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Exploring hidden heritage

Mike Jones describes his journey of exploration of the Brendon Hill iron mines and the Mineral Railway

Discovering the mines and the Mineral Line

 As a teenager Mike Jones became interested in industrial archaeology, and trained as an architect.  For his final year’s thesis at Leeds School of Architecture, he designed a School of Mines for a site in a former lead mining area at Grassington in Yorkshire.  In 1957 his parents retired to the Brendon Hills where they farmed 18 acres.  On visits home Jones ‘discovered’ the mines and mineral railway. 


After working for 18 months with an old-fashioned firm of architects in London, he joined Somerset County Council’s Architect’s Department.  He quickly got in touch with Roger Sellick and John Hamilton, who had been engaged in research into the Brendon Hills industry for almost fifteen years.  They kindly allowed Jones to join their partnership and to contribute to their seminal book on the Brendon Hill mines and West Somerset Mineral Railway (WSMR), which was published in 1962 and again in 1970.

Mike Jones in Kennisham Hill Adit in 1960
Mike Jones in Kennisham Hill Adit in 1960

Much new information came to light in 1975, with the acquisition by Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society (SIAS) of a very large quantity of documents from the office of the solicitor Charles Edward Rowcliffe at Stogumber.  The cache had been found when it had already been bagged up for collection by a waste paper merchant, by the Somerset Museums Education Officer, the late Frank Hawtin, who arranged for the Society to take it into their possession.  As the solicitor in Somerset for the Ebbw Vale partners who initiated commercial mining on the Brendon Hills, Rowcliffe was responsible for negotiating the mining leases and for applying for and obtaining the Act of Parliament which authorised construction of the WSMR, of which his son, also Charles Edward, was appointed Secretary. 


Although the papers had been stored on the earth floor of a shed for more than half a century, some ‘press’ copies of outgoing letters could be transcribed before they disintegrated, and together with such original documents as had survived in reasonable condition afforded new insight into the working of the mines and construction and operation of the railway.  After being transcribed the papers were deposited in Somerset Record Office.   


Sellick, Hamilton and Jones therefore agreed that a new edition of the book should be written jointly after they all retired in the 1990s.  Sadly Sellick died in 1988, and in the same year following departmental re-organisation, Jones was offered early retirement.  Hamilton had spent his working life teaching mining engineering and geology in Ireland where he now lives in retirement.  Jones has continued research, including visits to Gwent Record Office where a few documents have survived the wholesale destruction of Ebbw Vale Company records in 1912 and again in 1930.  He has also researched the people who were engaged in managing and working in the mines and on the railway, as well as partners in South Wales and those people in West Somerset who played some part in the enterprise.


Documenting the mines and WSMR

In 1993 Jones was approached by the Environment Department of Somerset County Council and asked to prepare a Research Design Report on the WSMR which included proposals for further investigative work and defined areas of significant industrial historical interest.  The report also included suggestions for visitor information and access. 


In June 1995, Exmoor National Park Authority commissioned Jones to prepare a report on ‘Proposed low key visitor access to industrial sites on the Brendon Hills’ which, among other things recommended that professional surveys of the extant remains of mines and railway should be carried out.  Suggestions for the consolidation of structures, with approximate costings for each were included in the report, as well as proposals for visitor access, which among other things recommended 13 circular walks on public footpaths by means of which visitors could visit almost all the remains of the mines and railway.


Following receipt of the report Exmoor National Park Authority commissioned Jones to survey all the extant structures of the mines and railway, work which was not completed until 2005, as he had been engaged in more or less full time work after leaving the County Council.  In 2003 the Exmoor Society applied for and was given a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £50,000 to employ consultants to carry out a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of obtaining a more substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant to implement proposals for conservation, audience development and access.   Thereafter the project became known as the West Somerset Mineral Railway Project, and in October 2005 application was made by the Rob Wilson-North, Historic Environment Manager of ENPA for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.  A substantial grant was made in 2006 towards the cost of the agreed conservation, access and interpretation works to be carried out from 2007-09.


Included in the grant is a sum for the publication of a new history of the enterprise.  It was agreed that the new account should be written by Jones, who, encouraged by Rob Wilson-North and John Hamilton, began work in 2005.  John Hamilton has written all that part of the book which deals with geology and the history of the mining; he has skilfully interpreted the detailed chronology of each mine by reference only to the abandonment plans and to Morgan’s paper published in 1868.  John Hamilton died in November 2009, a few months before publication of the new account with the title Neither here nor there? The mining and transport of iron ore from the Brendon Hills to South Wales 1825 - 1925, Volume I & II, in spring 2010. 


Excavating the mines and WSMR

In 1960-61 Mike Jones had attempted to discover something of the horizontal winding engines and of beam pumping engines known to have been employed at several of the mines.   

Exmoor Mines Research Group dig at Langham, April 1996 (Mike Jones)
Exmoor Mines Research Group dig at Langham, April 1996 (Mike Jones)

Employing a form of clandestine keyhole excavation, some information about the engines at Ralegh’s Cross mine, Burrow farm and Kennisham Hill mines was discovered.  He also surveyed the Incline Winding House and deduced something of what may have been inside the building. 



From 1985-87 members of Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society (SIAS) members were invited by the landowner to uncover the remains of a building which housed a semi-portable winding/pumping engine at Smallcombe Bottom mine.  A report of this excavation was published in the Industrial Archaeology Review volume XI no.1, autumn 1988.  [Jones, M.H. The Excavation of Smoky Bottom Engine House. In: Industrial Archaeology Review, Vol.11 No.1 (Autumn 1988), pp. 86-92(7)].


In May 1992, following a Symposium at Exmoor House, the Exmoor Mines Research Group was formed, and during 1995, with the helpful co-operation of Forest Enterprise (now Forestry Commission), members of the Group partly uncovered a small building at SS 974359 in Chargot Wood.  The building was believed to be a small scale and primitive smelting works and forge constructed by Sir Thomas Lethbridge, the landowner in 1845-46, to demonstrate to potential lessees the properties of the iron ore which he was then attempting to mine on his own land in Luxborough parish.  Part of the building was covered by a substantial waste heap from a later mineworking and because a stream flowed through another area of the building, work was abandoned when it became apparent that there was a risk of causing pollution downstream.   Conclusive evidence in support of the belief was not forthcoming. 


At the same time three members excavated a ventilation flue nearby which dated from 1860.  The structure was the only complete example in south west England of an installation much employed in South Wales for the ventilation of collieries until the 1860s. It has since been scheduled an Ancient Monument.


From 1995-98 the Group excavated and interpreted Langham Hill mine engine house, also on Forestry Commission land.  From 1999 to 2002, interrupted by foot and mouth disease, the Group excavated the two mine engine buildings on private land at Carnarvon mine.  From  2001-03 the Group undertook the excavation of the floor of the incline winding house with the intention of preparing drawings showing how the incline was operated and what equipment had been installed in the building.  The report on this excavation was entered for the 2007 Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) Fieldwork & Recording Award and received a ‘highly commended’ award.