Iron Mines Iron is found in many places in Britain and the type found in the South East is called Ironstone, which is an iron oxide varying in colour between yellow and red. A poor quality variety known as ‘Carstone’ is found in the sandy Folkestone Beds but better quality ore occurs as nodules in the Ashdown Beds and Wadhurst Clay. During the Iron Age (about 200 B.C.), carstones were obtained from surface workings in Kent and Sussex but, as the Weald was explored, the better quality ores were discovered and exploited. Settlements of ironworkers grew up around the mine sites and several have been identified at Crowhurst, Dallington and Ticehurst in Sussex. More important sites were defended with hill forts such as those at Saxonbury and West Hoathly. During the Roman occupation, the Weald was the main source of iron for military and civilian use and the slag from the smelting process was used in road foundations.
The ore was originally extracted by opencast methods in bowl-shaped pits, up to 60ft wide and 45ft deep. They were infilled upon abandonment but many can be seen today as waterlogged depressions. Later techniques involved sinking shafts up to 7ft wide and 35ft deep down to the iron deposits, the bottom being widened as much as stability would allow. The word ‘Mine’ was actually the local expression for the iron ore itself (the excavation being called ‘NO and a number of Minepit Shaws still exist, referring to small copses planted over the sites of iron mines. The smelting of iron was by the process known as the ‘Bloomery’ method in which alternate layers of iron ore and charcoal were built up, set alight and then covered with clay to form a primitive oven. Bellows were used to fan the flames and the end product was a malleable ball of impure iron which could be hammered to shape. A researcher, E. Straker, has identified over 100 such sites in the Weald. With its abundant supply of ore and charcoal, the area continued to be a principal centre of the British iron industry and in 1253 the Sheriff of Sussex was called upon by Royal Decree to furnish the Army with 30,000 horseshoes and 60,000 nails.
In Tudor times, the industry was revitalised by the introduction of the blast furnace from the Continent. In this, the ore and fuel were continually added to the top of the furnace and molten iron was drawn off from the base for casting. These were not always popular with the inhabitants as is shown by a complaining letter regarding a wood near Westwell, Kent, sent by Archbishop Parker to Queen Elizabeth in 1570. ‘…Sir Richard Sackville intends to erect iron mills, which plague, if it should come into the country, 1 fear will breed much grudge and desolation’. Despite opposition, the Weald became famous for its manufacture of cannons and a report in 1653 lists 27 furnaces and 42 forges.
With the increase in technology, smelting became based at certain locations and iron ore was brought there from surrounding mines. We gain an insight into mining operations in the early 18th century from a contemporary report.
‘The price we give for it (iron ore) here is 12d a load which is 12 bushels if they take it as it ariseth, but if they take only the best sorts of oare, which we call veins, and leave the worst, they call ‘Eleven Foot Pitty’ and ‘Bottom’, they are paid 18d a load … The owner of the ground alloweth 2d for throwing in the Clayes, and also levelling the pits … and then the ground will look as well than before the oare was dug.’
It goes on to advocate the extraction of the lowest veins first and then the upper veins, since otherwise water from the upper veins would drown out the lower ones before they could be extracted. A later report says that the ore was worked by means of bell pits of some 6ft diameter at the surface, widening at the bottom. They were generally shallow, rarely more than 20ft deep, and sometimes connected by levels. Great numbers of these pits remain in the woods, generally full of water. On the pasture fields they have been partly filled up, and here the surface very much resembles that produced by ‘day-falls’ near the outcrop of a worked out coal seam. In view of the number of iron mining sites in Sussex and parts of Kent, it is difficult to pick out a few representative samples. Those who wish to learn more, however, are recommended to read the excellent publication ‘iron Industry of the Weald’. This covers the methods of working and includes a gazetteer of sites.
By the end of the 18th century, the local industry was in decline through a combination of lack of wood and the competition from Wales and the North with their abundant coalfields. The last furnace at Ashburnham closed in 1809 and a contemporary report describes the state of the industry at that time.
‘…It was the last furnace in use in Sussex and Kent and was brought abruptly to a close in consequence of the intoxicated habits of the foundry men. By neglecting the proper mixture of chalk, etc. with the ore, the flux did not separate as it should have done to run off and it remained a mass from which the iron could not be drawn off to be run into the pigs (moulds) for the forge. The blasting was of necessity stopped and no attempt made afterwards to renew the work. It was the habit of the gin drinking that brought the work to a premature close before the iron was all worked up.’
Iron mining was not quite dead, however, and there was a brief revival at Snape Wood near Wadhurst when deposits were found during construction of the railway. This was described in 1875.
‘The mine was commenced in August 1857 and abandoned in September 1858; the ore was sent into Staffordshire. The ironstone was worked on both sides of the railway, just west of the 53rd milestone, by levels and cross cuts. On the north side of the railway only one bed was worked, this was 1ft 9ins thick, underlain by hard sandstone. The roof is sometimes bad and required timbering. On the south side of the railway two beds were worked, only one of which could be examined … as the level contained much water; this bed was 2ft thick. In this level the ground was softer and required more timber. The beds of ironstone were very irregular but were found to be better on the south than on the north side; in both cases, however, the beds died out suddenly and reappeared at intervals. Several shafts have been sunk from the higher ground. The ore, a clay-ironstone, was sometimes calcined on the spot. A great deal of raw ore still lies by the side of the railway.’
The main gallery of the mine was about 450ft long, 4ft 6ins wide and 6-8ft high. Wrought iron rails were laid in the gallery which is not far below the surface. Two entrances were filled in to make a road and the remaining post-war shaft filled after two Boy Scouts were temporarily stuck down it. The spoil heaps can still be seen but there are no open entrances. A small inn by the railway, the Miners Arms, has been converted into a private dwelling. Iron was also mined for a short time from Dover Colliery (see under ‘Coal Mines’).