Children smelt iron in Ashdown Forest

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CHILDREN got hands-on with smelting during a once-in-a-lifetime day researching the Wealden iron industry this month.

A group of six children and their parents took part in an experimental iron smelt on the Ashdown Forest on May 5. The families, members of South East Home Educators were guests of the Wealden Iron Research Group (WIRG.) They discovered how iron smelting was an industry dating from Roman times and the end product, iron, was hugely profitable.

The smelting process is complex and includes mining and roasting the ore before it can be heated in the furnace where temperatures reach over 1,100 degrees Celsius.

The fully working replica furnace, which the WIRG group has constructed from clay, sand and straw using ancient techniques from historical local records, was shown to the group. The smelting method was briefly outlined before the children were allowed to get hands on and have a go using the hand bellows to pump oxygen into the furnace to keep the furnace functioning at its optimum level.

Once Dr. Tim Smith, a metallurgist who was leading the smelt, declared the charcoal and iron ore had burnt down sufficiently, the front of the furnace was removed and the molten embers pulled out and carefully sifted through looking for any iron yielded by the smelt. Anything produced from the furnace still needs to be hammered into ‘billets’ while still hot before it is a saleable product.

Sonny 15, a visitor from SEHE who has an interest in history and wants to be an archaeologist, said: “My favourite part of the day was pumping the bellows to keep the furnace working. I found the experiment interesting as I like to find out how things were done and how people lived in the past.” 

Lily 7, was ‘amazed’ when the furnace was opened up and she saw how hot it was inside. 

Genevieve 9, found the day enjoyable: “I had more fun than I was expecting to, the best part of the day was using the mirror to look inside the furnace and realising how hot it was. It kept me warm, too!”

To join WIRG for one of their smelts, find detailes at: www.wealdeniron.org.uk