Florence Mine was the last deep working iron ore mine in Europe. Its story is one of the great industries of West Cumbria, an industry which made the fortunes of some and brought tragedy to others; which brought waves of immigrants, not only from the tin mines of Cornwall and the copper mines of Ireland, but also from Poland and Italy; which brought the railways, and the prosperity and change which flowed from that. Florence Mine played its part in forming the fabric of a society.
It was known in earlier times that West Cumbria was rich in iron ore but it was not until the 1830s that this valuable mineral was mined here on a significant scale. The best quality iron ore to be found anywhere in the world is haematite and it is this rich mineral which is to be found in the limestone layers of West Cumbria.
For millions of years solutions of iron ore have been washed down and seeped from the ancient rocks of the Lakeland fells. Into the faults and cracks of the limestone layers, caused by colossal movements of the earth’s crust, the solutions have found their way.
The westward slope of these limestone layers meant that West Cumbria became a significant place for haematite deposits. The particular properties of this ore made it especially valuable, in that its high iron content and marked lack of the element phosphorus made it unique among ore deposits in this country. These characteristics made it especially appropriate for the production of a pig iron ideal for conversion into steel by the Bessemer process.
Whilst the haematite ore was responsible for the striking growth of iron-making in the West Cumbria area, the fact that, in addition, coal was found in great quantities along the Cumbrian coast played a significant part. Jewkes and Winterbottom in their Industrial Survey of Cumberland and Furness (1933) state ‘in no area in the world is there the same concentration of haematite iron, coking coal, limestone and sand’.
It is probable that the surface working of iron ore was carried out by early Britons and Romans in the West Cumbrian area. Evidence of locally mined ore is thought to exist in an iron casting found in Roman excavations at Maryport, and it is known that a Roman iron smelting process was carried out near Drigg, the ore probably coming from the Eskdale Valley. In addition it is known that smelting was carried out during the Middle Ages on the shores of Ennerdale and Wastwater, using ore which is still present today in those remote crags.
Prior to the coming of the railways, iron ore was carried by horse and cart or even pack mule, to the harbours for onward shipment. Travelling over rough ground and unmetalled roads, they left their red dust as a legacy over field and village. The miners themselves worked and walked home in their red ore encrusted clothes – the Red Men of West Cumbria.
The mines south of Egremont had their beginnings in the latter years of the last century when the Ullcoats Mining Company was formed. The first shaft was sunk by 1900 and 464 tons of ore was mined in that year. The company sank a further five before the last and deepest was sunk in 1913. This was the first circular shaft in the West Cumbria ore field.
On the 9th January 1914, the wife of the Chairman of the Millom and Askham Company, Mrs Muir Ritchie, cut through the turf and Florence Mine was born. At that time Florence was a particularly popular girl’s name and it was also one which Mr Ritchie affectionately called his wife. Instead of the mine being called Ullbank No. 2, as had been intended, it was named Florence.
The Ullcoats mines were taken over by the Millom and Askham Company in 1917, Florence and Ullcoats being operated together from then.
Although Florence Mine proved to be productive, recession but deep in the early 1930s and nowhere more so than in the industrial heartland of West Cumbria. Almost inevitably, in 1932, Florence’s sister mine at Ullcoats ceased working and the Company was taken to court for breach of agreement. The Company pointed out that it had a stockpile of 300,000 tons, which it could not even sell at the abysmal price of 14/- per ton!
By the ’40s Florence was beginning to be worked out and it became clear that it would be necessary to sink a second shaft, which could access the valuable high grade ore which had been left in position to support the original shaft. Florence No. 2 was begun in 1945 and was fully operational by 1951. The new Florence shaft was connected to the Ullcoats workings in the 1950s, meeting it 175 feet below the surface. It took two years to complete the task and on completion, the new drift met the shaft at no more than a foot from the centre.
Much cheap ore had been coming into the country from Spain, and the commencement of that country’s Civil War meant that the local mines were slowly able to make a recovery. Of course the Second World War gave added impetus to the industry and the iron and steel trade made its considerable contribution to the war effort.
By 1960, as Europe recovered, a number of countries, in addition to Spain, were exporting iron ore into the UK. Gradually the local furnaces were closed and of all the mines, only the Florence and Ullcoats complex survived until, as a result of nationalisation , they were closed on ‘Black Friday’, September 13th 1968.
In 1969 the lease of the Florence and Ullcoats mines was taken over by Beckermet mines, part o
f the British Steel Corporation. Again, a drift was driven through to connect them together in April 1970. This single mine then stretched from Calderbridge to the Uldale valley, a distance of almost five miles. As part of rationalisation process, the British Steel Corporation closed the mine on October 3rd, 1980.
In the early days iron had been mainly used for agricultural implements and for weapons, but as steel production developed, the demand for iron ore expanded enormously. Workington became world-renowned for the production of railway lines, manufactured with West Cumbrian ore. As the demand for local ore diminished with the advent of the new technologies, the production of high grade ore continued, especially for surgical steel, rails and special uses. Mining methods inevitably varied with individual bodies of ore, but generally a form of ‘pillar and stall’ working was employed wherever possible. Boreholes were sunk at intervals to determine the thickness and extent of the deposit and once the lowest point of the ore had been determined, a lease of the mineral royalty was obtained and the sinking of the shaft begun. This would ideally be outside the ore-body but, if it was unavoidable, it would be sunk into the ore.
Once the shaft had been sunk, a grid of level passages was cut in the ore and between this grid pattern of connecting levels, pillars were left to hold up the roof. Once the levels had been extended to the limits of the ore laterally, rises were driven up and a higher grid of levels cut to prove the limits at that height. This was continued until the vertical limits were also proved, always leaving the pillars standing above each other, wherever possible.
Once the mine had been established in this way, ‘robbery’ began, first slicing the walls of the pillars altogether. This removal started at the outer limits of the highest workings, moving inwards towards the shaft, collapsing ground behind them or, where the roof was strong, leaving large, unsupported caverns. This process was repeated at each level until only the pillars surrounding the shaft were left. These could be removed only with great care but often they were too dangerous to extract.
Evidence of the mine is now rapidly fading and in some cases there is no longer any sign of their existence. Nevertheless, the effects of the final ‘robbing’ stage could result in subsidence and town like Cleator Moor have suffered badly over the years. one of the ongoing problems which had to be coped with was the mines’ natural tendency to flood. Pumps had to be left running continuously and all abandoned mines, including Florence, are now flooded.
For the last fifteen or so years Florence continued to be mined by a small team providing annealing ore which is used to extract carbon form castings, and which plays an important part in the manufacture of pigments for paints and cosmetics. There was also, of ouches, the flourishing demand for mineral samples and for the striking jewellery created from polished haematite. The mine and the heritage centre were operational until 2008 when the natural flooding finally shut down mining at Florence. The site now provides a dramatic backdrop for our arts centre which is used in the former shower block, infirmary and offices. Our connection to Florence Mine is not just geographical – on site we have a paintmakers’ studio which raw iron ore pigment is handcrafted into a range of artists’ materials (oil paints, watercolours, pastels etc.) which are highly regarded. The process is the same as it has been for centuries, grinding the augment by hand and blending with natural binders and other materials. The colour, unique to the Florence Paintmakers, is Egremont Red.