Allen Smelt Mill visual reconstruction wins digital initiative and innovation award

Illustrated reconstruction of Allen Smelt Mill (1800s)

Two digital reconstruction images of Allen Smelt Mill and Allenheads Mineyard in the North Pennines have won the Association for Industrial Archaeology's Peter Neaverson Award for Digital Initiative and Innovation.

The two reconstruction images were produced by East Lothian-based illustrator Bob Marshall for an industrial archaeology interpretation project in the North Pennines.  

Bob specialises in producing high-detail visual reconstructions of historic buildings and monuments and was commissioned by Differentia Design in Hexham as part of their project for the North Pennines AONB Partnership to bring to life the history of the lead industry in the East Allen Valley in Northumberland.

Bob worked with Tim Crump, a Hexham based interpreter and ex-archaeologist, to turn the scant records and remains on the ground into an accurate representation of two important Northumberland lead production sites at the height of the industry in the mid-nineteenth century, and the images are now displayed on interpretation panels helping to explain the workings of the former industrial site to visitors. 

The panels were produced in long lasting natural materials using Lavastone. This material was chosen for its longevity and robustness as well as it environmental credentials. 

On receiving news of the award, Bob Marshall said: “It has been an enormous joy to create these engaging artworks to contribute to the understanding of our local industrial heritage. It was important to do our research carefully to get this absolutely right and the task of understanding and interpreting this complex site presented us with a difficult challenge. This fabulous award came unexpectedly, and it has made the great lengths we went to on this project even more worthwhile.”

At its peak in the 1850’s, Allen Smelt Mill was one of the largest lead smelting mills in the country and would have generated enormous wealth for the valley. The mill was demolished in the 1950s and 1970s and all that remains are flue openings, the ore hearths, the wheel pit and roasting furnaces which have only recently been uncovered. Bob’s approach to the challenge of reconstructing Allen Smelt Mill was to employ the use of three-dimensional computer models to help visually reconstruct the complex arrangement of buildings and flues.

Image: Detail – Allen Smelt Mill
Bob worked closely with Tim Crump of Wildlight and Steve Pardue of Differentia Design, both based in Hexham, to develop the images and the interpretive panels. With only limited visual references to work from, they carefully researched the mill’s history by extracting what information they could from books, old plan drawings and from some local knowledge. 

The project took several months to accomplish, and it is one of the most technically-challenging visual reconstructions that Bob has attempted. To achieve it, it was necessary for Bob and Tim to understand the lead smelting and refinement process in detail - a subject which neither of them had much knowledge of before they began work on this project. The task was made more complex by the fact that only puzzling fragments remain of the smelting mill. There are no records of its layout apart from a single plan drawing which shows its general arrangement and an indication of which refinement processes  were carried out in the different buildings. Some guesswork had to be employed to try to visualise the arrangement of flues which carried the highly toxic fumes away from the roasting furnaces and smelting hearths and connected to two, horizontal chimneys which end high up on the moors above Allendale, over two miles away. 

Image: Reconstruction of Allenheads Mine Yard
The Peter Neaverson award for Digital Initiative and Innovation recognises the impact that developing digital technologies are having on our interpretation, dissemination and conservation of our industrial heritage and archaeology and is given to the creators of the work which makes the most effective use of digital technologies in industrial archaeology.

Fiona Knox of North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), who commissioned the panels said: “This is fantastic news and so well deserved. People said it [the reconstruction] couldn’t be done but you pulled it off and so brilliantly. Everyone has been excited and loved the images on the panel.”

Bob Marshall and Tim Crump received the award at the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s conference at the University of Nottingham on 1 September and gave a short presentation explaining the processes and techniques they used to create the reconstruction visuals.

The remains of Allen Smelt Mill today showing the remains of the flue openings.
The remains of one of many refining furnaces.

A floor plan shows the layout of the former smelting mill
Computer 3D models were made to try and understand the mill's complex arrangement.

Detailed 3D models were made of some of the major pieces of equipment on the two sites. These are known as 'buddles' and were used for washing the lead ore prior to refinement.
Detail view - Allenheads Mine yard

Cutaway Detail - Allen Smelt Mill
AIA Prizewinners 2018. Bob Marshall (second) and Tim Crump (third) from right.

Further information and links: 

Allen Smelt Mill (Historic England) 

Bob Marshall – Illustrator & 3D modelmaker

Tim Crump (Wildlight)

Steve Pardue (Differentia Design)