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. Probably executed in Anglo-Saxon times, it shows a man carrying a kibble or basket in one hand and a pick in the other. He is a lead miner. The north choir aisle of Wirksworth church is dominated by a far more ostentatious monument, a large ornate alabaster chest tomb, a memorial to Ralph Gell of Hopton, who died in 1563. The simple figure of the miner bears witness to the fact that for centuries the people of Wirksworth and their neighbours relied on lead mining. Ralph Gell's imposing tomb is evidence that a few people became rich and powerful from the trade. While Derbyshire lead made Gell and others rich, for poor families it was both a living and an adventure, with the possibility of a better life from a lucky find. The industry was organised in a way that gave a measure of independence to many of them. 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 greatt proffitt of your Majestie ... and to the whole Comonwealth ... in getting greatt quantities of lead for the use of the Kingdome in generall, and in transporting the rest to forraigne Nations...". By the 17th century lead was second in importance in the national economy only to wool. It was essential for the roofs of public buildings and the new houses being built in every part of the country by the nobility and gentry. All houses, including farmhouses and cottages by then, had glazed windows, with lead glazing bars. It was the only material for water storage and piping. Every army used it as ammunition. There was a thriving export trade as well as the home market and the Wirksworth area was the main source of the ore.
There had always been lead mining in and around Wirksworth. This is limestone country and the fissures characteristic of limestone contained rich deposits of minerals, and especially of galena: lead ore. 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. Lead mining and smelting was an established industry in 1086, when the mines at Wirksworth and Bakewell were recorded in the Domesday Book. 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 that were similar to known lead-rich areas, they checked ploughed and other disturbed land for traces of ore, and 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 footholes in the shaft walls or stemples, wooden steps built into the sides. 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 an 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.
After a mid-16th-century slump the industry recovered, new mines were opened on Middleton Moor, and production increased, a recovery mainly due to technical developments. While traditional extraction methods had persisted there were vital changes in the ways in which ore was prepared for smelting and in the smelting process itself. 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. 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.
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.
It was the royal possession of the mineral rights and the royal wish to encourage lead mining, that dictated the two characteristic features of so-called "free mining". 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. In 1620 the Duchy of Lancaster's tenants at Brassington complained that lead mining was poisoning their cattle. In 1663 the Brassington manor court forbade miners from taking water from the village well to wash ore, on pain of a fine of 1/-, and in 1670 imposed fines of 3/4d on miners who left shafts uncovered or raised heaps of soil and waste minerals against fences, allowing cattle to climb over them. But the customs raised the possibility of ordinary families making a living independently of farmers or other employers.
The mills which had superseded the ancient bolehills in the late 16th century were themselves superseded in the 18th century by the gradual introduction of a new type of furnace known as the cupola. The old mills had a number of disadvantages. Their characteristic overheating and dissemination of polluting fumes made it necessary to close the smelter down at the end of each day’s work. The hearth burned out quickly and regular weekly repairs or rebuilding were necessary – between 24 June and 29 September 1657, for instance, thirteen new hearths were required at the Upper Mill in Wirksworth. Water-powered smelting mills were restricted to riverside sites and “white coal” fuel required a good supply of timber. By the 18th century timber supplies were running out and, where coke or coal was used because of timber shortages, impurities, particularly sulphur, were introduced into the lead. It was, finally, less efficient than the cupola.
The cupola was 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.
The Derbyshire lead industry declined after the late 18th century because of worked-out veins, increased production costs and the discovery of much cheaper foreign sources. The industry was protected from this foreign ore by import duty in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A reduction in the duty in 1820 and its abolition in 1845 brought a steep rise in the volume of lead imported into England and accelerated the local industry's decline. There were still bursts of high production, and indeed the output of certain mines during the 18th and 19th centuries exceeded anything achieved in the 17th century; over 2658 loads (about 641 tons) were mined at Brassington, traditionally an area of low output, in 1862. At a meeting of the Barmote Court in Wirksworth in 1862 one mine owner announced "that by perseverance for upwards of twenty years, they had at last found the long sought for treasure, which he hoped would be prosperous, and they should be able to continue employing, as they are at the present time, upwards of 100 men at one mine in Brassington". However, by 1901 the number of men employed in all the Derbyshire lead mines had fallen to 285 most of whom worked at the Mill Close Mine at Darley Bridge. Mill Close, 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 600 men.
Peak District Lead Mining Museum is situated in The Grand Pavilion, Matlock Bath's beautiful, but somewhat neglected 1910 pleasure palace, once used as a theatre and entertainments centre. The museum depicts the fascinating history of lead mining in Derbyshire and tells the story of the many families who took part in this grualling work. The Museum cares for over 6000 objects. Many of these are on display for the public to see, but many are also in storage. They incluse objects connected to extracting minerals from below ground; Items involved in moving minerals underground and up to the surface; Pumping engines and devices that remove water from mines; Personal items belonging to miners; Objects that were used to process the mineral, e.g. for crushing, washing and smelting and rocks and minerals – they have thousands of minerals, including local, national and international collections. The museum has two levels with a household flight of stairs between. The ground floor is fully accessible. There is a stair-lift for access to the upper level and a wheelchair upstairs. Assistance dogs are welcome.
You can also visit the Temple Mine. Temple Mine is a working 1920s lead and fluorspar mine, just across the road from the Museum. A guide will take you around the mine, providing an authentic insight into life underground. At Temple Mine you will see: Mine workings from the 1920s, 1950s and some that are over 200 years old; The tools and equipment used by the miners; A rare 1936 locomotive; A variety of rocks and minerals and evidence of the geological processes that formed the surrounding landscape. The mine is accessed via a short but steep slope. The roof is low in places and there are steps and uneven floors within, which can get wet and slippery. This means that unfortunately it is not fully accessible. However, a DVD of the tour through Temple Mine is available to watch in the museum.
Location : The Grand Pavilion, South Parade, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire DE4 3NR
Transport: Matlock Bath (National Rail) 10 minutes. Bus Routes : Trans Peak, the 6.1 and the 140/141 stop outside.
Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00; Mine Tours 12:00 & 14:00
Tickets Museum & Mine: Adults £7.00; Concessions £6.00; Children (5 - 17) £5.00
Tickets Museum: Adults £4.00; Concessions £3.50; Children (5 - 17) £3.00
Tickets Mine: Adults £4.50; Concessions £4.00; Children (5 - 17) £3.50
Tel: 01629 583834