, cutting off the power to the mine ventilation fan and affecting the power supply to the working faces, causing the drills to work more slowly.   The miners went home as a result, although it was considered by the management ‘that there was no excuse’.
     The Company was, however, continually organising Air Raid Precaution drills with the surface workers; the following entry in the Weekly Report of the 8 August 1942 describes the procedure.
In November 1940 two air raid shelters were built near the Sinter Plant, and the entrance to the mine was made available as a temporary air raid shelter to residents in the Ebbw Vale Cottages on Wellingborough Road.
Shortages and Other Problems
One of the main problems in maintaining dispatches of iron ore to Ebbw Vale was the restricted availability of main line hopper wagons.   On occasions work underground, and in the Sinter Plant, had to be stopped due to the shortage of these wagons.   Enemy action was a constant threat; for example, during the week ending 5 October 1940 the supply of hopper wagons was delayed by aerial attacks on the railway.   Several times during 1945 it was reported that hopper wagons had been diverted to Newport to unload ships bringing in foreign ore for Ebbw Vale.   It was imperative that these ships be unloaded as quickly as possible, and every available wagon was needed.
     The hand-held electric drills were continually breaking down, and the armatures needed to be rewound by direct labour in the Company’s workshops.   Unfortunately, in October 1942, the one electrician who was expert at this task was conscripted into the Forces, and other electricians had to be trained to do this specialist work.   Replacement parts were not available, and miners had to revert to using the old hand-ratchet drills which took much longer to drill holes, resulting in a loss of output.
     In July 1944 a miner and his helper, anxious to keep possession of an electric drill, were found to have hidden it under a pile of iron ore.   When it was pointed out to them that this act was a hindrance to production, and also foolish treatment of the machine, both men promised not to do such a thing again; as evidence of their regret they volunteered to contribute 10/- (50p) each to the P.O.W fund.
     In October 1940 it was recorded that, because steel arches for roof support were unobtainable, the Company had to resort to using 34 lb. (15.42 kg) rails and timber wherever roof support was required.
     Throughout the war, in order to avoid a complete shut-down during the normal August holiday week, the Company arranged for miners to take their leave in batches.   On the 6 May 1940 the first 6 miners and 6 day workers were allowed to take their annual week’s holiday with pay.   This process continued throughout the year until the Autumn.
     The sticky nature of the quarry stone continued to cause problems in the ore preparation plant at Irthlingborough, particularly during the winter months.   The only solution was to mix the contents of the wagons coming from Finedon with the drier stone coming from the mine.   Various proportions were used, sometimes up to 5 mine wagons to 1 quarry wagon.  Eventually the iron ore in the southern part of Buccleuch Quarry was found to contain an unacceptably high level of sulphur, and for this reason, also, wagons had to be mixed to even out the sulphur content during the autumn of 1945.
     Many of the workers lived in outlying villages and there was a particular problem for those who relied on the local bus service.  Many men on the afternoon shift would leave the mine early, soon after 10 p.m., to catch the last bus home.   In November 1942 the United Counties Omnibus Co. Ltd. was prevailed upon to provide a late bus, leaving Irthlingborough Cross for Wellingborough at 11.15 p.m. (11.20 p.m. on the A6 near the Steps Entrance).
Finedon Railway
When it was found that the quantity of iron ore from Buccleuch Quarry had reached the limit of the amount that could be handled at Irthlingborough, and in an effort to increase the quarry output sent to Ebbw Vale each week, it was decided to lay a standard gauge railway direct from the quarry to connect with the, now, London Midland & Scottish Railway, just north of Wellingborough [fig.1].   Land north of Harrowden Lane, Finedon, was also prepared for the laying down of calcining banks.   One of those banks still remains on the north side of Harrowden Lane, adjacent to the River Ise.   The route, and the levels of ‘cut and fill’ for the track, were designed at Irthlingborough.   The work was paid for by The Ministry of Supply in October 1940, and carried out by the Trevor Construction Company Ltd.   2,040 yds. (1865.38 m.) of track, together with a weighbridge, were laid. A concrete bridge under Station Road, Finedon, a level crossing over Harrowden Lane and a bridge across the River Ise were also constructed.   Huts, camp beds, sleeping bags, blankets, palliasses, pillows, 50 wooden lockers and trestle tables were supplied for the use of the construction workers.   Italian prisoners of war were brought in by bus from their camp each day to supplement the workforce.   In September 1942 the following note in the Weekly Report suggests that they continued to be employed after the track was completed.
In October 1942 it was reported that :-
Given all the problems that were encountered during the war years, it is amazing that the levels of production at the mine were maintained at an average of 6,000 tons per week; indeed, in November 1944, the mine reached an output of 35,683 tons (36,255.6 tonnes), equivalent to 7,137 tons (7,251.53 tonnes) per week.
Other Constructions
In April 1940 a new explosives magazine was built alongside the cinder track which gave access to the Steps Entrance, and the existing magazine near the Laboratory at Irthlingborough was demolished.   A second storey was built onto the Laboratory building in October 1942 and the Offices were moved there from Pine Lodge.   The ambulance room was repositioned in the Laboratory in December 1944 to allow an office to be established within the building for the Mine Under-Manager.
A Typical Hand-Mining Working Face 1937 to 1965
The system of hand-mining as described here was a standard practice in the mine after the introduction of hand-held electric drills in 1937, and carried on even after the advent of mechanisation in 1947.   The photograph (fig. 2) shows a miner and his helper working at the face.    Having filled their wagon, they are waiting for the ‘tractor boy’, seen sitting in his Greenwood & Batley Battery Locomotive, to haul the wagon to the siding outside the district.   The miner has chalked the wagon with his number, ‘2 ’, and the number of his wagon loaded that week, ‘14.’   In order to get as much ore as possible into the wagon they have stacked large lumps on top.   Miners were instructed to restrict the height of the stacked stone to 21" (53.34 cms.) above the top of the wagon.   In March 1944 miners were found to be overfilling the wagons and this caused problems when they entered the tipplers at the surface (see illustration of tipplers in Chapter Two).   In order to make sure that the excess ore was removed before the wagon was weighed, a horizontal bar was erected at the surface, before the weighbridge, which scraped off the extra ore as the wagons passed beneath.   In the two weeks ending 20 March 1944, 60 tons (61 tonnes) were taken from wagons in this way.   The miners asked for this ore, known henceforth as ‘Bar Stone’, to be allocated between them all, in equal proportions.   The Company acceded to their request, but warned them that in future no other payment for Bar Stone would be made.
     The photograph also shows the miner’s drills, each marked with his number, a wooden stemming rod and a metal crowbar.   In the foreground can be seen a drum containing the electric cable, which was unwound as the tunnel advanced, to feed the hand-held electric drill at the face (not shown).
Looking to the Future
Ever since the Ebbw Vale Conference, in 1920, the Company had considered ways of introducing a mechanical system of handling the ore underground, but economic events in the steel industry during the 1920’s and 1930’s had prevented any further advance.   In 1937 the Mine Agent from Irthlingborough made a trip to Northern Germany to see a mechanical loader in operation but, owing to the declaration of war in 1939, nothing further came of it.  In 1944, however, the Company again turned its attention to devising a scheme of producing more iron ore with fewer men.  They no doubt realised at that time that, when hostilities ended, and the Essential Work Order was lifted, half of the workforce would return to their peacetime occupations, resulting in a reduction of output from 6,000 tons to a probable 3,000 tons per week.   It was, therefore, imperative that a system of mechanical loading be introduced to increase the output per-man-shift; the first experiments began in the closing months of the war.