Ironstone Quarrying in the East Midlands
Ironstone Quarrying in the East Midlands
Many areas in the East Midlands have produced iron ore from Roman times and by Elizabethan times the Rockingham Forest area around Corby, along with The Weald in Kent, was one of the biggest iron producing areas in the country. However, the industry had died out in these areas by the eighteenth century and, with the Industrial Revolution, iron-making had moved the newly developing coalfield areas using the meagre iron reserves which were associated with the coal deposits. As these reserves ran out, in the nineteenth century, the East Midlands' ironstone was 'rediscovered'. Ironstone from Northamptonshire was exhibited at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851 and the construction of the Midland Railway's Nottingham to Kettering route, especially in the Corby/Kettering area showed up the iron-rich rock in the cutting walls. From that time, quarrying began on a grand scale as the industry expanded with the demand for iron and iron products.
The iron ore, mainly sandstones, underneath limestones and clays, were laid down in the Jurassic period of Geological time approximately 140 million years ago. The accessible deposits stretch in a broad arc from North East England through Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Rutland and into Oxfordshire. Throughout the hundred or so years of the industry, quarrying has gone on throughout those areas.
At first, the ironstone - which was found fairly close to the surface - was quarried by hand. As the ore was exploited and easily obtainable beds extracted, ironstone lying deeper the ground had to be quarried. This coupled with engineering developments of the period, led to the development of mechanical excavators or 'navvies' - initially steam powered, but from the 1930's, diesel and electrically driven. As the deeper reserves were exploited, machines had to be larger to cope with the quarrying. Towards the end of operations, some underground mines (as opposed to opencast quarrying) were developed - at Scunthorpe and Colsterworth in Lincolnshire, Thistleton (Leicestershire) and Irthlingborough in Northamptonshire.
The quarrying process was effectively a long, deep and narrow trench or pit (referred to as a 'gullet'). The topsoil was first stripped off and saved for restoration. Then the overlying rocks (the 'overburden') was removed and dumped on the other side of the gullet where the ironstone had been exposed and removed. Once the overburden had bee removed to expose the ironstone, the ore could be dug up, loaded into railway wagons and hauled away to the iron and steel works, such as Scunthorpe, Corby , Stanton (near Nottingham) and Holwell (Melton Mowbray). As the quarrying progressed, the long gullet (anything up to a mile long and, latterly, perhaps up to one hundred feet deep, did not enlarge but merely 'moved' across the landscape - for, of course, as the ore was removed the next strip of overburden was removed and 'dumped' on the quarried strip thus enabling the quarried land to be top-soiled and restored.
To make steel, iron must first be produced by smelting iron ore with coke and limestone in a blast furnace. One of the features of railway activity in the area, in addition to the movement of quarried iron ore to the iron and steel works such as Corby, was the constant movement, in large quantities, of coal (for making into coke) and limestone.
Until the early 1970's, the British steel industry relied heavily on the Jurassic iron ores. The use of these ores, which were low in iron content, gradually declined in favour of higher grade, more economically quarried foreign ore. British costs (such as transport, labour, restoration etc.) increased and the deposits became increasingly more difficult to exploit. Foreign ores (which had a much greater content of iron and often were to be found in thicker layers with very little overburden) were exploited more easily and cheaply and could be shipped thousands of miles economically due to the development of bulk cargo ships. Despite the vast distances from which these ores had to travel - such as Australia, Brazil and Canada - overall costs were therefore very much less. Despite the fact that very large deposits of East Midlands ironstone remain (there are an estimated 500 million tons of ore in the Corby area alone, for example), the 'home' ore could not compete and the industry declined. The Oxfordshire Ironstone Co. near Banbury ceased production in 1967 and the last iron ore was extracted 'North of the Welland' (Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Rutland) from Harlaxton on 14th February 1974. 'South of the Welland (the Corby area) continued until the end of December 1979 when ironstone quarrying ceased and the giant iron and steel works themselves closed although the tube works continue, relying on steel strip transported from Teesside and other locations.
Today, in addition to Corby, most of the inland works (such as Kettering, Holwell and Stanton) which had prospered due to the development of the East Midlands' ore fields have gone and, British steel making is mainly concentrated at coastal sites such as Teesside and Port Talbot (South Wales), although a much reduced operation continues at Scunthorpe (using foreign ore imported through Immingham). No iron ore is quarried locally anymore.
It is now hard to envisage that the pleasant rolling countryside in the East Midlands has been host to opencast ironstone mining on such a grand scale.
Restoration has ensured that very little derelict land remains. Most quarrying areas have been returned to agriculture although the occasional long, narrow pit or 'gullet' remains. Developing after a short time as a haven for wild life and plants, some of these pits are disappearing as household refuse is tipped prior to top-soiling and a return to farming use. Quarried areas close to Corby, for example, have been reclaimed and used for industrial development or for housing - bringing much needed employment opportunity to the areas decimated by mass closures as the iron and steel industry declined.
Of the miles of quarry railway tracks and mineral railways, very little remains apart from the occasional filled-in bridge parapet, restored level crossing - and, of course, the preserved steam and diesel quarry locomotives, such as those preserved by the ISTG.