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A short history

A short history pic

Iron ore has been mined intermittently on the Brendon Hills for the past two thousand years, but it was not until the 1850s that the iron mines became part of a significant industrial enterprise.  This was as a result of the Ebbw Vale Company, established sixty years earlier, developing the mines.

 

The following pages can only provide a brief overview of the history, pick up some of the themes of the Mineral Line and give background to the structures that have survived to bear witness to this history.

 

The text is based on Mike Jones’ and John Hamilton’s publication which explores and documents in detail every aspect of the Brendon Hills iron mines and the West Somerset Mineral Railway (WSMR). 

 

Overview

The West Somerset Mineral Railway was an 11 mile (17.7km) long railway constructed between 1857 and 1864 to transport iron ore from the Brendon Hills to the harbour at Watchet, for shipment to Newport in South Wales and finally by rail to one of the Ebbw Vale Company's smelting works. 

 

[ Zoom ]
The iron ore transport route to South Wales
The iron ore transport route to South Wales

 

The Ebbw Vale Company, had expanded rapidly on the back of the exploding demand for the wrought iron rails needed for railway building.  It was not until the 1850s that a shortage in iron ore supplies and intelligence of rich ore deposits on the Brendons led the company to develop the mines on an industrial scale. 

  

The deposits on the Brendons were highly fragmented and expensive to work.  Haematite ore was only found near the surface, and spathic ore at depth.  The surface deposits have been worked intermittently over centuries, possibly since the late Iron Age, by means of open trenches which followed the outcrop of the lodes. 

 

Both the oxide and carbonate ores of iron found on the Brendon Hills were low in sulphur and phosphorus and high in manganese.  Initially a drawback when producing wrought iron, it was a stroke of luck that these qualities proved to be an advantage when iron-making technology advanced and the Bessemer process was introduced.  This was the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass-production of steel.  When Bessemer production started at Ebbw Vale in the late 1860s the Brendon ore was found to be a rare resource. 

 

By this time more than two hundred men from Somerset and Cornwall were working in the mines and on the railway, and they formed new communities along the “Old Mineral Line”. 

 

The railway was opened for passenger traffic in 1865 and annual output from the mines reached a peak of nearly 47,000 tons in 1877.

 

At this point the window of opportunity closed and the Brendon Hill mines, although never genuinely profitable before, became un-sustainable.  As the Long Depression took hold and steel prices collapsed the Ebbw Vale Company suffered increasing losses.  Not only did cheap imports of iron from Spain make Brendon Hill iron ore uncompetitive but the Bessemer process had been overtaken by Gilchrist-Thomas’ basic steel making process, which did not require non-phosphoric ore.

 

Mining ceased in 1883.  The Ebbw Vale Company continued to operate the railway until 1898 to honour contractual commitments.  The railway then remained derelict until Somerset Mineral Syndicate leased the line up to Brendon Hill in 1907, in what turned out to be a short-lived attempt to revive ore extraction and to benefit from rising prices.  Arthur Angus automatic train control trials 1911-13 were the last active use of the rails before they were requisitioned in 1916. The West Somerset Mineral Railway Company was formally wound up in 1925.

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Go to the route plan of the West Somerset Mineral Railway
Route plan of the West Somerset Mineral Railway
Go to location map of the iron mines
Location map of Brendon Hills iron mines 1839 - 1909