The Atlas Burning House – it could well be the title of some horror film or even a crematorium, in some cases it is also known as The Albion Burning House but either way it can be found just outside the village of Ilsington. Firstly why the two names? Basically, the Burning House was associated with an old mine which in its time was known as both The Albion Mine and The Atlas Mine. Before getting on to the Burning House it may be as well to have a brief glimpse at the mine itself.
Due to an igneous intrusion the area around Ilsington has been left the legacy of various mineral lodes which include; tin, iron, lead, zinc, copper, and manganese. It is not surprising therefore that at one time there were numerous small mines dotted around the area, one of which was The Atlas Mine. This was located near to Lewthorne Cross and consisted of three lodes of tin and two bed of iron ore. The original date of the mine’s opening is unknown but after a period of inactivity the mine was re-opened in 1858 under the name of Atlas Tin and Iron Mines and was owned by a subsidiary of the South Devon Iron and General Mining Company, (Hamilton Jenkin, 2005, pp.128 – 127). The first sale of tin was recorded in 1860 and in January 1861 THE London Daily News reported that a tin lode had been located and the mine manager considered that it would yield 80 shillings a fathom and that, ‘a better lode cannot be seen’. In 1862 4 tons of black tin was produced at the mine, and in 1873 there was an announcement in the Times newspaper (1st May) regarding an issue of shares in the Native Iron Ore Company Ltd. This involved the amalgamation of the nearby Smallacombe Mine with Atlas and it was estimated that the brown haematite ore was 62.6% and the tin 33% in assayed quality. In the same report it was noted that there was an expectation of 10 tons a month being produced at the mine which at £40 a ton would be worth £4,800 a year. This expectation was never reached as the mine’s peak year was 1890 when 19.10 tons of tin was produced. In that same year the mine employed its highest numbers of workers who totalled 27 underground and 18 surface employees. In 1864 a total of 1,300 tons of brown haematite or iron ore was produced, (Burt et al. 1984, pp. 3 – 4). Following the bumper year of 1890 production fell sharply and reached an all time low in 1901 when a mere 0.70 tons was produced and by 1903 the mine had ceased operations. There was a slight revival in 1913 when under the name of the Albion Mine some production took place before its final closure, (Ransom, 2005, pp 67 – 68).
The ore from the various shafts and lodes was transported by tramway to Middlecott Woods where it was duely processed and it is here that we find the burning house. It is thought that the structure was built sometime in the late 1800s and comprised of two reverberatory calciners and a central workroom. According to English Heritage, ‘It is believed to be the best surviving example of a reverberatory calciner in the country‘, hence it is now a Grade II listed building and included on the web site. The whole purpose of the burning house was by means of the calciners to extract arsenic from the tin ore, this would then be used for clarifying glass, as a paint pigment, for medicinal purposes and as a metal alloy. The process involved heating the ore under oxidising conditions which would then release the arsenic in vapour form, this would then be cooled and condensed thus forming a white ‘soot’ or powder.
The actual building itself has survived virtually intact thanks to it being used as a hay barn in later years (1977) and this has led to many of the features still being discernable:
‘Albion Burning House is built of large dressed granite blocks, except for part of the western end which is built of granite and slatestone rubble. It has red brick dressings and internal finishings and a corrugated iron roof. It has a rectangular 3 cell plan with a central room and two furnaces either side. Above the furnaces in the east and west cells were storerooms in which ore was kept. Each furnace has a segmental brick vault containing a hopper through which the iron ore was shovelled from the storeroom above. The fire was positioned against the gable wall with an external access to the north and an ash pit below. Below the furnace was a cooling chamber also with external access. Two flues led out from the furnaces to a detached stack to the north.’, (English Heritage On-Line Source).
Once the ore was in the furnace and roasting nicely it would then be ‘rabbled’ or raked with long handled tools that would be pushed through the furnace doors. Once this process had been completed the ore would then be raked into the cooling chambers below and later further processed. Not only did this operation produce the arsenic as a by product it also extracted other unwanted constituents thus making the ore, ‘more amenable to subsequent processes.’, (Wills, 2000, p.80).
Burning House Plan
One can only imagine what it must have been like to spend your working day in such a place as the Burning House especially when it came to handling the arsenic soot. The mine captain’s house and some workers cottages were located by Lewthorne Cross which was only 500m metres from the Burning House which does make one think about the health of the occupants. It is interesting to see that about half a mile to the south west of the burning house is a crossroads called ‘Smokey Cross’, was this name the result of the nearby industrial activity I wonder?
Burt. R. (Ed.) 1984. Devon and Somerset Mines, Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Hamilton Jenkin, A. K. 2005. Mines of Devon, Ashbourne: Landmark Publishing.
Ransom, B. 2005. A History of Ilsington, Chichester: Philimore & Co. Ltd.
Wills, D. 2000. The Book of Ilsington, Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.
English Heritage On-Line Sources
Atlas/Albion Burning House Pastscape Record – HERE
Atlas/Albion Mine Pastscape Record – HERE