Minerals of the Island

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Architects: Architects’ Co-operative Partnership ◦ Theme Convener: Sonia Withers
Display Designer: Beverley Pick

We have saluted the men who cultivate the surface of our land, those who ensure the permanence of our agricultural heritage. As well as them we have another hidden bank account – the riches that lie within our earth, the men who dig those riches out, and the men who use this long-quiescent wealth as new material for our industry.

Just as some of our forebears in the past took the variety of the natural scene as they found it, and exploited the variations, so others perceived and followed downwards the surface clues to the wealth that had been locked up far below when the British isles were being built. Of this wealth, coal was the prize gem; indeed, it is the key with which the storerooms of all other mineral wealth my be unlocked.


In our coal is stored the energy of the sun itself, captured by forest plants and trees two hundred and twenty million years ago. It was this energy, suddenly released, the brought about the greatest change in the face of Britain. Now our civilisation depends on coal – industry, transport, power and all things made of iron and steel would not exist without it.

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Before the start of history, men were pulling these black stones from the surface of the earth and burning them. But it is no more than five hundred years ago that the first real pit was dug. It was bell-shaped, and only fifty feet deep. Three hundred years ago they were working down at four hundred feet. By now the country was crying out for coal, because the hungry furnaces of the iron founders had eaten away most of the forests that so far had fed them. The need was met; and, by the last century, the iron founder’s debt to the coalminer was repaid. Iron shafts made mines safe three thousand feet down, and the steam power of an engine made of steel hauled the coal up to the surface in an endless flow. But the miner still worked the coal face with his hands. To-day, even these operations are being done by machines of steel; and rapidly the mines – still an essential artery of industry and wealth – are becoming clean and safe.

Even with modem machinery, however, this getting of coal is not easy money for easy work. No machine can alter the ancient facts that seams are often only waist high, and the roof may not allow an average man to stand upright. No words can convey exactly the feeling of the inside of a mine. In this Pavilion we have built one on the spot, so that you can share, for a few minutes, the experience of the working miner, and see some of his newer tools.

Once got, coal is put to work to serve us in a myriad ways. Coal for ships, for locomotives, for power stations, for gas , for by-products pouring out in plenty – chemicals, nylon, aspirin, saccharin, plastics… coke for the blast furnaces and for the marriage with iron, whose issue is steel.


A hundred years ago steel was a costly thing, and the challenge to succeeding generations was to make it cheaply and in great abundance. It was Darby, a Shropshireman, who first successfully smelted iron with coke; Bessemer who purified molten iron with blasts of air; Siemens who invented the open-hearth furnace used, the world over, for modern steel making. It was Robert Hadfield, of Sheffield, who first made steel hard.

You can catch the lightning movement of a steelworks in still photographs, preserve instants of white-hot shape and motion, which together are the steelman’s day. Fireworks and fumes create pattens, unmatched for size and complexity; molten metal is manoeuvred like melted butter with what looks like little effort from these men of skill.


Once won, the metals of our earth have been worked upon and then combined in strange proportions, until now steel, for example, is not one single thing but many. Steel is tailormade to fit a thousand different jobs – spring steel, stainless steel, structural steel and many more. The other metals are not used so much as steel, but each of them has special properties that make it the right material for a special place. Silver alloy or cupro-nickel is in the money in our pockets; jet engines need a hard, tough, heat-resisting alloy. Aeroplanes need special lightness as well as shapes… all these are made of different combinations of metals, man-produced to fit the job exactly.

Other minerals

It is, then, coal and metals that provide the basic food for factories. They must be there before anything else is made. But the Land of Britain gives us more than these. Salt from the seas of ancient times is used in making soap and caustic soda. Limestone mixed with clay gives us cement, clay gives chinaware and tiles and bricks, sand gives us glass. From the air we have learned to isolate the nitrogen and transform it into fertilisers for the land; its oxygen is used as part of many man-made chemicals.

Although our heritage is one of mineral wealth it cannot be fully used until much thought, much skill, much labour, has been spent upon it. These things, then, are the raw materials of industry. How we have used what we have won forms the next chapter in this story of the land of Britain.