Hodbarrow Mines

(An edited version of part of The Industrial Archaeology of the Lake Counties, by Mike Davies-Shiel and J.D.Marshall, David & Charles, 1969, with an introduction copied with permission from Cumbria’s Industrial Past, CIHS, 2017)

Click here to see photos taken by MDS at the time of the mine’s closure in the 1960s.

These mines, near Millom, which raised 25 million tons of some of the richest haematite iron ore in the world during 105 years of mining, were the last survivors of a Furness and South Cumberland industry which once spanned both sides of the Duddon Estuary.

The iron ore occurred mainly as large, irregular flat-lying replacements of the Lower Carboniferous limestones of the area. These ore deposits were overlain by water-logged sand and gravels which caused significant problems for the mine throughout its life. The ores had a metallic content of about 60%.

In 1856, the discovery of a solid ore mass in the ‘Old Mine’ area near Hodbarrow Point led to the successful working during the following 12 years of irregular guts, masses or stringers of haematite, accessed by numerous shallow shafts. Most of this early output was shipped away at the quay at Borwick Rails harbour, a mile across the fields.

By the mid-1860s, after several boom years, some 265 men were employed underground, but the heroic age of Hodbarrow was still to commence. The nearby town of Millom had scarcely appeared.

The main productive deposit was only fully proved during the period 1868-73, when no fewer than 7 shafts were sunk in or near the great ore mass situated to the landward side of the (later) Inner Barrier. An annual output figure of 343,194 tons was reached in 1880.

These enormous quantities were mined by driving main haulage ways beneath the ore body and cutting raises to the deposit, which was then removed by the customary top-slicing method. The ore was taken out in ‘slices’ 12ft thick by a form of pillar-and-stall method.

A large body of ore had to be left to protect the workings from the sea until the first sea wall – the Inner Barrier – was built 1888-90, with Sir John Coode as consultant. It was a combination of a concrete wall and watertight dam. Within the concrete wall was a bank of puddled clay, the top of this clay dam was provided with scuppers in order that high waves could be washed back into the sea.

This remarkable piece of engineering enabled the company to work a further mass of ore towards the wall. In 1892-3 538,979 tons of ore were raised, with 1000 men employed.  Even before the Inner Barrier’s completion, borings made on its southerly side revealed another mass of haematite, in this case covered by a ‘shelf’ of limestone.

In 1898, seawater broke into the mine on the outside of the sea wall near its western extremity, and, since the wall had already begun to fracture, the company decided to enclose a much larger area of coastline in order to work the ore under the limestone cover.

This decision resulted in the construction of the Outer Barrier, built 1900-05. Well over a mile in length, from Haverigg to Hodbarrow Point, it took the form of a girdle of limestone rubble and tumbled concrete blocks of 25 tons apiece, with a supporting heart of clay, and steel or timber piling. The fragmentation of its appearance is misleading, for it was most skilfully designed to break the force of the waves. The cement blocks were made near the site, and great quantities of slag from the ironworks were put to effective use.

Mining ceased in March 1968, with the loss of 103 jobs. Since the mines closed and the pumping stopped, the area inside the Outer Barrier has been allowed to flood. It is now an RSPB reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.

(Page created 06/12/2022)