ON August 26, 1854, the Gateshead Observer reported an important find up on the North York Moors.

“Discovery,” ran the headline. “An extensive field of ironstone has recently been discovered at Rosedale, near Pickering. A sample of the stone, sent to Newcastle, has been analysed there this week, and found to contain no less than 67 per cent of pure iron.”

Pure iron – the building material of Empire. The great Moors iron rush was on.

People had known for centuries that there was iron up in them thar’ hills. Rievaulx Abbey had had its own ironworks in the early 1500s – and there were also attempts to mine ironstone in Bilsdale, Bransdale, Rosedale and Fryup Dale in the 1600s.

But it was the Victorians, with their insatiable hunger for iron, who took things to a different level.

Ore was initially quarried at the coast. In 1850 mining began near Eston, in what is today East Cleveland. By the mid-1850s, 35 “lowland” mines had opened between Great Ayton in the west, Eston, and Hinderwell on the coast.

Then came that discovery of 67 per cent pure iron up on the Moors at Rosedale. Before long, a cluster of mines had opened around Rosedale, Glaisdale, Grosmont, Beck Hole (often written Beckhole in old newspapers) and along the Esk Valley.

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Rail wagon at Rosedale kiln. Photo: Rosedale Local History Society

By the late 1850s, the iron rush was in full swing. “To Miners,” ran an announcement in the Whitby Gazette of December 24, 1859. “Proposals will be received for the sinking of two shafts at Beckhole – particulars of the letting etc to be had from Mr Barnes, the Whitby Iron Company’s offices, Goathland.”

Four years later, the same newspaper had a far bigger announcement to make. “New Iron Company,” it proclaimed on June 13, 1863. “A company has just been formed called ‘Glazedale (sic) Smelting Company’ for the purpose of building four blast furnaces at Glazedale, in Danby, on the line of the railway.

"The capital is £40,000 in 400 shares of £100 each. Operations are to be commenced when the railway is somewhat more advanced. It is reported that two other companies will be formed for erecting furnaces and smelting on the spot the enormous quantities of ironstone abounding.”

In a few short years, the once tranquil uplands of the moors were transformed into a landscape scarred by railway lines, mine workings and blast furnaces. And with the new mines came a rush of workers.

“Railways were extended to the mines, and settlements built for the labour sucked into what had been a very rural area,” says an article written by the Northern Mine Research Society.

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Railway at Ingleby Incline head. Photo: JW Brotton (Mayman archive)/ Rosedale Local History Society

The first miners stayed wherever they could – put up in farm buildings, bedding down in barns. Then huge, communal turf huts – some 60 feet long – were put up.

“Up by the Rosedale railway you can still see evidence of these,” says Tom Mutton, the programme manager of This Exploited Land of Iron, a four-year lottery-funded project to preserve the legacy of the Moors iron mines.

Eventually, clusters of mineworkers’ cottages grew up around mine heads.The population of Rosedale soared, from a hundred or so to several thousand, says Mr Mutton. And there was fierce competition for work.

On June 10, 1862, the Liverpool Daily Post reported a clash between miners and Irish labourers up on the Moors.

“At Rosedale last week the English miners combined to drive the Irish labourers out of the valley,” the newspaper reported. “Some sharp fighting took place. The cause of the ... feeling is stated to have been owing to an Irishman contracting for work at an under price.”

It wasn’t only the workers who competed. The mine companies were in a fight with each-other, too. Just as in the great gold rushes of the Wild West, after an initial rush of companies opening iron mines, there was a period of consolidation.

Successful iron companies absorbed smaller ones. Marginal mines closed. A downturn in trade in the mid-1870s didn’t help, the Northern Mine Research Society article says.

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Miners stand in a mine entrance in about 1900. Photo: Rosedale Local History Society

But then a new generation of ironworks was built on Teesside, and the Moors mines began to thrive again. Countless tons of ironstone were mined, roasted, packed on trains and trundled across the moors, down Ingleby incline and so to Teesside.

It could be a dangerous journey. Ingleby incline in particular was notoriously steep, with a 1 in 5 gradient. A report in the Whitby Gazette of March 25, 1865, describes an accident there.

“The incline is on the self-acting principal, loaded wagons being let down by means of a ponderous drum,” the newspaper reported.

“Three wagons loaded with calcined ironstone, from the Rosedale mines, were being let down and ... the draw bar of the wagon attached to the wire rope gave way, upon which the wagons containing about eight tons of stone each darted off at a tremendous speed.

“The scene was terrific, huge pieces of ironstone, together with fragments of wheels and broken portions of the carriages, were hurled to the bottom in a flash of fire.”

On that occasion, no one was hurt. But the miners weren’t always so lucky.

“A man named William Collier, labourer belonging to Farndale... whilst on the railway line at the bank top was knocked down by a train in motion, the buffers striking him on the right arm, which was broken and he was seriously injured about the breast,” the Whitby Gazette reported on February 13, 1864. “The poor man was immediately taken up and conveyed to his lodgings. He lingered until Wednesday... when death ended his sufferings.”

The North York Moors iron rush lasted a surprisingly long time. But by the 1920s, the mines could no longer compete with imported ore or that produced from opencast mines around Scunthorpe and Corby. Grosmont Mine was abandoned in 1886, Rosedale West mine lasted until 1911, Rosedale East until 1925. But by the Second World War, the days of mining up on the moors were over.

Gradually, the abandoned mineworkings, kilns and disused railway lines melted back into the landscape.

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Rosedale today. Mine workings and railway lines have 'melted back into the landscape'. Photo c Paddy Chambers

But even today, the traces are there to be found: most obviously in the Victorian ironstone mine chimney at Warren Moor mine in Kildale, but elsewhere, too, in humps and bumps and disturbances in the ground, or in the long-abandoned railway lines.

Now, thanks to a £2.8 million grant from from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a four-year, £3.8 million project – This Exploited Land of Iron – is about to begin to record, protect and conserve the remaining landmarks and features that date from the iron rush.

Safety will be improved at sites such as Warren Moor Mine so as to make them more publicly accessible.

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Warren Moor Mine at Kildale, the UK's only surviving Victorian ironstone mine chimney

There will be a new permanent exhibition space at the Moors National Park Centre at Danby, and new waymarked trails through the “Land of Iron”. And there will also be work to protect the unique natural habitats that have formed where nature reclaimed the mine workings.

Most exciting of all, perhaps, the project will use sophisticated photographic techniques similar to those used on Richard III’s grave to build up 3-D computer models of important remains such as the kilns at Rosedale and the blast furnaces at Grosmont. These will enable us to recreate what the mines and furnaces might have looked like 150 years ago, says Tom Mutton, who is managing the project for the North York Moors National Park Authority.

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A present-day scene with an historical image of Ingleby Incline superimposed on top. Picture: John Davies

Hopefully, you’ll eventually be able to download some of these images on your mobile phone – so that as you walk across Rosedale, you’ll be able to see what it was like in the heyday of the ironstone mines.

The four-year project – a collaboration between the national park authority and local history groups – will officially begin on Saturday March 18, with a one-day festival that kicks off a three-week exhibition at The Moors National Park Centre, in Danby.

So if you want to find out more about this amazing project, and the extraordinary history of the Moors’ ‘Land of Iron’, put that date in your diary now.

  • For more information on the project, the launch event on March 18 and the This Exploited Land of Iron exhibition, visit northyorkmoors/landofiron