Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
The hills were the Pennines, the area around Alston and Nenthead, the source of some of the richest ores in the country. The foreigners were the Vielle Montagne Zinc Company. They brought with them their managers and miners. A workforce that hailed from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and Hungary came to make their homes in the isolated and traditional community in the north Pennines.
In 1896, with the prices of lead and zinc declining, it seemed possible that the mines run by the Nenthead and Tynedale Lead and Zinc Company might be forced to close. The VM acquired the leases, royalties, mines, mills, and machinery – in fact everything to do with the mining – from the company for £43,980.
They set about changing the way the operation was run. They introduced capital and mechanization and made the mines pay their way. Their investment was rewarded as the price of zinc rose rapidly from £16 to £27 a ton within four years. They expanded into other mines in the area and over the Pennines into Rotherhope.
Their efforts were not without problems. The mile of pipes, that brought the water to drive the compressors for the rock drills, burst in the cold winters. In 1905 the ore-dressing mill at Nenthead burnt down, but its replacement was the largest in the country. The works needed to be extended. The village clock, known as ‘Old Peter’, the village shambles and the school were demolished for the mill to expand and offer more employment.
Two contrasting pictures tell the story of the revolution that was taking place. In one the miners and their families, dressed in their Sunday best, ride past old Peter on a village outing. In the other, the men stand proudly by, dwarfed by the massive wheels and pulleys that drive the mill. The ore dressing mill had become the heart of the village.
The firm used heavy steam traction engines to pull wagons of the ore to the rail-head at Alston, but they ground up the road surface and had to be abandoned. The villagers were pleased to see the return of the horses and carts and the extra jobs they brought with them.
However, it was the increased efficiency of the mine that was creating the real jobs. In 1896 when the VM took over, all the Alston Moor mines employed 350 men. Six years later there were 435 at Nenthead alone.
M. Fernau, the Belgium manager, had taken on the role of squire in the mining community. When he left in 1904, and the new management tried to introduce more efficient working practices, the miners came out on strike. A year later there was a riot at Nenthead when the Italian miners, irked by the taunting they received, and a little too worse for drink, lashed out at their fellow workers.
“Btthe time of the census of 1911, there were a total of 62 foreign workers, including 41 Italians and eleven Germans.
After the boom during the First World War, the prospects for the mines declined rapidly. The ore was becoming harder to win, and a depressed world economy meant that prices were lower. Australian ore was cheaper and of better quality. In 1935 thee were only 63 men working in the VM mines. The Second World War saw some improvement in employment. “Operations ceased on 28th November, 1945, when the ore reserves became exhausted.” The zinc processing plant at Nenthead was demolished a year later.
Alistair Robertson’s detailed study of one company’s impact on a small community is drawn from original sources. It brings us into direct contact with the realities of Cumbrian life a century ago.
The Foreigners in the Hills is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.