This article first appeared in The Glynns Volume 8 (1980), it is re-presented here with additional hyperlinks.
“Within the last two years an extensive and valuable iron mine was discovered at Glenravil about 7 miles from Ballymena by James Fisher Esq. of Cleggan Lodge near this town and of Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire. Under the energetic management of this enterprising gentleman it was opened about 18 months ago.”
So read the editorial of the Ballymena Observer, Saturday, July 25th, 1868, commemorating the opening of the first of the Glenravel iron ore mines. Just three weeks earlier Mr. Fisher himself had given an open-air party for about fifty gentlemen friends on the mountainside near the mine. It was an unusual repast, but no more unusual than the event it commemorated for here, in one of the bleakest, most barren and out-of-the-way places in the country, rich seams of iron ore had been found and mud-stained miners were raising 300 tons of top quality ore per week. This situation could hardly have been envisaged a few years earlier, not even by Fisher. Others before him were aware of the existence of iron-bearing rock but failed to exploit it or to locate the richer seams.
The first had been Nicholas Crommelin, who, in 1843, in his task of settling the area and building the village which bears his name, found a sample of the ore. He had it analysed by Professor John F. Hodges who found it to contain from 18 to 25% peroxide of iron. Crommelin’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he set about building a furnace to smelt the ore using the local peat for firing. He made repeated attempts to smelt the ore and succeeded in obtaining some metallic iron but the difficulties were so great that he abandoned the idea altogether. His furnace still stands near the village of Newtowncrommelin, a monument to his endeavours.
Some years later Hodges was again called to examine some specimens in the possession of Edward Benn, the Glenravel landlord. These were obviously much richer specimens than Crommelin’s for Hodges was now convinced that valuable deposits lay hidden in the Glenravel mountains. Benn had his ore smelted by a local smith, John McAlister of Legegrane, who managed to produce a small sample of iron. This was then taken to Rowan’s foundry in Belfast where it was mistakenly identified as having been produced from the best Swedish ore. This was praise indeed but it seems strange that Benn himself took his discovery no further. Perhaps he was deterred by the failure of various other projects with which he was connected — the distillation of alcohol and the distillation of paraffin — and was reluctant to invest money in any new venture. At any rate, it wasn’t until the arrival of James Fisher on the scene that mining the ore became a serious proposition. Credit for the initiation of the successful exploitation of the mineral wealth of this area is traditionally given to the parish priest of the time, Rev. Wm. John Macauley. He was a keen rambler and interested in geology and he was aware that the home-based linen industry, by which the majority of his parishioners lived, was in decline owing to the rise of the large spinning mills. His parish included the Braid and no doubt because of this he became acquainted with James Fisher who was then residing at Cleggan House, the property of Lord O’Neill.
When a parishioner showed Father Macauley a piece of red rock he had found, Mr. Fisher was immediately contacted for Fisher already had mining interests in N. W. England, an iron ore producing region. The pair of them then set off on an exploration trip to Ballynahavla, near Cargan accompanied by two other men, one of whom had found the ore in the first place. They went almost directly to the spot and lifting back a piece of overhanging turf discovered a seam two feet thick. They at once proceeded to Glenravel House to see Edward Benn who encouraged them to investigate further and gave Fisher permission to dig for a year at a rent of £10. The stage was thus set for one of the greatest industrial booms of the century which was to last nearly 70 years.
In 1866 Fisher began by outcrop digging or opencast mining at a place known as the Gullets, on the slopes of Slievenanee, and in the first six months was able to ship 18,000 tons of ore to England worth about £1 per ton. It was not long, however, before he realised that more and better ore lay within the outcrop and he began to drive adits. The first underground mine to be opened was aptly named the Glenravel mine, situated in the townland of Legegrane on the south slope of Slievenanee. This was in January 1867. Soon, other enterprising gentlemen began to take note, among them Silas Evans who laid the foundations of the Antrim Iron Ore Company which quickly took up large parcels of the country.
There was a great influx of people into the area and several mining villages sprang up, chief among them Fisherstown, named after James Fisher, but now with the uninteresting name of Cargan. The ordinary farm workers of the area took to the novel type of employment and soon acquired the new skills of mining. Wages of 7/- per week in 1867 rose in 1875 to 15/- and 20/- per week for underground workers and to 13/- and 14/- per week for surface workers. By 1873 there were about 700 men employed directly in the mines and 600 horses were being used in carting away the ore.
To facilitate this Fisher had built his own tramway which ran from the Gullets to Parkmore, a distance of two miles. There was as yet no narrow-gauge railway from Ballymena. Most of the miners were labourers and small farmers and the owner of a small farm could even do part-time work at the mines when farming conditions permitted. This helped to supplement his farm income. This new-found source of wealth led to a rather unruly sort of life and drinking sprees and brawls were common. Fisherstown was so wild that children were not allowed on the street when the miners were in town — a situation more akin to the Wild West in the goldrush days.
At the start of mining operations levels were driven generally two or three at a time. A connecting passage was then cut to join these levels together to provide a cir-culation of air to the miners and to disperse explosive fumes. From this stage the mine was extended horizontally generally following the ore seam and this gave rise to the term — the Longwall method — literally along the wall of the passage. As soon as a sound roof was met with, side roads were driven right and left and from these the working areas branched off approximately 8 yards apart. In these areas the miner excavated the ore with a pick and shovel in a cramped and awkward position lying on his side. He removed the ore and waste rock in a wide circular sweep and if the roof was thought to be unstable or unsafe he left pillars of rock standing to support it. This method of mining was known as the ‘room and pillar’ and many examples of it are still visible today in these mines.
Probably early in the process rails were laid into the mine to provide a means of removing the waste rock as well as the ore. For this reason the main adit was driven 7 feet high by 8 feet wide to accommodate a double line of rails. Alternatively, if a single line was considered sufficient or the level was for ventilation only, e.g. an air drift, it was driven only 5 feet wide. As the workings progressed the waste rock within the mine was used to block off workings which became exhausted or to support the roof in place of the ore which had been removed.
The average thickness of the No. 1 or pisolitic ore was about 14 inches and beneath this lay the No. 2 ore or ferruginous bauxite, known locally as ‘pavement’ and about 5 feet in thickness. Where the good ore was compact or solid it was brought down by means of blasting and for this gunpowder was used. It was only much later in the story of mining that dynamite came into use in the mines. In Fisher’s mines the best seams of ore yielded 60% iron and the average yield was about one ton of ore per cubic yard. Similarly, at Evishnacrow the quality was good and the peas of iron (hence pisolitic) in the ore had the appearance ‘when split, of cast steel.’ At Cargan Mines the ore was up to 40% iron falling to 18% in the poorer seams.
In going through the mines today one is struck by the scarcity of roof timbers in all but the lowest and widest workings. This is simply because the rock which forms the roof of these mines is solid basalt and is so sound even today that supporting timbers were rarely required when they were being worked. This was an inducement to English companies to start operations here because the average cost of timbering in the Glenravel mines was estimated at only one penny per ton. In England the cost was 1/-per ton. Timbering was mainly required only in low workings where a wide expanse of ore had been removed or as a safety precaution in side roads where the miners were constantly coming and going with their hutches. The miners were paid 10d to 1/- per hutch for good ore, less for poor ore and 3d per hutch for aluminous ore or bauxite. Each hutch held on average 13’/ cwt. of ore and a hard-working miner could fill as many as five hutches in a day, i.e. over 3 tons. A tallyman was employed to keep count of the number of hutches each miner brought to the surface.
It is generally believed that the miners regularly deceived the tallyman by mixing the bad ore with the good and getting paid the higher rate and that this practice led to the ore being considered unsuitable for the smelters and thus hastened the closure of the mines. It would be unfair to accuse the miners of ‘cutting their own throats.’ After all, no one believed that the mines would be abandoned in their lifetime. There were literally millions of tons of ore to be had. But all mining enterprises are uncertain and what may be a profitable mine one day may be a liability the next, e.g. the Cargan Mine (see below).
The miners worked on a shift system so that they would not be mining ore all day. This meant that they worked half the day in the mine digging ore and the other half on the surface loading it or doing some other job. They would be replaced at the ore face by other miners who had been on the surface during the morning shift. The hours in the Glenravel mines were 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. By the early 1870’s several mines were being worked — Fisher at Slievenanee, the Crommelin Mining Co. at Tuftarney, the Antrim Iron Ore Co. at Cargan and Dungonnell and Mr. Charles Chambers and the Evisnacrow Iron Co. at Evishnacrow. Mining had also extended to other areas, namely Parkmore, Glenariff, Rathkenny, Carncormick and Broughshane. Up to this time the mines had been worked solely for iron ore. Aluminium was still a virtually unknown commodity and it was only in 1870 that it was realised it could be obtained from bauxite. In fact, these minerals, aluminium and iron, are two of the most common elements of the Earth’s crust between them making up nearly 15% of the total composition. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the ores of these metals, bauxite and iron ore, formed by the prolonged weathering of basalt lavas, are found side by side in the Antrim hills.
It was Professor Hodges again who, probably because of his familiarity with the ores of the district, discovered bauxite in the Cargan Mine in 1871. This discovery added more interest and potential to the mining industry and boosted out-put from the mines for several years. During these years too the narrow-gauge railway had arrived, reaching Cargan in May 1875 and Retreat in October 1876. Branch lines were laid to the various groups of mines and these facilitated the ore being removed quickly from the mines to Ballymena and thence to Larne for shipment. The Wire Tramway, an overhead bucket system built in 1872 for transporting the ore from Cargan to Red Bay, had come and gone, having been sabotaged on the night of Sunday, July 13th 1873 and never repaired. Nevertheless, mining then even as today was dependant on an efficient means of getting ore away quickly. The railway encouraged expansion in the mining industry and made the ore more valuable because it was more accessible.
However, in the early 1880’s, due to a slump in the iron industry in Britain and the exhaustion of the better-class ores, production started to dwindle. The production of bauxite continued and some mines went over completely to the mining of bauxite e.g. Tuftarney and Evishnacrow mines, the latter being worked up to 1926. Iron ore production carried on at a reduced pace in most of the mines and towards the turn of the century the Crommelin company even opened a series of new mines along the east side of the Skerry Water and two bauxite mines on the west side. In general, however, the number of working adits steadily declined and desperate ef-forts were sometimes called for to prolong mining, e.g. at the Cargan Mine where numerous volcanic dykes displaced the ore seam, the miners had to bore their way through 200 feet of solid rock in an attempt to locate the seam but had to give up. Three of the five adits were soon to be closed but in 1907, in attempting to reopen one of them, an additional problem was encountered for the mine was by this time flooded.
In 1874, a prophetic writer, R. A. Watson, in an article in the Dublin University Magazine, made the comment that it would take some hundreds of years before these ore deposits would become exhausted, but sadly prophesy and actuality are seldom one and the same. All mining enterprises have to be abandoned sooner or later either because the deposits are exhausted or their extraction no longer pays. Mining, therefore, must eventually disappear from any area since it is only a temporary form of occupation. It is a natural progression. It took Nature millions of years to produce these minerals and what the miners removed in a few short decades cannot be replaced. The mines eventually closed and no one is really to blame. Various factors contributed to the decline, one of the main ones being the unfavourable dip of the ore seam which often caused flooding.
Fisher’s mines, the original Glenravel Mines closed on 29-10- 1913 because the best quality ore had been worked out and the second quality was considered uneconomical to work. Adits 3 and 4 of the Evisnacrow Mines were last worked on 31-12-1923 and closed because of the company’s inability to work them at a profit. The British Portland Cement Manufacturing Co. took over the bauxite mine here in 1925 but the bauxite proved unsuitable for their purpose and the mine was abandoned on 7-8-1926. The Dungonnell Mines were subject to flooding but they were abandoned in 1891 because of disagreements between the mining company and the leaseholders. The Crommelin Co. too was plagued by flooding problems as well as the ore failing but still managed to excavate an exten-sive series of workings at Skerry East, many of which are still accessible. Quite apart from these reasons there are three other factors which contributed to the closure of the mines.
Firstly, there were no smelters in Co. Antrim and the ore had to be shipped to mainland Britain. Secondly, the quality of the iron ore was not good enough for smelting on its own — it had to be mixed in the furnaces with other richer, imported ores. The bauxite, too, was not entirely suitable for the manufacture of aluminium and only a small proportion was used for this purpose. Imported bauxite was cheaper and more suitable and so the demand for Antrim bauxite declined. Thirdly, the high cost of transport from the mines to the smelters and processing plants left little profit for the mining companies.
Although the mining industry in Glenravel appeared to have died prematurely it was not forgotten. With the outbreak of World War Two a new crisis loomed in the shape of U-boats and it became increasingly difficult to obtain foreign bauxite. In 1940 Lord Beaverbrook announced to the nation that there was a scarcity of aluminium, and aluminium was a vital ingredient in the manufacture of war planes. By this time Germany was producing about 50% more aluminium than the USA because of her control of Aluminium-producing countries. So it was that interest in the Antrim bauxites was rekindled and this led to re-investigation of local reserves. In 1941 new bauxite mines were opened at Newtowncrommelin known as the Skerry Mines. Other abandoned workings were reopened for their bauxite content and many Glenravel miners and sons of miners were recruited to work in the new mines. Many travelled daily to work in the vast labyrinth at Lyle’s Hill, Templepatrick. The Skerry Mines closed early in 1944 and mining as an industry finally ceased on 31-12-1945. Since then there had been no further working.
Although vast reserves of low-grade iron ore and bauxite still remain, to date they have not been considered economical to work. There is a tendency, however, for each nation to re-investigate its own mineral resources and with modern technology new uses are being found for the baser metals. Iron and alumium are two of the most common commodities in use today. There will always be a demand for them and as demand continues and foreign supplies become dearer and scarcer so it becomes economical to mine lower-grade deposits. Who is to say, therefore, that the miners will never again return to Glenravel?
Ballymena Observer, Saturday, July 25th 1868.
The Parish of Glenravel, Rev. J. Smith; Down and Connor Historical Society’s Journal, 1939.
Presidential Address (to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society), John F. Hodges; Nov. 10th 1875. (Courtesy of Hugh McCann, Glenravel House).
Practical Notes on the Mining of Iron Ores, Bauxite, etc. of Co. Antrim, C. H. Williams; Manchester Geological Society Transactions, 1894.
The Iron Mines of Antrim, R.A. Watson; Dublin University Magazine, Jan. 1874.
Metals in the Service of man, W. Alexander and A. Street; Pelican, 1944.
The Rise and Decline of the Iron Ore and Bauxite Industry in Co. Antrim; H. E. Wilson; Proc. Belfast Nat. Hist. and Phil. Soc. 1965.
The Interbasaltic Rocks (Iron Ores and Bauxites) of North-east Ireland, G. A. J. Cole; Memoirs Geological Survey, Dublin, 1912.
Mine Abandonment Details, Dept. of Commerce, Mineral Development Branch, Belfast.
(The discerning reader will have noticed that the writer of this excellent article is as familiar with the underground geography of the Glenravel mines as he is with the history of their development and decline. During the past six years he has in fact walked and waded his way, Saturday by Saturday, through every accessible mine in the glen. We are fortunate indeed to have an account from one who, if he has not actually mined underground, has followed the miners’ way to the working face. Ed.)
Edward Benn: Additional notes.
Edward Benn lived in ‘Glenravel House’ which stood in Glenravel, in the Glens of Antrim. Over the years he had developed an iron ore workings as well as a brewing business. In Belfast he was responsible for a lot of charitable work which included the building of two extensions to the poor-house (which remain to this day at Clifton House) as well as the building of the Samaritan Hospital on the Lisburn Road, the Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital on Clifton Street and the skin hospital on Glenravel Street (a street named after his home).
Born in Co Armagh in 1798, he died at Glenravel on the 3rd of August, 1874. His brother, George Benn
(1801-1882), was a well- known Belfast historian who wrote a number of books on Belfast history; books which are still being used to this day.
The following report on the funeral of Edward Benn is taken from the Belfast Newsletter of August 8th, 1874: FUNERAL OF THE LATE EDWARD BENN, ESQ.
“The remains of this much respected and deeply lamented gentleman were conveyed from his late residence; Glenravel House, Ballymena, and interred in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street, yesterday morning. At about half past ten o’clock, the coffin, (which was of very fine French-polished oak, with massive brass enrichments, bearing the following inscription:-EDWARD BENN, Died 3rd August 1874, Aged 76 years.) arrived at the Northern Counties Railway Terminus,York Road, and was conveyed to a hearse in waiting.
Shortly after eleven o’clock the funeral cortege started from the station for the place of interment. The hearse, which was drawn by four horses, was followed by a large number of mourning coaches and private carriages. In the foremost of the former sat the chief mourners, George
Benn, Esq, brother of the deceased, John F. Hodges, Esq, M.D. brother-in-law of the deceased; and Frederick Hodges, Esq.
The attendance was very large and highly influential, and represented the committees of the several charities to which the deceased had so generously contributed namely, the Committee of the Ulster Eye and Ear Hospital, which was built entirely at his expense; the Committee of the Hospital for the Treatment of Skin Diseases, at present being built at his expense; the Committee of the Charitable Institution, to which has been added two new wings, the cost of one of which was defrayed by Mr. Benn; the Committee of the Belfast General Hospital, to which he bequeathed £1,000; the Committee of the Samaritan Hospital for Women and Children, now being erected on the Lisburn Road at his sole expense; and the Committee of the Royal Academical Institution, to which he left a collection of antiquities said to be the best private collection in the North of Ireland, together with £1,000 to erect a suitable building for their reception. Other charities which had shared his benevolence in the same uncatentatious but truly practical manner showed their appreciation of the more than ordinary ( ) they had sustained in the person of Mr. Benn by following his remains to their last resting place.
The town and Corporation were represented by the Mayor (James Alexander Henderson, Esq, J.P.) and several members of the Council. Sir James Hamilton represented the Harbour Board. There was also
present a large number of the leading merchants and clergymen of the town to pay the last tribute of respect to the memory of the departed gentleman. The funeral cortege passed through York Street, Donegall Street, and Clifton Street. On arriving at the burying ground the coffin was borne to the grave. The remains of the departed gentleman having been consigned to their last resting place.”
(“Old Belfast” issue number 10: Joe Baker)