Brendon Hill is the narrow eastern end of a belt of country rich in mineral lodes particularly of iron extending from Morte Bay in north Devon. They follow the structure of the country rock, mostly slates and sandstones, and dip at about 70º. Where these lodes reach the surface they were exploited by digging simple pits and opening out the workings undergound. These ‘bell-pits’ were probably used across Exmoor to win iron ore since Roman times.
Individual lodes are highly fragmented which makes finding and mining them underground difficult and financially risky. The usual method of mining metal ores is by stoping. The lode is worked sideways and upwards so that the ore falls to a collecting area formed of stout timbers called stulls from where it can be fed into trams.
The levels are about 8 -10 fathoms (48 - 60 feet) vertical distance apart. The engine drift slopes to the south at the same angle as the lode - about 55° - 65°.
Brendon Hill miners worked in two shifts a day, 50 hours a week. For five days a week, the ‘ten hours men’ worked from 6 am to 4 pm, and, usually at the end of their shift, fired their shot holes which they had spent all day drilling into the working face.
One of the men steadied the ca 90 cm long drill against the worksurface and rotated it after each blow from the heavy hammer swung by another gang member. Once deep enough, the pattern of holes was filled with black powder and tamped with clay or deads into which a non-ferrous or wooden ‘pricker’ was inserted. When the tamping was thoroughly compacted, the pricker was withdrawn and replaced by a powder filled straw, the ‘quill’, as fuse. Finally the protruding straws were lit and the miners withdrew to a safe distance.
The simplest way of finding lodes was to drive an adit in from the side of the hill as at Bearland.
The mines were closed in September 1883 and the railway in November 1898. For a brief period from 1907 ore was again dug and parts of the railway reopened but all were finally closed in 1910.