Goodbye to all that

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Kim Devereux-West – Land of Iron Cultural Heritage Assistant It’s that time already; my two year contract with the Land of Iron is almost over! With only a few days left on the clock I wanted to take a moment to … Continue reading

Combs Wood – Another Community Excavation

Eleanor Lees – Land of Iron Community Archaeology Intern

After a very wet dig back in May 2017, Land of Iron volunteers and staff returned for a second season of excavation at Combs Wood, Beck Hole in July 2018 to investigate this important iron working and mining site. Luckily for us the weather held – we got to experience excavating in the hottest summer since 1976!

One of the major elements of the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme is investigating the ironstone industry from the early 19th century to the early 20th century in the North York Moors. Like many of the remains from the iron industry in the area since that time, Combs Wood has been reclaimed by the natural environment. With only 10 days to excavate we had a lot of questions to try and answer…

Land of Iron - Combs Wood excavation July 2018. Copyright NYMNPA.

A Brief History of the site

Combs Wood is part of the Goathland Forest complex which belongs to the Forestry Commission. The site itself lies near the base of Goathland Incline and undoubtedly linked up with this railway line. The incline itself is so steep that in order to get the loaded coaches and wagons up to the top a gravity system was used – water butts were placed at the top of the incline and their weight was used to offset the weight of the wagons. Once the water butts were at the base of the incline they could be emptied and brought up to the top by horses. The horse-powered railway was converted into a steam hauled railway in 1845, and at some point the incline itself was transformed to steam power with a stationary engine at the top. The incline was eventually abandoned in 1865 (after an accident killed two and injured 13) in favour of a more level route, known commonly at the deviation line.

In 1857 that Whitby Iron Company was formed and began to construct the ironworks in Combs Wood. A series of drift mines were opened connected by elevated sets of tramways. The first iron was cast in 1860 and is commemorated by a cast-iron tablet in Whitby Museum. However the following iron working and mining operations were nothing short of disastrous until eventually in 1861 the owners offered the whole plant for sale. Receiving no bids the operation struggled on until a stormy night in 1864 when a landslide buried the two main access drifts, and demolished the beckside tramway and the water leat to the water wheel. No lives were lost but operations never resumed.

Nearby the small Beck Hole hamlet had changed exponentially with the opening of both the railway and the iron works. A row of 33 workers cottages were built corresponding with the workforce and their families. Birch Hall Inn was extended to include a provisions store. In 1860 the inn was licenced to sell ‘Ale, Porter, Cider and Perry’, vital for any workforce. The population boom ended in 1864 with the mines closed and the furnaces dismantled, the cottages were demolished and the only reminder in Beck Hole of a once lively iron industry was the expanded Inn. The ironworks site and associated cottages and infrastructure began to slowly recede under the encroaching vegetation…

Combs Wood excavation July 2018. Copyright NYMNPA.

The Excavation

Entering the site, we passed the remains of the bridge that once connected the ironworks to the other side of the Murk Esk river and the Whitby to Pickering railway line. At first, the lower part of the site appears to be fairly straight forward. To the right, there is a stone building potentially an office for a manager or clerk. It has two floors with evidence to suggest that the walls may have even been plastered. To the left, there is a wheel pit for a wheel powered by the river that runs perpendicular. We cleaned and recorded the office building as most of the necessary excavation here had already been completed during the previous season.

The wheel pit was another story and there was nothing simple about excavating this feature. which involved navigating the metal poles (cross acro clamps) used to shore up the pit walls, and the daily water removal from the pit bottom. The aim of excavating the wheel pit was to reveal and record the floor of the structure and to gain a greater understanding of its purpose and extent. However, as the excavation progressed, more and more questions about this feature emerged. While we now have a good idea of how the timber water wheel would have worked; we have less idea about what it actually powered. An investigation into a structure on the next level of the site was made to try and see how the wheel pit may have related to other structures on site, including a channel which ran from one level to the next.

Continuing along the tramway we made our way further up into the woods to the upper part of the site which holds arguably more mysteries to uncover. A row of collapsed buildings emerge from the grass to the left and ahead an unidentified structure which was almost completely hidden by vegetation. The first building we chose to explore is the middle of the three larger buildings. It revealed a red earth floor with slag (a waste product of iron working) scattered throughout. The main feature of the room is the ‘forge’ which is still in surprisingly good condition. Theories behind the purpose of this feature on the site are various, ranging from testing the quality of the iron ore coming out of the mines, to creating the horse shoes for the mine horses. To the left of the forge, we discovered an incredibly intact stable floor. The floor shows a drain running along the length of the stable with drilled post holes used to create the wooden stalls for the individual horses.

Have a look here to see a fab 3-D image of both the forge and the stable

Starting Them Young

On the first Saturday of each month the National Park Authority run the Moors and Valleys Young Archaeologist Club (YAC) for young people aged 8 to 16 years. For the July session, the club joined us on site at Combs Wood to experience a working archaeological excavation. The children were treated to an in-depth tour of the site and also got to sieve through the spoil heap to find any artefacts that the volunteers and staff had missed. The club did very well, discovering tile, pottery and even a nail.

YAC at Combs Wood excavation July 2018. Copyright NYMNPA.

Our Amazing Volunteers

The amount that we achieved in just 10 days is astounding and a credit to the work ethic of our volunteers. Not only did they shift tonnes of soil and stone they assisted with the public tours, and provided knowledge and insights which helped establish a greater understanding of the site. Without them the excavation would just not have been possible.

Thanks also to the Forestry Commission for permission to keep excavating.

 

Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme logos

This Exploited Land – a poetic mix of Victorian beauty and brass

Tom Mutton – TEL Programme Manager

When businessmen visited the Beck Hole Ironworks in 1860 their report in the Whitby Gazette gave a beautifully poetic account of this new enterprise. Despite the author’s lyrical writing style the article also illustrates a perceived total domination over the natural world that was the foundation of the industrial revolution.

This is partly what This Exploited Land is all about. Although in modern times we may miss the elegant language of the Victorian era, many of us have a very different view of the natural world and the potentially devastating effects of humanity’s exploitation of the planet. The way that nature has reclaimed the mines of the Esk Valley and Rosedale is humbling to see and shows us that we are surrounded by a beautiful and fascinating world that we should use our intellect to care for rather than abuse. To do this best we need to remember and learn from the past, being inspired by the monumental relics in the landscape and the stories from our ancestors who lived very different lives in the North York Moors we now enjoy.

Transcribed from Whitby Gazette 16 June 1860:

“…It is our pleasing duty to report the successful operation of the Whitby Iron Company’s (Limited) Works, at Goathland, which we noticed in our last impression as having been blown in on 7th inst.

A few of our principal townsmen spent Monday evening at those Works, and were delighted with the various departments. The magnificent engine which supplies the blast for smelting the iron from the ore moves round like a thing of life, and at once the ever-lasting hills of the valley resound with the voice as of a tide bursting upon our shores.

We heartily wish the Company success, as the pioneers in a pursuit which is destined to revolutionise the habits and maxims of the valley of the Esk, and with the facility of the rails and our own good port, we venture, the day is not distant when capital and enterprise will demand that the whole of the district become one grand scene of industry, and that, from one end of the valley to the other, Old King Coal, supported by the genius of man, will assert his power in developing those vast storehouses of wealth which, during the last few years, have attracted the attention of strangers to those exhaustless beds of minerals which nature has provided and stored up in this locality, for the use of man in the arts of civilised life. And Whitby will one day have to rejoice in the fact, that she is one of the principal ports in the kingdom for the export of iron to the commercial ports of the world.

Beckhole, the little village at the head of the valley where these works are situate, has now a strange sight to look out upon morning and evening, which are ushered in with a torrent of molten iron and a flood of lava gushing forth from the bowels of the company’s furnace. The sweet songsters of the woods and glens are now giving up their claim to the morning’s dawn and evening calm. The _________ voices of the sons of toil mingling with the music of the compressed air of the blast engine, wait for the dawn of the East, whilst the perpetual columns of vapour, smoke, and flame, tell of the presence of man, successfully reducing to practice the maxim of the company’s tablet, viz “Tis the prerogative of man to command, develope, and appropriate to his service the elements with which God has surrounded him.” The tablet at the foot of which the above inscription is fixed commemorates the incorporation of the Company, the date at which the first Iron was made upon the Works, and the names of the Directors; and was cast from the Iron first run from the furnace.

In this noble course of action the W.I.C.L., have led the way. We heartily wish them god speed, and doubt not the success which awaits their spirited enterprise; and hail with joy the event as a blessing to the surrounding neighbourhood, and the watchword to the progressive establishment if similar works, whose effect will be to convert this district into one of the most thriving seats of the iron trade of this country, creating labour for man and beast, and scattering in its train the blessings of trade hitherto unknown in the locality.”

WICL commemorative tablet - thanks to the Whitby Museum.

This tablet, referred to in the article and cast from the first Esk Valley iron, can be seen today in Whitby Museum.

It’s worth noting that Whitby Iron Company Limited was short lived – it was wound up in 1862.

Can you help?
There are two words in the article that are obscured by a tear in the paper from which it was transcribed – can you suggest what the missing words before ‘voices of the sons of toil…’ might be? please let us know.

Extract from the Whitby Gazette 16 June 1860 - thanks to Tammy Naylor.

This Exploited Land: the trailblazing story of ironstone and railways in the
North York Moors

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