Chert mining in Swaledale – part 1

Many visitors to Reeth in Swaledale, and some locals too, think that the spoil heaps visible on Fremington Edge are from lead mining.  Some are, but the main heaps, above and to the right of the White House, grey in the photo below, are the result of  chert mining.

About fifteen years ago I interviewed Freddie Dodds of Reeth, who worked in the Fremington Chert Mine [strictly underground chert quarries] from just after WWII until it closed around 1953/4; that is from 1945/6 until 1953/4 so circa 8 years.

Fremington chert

He said that the mine was owned by Mr Woodward of Fremington and employed 6 / 7 men. The chert sat on a bed of “waste” limestone, 1 to 2 feet thick; Freddie referred to this a “bearing or boring” bed. The miners would drill into this limestone bed and then used dynamite to blast it out. At first this drilling was done by hand, in much the same way as the lead miners before them. A sledge-hammer was used to drive in a drill known as a “jumper”. The men worked in 2-man teams; one wielding the sledge-hammer, the other holding and turning the drill. Later, compressed air drills were used, driven by a small compressor placed outside the mine. After blasting, and once the dust had settled they would shovel the debris into small wagons running on steel rails. These were pushed out of the mine by hand and tipped onto the spoil heaps which are still visible above the White House, under Fremington Edge.

Extracting the chert was normally relatively easy as it was frequently heavily faulted. After removing the waste from beneath the chert, wedges were driven by hand into the faults in order to separate off blocks of the approximately the size required by particular customers. These blocks were then man-handled onto bogeys, running on rails, and pushed outside where they were dressed to the required size. Where the chert was difficult to extract, holes were drilled above it and it was blown down using dynamite.

The chert went by lorry to the Staffordshire potteries. Freddie thought most of it was ground up and used to make a glaze for pottery. For this purpose the miners dressed the chert into blocks approximately 15 inches by 10 by 10, removing all sharp edges so that those handling it did not get cut. Some larger blocks, approximately 2 – 3 tons, were also required; these were known as “runners”; Freddie does not know what these were used for. [In fact I think the chert was used to grind up flint and bone to make porcelain. Chert is chemically the same as flint so it did not matter if ground chert got mixed in with the flint].

Working in the chert mine was hard but Freddie quite liked it. He would start early in the morning and walk through Reeth down the track, past what is now the Arkle House B&B, and cross the Arkle Beck via stepping stones (this must be near the site of the long- demolished Reeth Corn Mill and later Electricity Generating Station). A walk across the fields was followed by a stiff climb up Fremington Edge to the mine. The mine extended into the hillside for about 50 yards. It was hot, dusty and dark; the miners went in and out and worked by candle light alone. Like the lead miners of old, Freddie had to buy his own candles. Unlike the lead miners, who also had to buy gunpowder or dynamite and pay for the tools they used, the chert mine owner provided Freddie and the other workers with the tools and the dynamite they needed.

The miners worked in teams of 2; Freddie’s partner was Nigel Hutchinson, now dead, a relative of Ramsay Hutchinson (of the Red Lion Inn, Langthwaite, also deceased) who he said also worked in the same mine for a while (I don’t think that Ramsay did work here). The pay was quite good but variable. Each team was paid monthly by “tonnage”; that is piece work, based on the value of the chert produced by that team. Not only could the price per ton vary slightly from month to month but the weather played a crucial part in determining income, as the mine was high up on Fremington Edge and inaccessible during the apparently frequent periods of heavy snow in the winters of the late 40’s and early 50’s. The annual income was similar to that of farm work, but more variable month by month. Nonetheless Freddie carried on working in the mine until it closed in the early – mid 1950’s as a result, he believes, of the potteries finding a cheaper source.

Freddie died a few years ago, well into his 80s.

Part 2 will follow in September.

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Is this birrus britannicus, or hooded British woollen cloak, of a type from Swaledale?

From the Society of Antiquaries of London Online Newsletter (Salon), a fortnightly digest of heritage news.

Roman figurine

Chelmsford Museum, Essex, is keen to acquire a Roman bronze figurine described by Arts Minister John Glen as ‘a fascinating representation of a distinctly British character.’
The 6.5 cm long figurine was found by a metal detectorist on cultivated land in Roxwell parish, near Chelmsford. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has designated it a find of national importance. It special interest lies in the man’s dress, says Reviewing Committee member Leslie Webster FSA, in a statement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, and Arts Council England:

‘It has been suggested that he wears the distinctive birrus britannicus, or hooded British woollen cloak, which, with the quiver on his back, identifies the male figure as a hunter, suitably kitted out for cold and rainy weather.

‘Both the style and the braided decoration of the cloak is unparalleled in art, supporting the thesis that this is a unique depiction of a specifically British garment, recorded in the early fourth century AD as a significant export within the wider Roman Empire.’

Were cloaks of this type manufactured in Swaledale, perhaps even at the Hagg, Fremington, where SWAAG has uncovered a Romano-British site apparently abandoned around 400 AD?

Major Roman roads in Britain

Major Roman Roads

An interesting map showing the major Roman roads in Britain. Cleverly done following the style of the London Underground map; not sure how accurate it is though but looks nice!

I am away for much of the next 5 weeks so probably no posts until early September.