A friend posted a question the other day about a section of Dr Fuller’s History of Berwick, written in 1799. In Section 5 on Mines and Minerals (p472) he recounts that 30 years previously, a Reverend Rumney had written about the discovery of quicksilver in Hide Hill near the Cat Well. Did I know anything else about it?
Well, “No” was the simple answer. All I really knew was that quicksilver is an old name for mercury and that mercury is strange stuff. Its the only metal that occurs in liquid form at normal temperatures. A lovely silvery, thing that runs about in globules in a, well… mercurial fashion, as anyone who has accidentally broken and old fashioned thermometer will know. Also that it was used in the felt hat industry and the poisonous fumes made you a little loopy – hence “as mad as a hatter”!
Fuller describes how workmen had been digging a cellar and foundations for a house in Hide Hill near the Cat Well (near Lloyds bank): “Several cart loads of this clay were carried to the shore before it was known to be so mixed with the quicksilver…”
He goes on, “And four or five years ago, the proprietor of the house adjoining up the hill found the same stratum… I myself took a piece of the clay, about he size of an egg, and, upon breaking it in two, the quicksilver sparkled and rolled out in little globules.” He says that it was about a teaspoonful.
“The query is, How came it there?“
Good question Dr Fuller!
"I cannot conceive that any person could have had such a quantity in his possession.”
And he would know as he lived in Hide Hill.
So I looked up “mercury” on Wikipedia. It turns out that it normally occurs as an ore with the wonderful name, cinnabar. It made no mention of it occurring as natural liquid metal. That didn’t help. I needed the assistance of a geologist. Luckily I know one, Dr Ian Kille of Northumbrian Earth, who has recently replied to my email. He was equally intrigued. This is what he had to say on the subject:
“Yes you can find naturally occurring Mercury albeit rarely and in association with its principle ore, the wonderfully named cinnabar, which is a sulphide of Mercury. Cinnabar is orange-red in colour and looks as poisonous as it is. It is very, very unlikely that either native mercury or cinnabar would be found occurring naturally in this area as it is a secondary mineral which forms as veins in cracks in the rocks as hot-spring water passes through which are associated with geologically recent volcanism (circa 100Ma or less)… [Ma = millions of years – JH] the nearest volcanic activity to Berwick is in the Cheviot and that is very old (circa 300Ma); ie too far away and wrong age. The very small amount of mineralisation which is found in the area is limited to calcite and a bit of quartz and does not contain any of the minerals usually associated with mercury.
It would be really interesting to know a bit more about this to try and figure out what it may have been that caused Fuller to think it was quicksilver – maybe a pre-existing hatters business or something that looked liked quicksilver but wasn’t.”
So that’s Ian stumped too.
And the trouble is that hatters used mercuric nitrate rather than neat mercury. In a trade directory of 1806, there is a hatter mentioned in Marygate but not Hide Hill. Nor indeed are there any trades that might have to carry a hazardous chemicals certificate in Hide Hill.
Another intriguing question is, what did they do with it? Did the bother trying to capture it to sell on? Its not mentioned. But its a fascinating idea that Berwick should be sitting on a mystery mine of mercury.
Are there any workmen out there or road diggers who have come across this seam of mercury. Please, let me know if you can shed any light on this!