Lead Mining in Derbyshire and the Peak District
Derbyshire lead ore, known as galena, was first smelted some 3500 years ago.
The Romans made it an important industry and, for two hundred years up to 1780, the Peak was the most important lead mining area in the world.
The Romans mined there and left inscribed pigs, or ingots, of smelted lead as evidence. In the 9th century Repton Abbey owned mines at Wirksworth and when the abbey was destroyed by Danish troops in 874 they were taken by their Mercian puppet king Ceolwulf. They remained in royal hands after the Norman conquest of England and paid royalties to the Crown for centuries afterwards.
The Roman mines of Lutudarum – thought at present to be Crich (at N.G.Ref.: SK3554) were probably worked by the criminals of the province, convicted of suitably heinous crimes by their respective councils throughout Roman Britain, and sent here to work until they died. The life expectancy of a prisoner here was probably to be measured only in months.
A number of lead ingots have been found in the area, variously stamped:
One Pig of Lead from Wirksworth, Derbyshire is stamped -
(Property of Impererator Caesar Hadrianus Augustus. From the mines of Lutudarum)
Lead mining and smelting was an established industry in 1086, when the mines at Wirksworth and Bakewell were recorded in the Domesday Book
On one of the walls in Wirksworth church is a crude stone carving, found nearby at Bonsall and placed in the church in the 1870s. More than likely carved in Anglo-Saxon times, it shows a man carrying a kibble or basket in one hand and a pick in the other. This is our first picture of a medieval lead miner.
It may be less obvious today, but the remains of the industry and the wealth it created can be seen all over the Peak, in old workings, old barns erected in small fields by the miners, on the many "bole hills" used for smelting, and the later remains of smelting mills on the streams and rivers.
Its large houses, for example Chatsworth, Haddon and Hardwick, were built by families who gained fortunes from lead duties, whilst most other substantial houses in the area were built by successful mine shareholders or lead merchants.
Whole villages grew up where the miners lived - amongst them Bradwell, Eyam, Winster, Bonsal and Wirksworth, where you can see the large houses of mine-agents and merchants and the mazes of tiny houses of lead miners reached by winding narrow footpaths of genels.
Mining was hard and dangerous work - death, illness and injury came from poisonous lead dust, underground floods, falling rock, methane gas in shale workings and lack of oxygen in badly ventilated galleries
From the later years of the 17th century gunpowder introduced a further hazard.
Nonetheless the thousands of shafts, hillocks and ruined buildings in the limestone landscape of the old lead mining areas, and the miles of galleries underground, make it plain that the veins of lead were intensively exploited.
In the words of a petition to king Charles I - "many thousand people are dailie imployed in the lead mynes, to the great profit of your Majestie ... and to the whole Comonwealth ... in getting great quantities of lead for the use of the Kingdome in generall, and in transporting the rest to forraigne Nations".
Everything about the old lead industry, from the mining of ore to its sale, stemmed from the ancient claim of the monarch to all mineral rights. The whole structure was designed to enable the Duchy of Lancaster, a royal possession, to collect the king's royalties and, since these were farmed out, the miners paid them to the king's farmer.
By the seventeenth century the local holder of the mineral rights was also the barmaster, who ran the industry, helped by deputies responsible for the liberties, and by the miners juries of the Barmote Court.
Wirksworth was the administrative centre of one of the hundreds, local government units, of Derbyshire. Uniquely, the Wirksworth Hundred was still known by the archaic term Wapentake.
The lead industry is long gone, but its traditions are still maintained - the barmaster and the jury still meet in the Barmote Hall in Wirksworth. It was the royal possession of the mineral rights and the royal wish to encourage lead mining that dictated the two characteristic features of the old industry.
Any man who could demonstrate to the barmaster that he had discovered a significant amount of ore was allowed to open a mine and retain the title to it as long as he continued to work it, and, secondly, mining took precedence over land ownership. No land owner or farmer could interfere with lead mining, though there were many attempts to limit its damage.
Lead is no longer important but a little is still mined today at places like Bonsal and Bradwell moors, together with the more important, but formerly waste minerals, fluorspar - used in plastics and toothpaste, and barite - used in glossy papers and North Sea drilling.
Lead ore was Crown property in most places and the mining area of Derbyshire under royal control was known as the King's Field, with two separately administered divisions, the High and Low Peaks, each further divided into liberties, based on parishes. Wirksworth Wapentake was the Low Peak area of the King's Field.
At different times there were liberties based on Wirksworth, Middleton-by-Wirksworth, Cromford, Brassington, Matlock, Elton, Middleton-by-Youlgreave, Bonsall, Hopton and Carsington, and from 1638 until 1654 there was a separate liberty for the Dovegang, 200 acres on Cromford Moor which had become extremely productive after being drained by the first of the Derbyshire drainage schemes, or soughs.
Lead had traditionally been found by following veins from surface outcroppings, particularly in rakes or vertical fissures.
By the 17th century, however, most surface lead had been mined and prospecting was achieved by less direct methods. Miners searched for surface signs which were similar to known lead-rich areas, they checked ploughed and other disturbed land for traces of ore, they checked for signs in plants and trees and poorly performing crops, since lead is poisonous to most living things. They used probes to check for signs of ore in soil a few feet under the surface and dug exploratory holes or trenches in promising places. This was usually done to choose the best places to sink shafts ahead of existing working and the rules defined when and where these activities could be carried out.
The miners sank their shafts in turns of up to 90 feet each turn being a few yards away from the bottom of the preceding one, along a gallery which may have been the working level reached by the earlier shaft. They climbed up and down their shafts using either foot -holes in the shaft walls or stemples - wooden steps built into the sides, an exhausting and dangerous way to start and finish a day's work. These climbing shafts were usually within the miners' “coe”, the limestone-walled cabin in which they stored tools, a change of clothes and food. Where the mine was on a hillside the vein could often be reached via an adit or tunnel driven into the slope.
Ore was brought to the surface up a winding shaft outside the coe.
The miners' equipment included picks, hammers and wedges to split the rock, wiskets or baskets to contain it, corves or sledges to drag it to the shaft bottom, and windlasses or stows, to lift it to the surface. In later years underground transport was improved by replacing corves by wagons, often running on wooden or metal rails. A good example of 18th century wooden railway can be found in the Merry Tom mine, near Via Gellia
The miners avoided the need to excavate hard rock whenever they could and where it was unavoidable sometimes resorted to fire-setting. A fire was built against the rock face after mining had finished for the day and allowed to burn through the night. Fragmentation of the heated rock was increased by throwing water on to it. The rule about fire-setting only after the end of the day's work was important because in the confined mines the smoke was deadly. Fire-setting was a skilled technique and was used sparingly for that reason as well as because of the disruption caused by the smoke and the danger from splintering rock.
Processing the Ore
The traditional smelter was a bole, a large fire built on a hill and relying on wind power. It functioned best with large pieces of rich ore known as bing and could not deal with anything small enough to pass through a half-inch mesh riddle. The bole smelter therefore resulted in large amounts of ore accumulating on waste heaps. It required two days of strong wind and could only function when the conditions were favourable.
In the late 16th century wind power was abandoned and the smelting blast was provided by a bellows driven first by foot, to an ore hearth, and later by water-power in a smelting mill.
The mills were fuelled by “white coal”, which was in fact kiln-dried branch wood. Wood was preferred to charcoal for the main furnace, which smelted ore from the mines, as charcoal generated more heat than this furnace required. Drying the wood eliminated smoke, which would have made it difficult for the smelters to keep the necessary close observation of the process.
Charcoal was used in a second furnace, which resmelted the slag from the first, and required greater heat. Draught for the furnaces came from two large bellows driven by the water wheels. Lead ore of all grades was first broken or ground again into finer particles and rewashed to produce very pure ore for the furnace. These smelters could deal with much finer particles of ore and new techniques were introduced to provide them.
The Cupola is a tall usually cylindrical furnace where the fuel, flux and the material to be melted are introduced at the top and an air blast at the bottom (first developed around 1720). In a reverberatory furnace the fuel was burned in a combustion chamber at the side of the furnace, separate from the “charge” of ore, thus avoiding any contamination. This removed the disadvantage in using coal, which was far more plentiful than timber. The ore was loaded from a hopper into a concave furnace with a low, arched roof and a tall chimney or a flue at the opposite end from the combustion chamber. The flames and heated gases from the fuel were drawn across the charge by the draught from the chimney and beaten down by reverberation from the low roof. Slag on the surface of the molten lead was raked off and the lead itself poured into an iron pot at the side, before being ladled into moulds.
Several factors contributed to the cupola’s greater efficiency than the smelting mill. Unlike the smelting mill, the cupola could be operated continuously. Since the air flow over the ore was less powerful than that from the bellows of the blast furnace fewer lead particles were blown away. Further lead was saved by the fact that since the fuel and the charge were separate none of the lead was lost into the ash. Since no water power was needed the cupola had a fourth theoretical advantage of being freed from the riverside location of the blast furnace, and able to be placed in the most convenient site for supply of ore and coal. However the higher temperatures needed to melt the slag recovered from the primary melt required a water powered furnace and, since slag mills tended to be placed next to the cupolas, most cupolas remained in riverside sites.
Many cupolas had long horizontal flues, which were introduced to trap pollutants before they could be discharged into the air. Since the pollutants included metal vapour, the sweepings of the flue could also be recovered for resmelting.
Remains of lead smelting are also common but harder to appreciate. Lead is poisonous to both plants and animals.
For people the smelting processes are the most dangerous - the restored smelter at Spitewinter, near Chesterfield, stands a few yards from Belland Lane, belland being lead poisoning. The current owners of the smelter on the site of the former Mill Close mine at Darley Bridge have bought much of the adjoining land and turned arable and pasture into woodland, to avoid the danger to crops and animals.
Before a miner could sell his ore he had to dress it. Dressing was the process of extracting the ore from the rock in which it was embedded and washing it - a further refining process. In the days of bole smelting the ore was roughly washed clean of waste minerals and dirt before being riddled for bing ore.
The ore for the new smelters was smashed, or crushed, into pieces about the size of peas. This was done by hand, using a hammer called a bucker or, in larger mines, on a crushing circle, where a horse dragged a roller round a paved circle on which the ore was placed. Crushed ore was washed either by running water over it in a sloping trough called a buddle or by placing it in a sieve fine enough to prevent any ore particles passing through. The sieve was then plunged several times into a trough. In each case the object was to allow the heavier, lead-rich, particles to sink, enabling those containing lighter, unwanted minerals to be skimmed off the top and removed.
These processes were then repeated at the smelter. By the 17th century new mines were being opened, shafts driven deeper, and old waste heaps were yielding new supplies for the smelters
Remains of stone washing buddle can be found at Perseverance Mine on Carsington Pasture
Winster is about five miles from Matlock and is the most unspoilt of the lead mining villages. It was a boom-town in the first half of the eighteenth century.
Winster on pay day with the three big mines and dozens of smaller ones, There were twenty four inns and alehouses and hundreds of young men with six or seven weeks' wages in hand.
The large mines were across the valley in what is now woodland, but the footpaths up the Bank behind the village lead to many small mining remains and give splendid views.
Matlock Bath was formerly a lead mining settlement but three centuries ago turned to tourism using the warm water from its springs and old mines as an attraction. At its most fashionable period around 1800, former miners vied with each other to take visitors underground, for about a shilling a time, then the best part of a miners pay for a day.
The last large lead mine was the Millclose Mine which closed in 1940. It is now the site of a lead works with tall chimneys which can be seen from the road to Winster.
Evidence of the old lead mines is scattered over the peak limestone plateaux with humps and hollows that dot the surrounding landscape.
The most complete and evocative remains of a mine are at Magpie Mine near Bakewell, which was worked almost continuously for two centuries. It dates from 1739 and is said to be haunted. Water still drains from the mine workings through a man - made passage, or "sough" and flows out into the river Wye 1 3/4 miles away to the north below Great Shacklow Wood.
Visitors can explore the remains of the pump house, the horse - operated winding systems and the round " Cornish chimney".
Elsewhere on the limestone plateau are other signs of lead - workings in the form of "rakes" - a Derbyshire word referring to small fault lines in the earth where lead and other minerals congregate.
Near Arbor Low stone - circle, the road east passes Long Rake where fluorspa and other once waste products from old lead mines are processed. Although the fluorspar is worked out, the processing plant still functions and the line of the rake is marked by a shelter belt of trees along the roadside
Grassed over spoil heaps near Mawstone Farm on the slopes above Bradford Dale (near Middleton - by - Youlgreave ) mark the site of Mawstone Mine. This is where the worst disaster in the history of Derbyshire lead - mining occurred in the 1800's, when firedamp’s - a form of methane - exploded killing 8 miners.
Derbyshire lead mines had fallen to 285  most of whom worked at the Millclose Mine at Darley Bridge.
Millclose, the biggest lead mine in the country, took the Derbyshire lead industry into the 20th century, and just before its enforced closure in 1939, caused by flooding, it employed about six hundred men