The facilities of the Hotel Riviera at Carcavelos were stretched to capacity on 13 January, when over 80 members and guests attended the Annual Lunch. While members do like to get together occasionally to renew old acquaintances, the main reason for the lecture room being completely full was the chance to hear a fascinating presentation on the British-owned uranium mine at Urgeiriça, near the Serra de Estrela. The speaker was the architect, Gonçalo Byrne (on the right in the photo below), whose father was a manager of the mine, while Ramsay Cameron (on the left), the son of the last manager, flew over from the UK to present a fascinating film he had produced about the mine. In addition, several of those attending shared personal connections with Urgeiriça and contributed some amusing anecdotes, including Marcus Harbord, grandson of Charles Harbord, the former co-owner and principal protagonist of the excellent film, as well as members of our Society who had visited the mine when it was in operation and had stayed in the hotel.
The first concession of the mine was owned by Sr. Cardoso Pinto and the Burney Bank from 1915 until 1926, but was not renewed because it was unable to find profitable quantities of radium, having “lost the vein”. Activities were then taken over by the Companhia Portuguesa de Rádium (CPR), which was founded in 1927 with British capital. The mine initially only produced radium, which was sent to Marie Curie in Paris. The local spring was used to commercialise ‘Águas Radium’, which was radioactive but happily consumed by the manager Charles Harbord and other local inhabitants as a medicinal tonic. In 1944, Joaquim Souza Byrne, Gonçalo’s father, was employed as the technical director, and later became the general manager, remaining at the mine until 1962.
Harbord purchased the ‘Senior Mess’ building, originally built to house the British mining engineers, which he turned into a large hotel, called the ‘English Hotel da Urgeiriça’ (below, right), which boasted golf, tennis, a swimming pool and trout fishing. His brother, a London art dealer, provided much of the art and furniture installed in the hotel. Still functioning today, the hotel, was very popular with the English from Porto, who would visit to celebrate the Queen’s birthday and New Year’s Eve in style. Gonçalo Byrne and his brother, José, both remember having to wear a dinner jacket at a young age. Later Harbord formed a partnership with Mrs Phyllis Graham, a regular client of the Hotel da Urgeiriça, to found ‘Hotéis Internacionais Lda’ in August 1942, at the height of the War. This company acquired the Hotel do Facho in Foz do Arelho, the Grande Hotel in Caldas da Felgueira, and the Estalagem da Lezíria in Vila Franca de Xira.
The mine had difficulty in being profitable, due to competition from a mine in the then Belgian Congo. At one time it was reduced to selling waste material for fertilizer! The development of the atomic bomb changed everything. Harbord was asked to go to London to have a meeting at the Ministry of Supply, where he was told to buy all the shares of the other partners and to report to Mr Paul Mollet at the British Embassy, who was the representative in Portugal of the UKCC (UK Commercial Corporation), which was responsible for buying wolfram, tin, sardines, and other material for the Second World War effort. The United States purchased 20 tons of uranium from Urgeiriça, not long before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, although the actual source of the uranium for those bombs was the Congo. In July 1949, 100% of the mine was purchased by the British government and an Acordo Luso-Britânico was signed. Considerable investment followed, to provide the uranium for the nuclear weapons manufactured during the Cold War.
In August 1952, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill’s niece Clarissa Churchill spent their honeymoon at the Hotel da Urgeiriça. It may not have been a typical honeymoon, as during this visit Eden negotiated an extension of the Acordo Luso-Britânico mining concession with Salazar, to last until 1962. In the 1950s Harbord decided that he wanted to sell the hotel and retire. In 1962, the ownership of the mine reverted to the Portuguese State-owned Junta de Energia Nuclear. However, the discovery of uranium in South Africa, Australia, and the southwest of the United States led to its closure in 1981, with the last 127 tonnes of uranium having been sold to Germany. A firm was then created to decontaminate the area of the mine: work on this is still ongoing.
The prize-winning film produced by Ramsay Cameron (see end of the report for the internet links) was first shown in 2017. It uses still photographs, archive footage and eyewitness interviews to provide a detailed history of the mine and the hotel. Among those sharing their experiences are Charles Harbord, the mother and brother of Gonçalo Byrne, and also Donald Bennetts, the grandfather of the Society's member, Helen Jolly, who was the Chair of the Companhia Portuguesa de Radium. The film also features interviews with retired workers from the mine and their descendants who live in the area, discussing the generally low pay, poor conditions and health risks associated with the work, particularly in the early years of the mine’s existence.
The presentation and film raised numerous questions, leading to some interesting exchanges. However, with the excellent buffet lunch in danger of getting cold, it was reluctantly concluded that discussions would have to be curtailed, to be continued over lunch and during a possible future trip by the Society to the hotel and mine.
The film can be viewed at:
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