4. Mining


‘Mining’ refers to the extraction from the ground of ores and minerals [for a young person's guide to mining, see More 8]; the lives of miners are always hard; the CVpedia pays its respects to those who have wrested and are wresting mineral treasure from the Earth to make industrial civilisation possible


Over half a billion years Britain has been submerged under coral seas, blanketed in fern forest and inhabited by giant centipedes, trapped and baked in a landlocked desert, torn apart by volcanoes and scoured and entombed in vast ice sheets - to make the land as it is today, with its temperate climate and relative freedom from natural disasters, rich in mineral wealth; Britain’s primordial cornerstone in the north comprises the Hebrides and the Western Highlands; it was the result of volcanic eruptions 3 billion years ago; the rough divide between Highland Britain and Lowland Britain is a diagonal line (/) from Tees to Exe estuaries, with mountains of old hard metamorphic rock to the north and west and younger softer sediments to the southeast (limestones, chalks, clays, sandstones), the latter producing vales, low hills and scarps; all north of the Thames was scoured by recent glaciation; the British landscape has only been radically impacted by man for 400 generations over the past 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age; in the twenty-first century somewhat under 300 million tonnes of minerals are removed each year from the UK landmass and its continental shelf; of this total, 85% is for construction (e.g. rock, gravel, sand and the raw materials of cement such as limestone and chalk), 9% are industrial minerals (e.g. limestone, dolomite, chalk, rock salt, potash, silica, china clay and ball clay), 6% is coal and about 1% is oil and gas; gold is being produced in Northern Ireland; in terms of future potential, potash, for fertiliser, has been found in globally significant quantities in Yorkshire and tungsten, for steelmaking, in Devon; new technology and high mineral prices are bringing Britain back into production


Ages of Man: the discovery of useful metals such as copper and iron had such an impact on human development, via improved tools and weapons over stone, that archaeologists have traditionally divided up ancient times into the Stone Age (before 2500 BC), Bronze Age (2500-750 BC) and Iron Age (after 750 BC); this is the so-called three-age system; an alternative sequence before the Bronze Age would include the Golden Age and the Silver Age, but as attractive as these sound they are regarded as mythical; the Stone Age is further subdived into Old, Middle and New periods, otherwise known as the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic; this terminology was developed by John Lubbock in his classic work of 1865, Pre-historic Times; the Stone Age began with hominid toolmaking in Africa around 2.5 million years ago; the Neolithic in Britain covers the period 5000-2500 BC, with stone use continuing well after bronze had been developed


Stone tools: many different types of rock have been used down the aeons; flints and cherts were used for cutting tools and as weapons, while basalt, sandstone and other stones were used for grinding seeds and smashing bones to get at the marrow; other materials used at this time for tools include wood, bone and antler; overall, the Stone Age should really be considered the ‘Wood and Stone Age’


Flint: this was mined in Britain for axes, knives, spear heads and scrapers, starting more than 5000 years ago; flint is a form of mineral quartz; it occurs as black seams in chalk, in the useful form of nodules; it is one of the most durable rocks available, being sharper than a metal razor and second only to diamond in hardness; it splits into sharp splinters when struck by hard object, a process called knapping; this yields a cutting edge; polishing increased the mechanical strength of an axe head but also meant that penetration of wood was easier; outcrops of flint will have been exploited first, then mine shafts excavated vertically, with horizontal galleries following; the miners used antler picks and (shoulder) bone shovels as digging tools; there are 10 known Neolithic flint mines in England; examples of flint from Cissbury, West Sussex, have been found as far afield as Italy; Grimes Graves, close to the Norfolk and Suffolk border, boasts 433 flint pits, comprising vertical shafts of 40 ft deap and horizontal galleries; the area was worked from roughly 3000 BC to perhaps as late as 1600 BC, when metal tools supplanted those made of flint; surface flint at Grimes Graves has a mottled appearance, but the flint found underground has a glossy, lustrous, intensely black appearance; aesthetics drove the miners downwards; there was apparently no settlement at Grimes Graves and there may have been a spiritual dimension to the mining operation; a small chalk ‘Venus’ figurine has been found, made of chalk and positioned on a pedestal; the figure is similar to those found elsewhere in Europe and may be linked to the worship of the goddess of the earth; flint was later used to ignite gunpowder as musket flints (e.g. manufactured in the English town of Brandon, which is near Grimes Graves), to light fires by striking on steel to produce sparks, in the manufacture of glass and, up to the present day, as a building material; greenstone was used in place of flint as the basis of the Stone Age axe industry in Langdale in the Lake District; non-flint stone axes were made at many other sites, including Penmaenmawr in North Wales and Tievebulliagh in County Antrim, Ulster


Smelting: this is the melting of ore and its chemical reduction (i.e. deoxidation) to release elemental metal; smelting was the critical breakthrough that led to the Metal Ages; a metal cannot usually be simply melted out of its ore by heat because most metals are chemically bound to oxygen (as an oxide); these compounds resist temperatures much higher than those attainable in furnaces burning coal or wood; the trick in smelting is to provide a reducing (deoxidizing) substance that combines with the oxygen, freeing the metal; charcoal when burnt produces carbon and this provides a reducing atmosphere that drives off the oxygen bound to the elemental metal as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide; this process was used to reduce the oxides of tin (cassiterite, SnO2) and lead (Lead [II] oxide, PbO), then copper (cuprite, CuO) and then millenia later iron (hematite, Fe2O3); iron ore melts at a much higher temperature than the others, accounting for the lag; cast beads of smelted lead from Anatolia have been dated to 6500 BC; yet smelted lead and the rarer tin were not decisive technological breakthroughs in themselves as they are relatively soft metals and hence unsuitable for tools and weapons; additionally, tin is brittle; copper when it was smelted was a distinct improvement, yet copper is difficult to cast (pour into a shaped mould) and not very hard when set, so tools made from it blunt quickly; what improved things was hardening the copper into an alloy (combination of metals) called bronze, using tin or arsenic, the latter often being found anyway in copper ores; the first arsenic bronzes date from around 4200 BC and come from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey); tin bronze, harder and more durable still than arsenic bronze, dates from about 3200 BC, also from Asia Minor, as well as Susa (Iran) and Mesopotamia (Iraq); after 2500 BC tin bronze had become the only kind of bronze; the alloying process is easier to control with tin bronze than arsenic bronze, because tin is available as a separate metal, and the alloy was easier to cast and led to stronger products; also, unlike arsenic, tin is not poisonous




'Copper and tin were discovered and worried out of the earth; the one too soft and the other too brittle for the main purpose, but, blended by human genius, they opened the Age of Bronze. Other things being equal, the men with bronze beat the men with flints. The discovery was hailed, and the Bronze Age began.' (Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 1956)


Bronze is an alloy – a mixture of two or more metals achieved by melting them together – of copper stiffened with a small amount of tin (5-10%); tin was added to molten copper; it was the great revolution of its day


'It was not until casting hot metal was developed that it was technically possible to manufacture all kinds of complex articles by pouring molten metal into stone moulds, and it was discovered that impure copper made a more durable product than the unadulterated ore. Hence tin was deliberately added in a proportion to make an alloy (bronze) which was easy to cast and produced a tough durable product.' (Ian McNeil Cooke, Journey to the Stones, 1996)


Tin bronze is more fluid when smelted than copper on its own, has a lower melting point and is usefully slower to set, allowing moulds to fill better; it is also harder and stronger than copper, so better for tools and weapons; the technological breakthrough represented by combining copper and tin ushered in the Bronze Age, from around 2500 BC; Britain provided both copper and tin for bronze, but it was as the ‘Tin Island’ that Britain achieved truly global significance [for a comparison of bronze and iron, see Iron]


Copper: Britain’s contribution of copper to the world was much less important than Cornish tin, because copper is more common than tin; the first British copper mine is believed to have been on the Atlantic side of the island, on the coast of North Wales; there are some thirty sites of prehistoric copper mining now known in this area, with four being worked in the centuries after 2000 BC; Great Orme in North Wales is in fact the world’s largest prehistoric copper mine; production went on continuously there into the AD 1800s; genetic analysis at the small town of Abergele on the north coast of Wales near Llandudno shows links with Spain; the inference is that metalworkers came over from the Iberian Peninsular, as part of a thriving Atlantic coastal metal trade network; near Great Orme Neolithic passage tombs and stone circles have been excavated; copper was also obtained from Cornwall and in the north of Britain; in modern times the island of Anglesey, along the coast from Great Orme, became the world’s biggest supplier into the 1600s, with Swansea in South Wales taking over in the 1700s and 1800s; a unique process was developed at Swansea to deal with the difficult local ore, which yielded a product of unprecedented quality and global significance; Nelson’s ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had weedless and streamlined hulls because they were copper-bottomed; this gave them the tactical advantage of speed over the French ships, with their unprotected hulls coated with weed and barnacles; brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, became important in the industrial revolution; pinchbeck is a form of brass closely resembling gold; it was invented in 1732 by London clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck


Tin: this is required for alloying (combining) with copper to produce bronze; Britain’s southwest peninsula of Cornwall is the Earth’s molten interior squirted to the surface, in a way unmatched in Europe, though there are prehistoric mines dotted along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard, including in western Spain, Brittany, southern Ireland and North Wales; European tin mining is believed to have started in Cornwall and perhaps also on Dartmoor in Devon; the trade particularly boomed for Britain around 1600 BC


'Tin was one of the rarest metals used in Ancient Europe and only occurred in significant quantities in south-west Britain, north-east Iberia and an area around the present German-Czech border. It was the almost permanent shortage of tin for making into bronze which affected advanced civilisations for the eastern Mediterranean during the first millenium BC, that created a lucrative market for those tribes inhabiting the tin-bearing fringes of Atlantic Europe.' (Ian McNeil Cooke, Journey to the Stones, 1996)


Tin and other metals are in vertical deposits, unlike coal which is deposited in horizontal seams; tin represents about 2 parts per million of the Earth’s crust; it is a rare metal, with deposits small; even the best ore tends to have no more than 5% tin; locating a good tin lode requires great skill; tin occurs


'…both as underground lodes surfacing in cliff faces and hillsides, and as alluvial concentrations weathered out from rich veins exposed to the elements over thousands of years. This ‘stream tin’ lay in most valleys and beaches of West Cornwall, often under a thick covering of sands, clay, earth and decayed vegetation, and was the main source of tin up until the 17th century AD.' (Ian McNeil Cooke, Journey to the Stones, 1996)


Since tin and copper ores mostly occur separately, bringing these metals together in the ancient world involved trade, yet the two metals unusually occur together in many Cornish mineral lodes; Britain’s comparative advantage lay in a relative abundance of tin in Cornwall, adjacent to sea lanes; this gave western Britain a unique importance to the Mediterranean world of antiquity; there was production of tin well before 2000 BC from a mine at Kestel in the Taurus Mountains, in what is modern-day Turkey, but no later; it is not known why the world’s oldest tin mine went out of production, just before the boom represented by the Bronze Age; tin was also available from southern Iran; copper artefacts in Britain and Europe dated to around 2500 BC give way to tin bronze around 2200 BC; the tin deposits in the southwest of Britain had been discovered, with an export boom ensuing; there are speculative claims of very early trading activity, thus


'…Sumerian Barat-Phoenician merchants had formed isolated mining and trading settlements in Albion before 2800 B.C.' [Source: Waddell, p167]


The Phoenicians were a race of seafaring traders who obtained tin from secret islands mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in 445 BC and called the ‘Cassiterides’; this was a reference to Britain or a part thereof and cassiterite is the name of a tin oxide ore to this day, often found close to areas of granite; in the Bible’s Old Testament the Amorites of Syria-Phoenicia-Palestine are called ‘the sons of Anak…’; Anak in Akkadian is a name for tin; Britain was the ancient world’s source of much of the tin for bronze; the chief port of Amorite Phoenicians was Tarshish (Tarsus), cited in the Old Testament as a merchant centre for tin and other metals; Tarshish was conquered by Sargon I of Akkad; a road-tablet inscription of his from 2200s BC seems to refer to the ‘Tin-land beyond the Mediterranean’; the British Chronicles known as the Bruts of England describe the migration to Britain from Syria of Chaldeans, around 1560 BC [see Albyne]; these migrants will have been aware of Britain’s status as the Tin Island; Cornish tin was initially taken to Mediterranean markets by boat, via Cadiz; the later safer route was via France (Loire/Rhone valleys, 30 days by packhorse), as described by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC; an earlier overland route further south across France might have featured the Rivers Garonne and Aude; the tin trade was mentioned by Pytheas in the 400s BC, Polybius in the 200s BC and by Strabo (64 BC – c24 AD); Phoenician Cornish tin was almost certainly used – as bronze, with Cyprus copper – in the construction of Solomon’s Temple, which is believed to have been completed in 960 BC; another user of tin from the Cassiterides, according to Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), was Midas, of 'golden touch' fame, king of Phyrigia (in modern-day Turkey) in the 2nd millenium BC


'Midas had some knowledge of Britain if, as Pliny says, in his NaturalHistory, he was the first to import tin from the “Cassiteridan” Isle, for casseritos was the early name for tin, and Britain was the sole source of this essential alloy for the manufacture of bronze. The word cassiteros, like Cassiterides, the Tin Isles, was adapted from the name of the Cassi, hence showing the antiquity of that cognomen...' (William Comyns Beaumont, The Riddle of Prehistoric Britain, 1946; for more on ‘Cassi’, see Hyperborea)


The Romans seem to have left Cornwall substantially alone because by that time the Empire was being supplied by newly exploited deposits in north-western Iberia (Spain); in the industrial revolution that saw Britain become the world’s first industrial country, Richard Trevithick – known locally as ‘Captain Dick’ – built his (and the world’s) first high-pressure engine at Dolcoath tin and copper mine in Cornwall in 1799; this ushered in a new era in steam engine development, after the pioneering developments of Savery, Newcomen and Watt [see Steam engine]; Cornwall has also been a supplier of tungsten, often found near tin ores, and tungsten is newly available from Devon, in the twenty-first century; tungsten is used to toughen steel; another traditional product was arsenic, used as an insecticide from the late nineteenth century; during this same period other sources of copper and tin came on stream from British Empire and other suppliers, causing a collapse in prices; this led to the closure of many mines in southwest England; local miners were prepared to go almost anywhere for work such that it came to be said that ‘Where there is a hole in the ground there is a Cornishman’; South Crofty, a Cornish tin mine, is returning to production, with a rise in the global price for this metal


Iron: this has to be smelted, like other metals; smelting means melting of the iron ore and its chemical reduction – deoxidation – to free elemental iron; yet the temperature at which lead has to be smelted is much higher than that for lead, tin and copper, so mankind got to iron much later than these; the ‘iron’ of the ancient world was wrought iron, where ‘wrought’ means worked with a hammer, i.e. forged, by smiths; wrought iron has a very low carbon content, unlike the much harder steel, while being usefully tough, malleable and ductile; the other form of iron, cast iron, was only introduced into Europe in the 1400s and involves pouring molten metal into moulds; it might be assumed that the Iron Age succeeded the Bronze Age because iron is stronger than bronze, yet this is not so; bronze is generally harder than wrought iron; iron won out because it is more plentiful than the ores of copper and particularly tin that are necessary for bronze manufacture; archaeologists speculate that movements of peoples in the Mediterranean around 1200-1100 BC may have disrupted supplies of tin from Britain and elsewhere, encouraging the use of iron; 1107-5 BC saw massacring invasions of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and the Syrio-Phoenician seaboard by the Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser I; the use of bronze continued in the Iron Age, with the weaker and cheaper wrought iron being found sufficiently strong for many purposes; bronze is also less brittle than iron, more corrosion resistant (which is particularly important in maritime applications), more pleasingly coloured (e.g. for statuary), more musically appealing (e.g. for bells and cymbals) and shows lower metal-to-metal friction (important many hundreds of years later when bronze cannon were used to fire iron cannonballs); techniques were in place in Britain for working iron by 750 BC, which is thus regarded as the start of the Iron Age in Britain; iron mines are mentioned in the extant legal code of a king called Molmutius, dating from about 420 BC; the mines are described as being common property, but what was dug out of them was privately owned; metallurgy, along with bardism and learning or literature, is one of ‘privileged arts’ of King the Molmutine Laws, gaining an extra allowance of land; there were 30-odd Roman iron mines in Britain, most being in the Weald (that is, the area between the North and the South Downs in southeast England) and in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire); plentiful wood was required, crucially, as fuel for smelting; the Roman war machine needed vast amounts of iron and by that period iron was much improved in hardness and durability; many centuries later, the ready availability of iron ore, now with coal rather than timber for fuel, provided the precondition for industrialisation, which was pioneered in Britain in the mid-1700s; the first documented blast furnace was at Riveaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, in 1350, though there may have been blast furnaces as early as 700 in what is now Spain, making Riveaulx’s achievement a reinvention; the remains of other medieval blast furnaces have also been found in Sweden and Germany; at Riveaulx, iron ore was placed in the furnace together with added charcoal, in a blast of hot air; pig iron resulted that was purer, less brittle and had more uses; in 1621 Dud Dudley perfected the use of coal; in 1709 Abraham Darby’s coke-filled furnaces led to explosion in use of cast iron, ushering in the modern world; coke is a pure form of coal, lacking the latter’s sulphur, which compromises the strength of cast iron; Darby invented casting with green sand; the steam rolling machine for improved iron was developed by Henry Cort in 1783; Benjamin Huntsman in the 1740s made steel (iron hardened with carbon) by melting iron ore in a crucible, i.e. without forging, using coke; the Bessemer Converter of Henry Bessemer, 1856, initiated the modern era of mass steelmaking, e.g. for railway tracks; also important was the regenerative furnace of Wilhelm Siemens in the 1860s; stainless steel was invented by Henry Brearley in 1912; this involved the additon of chromium to reduce staining and corrosion; it was initially used in aeroengine valves in the First World War


Lead & silver: lead is easy to shape and cast; it was used by the Romans for piping, guttering and water storage and also in pewter (which is an alloy primarily of >85% tin, with added lead); the largest sources of lead in Britain were in Somerset at Mendip and Charterhouse, with additional production in northwest England and in Wales; by AD 70, Britannia had surpassed Hispania (Spain) as the main producer of lead in the Roman Empire; lead and silver were often found together, with silver being encased in lead ore; British silver was minted into Roman coins; in the eigthteenth century Britain was a world leading producer of lead and silver, notably from the North Pennines


Gold: there was a Roman mine at Dolaucothi, Wales; yet Julius Caesar said that the Early Britons used gold coins, so indigenous gold mining may well have preceded the arrival of the Romans; base metal coinage certainly was minted and circulated in the centuries BC in Britain, as abundant specimens have come down to us [see Sources: Waddell]; in the twenty-first century gold is only mined in commercial quantities in County Antrim, Northern Ireland


Coal: this is a sedimentary rock formed from the fossilised remains of trees, ferns and other plants growing in stinking swamp forests of the late Carboniferous period; later earth movements have changed the coal into the forms found today in the Coal Measures, so called; ‘It happens that Highland Britain is made up mainly of rocks that are older than the Coal Measures (which contain the bulk of the workable coal in this country) whereas Lowland Britain is made up mainly of rocks that are younger than the Coal Measures. It is for this reason that we find most of the coalfields of Britain on the margins of the highlands and the lowlands.’ (L Dudley Stamp, Britain’s Structure and Scenery, 1946); key coalfields, historically, have been Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Northumberland, Durham, South Wales and, away from the diagonal (/) divide that defines Britan geologically, Kent and Scotland; ancient roads from Wales to the English coast, long pre-dating the Romans, point to the early importance of the coal trade; one started at St David’s, Pembrokeshire, and ended at Hamo’s Port, Southampton; there is reckoned to have been surface mining in Roman Britain; coal


'...became of economic importance only in the 15-16c, when its increasing use for firing bricks led in turn to brick hearths in which it could be more efficiently burnt as fuel. By the 17c there was a major trade in coal down to London and the South of England from the first area of large-scale mining, Tyneside. Improvements in the smelting of iron by Abraham Darby and others in the mid-18c led to a surge of industrialization in Staffordshire and the Black Country. By then Britain was the world’s leading producer of coal, with new mines being developed throughout the country – in particular in Scotland, Yorkshire and the valleys of south Wales.' (Bamber Gascoigne, Encyclopedia of Britain, 1993)


By the early 1700s Britain was a country of high wages and cheap energy, the latter in the form of coal; the great inventions of that (eighteenth) century – the steam engine, mechanical spinning, smelting iron with coke – all served to economise on labour; the industrial revolution occurred in Britain because of expensive labourers and inexpensive coal, with steam engines being initially designed to pump water out of pits as miners reached the water table and railways being there to move coal around them; the invention of the mine railway is attributed to Huntingdon Beaumont, 1604; by 1800 Britain was producing the vast preponderance of the world’s coal; she was in fact the largest exporter of coal in the first half of the twentieth century; on the eve of the Second World War (1939-45) the situation was this:


'In terms of monetary value Britain’s greatest exports were manufactures, but in terms of bulk coal was overwhelmingly important. Britain was not merely self-sufficient in energy, but was the world’s leading exporter of coal, the world’s most important source of energy. Just before the war some 37 million tons of coal (excluding bunker coal in ships) was exported…' (David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine, 2011)


Britain continued to be a major coal-producing nation after the Second World War; production continues on a more modest scale in the 2000s, with somewhat more coming from opencast operations than from deep mining; from the point of view of use rather than production, Britain consumed much more coal in the 1950s than in the 1850s, while the world consumed more in 2000 than in 1950 or 1900


'Until the 18th century mankind’s output has been restricted by the amount of physical force that humans (and domesticated animals) could exert and by the amount of wood that people could chop down. Fossil fuels delivered a massive productivity boost. In a recent article for the Cato Institute, Matt Ridley…argues for the importance of coal in allowing the industrial revolution to be sustained. “Fossil fuels were the only power source that did not show diminishing returns,” he writes. “In sharp contrast to wood, water and wind, the more you mined them the cheaper they became.” A further advantage was that coal supplies were so large. By 1830, Mr Ridley estimates, Britain was consuming coal with an annual energy output equivalent to 15m acres of forest, about three times the size of Wales.' (The Economist, 23 October 2010)


The Davy safety lamp, designed to alert miners to the presence of dangerous fumes, was invented by Humphry Davy in 1816 and tested successfully at Hebburn Colliery [Source: Robertson/Shell]; it was manufactured by John Newman of London; the first practical electric miners lamp used a Swan bulb and was designed by RE Compton; it was demonstrated at Pleasley Colliery, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1881 [Source: Robertson/Shell]; in that same year Earnock Colliery, Glasgow, became the first colliery lit below ground with electricity [Source: Robertson/Shell]; James Young (1811-1883) developed a process to distil paraffin from coal, founding the first oil works and an industry


Salt: the technique of heat-evaporating seawater to produce crystalline salt is said to have been discovered during Roman times in Maldon, Essex; ‘Maldon Salt’ is available to this day; modern salt mining was invented in Marbury, near Northwich in Cheshire in 1670, with Britain becoming the world’s largest producer


Jet: this black minor gemstone is derived from wood decaying under pressure; the Phoenicians exported this from Britain and amber from the Baltic; amber, which is fossil tree resin, also washes up on Britain’s East Coast, presumably as a result of erosion of undersea deposits


Graphite: the pencil (defined as a graphite writing instrument) was invented in Britain in the early 1500s, inventor unknown; it was based on graphite (from the Greek word for writing) found at Borrowdale in the Lake District; the graphite was encased in string or sheepskin; a cottage industry grew up; wood cased pencils came later, around 1564; graphite is an allotrope of carbon, diamond being another; it was also known historically as plumbago and black lead, whence 'pencil lead'; the first recorded use of graphite in Britain was as easy-release moulds for diecast coins by a counterfeiter in the time of Henry VII, who reigned 1485-1509; hence the discovery of Borrowdale is dated to 'around 1500' [Source: Cumberland Pencil Museum, personal communication]


'…the pits in Cumberland, which, as is well known, produce the best plumbago…They are situated at Borrowdale mountains, about ten miles from the town of Keswick…It is related…that at first the country-people marked their sheep with it. Afterwards the art was discovered of employing it for earthen-ware, and preserving iron from rust…the very convenient method of wiping out writing with a black-lead pencil, by means of gum elastic [i.e. rubber; see Joseph Priestley], was discovered about twenty or thirty years ago, and, as I believe, first in England.' (John Beckmann, A History of Inventions and Discoveries, 1814)


'Production of pencils on a commercial scale began in England with the opening of the Borrowdale graphite pits in Cumberland...During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nearly all the pencils sold in Europe and America came from the Borrowdale mine.' [Source: Robertson]


Borrowdale graphite has never been surpassed in quality; Britain's world monopoly was eroded in the late 1700s, when a process of mixing lower quality graphite with clays was developed, after the graphite had been crushed to remove impurities, and when other deposits were found in the 1800s, overseas, at a time when Borrowdale was anyway becoming depleted; the mine was closed in 1891; the Cumberland Pencil Museum is to be found in Keswick; it celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2011


Clay: the use of local clay for pottery goes back nearly 5,000 years in Britain; the Ancient Britons have tended to be categorized indeed according to their pottery, notably Grooved Ware, which is uniquely British; this arose in the Orkneys (warmer then) some time after 3000 BC and was disseminated across the British Isles; Unstan Ware is even earlier and again seems to have come from the Orkneys, whereas the later Beaker Ware (2400-1800 BC) came across from the Continent; lead glazed pottery appeared for the first time anywhere in the world in Britain (also France) around AD 1100; Britain’s china clay (kaolin) is used for ceramics – and as a whitener in printing and in the production of paint, plastics etc; Cornwall’s are the largest deposits of china clay in the world and over 120 million tons have so far been extracted, much of it for export, since it was found in 1746 by William Cookworthy; the discovery of china clay facilitated a move beyond earthenware to the production and export of fine porcelain, notably by the legendary Josiah Wedgewood and other Staffordshire potters


Oil & gas: in the 20th century oil replaced coal as the fuel of choice, having a particularly enormous impact on transport; oil and gas are hydrocarbon fossil fuels that occur as accumulations trapped in geological structures and in porous and permeable reservoir rocks beneath the Earth’s surface; petroleum (i.e. oil) is the second most abundant liquid on Earth after water; oil and gas are used for energy and as chemical feedstocks; from oil comes petrol, diesel and kerosene; where oil seeps to the surface it evaporates leaving bitumen, a tarry residue that has been used for thousands of years for waterproofing and in plumbing and building; oil and gas are generated ultimately from the remains of marine algae and vegetation trapped in fine-grained mudstones and other sedimentary rocks; these act as source rocks; on burial, temperatures and pressures increase and the hydrocarbons generated migrate through rock pores and fissures to be trapped by impermeable cap rocks; appropriate source rocks occur widely on the British mainland; oil shale was exploited in the Midland Valley of Scotland from 1851-1962; the world’s first oil tank, Atlantic, was launched on the Tyne in 1863 [Source: Robertson/Shell]; the systematic search for onshore oil was spurred on in particular after 1918 and again after 1939, at the start of the two World Wars; the first oil proper was discovered at Hardcroft in east Derbyshire in 1919 with more coming from the East Midlands of England, to make a crucial contribution to wartime supplies; into the present day by far and away the largest onshore oil and gas field is at Wytch Farm in Dorset; this is the largest onshore oilfield in Europe and ranks in the UK’s top 10 oilfields, including those offshore; Wytch Farm is operated by BP; this company also discovered gas in the North Sea in 1965, inaugurating Britain’s offshore hydrocarbons era; the first gas was piped ashore by BP in 1967, at Easington, County Durham, from the West Sole field [Source: Robertson/Shell]; oil fields were discovered offshore in 1969; the first oil brough ashore were 14,000 tons of crude from the Argyle field, 180 miles off the Scottish coast, landed at the Isle of Grain oil refinery on 18 June 1975 [Source: Robertson/Shell]; full exploitation the offshore resources, which dwarf those onshore, in one of the world’s most hostile environments, has required daring, pushing men and extraction technology to the limits; national self-sufficiency in oil was achieved by 1980, with production peaking in 1999, at 4.5m barrels a day, and production predicted at 2m in 2016; Britain became a net importer of gas once more in 2004; it is expected to be a large importer of oil once more by 2020; in 2009 the International Energy Agency predicted that in the absence of big new discoveries 2020 will also be the peak year of oil production in global history; a supply crunch looms, yet 'peak oil' has been predicted five or six times in the past century and a half by jeremiahs who have not taken sufficient account of human ingenuity and the power of market forces (i.e. shortages driving up prices); perhaps only a fifth of the world's endowment of oil has so far been extracted


Trade: Britain during Roman times exported minerals extracted from the ground, plus leather, corn and flax, in exchange for luxury goods from across the Continent; yet trade across the Channel had started aeons before the Romans arrived and even the Romans themselves had been trading partners, perhaps via Gaulish intermediaries; Admiral Himilco of Carthage, who visited Britain around 525 BC, said that the Britons were 'a powerful race, proud-spirited, effectively skilful in art and constantly busy with the cares of trade'; the Molmutine Laws of around 420 BC specifically stated that foreign traders were not to be oppressed or injured; if a foreigner was shipwrecked he was to be given free maintainance; Britain was to achieve vast wool exports in the Middle Ages, before the coal and manufactured goods of the Industrial Age and the oil, gas and commercial and cultural services in the most recent era

[See Geology, Tectonic plate boundaries, Materials]

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