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What happened to the ore?

There were no facilities for smelting iron on an industrial scale in West Somerset.  The railway was built to take the ore down to Watchet so it could be shipped to Newport and taken by canal and rail to the furnaces at Ebbw Vale in south Wales. 


The kind of iron ore won from Brendon Hill required the extra expense of roasting before it could be turned into iron.  Its high manganese content proved valuable in producing steel by the Bessemer process but once cheaper similar ore from Spain became available Brendon Hill could not compete on price.


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Ebbw Vale Co. blast furnaces at Victoria about 1905
Ebbw Vale Co. blast furnaces at Victoria about 1905


When the mines were first developed from 1854 onwards, the Ebbw Vale produced wrought iron.  Although the Bessemer patent was filed for in 1855 the bulk process became only operational at Ebbw Vale from 1866 and so helped sustain the operation on the Brendons for another decade.



The smelting process at Ebbw Vale


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Illustration of the smelting process by Leo Davey
Illustration of the smelting process by Leo Davey


  1. Calcinating kilns were used to roast the iron ore. It was then stockpiled along with limestone for flux and coke for fuel. 
  2. Specific quantities of these materials were measured in the charging house and tipped into the furnace.
  3. The contents grew incredibly hot as they settled in the furnace.  At 1,500C it turned into a molten mass of iron and slag.
  4. The floating slag on top was drained into wagons by knocking out a clay bung from the slag notch and taken to the tips.
  5. After one last draining of slag the iron was tapped from a lower hole.  The molten metal was guided into channels that were dug into the cast houses’ sand floor.  The molten metal branched into sows and pigs until it ceased to flow.  Then, with fire clay, the tap hole was re-sealed.
  6. When the pigs solidified they were dug out and the sand was prepared for the next tapping and a few hours later the furnace was ready to be tapped again.