European commemoration of Vieille Montagne: the story continues!


European commemoration of Vieille Montagne: the story continues!

Over the last three years, a movement – which was originally spontaneous and not co-organised – began in three European countries to commemorate the history and heritage of Vieille Montagne zinc. For various reasons, I became involved in this wonderful initiative. Let me tell you how and why.

A museum in Belgium

This history began in the small Belgian town where our company was created. In 2014, a letter from the recently elected mayor of La Calamine (a small town in Belgium, located two kilometres from the German border and ten kilometres from Aix la Chapelle) arrived on Umicore CEO Marc Grynberg’s desk. This well written letter was written to ask the group to favourably consider a project of the mayor: to purchase the old Vieille Montagne managerial house in order to make it the home of the town’s small mining museum, showcasing the famous Altenberg mine, which was operated in the early 19th century by canon Dony, a pioneer in the zinc industry.

In Brussels, people immediately thought of the Building Products Business Unit in Bagnolet, its VMZINC brand that perpetuates this heritage… and a certain native of Liège who still works there: yours truly! And that is how I came to visit this very fine geometric Art Nouveau-style building, constructed in 1910. To my great surprise, I observed that, despite changes in purpose, many original decorative elements remained in the corridors and the large central staircase. It gave me great pleasure to see that the original zinc Mansard roof (which will soon be 107 years old!) – is still in quite good condition with a beautiful, almost white, patina. The upper slope was made using the roll-cap system, patented by Vieille Montagne, and the lower slope is covered with imitation slate flatlock panels of the Jamart type, after the name of the Vieille Montagne engineer who designed the system, which was part of the company’s catalogue at the start of the 20th century.

Photo: House of Metallurgy and Industry in Liège (Vieille Montagne managerial house in La Calamine)

I had no idea that this visit would lead me to a series of wonderful encounters all relating to Vieille Montagne’s wealth of history. Apart from a request for sponsorship to restore the roof, the museum team in La Calamine also asked if we could participate in reflections on the museum content. To do this, I was put in contact with the House of Metallurgy and Industry in Liège (MMIL), as well as with the department of history at the University of Liège. I quickly met various local stakeholders, eminent professors and historians, some of whom explained to me how the Archives of Vieille Montagne were relocated after the move from its historic head office in Angleur to Woluwé St Lambert (Brussels) in 1989, when we became part of the Union Minière group (you can read about this in a forthcoming episode of the Vieille Montagne Saga!)

In Germany and England: a common desire to rebuild a historic heritage

At the same time, Knüt Konig of the VMZINC team in Essen (Germany) informed me that he was contacted by Mr. Daniel Sobanski, a representative of the Museum of Metallurgy in Oberhausen, who was also looking for information on Vieille Montagne to add to the non-ferrous section and relaunch visits of the remains of the old zinc furnaces. It should be pointed out that the town of Oberhausen, which today has a population of over 200,000 inhabitants, was built up and prospered over a 150-year period around the original Vieille Montagne plant, known in the area as the Altenberg.

At the end of 2015, Jon Lowy, a member of the VMZINC team in Hertford (United Kingdom), contacted me after he received a call from Alastair Robertson, the chairperson of an association working to highlight the former presence and action of Vieille Montagne near the lake district in the north of England (a few dozen kilometres south of Scotland). The latter invited us to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Vieille Montagne’s acquisition of the mine in Nenthead, where it operated for almost half a century between 1896 and 1952.

So John and I found ourselves at the beginning of August 2016 in the village hall in Nenthead telling a small but very receptive audience that Vieille Montagne, now under the VMZINC brand, is still producing, transforming and exporting zinc worldwide. We could see that the miners’ descendants were very attached to our company. It should be noted that having made strong investments to improve working conditions, the latter contributed to a certain prosperity in the community.

We still have fond memories of two wonderful days spent in the pale sunshine in this wild, rugged region. We visited the mine and its small museum, spoke with inhabitants, local historians and even geologists who could talk forever about the zinc and lead content of English ores.

A European trail of Vieille Montagne sites

The group could not remain indifferent to all this fervour for our company. This event marked the starting point for a broader project we have decided to bring to fruition: the creation of a possible European trail of historic Vieille Montagne sites.

Everyone expressed their situation and the ambitions of their local projects. Alastair Robertson showed us the “Vieille Montagne History” website he recently created and on which he talks about the history of the mine in Nenthead and, more generally, that of the presence of Vieille Montagne in England, the pronunciation of which changed locally so that it became known there as “Billy Mountain” (whereas our German colleagues say “Viel Montag”)!

Photo: Alastair Robertson’s book

As we still own the Vieille Montagne brand, we suggested extending the “Vieille Montagne History” website to the group’s other European countries, with the possibility that the business unit’s communication department at head office in Bagnolet, France could contribute to its management.

Currently, at the beginning of 2017, those involved are searching for specific information, archives or objects relating to their local site.

So we went back to England with the implicit mandate of “doing something” to accelerate this vital classification. It will be slow work but no doubt it will generate a wealth of discoveries. More information on this very soon in one of my next Posts!

Roger Baltus
Engineer - Architect
VMZINC Communication Director

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