"PICKING MINE" AND COPPERAS
LAWRENCE & PATRICIA STEVENS
Knowing of our interest in the tanning industry of Sussex, Roy Plummer of the Worthing Archaeological Society drew our attention to an area in Chichester Harbour know as Copperas Point (SU 82950190). He had been told that the copperas had been used in the local tanning industry and wanted to know what it had been used for. We did not known what copperas was, but hearing that it contained iron, suggested that it could have been used to dye leather black. Some time later, after a visit by bicycle to Copperas Point to collect some samples, we realised that Copperas was another name for iron pyrites, as indeed is marcasite, martial pyrites, mundic and maxy.
Pyrites is a composition of sulphide of iron (Fe S2 containing 46.67% iron and 53.33% sulphur. It forms a cubic crystal system with a hardness of 6 to 6.5. It has a specific gravity of between 4.8 and 5.1, is of a greenish or dark brown colour and occurs in igneous rocks and ore veins. Its yellow colour when exposed, gives it the nickname of 'fools gold" (Dixon 1984). The nodules vary in size from that of a man's hand to the minute and are to be found in various forms from sausage-shaped rods to rough spheres. On exposure to shore-line wave action among shingle the surface of the nodules become smooth and has a burnished rusty brown bloom.
The pyrites forms in ancient clay beds and it is frequently associated with fossil organisms which are contained in the clay either filling them or encrusting them. In Sussex the London clay outcrop extends along the coast for some miles between Felpham and Pagham and at extreme low tides as much as 2,000 feet are exposed, providing a vast area for the collection of the mineral or 'mine' as it became known.
The mineral had a commercial value and was seemingly put to a variety of uses. It is suggested that it was used for smelting but more valuable was its use as a source of sulphuric acid, oil of vitriol and other vitriolic preparations. It was also used in the production of inks and dyes (Andrews 1954) and also as a mordant to assist wool to absorb dye (Beswick 1985). Copperas stones were being collected in the Chichester area, no doubt including Copperas Point itself and regular exports to London began in the first years of the 18th century, although the volume seldom exceeded 100 tons a year (Andrews 1954).
Similarly, further to the east, the Adur Estuary in particular and the Coastal area at, Portslade yielded quantities of Copperas hence the area was known as Copperas Gap (Mead 1989).
An account of the copperas industry appeared in the Sussex County Magazine under the title "Picking Mine": An Old Bognor Industry (Venables 1939). The quaint term "Picking Mine" can be better understood if we assume "mine" is a contraction of "mineral". Bognor's Copperas, was transported by the colliers that beached off Mr. Osborns' Lennox Street Coal Yard at a value of 18d per hundredweight This being a more valuable ballast than sea sand or shingle. A collier, the 'Fidelity' of 150 tons used to take between 20 to 30 tons of mine, worth between £30 and £45. There were three larger colliers trading through Bognor, the 'Keblah', the 'Equivalent' and the 'Boyne', each of 250 tons and capable of transporting proportionately more mine. The value of pyrites at Bognor was thirty shillings a ton when coal was half that price. The "Picking Mine" industry's heyday may have been between 1850 and 1870, bearing in mind that the railway reached Bognor in 1864. However, as late as 1885, H.L.F. Guermonprez, the Sussex naturalist, recorded seeing piles of "mine" at the foot of the cliff awaiting transportation to the coal yard. Venables points out that *Picking Mine" was in decline before the first coal train arrived at Bognor as the deposits were being exhausted. The pickers turned to the spade to seek more *mine" but the local authority did not take kindly to this action and forbade the spade!
The foregoing is written In ignorance, that it is merely an amalgam of hearsay and the absence of hard facts and evidence is all too obvious. Was the copperas really used in Sussex Tanneries? Was it used to make sulphuric acid and If so was it used at the chemical works at Hove add Rye, both of which were known to produce sulphuric acid? was websterite really a decomposed sulphuric mass of iron pyrites and clay only found In England at Newhaven and Portslade? In his short note in the SIAS Newsletter, Geoff Mead said that copperas was taken to chemical works In London and Newcastle and in the same note, he expressed the hope that he would produce an article on the subject of copperas - soon may it come!
ANON SUSSEX INDUSTRIES reprinted articles from the SUSSEX ADVERTISER. Undated
ANDREWS, J.H. 1954 THE PORT OF CHICHESTER AND THE GRAIN TRADE 1650-1750, Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol.92, 104.
BESW1CK, M. 1985 LEATHER AND CLOTH - TWO RURAL TRADES Warbleton & District History Group Publication, No.8, 31
DIXON, D. 1984 MINERALS, ROCKS AND FOSSILS, MacDonald
MEAD, G.E.F. 1989 SOME ASPECTS OF THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY IN SUSSEX, Sussex Industrial Archaeological Society Newsletter No.82, April.
VENEBLES, E.M. 1939 'PICKING MINE: AN OLD BOGNOR INDUSTRY Sussex County Magazine Vol. 13, Dec.802-806
© 2000 from newsletter no 107 July 2000
All views presented here are those of the respective authors any do not reflect those of the Society or its officers.
Send mail to
questions or comments about this web site.