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Treacle mining is the fictitious mining of treacle (similar to molasses) in a raw form similar to coal. The subject purports to be serious but is an attempt to test credulity. Thick black treacle makes the deception plausible. The topic has been a joke in British humour since the mid 19th century.
One possible origin of the joke is from 1853 when 8,000 British Army soldiers were camped on Chobham Common. The camp included storehouses containing barrels. When the soldiers left for the Crimean War and the site was dismantled, they buried barrels to avoid having to remove them. Some of the barrels contained treacle and Cobham villagers who discovered and removed them were called "treacle miners" as a joke. Local folklore about treacle mining was extended back into history back to Roman Britain.
Another explanation is that "treacle" meant 'a medicine', derived from the appearance of the Greek derivative 'theriacal' meaning medicinal (Gk theriake = a curative or antidote), so the various healing wells around Britain were called "treacle wells". Treacle later came to mean a sticky syrup after the popularity of a honey-based drug called "Venice treacle", and the continued use of the old form in the treacle wells led to the joke.
In Devon, on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, UK, the remains of mines that produced micaceous hematite, used as pounce to dust early ink to prevent smearing, are known locally as "Treacle Mines" since they show a glistening black residue that looks like treacle.
The village of Sabden in Lancashire cultivated a considerable body of folklore about local treacle mining in the 1930s. The local newspaper helped foster the myth, publishing numerous stories about the fictional mines.
The paper mills around Maidstone in Kent were known as "The Tovil Treacle Mines" by locals, after the area where one of the mills owned by Albert E. Reed was situated. The company helped the myth with a float in Maidstone carnival with a "treacle mine" theme. One suggested source of to the story in this area is a rumour that the paper industry was threatened during the Second World War because there was no imported timber. Fermentation of straw was tried, creating a sticky goo. There were attempts to make paper from other than rags in the 19th century and an early commercial success was achieved by Samuel Hook and his son, Charles Townsend Hook, using straw at Upper Tovil Mill in the 1850s. The road next to Upper Tovil Mill became known, and was later named, as Straw Mill Hill. To produce pulp, the straw was cooked in hot alkali. After separation of the fibre, the remaining liquid looked like black treacle. Upper Tovil Mill closed in the 1980s and the site was used for a housing estate.
Tadley treacle mines had a local hotel named after them and a Tadley Treacle Fair is held. Legend says the name derives from using treacle tins to store money because banks could not be trusted. The tins were buried around the village. Criminals mined for tins.
Treacle mines have also been claimed in Wem (Shropshire), Talskiddy, Bisham, Nuneaton, Chobham, Tongham, Tadley, Skidby, Ditchford, Crick. Dunchideock and many other locations across Somerset and Devon. in several northern towns including Natland and Baggrow in Cumbria; in Croftamie, Scotland; and in the fictional village of Wymsey.
Several public houses, restaurants and hotels have borne the name. The Treacle Mine public house in Grays, Thurrock, Essex (pictured above) is an example, and the adjacent Treacle Mine Roundabout, which features on the local bus timetable, is named after the public house. There is a restaurant/pub named Treacle Mine in Polegate, East Sussex; the Broomsquire Hotel in Tadley, Hampshire, was previously the Treacle Mine Hotel; and another Treacle Mine pub is in Hereford.
The Treacle Mine has been a joke played on children and the gullible since at least the nineteenth century.
- In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, Alice is shushed at the Mad Hatter's tea party for disbelieving a story told by the Dormouse about a treacle well, inspired by the holy well at Binsey, Oxfordshire.
- In Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967), a children's book by J. P. Martin, the main character (an elephant named "Uncle") discovers the true meaning of a cryptic sign which reads "Treac Levat"; the characters soon discover that it relates to a vast hidden treacle vat.
- Treacle mining features in several novels by Terry Pratchett. In the fictional Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork there is a street named Treacle Mine Road, with the current watch house (analogous to a police station) found in the building formerly housing the entrance to a treacle mine. The books also make references to "deep treacle" deposits beneath the city.
- Some of Ken Dodd's Diddy Men were said to work in a jam butty (jam sandwich) mine. This appears to be a similar concept.
- August Imholtz and Alison Tannenbaum (2009). Alice Eats Wonderland. Applewood Books. p. 53. ISBN 1429091061.
- Cooper, Quentin and Sullivan, Paul (1994). Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem. Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-1807-6.[page needed]
- William Reginald Mitchell (1977). Lancashire mill town traditions. Dalesman. p. 9. ISBN 0852064144.
- Bob Dobson (1973). Lancashire nicknames and sayings. Dalesman. p. 63. ISBN 0852061773.
- Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (2005). The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. Penguin Books. p. 871. ISBN 0141021039.
- Tovil pronounced to rhyme with "Bovril" – not "Toeville")
- "Reed Elsevier – Product highlight". Reed Elsevier. Archived from the original on 12 December 2004. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- "Nº. 132 – Esso 14 ton Tank Wagon Nº. 2338". Kent & East Sussex Railway. Retrieved 23 January 2012.
- http://www.treacleminer.com/docs/buxtedtreacle.htm Buxted Treacle Mine]
- Barber, Chips (1982). Around & About the Haldon Hills. Obelisk Publications. pp. 95–97. ISBN 0-946651-14-0.
- Table Table. "Treacle Mine Restaurant". Whitbread plc. Retrieved 30 July 2011.
- "Roads named after Discworld books". BBC News. 5 April 2009. Retrieved 2011-08-17.