Oral Histories

Merv Lawton

b.1922

Merv Lawton

Q: What was your family like? What class? Were they wealthy or not? Or professional?

A: No, my dad was an attorney. One brother also was in my dad’s attorneys office and I had another brother who was a barrister. We lost him in the war. He was killed in Italy. The other brother who was in my dad’s office was killed in an aircraft on volunteer work after the War, up in Rhodesia. He was in the Air Force reserve. They had a crash. So that’s basically two brothers. My third brother was in Burma at the time of the Japanese invasion and he went through the Burma campaign and got into India. He was a mining engineer in Burma mining tin and, due to his knowledge of mining, he was seconded from the army where he was made an intelligence officer because of his knowledge of the country. He was seconded from the army to the mines in Rajasthan to manage some of these mines in order to keep up production. Then he went back to South Africa and got back into the mining business in South Africa after the war was over.

Q: So your degree that you finally got was in mining?

A:Yes. I got a degree in mining and I worked at a mine west of Johannesburg.

Q: What kind of a mine?

A: It was mainly a gold mine but it also produced uranium as a by-product. It was somewhat different from the mines around here in that there were a number of superimposed veins and the uppermost veins had uranium as well as gold. What they did was basically mine for gold and all costs for mining which was charged against gold then the tailings, which normally would have gone out to a tailings dump, were bypassed to a uranium extraction plant. So a lot of the costs of mining, crushing and grinding were carried by the gold so the uranium was a by-product and that’s how come they were able produce uranium at a really low price.

Q: So then you went to Canada?

A: In 1957 they were opening up the uranium mines in Ontario, around a place called Elliott Lake, and the geology of the ore body was different from anything that they had in Canada. Most of the Canadian mines were very, very wide ore bodies and generally vertical and the whole opening underground was completely different from what we had with our gold and uranium in South Africa. But the South African method and geology was very similar to the geology of the Elliott Lake deposit. It belonged to Rio Tinto of Canada originally and then the company changed its name to Rio Algom because these mines were in the Algoma hills of Ontario. The person in charge was a Canadian who had done a lot of mining in South Africa and had been a manager of a number of different mines. He realized that what he needed for mining that uranium were engineers from South Africa that had worked on the gold and uranium mines there so he came back to South Africa and recruited people there.

Q: You?

A: Me. So in 1957, with 3 kids at that stage, to Elliott Lake in Canada.

Q: Did you take time out to get married between…?

A: I got married in 1951 when I was at the gold/uranium mine in South Africa.

Q: So you were already a miner? You didn’t get married in college?

A: No, I didn’t get married in college. I was already working for that mine when I got married.

Q: What did you think about going to Canada?

A: It was great. It was something new and we were getting a little bit tired of just working at this one place in South Africa and felt that a change would be a great thing.

Q: And you had three kids?

A: Yeah, plus the fact that we could see that the political situation was going to get worse in South Africa. We didn’t want our kids to grow up in that atmosphere. We wanted to get out so we could see what was happening from far away.

Q: How did apartheid affect you?

A: I didn’t like apartheid at all. I think if I had stayed on in South Africa we probably would have ended up in jail because we did not agree with the government that came into power in 1947.

Q: So you were more British?

A: Yes, right. So we operated this one particular mine for Rio Algom Ltd. in Canada until the AEC decided that uranium wasn’t quite so important to them. They had put out very, very strict contracts about the amount of uranium that we had to supply to the AEC in the States. Not just the amount but also the time limit … you had to have ore produced by that date. Rio Algom had about five different mines all running at the same time. But when the A.E.C. found out that the Russians were able to explode an atomic bomb and other nations were also working at it, they decided there wasn’t any urgency to this so basically they changed the contract to that amount of poundage but you were able to extend the time. You didn’t have to have the ore produced by a certain date. So what our company did was they essentially closed down four of the mines and kept one going, which happened to be the mine that I was working at. When we were getting near to the end of our production (the ore was getting a little bit too low grade, we’d got most of the high grade out) they started reopening one of the other mines that they’d closed down. When they closed our mine down they moved me up to northern Saskatchewan to open up a copper mine.

So I went up to northern Saskatchewan to a little place on the reservation called La Ronge. It was way, way north and we could expect temperatures for a week or so each winter of about 650 below 00 F. It was cold. The winters were long, the summers were short. But we had a good time there. We were right on the shore of a lake with wonderful fishing and it was a big lake. Sometimes we’d take our boat from where we were living in town out to the mine which was almost on the waterfront, about 20 miles by sea…by lake from the little village of La Ronge and we’d fish on the way home. Wintertime we’d often drive on the ice across the lake from La Ronge out to the mine.

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