Mine of Information added to National Collections

Paul Sowan in his element! Relaxing in a pub with tunnels out the back. Photo: Peter Burgess

A rich seam detailing what lies beneath the surface of the UK has been donated to two major libraries for researchers to dig into. The collection of over 500 books about mining, minerals and underground infrastructure is the legacy of polymath and enthusiast Paul Sowan, who died in June 2021. Paul left this valuable resource to the charity Subterranea Britannica (‘Sub Brit’) a society he led as Chair for 20 years. In order to preserve public access, most of the collection has been donated to the Historic England Archive and Library and the Library and Archive of The Common Room, home of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.

Croydon-born Mr Sowan, who trained as a geologist, had a particular interest in mineral and metal-mining across the UK, canal and railway tunnels and the many other hidden gems that lie under England’s towns and cities. These interests are reflected in his book collection which will be accessioned and made available over the coming weeks. Many of the books show the importance of underground resources to periods in history, from the Stone Age through to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Other titles record the work of local researchers, such as Sewers! The Drainage of Acton 1866-1965.

To prepare for the transfer, Sub Brit volunteer Peter Burgess spent 18 months meticulously cataloguing the collection. This involved physically identifying, extracting, sorting, indexing and packaging this information treasure trove. It was a process akin to an archaeological dig combined with library management, with the constant risk of being buried in collapsing piles of literature.
Nicola Cryer, Historic England Librarian, said ‘We are grateful to Subterranea Britannica for thinking of Historic England; Paul’s collection includes some rare volumes that will help extend our industrial archaeology collection in particular.’

Jennifer Hillyard, Library and Archive Manager at The Common Room said ‘Subterranea Britannica’s generosity has helped fill some important gaps in our collection and Paul’s passion for geology will live on through this donation.’

Martin Dixon of Subterranea Britannica added ‘Throughout his life, Paul built up his extensive knowledge and pursued research interests with the help of many libraries and archives. It is particularly fitting that the fruits of his assiduous collecting will live on in such renowned national collections.’


Subterranea Britannica is a UK Charity which studies our underground heritage. It has around a thousand members who work to research, explore, document and preserve man-made underground sites. Their website records 3,000 underground sites and a regular magazine Subterranea is produced. Areas of interest range from Neolithic flint mines to nuclear bunkers, and from catacombs to canal tunnels. Sub Brit will celebrate its 50th anniversary in April 2024 with underground visits followed by a celebratory meal.

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment. Their library in Swindon holds over 60,000 books and journals and covers topics including archaeology, architecture, history and aerial photography. The collection, including current journals as well as archive material, is open to the public for reference purposes. Arrangements for booking a visit can be seen here:
Contact: Nicola Cryer, on [email protected]

The Common Room is a registered charity established in 2017 to lead the redevelopment of and manage the assets of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. The Institute was founded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1852 and granted its Royal Charter in 1876. The library here holds more than 35,000 volumes in the fields of mining, geology, mechanical engineering and related fields with the earliest book dating from 1556. More details of what is in the collection and how to access it are at:
Contact: Jennifer Hillyard on [email protected]


Press Release from Subterranean Britannica