Picking Mine II

 

 

`Picking Mine': An Old Bognor Industry By EDMOND M. VENABLES, F.G.S.

A LONG residence in Bognor Regis has afforded me many exceptional opportunities for gleaning knowledge of the district, concerning its history, natural history, and in particular, its geology. In these fields of study the place is so full of interest that I have been very fully occupied with research for the last twenty years, and much still remains to be done. Most important of the circumstances effecting my studies was the fact that for many years I enjoyed the friendship of the late Mr H. L. F. Guermonprez, the Sussex naturalist, who was a veritable fount of knowledge. It was largely owing to his influence that my scientific efforts bore fruit, for his eager encouragement was a powerful stimulus to endeavour, his advice was sound and shrewd, and above all, his enthusiasm was most infectious. His zeal and industry, reflected in his enormous collection, were well calculated to inspire those who came in contact with him with the desire to follow his example.

It was from Guermonprez, whose conversation I remember so clearly, that I learned most of what I know about the forgotten Bognor industry with which this article is concerned; and on points where my memory fails me, a cutting from the West Sussex Gazette on 7th October, 1915 - one of Guermonprez's "Selborne Notes" - will serve to fill the gap. The industry was a specialised one, for it depended on the local supply of a certain natural mineral, and, according to Guermonprez, was known as "Picking Mine," the latter word being a local abbreviation of "mineral". In order to appreciate the conditions under which "picking mine" flourished, we must briefly review certain aspects of the history of Bognor Regis in the middle of the last century. In those days Bognor was a small fishing town, with a population of a few hundreds. Its reputation as a seaside resort was still young, and the summer season, when a few visitors came here, was short lived. The principal industry was fishing, and as this was in abeyance during the winter, there were long periods when the activities of the townspeople were dependent upon their own initiative, and "picking mine" had much to recommend it. The fisher-folk, spending much of their lives on the sea shore, may well have been the founders of "picking mine," for the field of activity in this industry was the foreshore between tide-marks After the construction of the Brighton-Portsmouth railway line, many years elapsed before the inauguration of the service from Barnham to Bognor, and during this interval visitors had to alight at Woodgate and drive to Bognor by carriage. Coal was brought to this town by sea, the boats which carried it being beached on the foreshore opposite Lennox Street and unloaded into carts Through the kindness of Mr W. W. Hammond, of Bognor Regis, I am enabled to reproduce the accompanying photograph of one of these coaling boats beached on the shore at this spot. It will be noticed that a team of four horses is harnessed to the cart, and that the animals are not of the heavy, and rather slow, cart-horse type, but of a lighter and more active breed. No doubt the selection of such a team was necessary to draw the loaded cart over the sand and up the incline of the beach. Unfortunately, we have no exact record of the date when this interesting photograph was taken, but it must be well over fifty years old, and, as far as I know, the only existing print is the one in Mr Hammond's possession. The picture is the work of a professional photographer, named Marsh, who was still practising when I was a lad, thirty odd years ago, and whose studio was in Waterloo Square, Bognor, only a few yards from the site of the photograph. The boat illustrated, the Annie, of Littlehampton, was probably one of the last to engage in the coaling trade with Bognor. Having discharged their cargoes of coal, the boats had then to return in ballast, and although a return cargo of beach sand or shingle was readily available and satisfactory from the point of view of navigation. it was of small commercial value, whereas "mine" was, by weight, more valuable than coal.

Picture

We have now reviewed the circumstances which gave rise to the industry of "picking mine"; the mineral with which it was concerned was iron pyrites, a natural sulphide of iron, of the chemical formula Fe S2 (46.67 per cent. iron and 53.33 per cent. sulphur). The various forms of this mineral are known, in different parts of the country, as marcasite, martial pyrites, mundic and maxy. It is very similar in character and appearance to the socalled "flints" used in petrol lighters, and sparks can very easily be struck from it with a steel, a feature which is responsible for its name, pyrites (from the Greek, pyr, fire, and lithos, a stone) The formation of natural pyrites is due to chemical segregation in ancient clay beds, and in Bognor it is the London Clay which yields it. It is very frequently associated with the fossil organisms which are contained in the clay, either filling them or encrusting them.

The exposure of London Clay near low-water mark on the foreshore at Bognor Regis, is very familiar ground to me, for in the course of my studies in the geology of this place I have worked over it two or three evenings at every spring-tide for the last twenty years. The second photograph, accompanying this article represents part of this great expanse of clay at Bognor, looking toward Aldwick and Pagham, with the sinking sun reflected in the water. The London Clay outcrop extends along the coast from Felpham to Pagham, a distance of between three and four miles, and as extreme low-water mark is nearly two thousand feet from the shore-line, it will be seen that it offers an enormous hunting ground for the paleontologist collecting fossils; and in like manner it afforded facilities to the workers in the "picking mine" industry, for this was the scene of their activities. Every hollow in the surface of the clay contains an accumulation, large or small, of nodules of iron pyrites, washed out of the clay by tidal erosion. In size these nodules vary from that of a man's hand downward, whilst in shape they range from neat rods and spheres to masses of the most irregular and fantastic outline.   Their colour is a greenish grey when freshly washed out, changing to a rusty red on exposure to atmospheric conditions, by oxidation of part of the iron content. The surface of a fresh nodule may have a scintillating appearance, the light being reflected from the faces of minute crystals, whilst a fractured surface is like yellowish frosted silver. Judging from observations recorded in Frederick Dixon's Geology of Sussex (1850), conditions of the foreshore here must have been, in the first half of the last century, very similar to those now prevailing, and there can be little doubt that then, as now, large accumulations of pyrites lay about on the surface of the clay, only waiting to be collected and shipped as return cargoes.

It might very naturally be assumed that the commercial value of the iron pyrites was based upon the demand for it as an ore of that useful metal, but as a matter of fact pyrites is much more valuable as a source from which sulphuric acid is obtained, than as an ore for the smelting fires, and so the cargoes from Bognor appear to have been chiefly destined for the manufacture of oil of vitriol and other vitriolic preparations. Under damp conditions pyrites will decompose to a yellowish powder or spicular green vitriol, and therefore pyritised fossils have to be treated with a special damp-resisting preparation to prevent disintegration.

Picture

The fact that "picking mine" was at one time a flourishing industry in Bognor may be judged from the following records: eighteen pence per hundredweight was the price paid for pyrites delivered to a coal-yard in Lennox Street belonging to a Mr John Osborn, and as the return cargo on a single voyage of one of the smaller coaling boats, the Fidelity (150 tons), used to amount to between twenty and thirty tons of pyrites, it follows that the townspeople of Bognor, engaged in the industry, were paid an aggregate of between £30 and £45 for one such cargo. Three larger boats, the Keblah, the Equivalent, and the Boyne, each of 250 tons, also took a regular part in the trade, and their freights of pyrites may have been proportionately larger and more valuable, but sand and shingle were added as ballast in the absence of a sufficient cargo of "mine". The value of pyrites, in Bognor, being thirty shillings per ton, at that time when the retail price of coal here was about half that amount (and the comparable "pit-head price" proportionately less), it might be thought that the former was the more remunerative freight. Actually, however, the difference between the two cargoes probably counter-balanced their disparity in value, for whilst coal can be built up and distributed as a well stowed cargo, pyrites is what is called a "dead cargo," which has to be shot straight into the hold and cannot be built up, the result being that a ship can carry a far greater freight of coal than of pyrites.

The "picking mine" industry seems to have been in its hey-day between 1850 and 1870, for the Keblah was visiting Bognor before the earlier of these two dates, and in the year 1864 the branch railway line from Barnham to Bognor was completed and opened, so that coal soon began to arrive in the town by train. Thereafter the coaling boats soon ceased to ply their trade with Bognor, and the "mine" industry suffered accordingly, though it is apparent that it continued on a minor scale for a number of years afterwards, for Guermonprez, who came to Bognor about 1885, remembered seeing small heaps of pyrites piled on the edge of the low cliff awaiting transport to the coal-yard, and he recalled that the curiosity of visitors concerning these heaps often led to amusing incidents. The visitor's query as to the identity of the material would draw from the native the reply, "It's mine". The visitor would then explain that he was not arguing the possessor-ship of the stuff, but merely enquiring its name, and the native, enjoying the joke, would again reply, "It's mine"; and this would go on until the native, having satisfied his facetiousness, dispelled the confusion between "mine" the noun, and "mine" the possessive pronoun.

The inauguration of the Barnham-Bognor railway line was not alone responsible for the passing of the "mine" industry. Even before the advent of the first coal-trains in Bognor, the natural accumulations of pyrites, washed out of the clay by tidal action, were becoming exhausted, and this tempted those engaged in the trade to use pick and spade in the hope of digging out a further supply. The local Council very naturally objected to this damage to the foreshore; altercations followed, and then the "mine" gatherers proceeded to harass the councillors by a campaign of practical jokes. How long this state of affairs lasted we do not know, but evidently the gathering of pyrites washed out by the tide was permitted to continue, and only spade-work was forbidden. But the industry of "picking mine" had come to an end before the commencement of the present century, and is now but a forgotten phase of local history.

My sincere thanks are due to Captain C. E. Atkins, of Bognor Regis, for much helpful advice on the burthen of coastal shipping, and allied matters.

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