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The Elizabethan explorer and adventurer Sir Martin Frobisher launched three major expeditions to Arctic Canada in the 1570s in an attempt to discover a North West Passage to China. During the course of his exploration, he discovered deposits of black ore, which were thought to contain large quantities of gold. Tons of the black ore were shipped back to England for smelting.


Assayer at work

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Dartford was selected as early as 1577 as a suitable venue for the construction of a prototype smelting works. The place chosen for the development of the smelting works was sited in the middle of the Dartford Manor of Bignores, close to modern-day Powdermill Lane, on a non-tidal stretch of the River Darent approximately one mile upstream from the town of Dartford. In 1577, the Bignores site was occupied by a wheat mill and a corn mill owned by William Vaughan, one of the founders of Dartford Grammar School. Two Dutchmen were given the job of constructing the smelting works. The River Darent had to be dammed while this work was in progress and building materials imported from all over the south east. The smelting house measured 24 x 36 ft. and contained mill wheels, stamping mills, three furnaces and three pairs of bellows. The cost of the construction work was approximately 900.


Frobisher's ore

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Ore from Frobisher’s second expedition was shipped to Dartford from Bristol. One of the most pressing problems was where to store a large quantity of potentially valuable ore when it reached Dartford. Fortunately, the Royal Manor House was still in good enough repair to store the black ore, which was put in the empty chapel.

Thirteen of Frobisher’s ships returned from the third expedition in October 1578. Smelting of the ore from this expedition took place at Dartford in January and February 1579. The total amount of gold extracted from the ore was surprisingly low. Frobisher’s smelting works at Dartford failed to achieve the expected results. Many investors in the venture, including Elizabeth I, lost considerable sums of money. Nevertheless, the establishment of a unique smelting works at Dartford was the beginning of a long tradition of specialised industrial activity centred on the River Darent which created a mini ‘industrial revolution’ along the Darent Valley, most notably in the fields of paper making, gunpowder manufacture, fabric printing, and the manufacture of iron, brass and zinc.

Next topic: Paper making

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