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EISEN HILL AND THE GERMANS

Were the iron mines at Eisen Hill, near Winsford in West Somerset, worked by miners from central Europe in the Early Modern Period and did they introduce new mining technology to the area.


Introduction.

One should beware the much quoted theory that mining and metallurgy in England and Wales developed rapidly from a primitive level under 'German' tuition in the late 16th century.

There is little they could teach us in mining / smelting technique in the early modern period, outside the smelting of copper. Evidence does suggest that what attempts there had been at working that metal in the medieval period, and into the 16th century, were dominated by central European expertise.


Developments in mining technology.

Developments in tin, lead and silver-lead working were largely indigenous but where necessary English mining could take on technology, from the continent, of its own initiative. As with the early introduction of suction lift pumps at the Bere Ferrers silver mines in c. 1480. (1) Success in lead smelting technique came from within. The introduction of continental furnaces proved a singular failure in Derbyshire (2) and they were also no more capable of processing the silver-bearing ores than the methods developed in Devon over two centuries. Real advance came in the mid 16th century with the ore hearth, rooted in resource depletion on Mendip.

The idea of 'German' domination in metallurgical technique is a myth fostered by the ready availability of continental literature and the survival of, and interest in, documentary evidence from their involvement in a narrow sector of the English non-ferrous industry in the late 16th century. Hoover's translation of Agricola's work of 1556 presented an array of techniques and processes which appeared in stark contrast to the low technology employed in the lead industry of the Pennines even up to the 19th century. But much of what at first appears to be a wealth of contemporary technology is on closer examination often redundant or had been in use in England and the continent for decades. (3) It was not appropriate to the exploitation of relatively abundant resources such as tin, lead or iron.


The evidence for early iron mining.

Iron had been worked in England and Wales for over 1500 years before Elizabeth I came to the throne. Methods changed little until the late 15th century and the introduction of blast furnace / fining hearth technology. If the slags at Oldrey are similar to those at Sherracombe Ford, ie. tap slag from a late bloomery operation, that dates the activity to no later than the first half of the 16th century. Blast furnace technology, of French, Belgium or Low Country origin, appeared in the south-east of England by 1496, gradually superseding the bloomery in bulk production of iron. (4)

There is no evidence, that I am aware of, for central European involvement in English iron mining or smelting.(5) Petrus Filius did include, in his survey of Wales and the south-west of England circa. 1524-8, a mine at 'Exford Moor' but classed it as a lead mine.


The placename evidence.

In fact the 'German' connection with Eisen Hill is only by way of its current spelling. It was always 'Ison' on the older maps. There may be some High German root to the name but it is more likely a corruption of either the Old English 'Isern' or Old Welsh 'Isarn', iron. (6) The former being in use in the 11th century.

That the site is known as Eisen or Ison Hill is an indicator of its antiquity not of any 'German' presence.


References.

  1. See Claughton, Peter. 'Silver-lead a restricted resource: technological choice in the Devon mines.' in Mining before Powder, HMS / PDMHS, 1994, pp. 54 - 59.
  2. Kiernan, David. The Derbyshire Lead Industry in the Sixteenth Century, Chesterfield, 1989.
  3. See Hammersley, G. 'Technique or Economy; the rise and decline of the early English copper industry,' Business History, Vol. XV, No. 1 (1973), pp. 1 - 31. and Burt, Roger. 'The international diffusion of technology in the early modern period; the case of the British non-ferrous mining industry,' Economic History Review, XLIV, 2 (1991) pp. 249-271, for an assessment of the true role of central European influence in English mining.
  4. Tylecote, R. The prehistory of metallurgy in the British Isles, London, 1986, pp. 213-4.
  5. Hoskins (Old Devon, London, 1966, p. 18) refers to the introduction of German miners to exploit iron at North Molton in 1568, but lack of evidence for the statement must bring it into question. The Tabor Hill adits mentioned bear all the hallmarks of 19th century origin.
  6. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. (1989), vol. VIII, p. 78-9.

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Peter Claughton / Dept. of History
P.F.Claughton@exeter.ac.uk
Last modified 10 December 2000