The former Vieille Montagne Directorate office in Kelmis, Belgium

In August 2016, with help from a ‘Sharing Heritage’ HLF grant, a weekend event was held in Nenthead in Cumbria to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of the arrival of the Vieille Montagne Zinc Company of Belgium that brought a multinational workforce to the area. Although Nenthead is a quiet, out-of-the-way place today, a hundred years ago it was home to workers from all over Europe. The conference reflected this diversity, the speakers were English, Italian, French and German, a lady and gentleman came from the village in the Italian Alps that was home to the Italian miners, two ladies from the Gohltal Museum in Kelmis in Belgium, where the Vieille Montagne began, unveiled the information plaque in the centre of the village, and ‘VM Building Solutions’, formerly ‘VMZinc’, was represented by two of its directors.

Eighteen months later the next phase in the development of what has become ‘Vieille Montagne Heritage’ took place in the town of Kelmis, in the former tiny neutral territory of Moresnet, sandwiched between Belgium, Holland and Prussia.

Neutral Moresnet

A conference organised by ‘VM Building Solutions’ and the mayor of Kelmis was held in the Park Hotel on Saturday 17th February 2018. Delegates from far off stayed in the hotel while others were able to travel each day. The Park Hotel, incidentally, is next door to the former mine manager’s house, which, it is hoped, will be refurbished in the not-too-distant future.

At the Saturday morning meeting about twenty delegates from Belgium, Germany, England, Holland, France, and Sweden were seated around the table. The State University of Liege, Belgium, was represented, the Maison de la Metallurgie et de l’Industrie de Liege, Belgium, Nenthead Mines Conservation Society of Cumbria in England, the Industrial Museum of the Rhineland, Germany, the Bergisches Museum of Bensberg, in Germany, the local authority of Kelmis, and ‘VM Building Solutions’ with its representatives from France, Germany and Britain. A group of archive researchers also attended to express their interest in examining the many metres of VM documents held in the Belgian State Archives.

‘Vieille Montagne Heritage’ was established with a committee consisting of a French Chairman, German and English Vice-chairmen, a Belgian Treasurer and Belgian Secretary – a miniature United Nations.

The meeting was recorded by Belgian national television and the local press, after which the contractor for the zinc roof, to be installed as part of the renovation work at the new museum, was interviewed on TV with a backdrop of the roller banner produced for the 120th Anniversary of the VM at Nenthead in Cumbria.

Guided tour around the VM Directorate office and site of zinc works, Kelmis, Belgium

In the afternoon guided tours took the group to the site of the old zinc works in the town of Kelmis that were overlooked by the proposed museum to be housed in the former VM Directorate office. This was followed by visits to the mine sites at Schmalgraf and Berg Lontzen that finished with a tour of the village of Lontzen and its museum.
That evening delegates were privileged to meet the mayor of Kelmis and to enjoy a meal at a restaurant in nearby Aachen, just across the border into Germany.

On Sunday 18th there was a talk by author Marc Bressant, to conference delegates and residents of Kelmis, on his fictional work (at present available only in French) about Neutral Moresnet, called ‘So Small a Territory’. The theme being the fact that Moresnet is a minute piece of land ‘the size of a large farm’, surrounded by Belgium, Holland and Prussia, that remained ‘neutral’ until after the First World War.

Vieille Montagne Heritage Chairman, Roger Balthus, with author Marc Bressant

The next meeting has been planned to coincide with the opening of the Museum in Kelmis, which, we hope, will be this autumn.

A couple of small spin-offs were:
1. Contact has been made and much information exchanged between a former manager of the Zinkgruvan mine, not far from the Ammeberg mine in Sweden, where zinc ore was produced for shipping to Belgium, and the plant manager of the works at Balen in Belgium where that zinc was roasted.

OTTO Otto Martin Torell, a Swedish mining engineer who worked at Nenthead in Cumbria from 1897, when the VM first arrived, to 1900.

2. The identity of a Swedish mine engineer has been discovered to add to the list of foreign workers at Nenthead in Cumbria, England.
Foreigners in the Hills

The Foreigners in the Hills

If you are interested in reading more about the story of the Vieille Montagne in Nenthead, Cumbria, read ‘The Foreigners in the Hills’ by Alastair F. Robertson, available on line or from the author at Ashleigh House, Nenthead Road, ALSTON, Cumbria, CA9 3SN, for £11.50 to include p&p.
About Us
The Vieille Montagne brings historians, genealogists and researchers from around Europe together into a co-operative project investigating the history of the Vieille Montagne and its workers.
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