As mentioned in my previous blog about Dudley Tunnel, its very being was due mainly to the vast quantity of Limestone that Dudley, Wrens Nest and Mons hills are made of. From the Tipton portal, the first section of tunnel which leads through Shirts Mill and on to Castle Mill basins are known as the ‘Lord Ward’s’ tunnel after the Earl of Dudley who owned all the mineral rights for this area and built this tunnel in 1776 to enable him to extract the limestone and transport it to his lime kilns located in what is now the Black Country Living Museum.
The lime kilns, as now in the Black Country Museum.© BCLM.
Limestone has been a valuable commodity since Roman times when it was used for making lime mortar and also used in agriculture as a fertiliser. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was extensively used in the developing Black Country iron industry as a flux that could be used to clean and purify the iron in the blast furnace. To give some idea of the demand, at the height of the Industrial revolution there were 220 blast furnaces spread across the town’s of Darlaston, Wednesbury, Bilston, Tipton, Dudley and parts of Wolverhampton, and at about the same time (1796) Castle Hill and Wrens Nest quarries were producing 60,000 tons of limestone per year To make a usable product, the limestone was burnt in a kiln at a very high temperature (calcinated ) resulting in quick lime and if then mixed with water, known as slaking, it produced a stable powder.
Limestone has been mined in the Dudley area for centuries starting in the 11th century for stone to build Dudley castle and then in the 12th century to build St James’ priory all being obtained from surface quarries on Castle Hill. The earliest record of permission for a lime works in Dudley was in 1634 on Wrens Nest Hill. The limestone in the Dudley area was laid down during the Silurian period (443 million years to 419 million years ago) and it resulted in two parallel seams running through Dudley, Wrens Nest and Mons Hill at an angle of roughly 45 degrees.
Originally, Lord Wards canal terminated in an underground basin at Castle Mill, later other tunnels were built leading off Castle Mill to connect to the limestone mines under Castle Hill via Cathedral arch, then onwards to take the canal through Dudley Hill and connect the Birmingham canal with the Stourbridge canal and so on to Stourport via the Staffs & Worcester (1792). Another tunnel built in 1815 connected Castle Mill basin to the mines under Wrens Nest Hill.
Castle Mill Basin in 1975 showing the lord Wards tunnel(top right) the Wrens Nest Tunnel(top left) and the main Dudley tunnel(bottom left ©Dudley CanalTrust
The limestone mines themselves were a combination of underground workings connected by tunnels with underground basins and wharves for loading boats, and these in turn were connected around the mines by plate way railways for limestone to be transported from the working face to these wharves by waggons. The main centre for both the Castle Hill and Wrens Nest systems was Castle Mill basin which originally was underground, but along with Shirts Mill Basin, had the roof taken off opening them up to the daylight and to give some idea of how productive they were, in 1853 more than 41,ooo boats transported limestone from these mines to the kilns.
A 1926 view of the lime kilns and canal basin, now part of BCLM ©blackcountrymuse.
By the middle of the 19th century the limestone in the Castle Hill mines was stating to run out but their use wasn’t over. Lord Dudley installed gas lighting and a bandstand in one large cavern called The Dark Cavern, using it concerts balls and scientific lectures. In 1849 a leading geologist Sir Roderick Murchison gave a lecture in this cavern said to have been attended by 15,000 people covering the fossil evidence provided by this mine network, most of this collection held by Dudley Council Museum Service.
Sir Roderick Murchison’s Silurian lecture in the Dark Cavern © Illustrated London News
The final stone was extracted from the Wrens Nest mines in 1924 and the accompanying lime works until 1935 all finally closing by 1939when the ’black out’ of the second world war forces them to stop firing the kilns.
The Wrens Nest mines
As stated, the limestone was removed from the Wrens Nest mines by means of a canal tunnel from Castle Mill basin. After just over 780 yards the tunnel opened out into an underground wharf within the East Mine where boats were loaded from the first of the mines
The Step Pit canal basin © Birmingham Mail
The step pit basin looking in the opposite direction ©G Worton
This mine was called the ‘Step Pit’ due to a cast iron spiral staircase with 240 steps leading to the surface.
Inside the step pit ©Birmingham live
Another gallery (South workings of Wrens Nest East mine) that was connected to this mine was known as the Cathedral cavern, due mainly to its gigantic size and also the Minstral gallery
The Cathedral Cavern ©Dudley News.
After a further 447 yards a second loading basin is reached which worked the West Mines, which are better known as ‘The Seven Sisters’
The canal basin within the Seven Sisters mine. © Dudley Council
This mine was so called because of the seven pillars of stone left in on each gallery to support the roof.
A 1984 view inside the first gallery of the Seven Sisters mine showing four of the pillars. © Peter Parkes
Although some time was spent exploring the Wrens Nest system it was mainly around the Seven Sisters and sadly only on a couple of occasions as most of our scrabbling around underground was spent in the Castle Hill Mines what follows is an account of a typical Saturday/Sunday’s exploration which I have previously posted on another blog.
A sketch map of the Castle Hill mines
A sketch map of the Castle Hill mines
The DCTPS had been formed in 1963 when the tunnel was under threat of closure from British Rail wanting to build an embankment over it’s Tipton portal to support/replace a collapsing viaduct, their first bulletin was produced in September 1964 and I joined in early in 1965. As the tunnel went through and was linked to the Limestone workings it was only natural for me to be also interested in the ‘Caves’. Through the 1960’s and 70’s I spent many hours poking about down the mines mainly under Castle Hill and less time under Wrens Nest Hill, and even one sortie in the middle of the night within the Zoo grounds and under the castle itself into the Stores Cavern. The main reason for this ‘midnight trip’ was the result of an article in the Express & star newspaper where suggestion had again been raised, and strongly denied by the authorities, that the mines under the Castle had been used as an ammunition stores during the war. So we had to find out as one of our party knew of a mine entrance within the zoo grounds. So, after midnight we gathered and climbed over the zoo perimeter fence behind the Plaza cinema and made our way to the entrance. When once we descended into the mine our suspicions were confirmed. The evidence was there. Huge fans to remove fume, lifts with signs stating ‘no more than so much explosive to be carried at any one time’ Brick built ‘offices’.
A view inside the Store cavern during a feasibility study in 2017 for opening up to the public.
The Castle Mill system of mines were directly connected to and serviced by the canal network in the same way as the Wrens Nest Mines, I thought this may be of some interest to my blog readers as it is part of our ‘canal system’ that is no longer available in the main to the general public apart from the ‘Disneyfied’ sections seen on the current tunnel trips undertaken by the Dudley Canal Trust.
The network of mines were served by a series of interconnecting canals, sometimes through brick lined tunnels, sometimes through rock tunnels and sometimes in open sections (although inside the mine of course) There was also underground brick built loading wharfs which in some cases were served in turn by tub type tramways/railways although long gone, visible evidence of their existence was still in place such as in the brick lined tunnel sections of Flooded Mine where the imprints of the sleepers were still clearly visible. The craft that were used in this subterranean network of canals were of very crude construction being similar, but much shorter, to the ‘Starvationers’ used in the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines at Worsley.
(A mine boat in Castle Mill Basin in 1900, 25 years before limestone extraction finished in Dudley)
I remember spending a couple of weekends in about 1967 along with several other DCTPS members trying to clear away all the limestone rocks and mud in and around one of these mine boats which was sunk just inside the rock tunnel leading from Singer Cavern to Little Tess.
What follows is a reflection of a typical Saturday or Sunday down the mines. I will attempt to remember as much detail as I can. Equipment we would take with us would be :- a complete change of dry clothes, 2 pairs of boots (1 dry, 1 wet. The wet ones had ½ “ holes drilled in the soles, overalls, hard hat, ex-miners battery pack & lamp, a carbide lamp, various ropework and climbing equipment, an inflatable ex-RAF one man survival dinghy (although we have had three in it) Flask of hot soup/drink, sandwiches, small emergency tin (match/candle/safety pin/plaster)
We would all meet at a pre-arranged time at Castle Mill House, which at the time was owned by the DCTPS and situated above the top of the construction shaft in the Lord Wards Tunnel close to Shirts Mill Basin, it actually came up into the kitchen floor of the house by means of a square access manhole.
The construction shaft which was under Castle Mill house. ©DCT.
All unnecessary items including dry clothes and food were stowed in Castle Mill House and then we would set off to make the short walk past the Hexagon shaped ‘gatehouse’ to the Zoo grounds/castle hill, which at this time was still inhabited, then follow the pathway off up the gradual climb up the back of castle hill. The ground around this area was pitted with depressions where early limestone excavation had taken place and also some the result of subsidence where the mines below had suffered with roof falls and collapse, some of these occurring while the mine was still active the miners response being to drive a brick lined tunnel through the roof fall accessing the remaining mine such as at Sam’s Dig in Mud Hole.
After a walk of just under a mile the entrance of Big Ben would be reached, a large triangular shaped entrance in the bottom of one of the larger depressions.
View from the bottom of Big Ben looking back up towards the surface ©Blossom
With lamps lit we would start our descent into the mines. The entrance sloped down at an angle of about 45° and this ‘ramp’ would be approached by a succession of continuous jumps, with each jump managing to cover about 20feet in distance. The other way to travel down (for the less ambitious) was sitting either on your bum or on your own feet and ‘skiing’ down the limestone screed. After about 100 yards the bottom of the mine would be reached and we would either turn left for about a further 150 yards towards a total collapse of the mine although many hours of fun could be had crawling over, under, around the huge slabs of fallen limestone, some as big as a car. Turn right and it was about 100 yards to the roof fall at the other end of Big Ben. At the very bottom of this mine, it was about 100feet wide and about 75 feet from floor to roof and before the roof had collapsed, it was all part of the Dark Cavern or144 making the Dark Cavern originally in excess of ½ mile long. Over the years, cavers/potholes etc had found/dug/opened up a very small passage through the roof fall going over, under, around the slabs of fallen limestone which lead out into the end of 144. I’m afraid that nowadays I would not have been able to crawl through it, but back in those days I flew threw it. It was that small and tight that it was nicknamed The Virgin so I can safely say that when I was younger I went through a virgin most Saturday afternoon’s! When once through The Virgin you dropped down over the other side of the roof fall again made up of huge blocks of limestone into another cathedral sized mine, Dark Cavern.
Over to the left and at the very base of the mine was a partially covered brick wall in the centre of which was a tunnel entrance which led into a brick lined tunnel of identical design but of smaller section than the associated canal tunnels. This was one of the brick lined tunnels driven through the roof fall to allow continued extraction of limestone from the ‘Big Ben’ section of this mine to be taken out via the canal in Dark Cavern. After a short distance the brickwork had collapsed and this tunnel closed. There was evidence of ‘sleeper imprints’ in the floor of this tunnel showing that Big Ben’s limestone in its latter years was removed in tubs via this tunnel then following along the rock wall at the base of the Dark Cavern for approximately another 50 yards then making a 90° curve, terminating alongside a brick built loading wharf. Running along the right-hand side of the mine was an elevated flat level ‘pathway’ about 20 feet above the base of the mine. The roof along this section of Dark Cavern was supported by huge pillars of limestone being left in place during limestone extraction. Due to the beds of limestone running at an angle of about 30° then these pillars lurched up from the right hand side of the mine at an angle of about 60° and about half way up their length there was a fault in the limestone with a 2 foot thick layer of softer material which, on some of the pillars was supported with large timber sections and wooden wedges, which often fell out. In total there were thirteen of these huge pillars running in a row along the length of the mine. As I mentioned the tub way from Big Ben ended alongside a brick loading wharf, at this point was an underground canal basin from which the canal ran back from this point along the bottom left hand edge of this mine for about 150 yards then the canal, which was about 20 foot wide and 5 foot deep entered a brick lined tunnel about 14foot bore and about 50 foot in length. After this the canal emerged into another open section about 50 foot long to disappear into another brick lined tunnel originally about 50 yards long but blocked by a roof fall half way through, which lead the canal into Little Tess Mine by an open canal about 75 yards long then finally into a 50 foot section of tunnel leading to the underground junction with the main bore of the Dudley Canal Tunnel at Cathedral Arch.
Back to the canal basin in Dark Cavern, also at this point the canal makes a 90° turn then immediately disappears into a brick lined tunnel about 80 yards long until it opens back out into a mine about 75 feet in length called Mud Hole. At the far end of this mine the canal stops but running along each side of the canal are brick-built loading wharves form where the limestone was loaded into the mine boats described earlier. This limestone mine actually ran at 90° to the canal and the mine ran off both to the left and the right. On the right the roof had collapsed and a brick wall ran parallel with the wharf about 20foot away and at the middle of it was a partly covered tunnel entrance called Sam’s Dig which lead into a small brick lined tunnel that had also collapsed a short distance in. On the right-hand side running away from the loading wharf was a short mine that terminated in a total roof collapse called The Conference Room. At this point the limestone was quite soft and crumbly and lumps were easily split open with a welders chipping hammer or a brickie’s hammer to reveal loads and loads of the famous Trilobite known as ‘The Dudley Bug’. Continuing straight on from the loading area, lead through a very unstable section of mine regularly collapsing, then to a rising passageway leading to the surface and bringing you out through a small climb/crawl into the bottom of another of the surface depressions or pits. Back into the Dark Cavern at the canal basin, the pathway we were following passes over the top of the tunnel entrance to Mud Hole then past the next limestone pillar and finishes at the base of a stone set of palatial steps leading up the sloping side of the mine to a higher level.
A view inside Dark Cavern showing one of the huge pillars and its fault line. Also the stone steps which led up to the bandstand and the tunnel leading to Mud Hole ©Roy Fellows
At the top and at the left of this stone staircase, is the Bandstand a flat ‘stage’ area surrounded by a low stone wall, again all built out of limestone. It was from this stage that in 1849 Sir Roderick Murchison gave a lecture on Dudley’s limestone and fossils to an invited audience of 15,000. Evidence of the gas lighting installed for this and subsequent visits were around this area with iron gas piping and supporting brackets. Continuing along this higher pathway brings us past another six limestone support pillars and then to the main entrance on the right-hand side which consisted of a large pit breaking through into the mine with a set of stone steps leading up through the pit to the surface.
The stone pillars just inside the Dark Cavern.©madaboutmining.
Continuing on a further 50 yards you are confronted by a most impressive stone arch way in which was a large iron gate. Between the top of the arch and the roof, large sections of tree trunk were fitted as supports and from a distance, especially with a light behind the archway, it looked like a set of monster teeth hence its name The Dragons Teeth. Behind the gateway was a pathway that lead up to the surface which I understood to be a mine workers entrance. As there was no access forward to link to Little Tess, you had to leave the mine system here at this point and clime the remains of the 144 steps out into daylight.
The entrance to the Dark Cavern or 144 as it was also known ©madaboutmining
After a short walk across to another small surface fissure which led down into Little Tess via a climb/crawl. Little Tess was only a small mine in comparison to the Dark Cavern being about 70 yards long, 50 foot wide and about the same height. At the bottom was the open section of canal with a tunnel leading off to the right to the Dudley Tunnel, originally a tunnel went off to the right leading back to Dark Cavern, but this had been lost in roof fall. Leading off on the left at an angle to the through canal was another tunnel, this time not brick lined but of natural rock. This tunnel being about 9 feet wide and with water 5 foot deep. This 80 yard tunnel leads through to the Singing Cavern, which now forms part of the modern day Tunnel trips and has been ‘altered and landscaped’. In the 60’s the canal continued along the whole length of the mine up to the roof fall at the end, approx. 100 yards. About half way along its length and on each side of the canal were brick-built loading wharfs. Leading back from these wharfs were short 25 foot rock tunnels and at the end of each of these tunnels was a 10 foot circular brick lined shaft leading to the surface but capped off and leading down to a second set of galleries about 70 feet below and totally flooded.
The new look Singer Mine just ahead of the boats are where the loading wharves and side shafts were. ©Express&star
Above where the rock tunnel emerges from Little Tess, were three large limestone pillars similar to those in the Dark Cavern and also at this time, above and behind the rock tunnel were two large holes leading out to the surface giving both fresh air and easy access. Some say this mine was called ‘singer’ because the wind used to blow through these two holes and make sounds, but I must say I’ve been down there from slight breeze to gale force and never hear any sounds, however this mine was very close to the surface and as a result was always very wet with drips continuously falling and as the floor of the mine was all canal, if you stood quietly all you could hear was plop plop plip plop plip plep plip plop plap plup plip plop! And I was told that this was where it got its name from! The last two mines I will describe were not connected to any of those previously described, other than they all connect back to the main Dudley Tunnel.
Castle Mill basin with main Dudley tunnel to the right, new ‘trip’ tunnel in centre and the entrance to murder mine to the left.©DCT
Leading off the Castle Mill Basin on the Dudley side is Murder Mine. Originally both Castle Mill and Shirts Mill Basins were not basins as such but were roofed over and were limestone mines in their own right but later had their tops taken off opening them up to the surface. Murder Mine was named after a dead body found there many years ago (there’s always a body!) It is a bit non- descript really being about 80 feet wide 30 feet high and 125 yards long and terminating in a roof fall. The other mine, known as Flooded Mine, for fairly obvious reasons, ran at 90° to the main canal off Shirts Mill Basin. As you come out of the main Dudley Tunnel into Shirts Mill Basin, or to give this section it’s proper name, Lord Wards Tunnel, you are flanked on both sides by brick-built loading wharfs. The tunnel entrance you had just come out of had two side tunnels, now bricked up, to enable boats to await loading and leaving a through route open for boats using the main Dudley tunnel.
On the right a short brick tunnel lead to a round vertical shaft leading both up presumably originally to winding gear, and down to Tipton Colliery running through this short tunnel was excavated a short length of tub rail track with cast rails and sleepers into which was cast the name Ward, the Earls of Dudley family name. On the left-hand side was a small triangular mine entrance which leads into Flooded Mine.
The entrance to flooded mine
It starts as a small chamber about 20feet square then leading off from this was a brick lined tunnel of similar dimensions to the brick lined tub track tunnels in Dark Cavern and Mud Hole. This tunnel was about 100 yards long then it opened out into another small mine about 70 feet long and 40 feet wide only to again disappear into another brick lined tunnel about 100 yards long which again opens out into a small mine with a larger section of mine going off and upwards to the right-hand side. Continuing into a third 100-yard section of bricked tunnel you finally come out into the main mine. So far you have been wading through 2 feet of water from the very start of this mine, also the remaining imprints of the tug rail sleepers can be seen through the whole length of this mine before you disturb the crystal-clear water that is! As you emerge into this last part of the mine the water gets shallower and shallower until over on the left-hand side of the mine you are walking on dry floor. Over on the right at this point there is an iron pipe about 4 inches diameter running vertically from ceiling to floor and into the water. At a point on the surface that we worked out to be over the top of this point is a small brick building with a 4 inch pipe coming up through the floor and on the top of the pipe was a series of ceased levers and mechanism which I would say was some pumping system. Eventually after a further 100 yards the floor of the mine gradually gets nearer the roof as you clamber over another roof fall. In total you have probably travelled close on half a mile or there about and in freezing cold water just below your tender bits, (so long as you don’t splash about too much and walk gently) Well there you go that’s about it, once again my biggest regret is, same as the canals at this time, that I didn’t take loads of photo’s. Anyway, I have only one word of warning for you, if you still could venture down and you did, then as far as those big loose lumps of rock are concerned –
Don’t bang ‘em about,