Dorset's industrial past revealed at Lyme Regis Museum

Image caption,
Lyme Regis could have looked a lot different if coal had been found

Lyme's industrial past is being explored through a new exhibition and a series of talks at Lyme Regis Museum.

Industrial Lyme - An Unexpected History focuses around the Lim Valley, from its factories to its seven water mills.

It also looks at the town's services, like gas, water, sewerage, electricity and the now-vanished railway.

Retired geologist and museum volunteer Richard Bull has researched the town's coal industry and a failed attempt to find coal under Lyme.

Mr Bull said: "I was fascinated by some dusty boxes of rock cores I found in the museum's stores.

"These led to my search for some hard facts about the hunt for coal under Lyme Regis.

"Coal was important to the Lim Valley economy and Lyme was blessed with access to cheap coal compared with inland towns, because its ship owners could bring coal into the Cobb direct from Tyneside and Pembrokeshire.

"Lyme ships were able to return cargoes with blue lias limestone, for example, found in Lyme for hydraulic cement manufacture in Sunderland in the early 19th Century."

'Cheaper fuel'

In 1901 a consortium of Lyme and Charmouth landowners and businessmen decided to drill for coal at Lyme.

Image caption,
Mr Bull will host a talk about Lyme's coal industry during the exhibition

Mr Bull said: "The chance of finding any was very small indeed, but the town's heavy industry meant they wanted to source even cheaper fuel.

"They presumably knew about Somerset Coalfield just 50 miles away, but they didn't take geological advice.

"They were later ridiculed by geologists because they found nothing but the same red mudstones as can be seen in the cliffs towards Sidmouth in Devon."

Mr Bull has not yet discovered the names and interests of the consortium members.

He said: "We know that George Haycraft, a retired tile maker from Lyme, supervised the drillers."

The group hired well sinkers and drillers to bring in a rig to drill a borehole near Middle Mill Farm in the area.

Mr Bull said: "The rig would have been very basic, but would work in the same way as an oil rig today. Standing up to a height of perhaps 20ft, it would be driven by a steam or oil engine."

'Coaly fossil'

No pictures of the rig exist, but parts of the core are in Lyme Regis Museum, which were collected by George Haycraft and given to regional museums by Mr A C Pass, an industrialist and landowner from Wootton Fitzpaine.

A further specimen in the collection was collected by A J Jukes-Browne who was involved with a geological survey of Lyme.

Image caption,
The yards around the Cobb were filled with coal merchants in 1841

Mr Bull said: "At 1,077ft, a piece of rather coaly looking fossil wood in grey siltstone occurred, which must have wrongly cheered some.

"This was the specimen from Jukes-Browne who described it as more like an ore of manganese than coal.

"At 1,200ft, disheartened, the group gave up."

Mr Pass paid for the drilling to continue at the base of the Keuper Marl, now the Mercia Mudstones rocks, but he gave up at 1,300ft.

Mr Bull said: "If he had stayed in a little longer, he would have found the red sandstones he was hoping for and maybe a good water source.

"His donated specimens have found their way into many museums in south west England, including ours, and have become very useful to geologists for analysing plant microfossil sequences [tiny plant remains] in the Triassic [the period before Jurassic - around 230 million years ago] red mudstones."

He added: "I often wonder what would have happened to Lyme if they had found coal.

"It would certainly have had a huge effect on the history, economy and appearance of the town."

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