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Mining iron ore on the Brendon Hills

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.  

 

Simplified Mine diagram

Simplified Mine Diagram (not to scale)
(Not to scale) Drawing by Mike Jones

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°.

 

Working the mines

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  When the tamping was thoroughly compacted, the pricker was withdrawn and replaced by a powder filled straw, the ‘quill’, as fuse.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. 

 

Five hours were allowed for the smoke and fumes to clear before the nine hours men came on shift from 9 pm to 6 am to load and bring to surface the ore mined by the ten hours men and to put in place the necessary timber supports. 

 

The nine hours men also worked for five hours on Saturday. Out of their weekly wages of 10/- or 12/- the miners had to pay for candles, the sharpening of their tools by the company’s blacksmith or for their replacement, and for black powder for blasting.

[ Zoom ]
Inside Timwood adit, 1908
Inside Timwood adit, 1908

  

Finding the ore

The simplest way of finding lodes was to drive an adit in from the side of the hill as at Bearland. 

[ Zoom ]
The bottom of a stope showing the ore bins and the tram level
The bottom of a stope showing the ore bins and the tram level. Drawing by Colin Allbrook based on a reconstruction by Mike Jones

 

 

An adit is a tunnel, sloping slightly upwards to drain the water away, driven southward to pick up the lodes which hang almost like curtains across the path of the adit.  Once found the lode will be worked by stoping and the adit serves to bring out the ore and drain the mine. 

 

A second method was to sink shafts from the top of the Hill as at Raleigh’s Cross Mine and from these drive horizontal levels to find the lodes in a similar way. 

 

This type of mine required winding engines to bring the ore to the surface and return empty trams and massive beam engines to drive underground pumps to bring ground water to the surface. 

 

These were built into engine houses of the kind that survive as foundations at Langham Hill and as a substantial ruin at Burrow Farm.

 

 

 

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. 

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