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Yorkshire's Forgotten Industry

Lead mining in the Dales

Most visitors to the Yorkshire dales would be surprised to learn that they were holidaying in one of the largest former lead mining areas in the country. Many of the old mine workings are hidden in the hills with only a glimpse of a distant flue chimney to betray their presence. Even at close quarters it is not always easy to identify the buildings for what they are. Some have been adapted for farming purposes and many more have fallen into ruin, with little indication of their former purpose other than the surrounding scree, which a discerning eye will identify as man made.

Surrender Mill

Surrender Mill

Yet little over a hundred years ago, the lead industry in the Dales was still flourishing, and in some areas supporting a population twice the size of the present one. The main areas of activity were Grassington Moor and Greenhow Hill in the south, Teesdale and Alston Moor in the north and lying between these, the area which is the subject of this article – Swaledale, Arkengathdale and Wensleydale.

The history of lead mining in these dales is a long one. Many people claim that the Romans started mining here. During the 19th century a pig of lead bearing the name of Emperor Adrian is said to have been discovered at Hurst, in Swaledale. Unfortunately the evidence for this has long been lost, and the authenticity of the story has been questioned.

During the period of monastic expansion, much lead was needed for pipes and roofing, and it is known that a proportion of this came from Swaledale. In the 12th century, large quantities of lead were exported from Swaledale for use in the building of Waltham and Clairvaulx Abbeys.

Following the Reformation, and the consequent break up of monastic lands, there came a further boom in the industry with the rise of the English Country House. This was accelerated in the 17th century by the increasing wealth of the merchant class. Thus began the period of greatest prosperity in the industry, a prosperity which continued for over 200 years until the late 19th century, when cheap lead imports caused a dramatic fall in the price of lead and made many of the Swaledale mines uneconomic. The population of the Dale began to drift away to the new industrial areas of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Some mines struggled on for a few more years but, apart from one late venture at Hurst, all had closed by 1923.

Peat Store, Old Gang Mines.
Peat Store, Old Gang Smelt Mill.

Today the main interest in the old mines is from the industrial archaeologist. As a result of work by organisations such as the Northern Mine Research Society and the Earby Mine Research Group, knowledge of early mining techniques and organisation is steadily increasing.

One of the earliest forms of mining was by a technique known as hushing. This involved the exploitation of a known vein at surface level, usually along the line of a fault in the limestone. A reservoir was constructed above a slope where evidence of ore could be seen, and when a sufficient amount of water had accumulated the dam was breached. This allowed a torrent of water to flood down the fault line, washing out the loose rock and shale and thereby exposing the vein, which could then be worked by pick and shovel. Today the resulting gashes in the hillsides can be seen throughout the mining area.

On the moors above the slopes, the usual way of exploiting a vein was by a series of bell pits. These were shallow, vertical shafts sunk onto a vein and then worked horizontally from the bottom. When the air and flood water became too bad for the work to continue, the shaft would be abandoned and another sunk further along the vein.

This pattern of small, isolated mines operated by partnerships of a few miners continued until the 17th century, when the boom in the industry brought in a number of mining entrepreneurs – men such as Dr. John Bathurst, physician to Oliver Cromwell, and his grandson, Charles, who mined much of the Arkengarthdale area. Lord Wharton, and later Lord Pomfret, also belong to this period, a period which also saw the rise of the larger mining companies, such as the London Lead Company.

Old Peat House, Surrender Mill.

Peat Store columns, Surrender Mill.

These changes in organisation, together with the attendant increase in the money supply, brought with them new techniques of ore extraction and smelting. Probably the most important of these was the introduction of horizontal tunnels driven into the hill sides, and known as adit levels. Many of their entrances can still be seen, preserved from collapse by the skilled drystone arching that forms the tunnel walls and roof. These levels had two important functions: first they gave access to the mineral vein at much deeper levels than the old shafts or hushes, and secondly, by being driven at a slight incline, they acted as a drain for the mine and so prevented accumulations of water.

Some of the underground workings were enormously complex. At one time it was possible to enter levels in Gunnerside Gill and, via crosscuts and waygates, to pass through the Surrender Mines and emerge at the mouth of Old Moulds Level in Arkengarthdale, a total distance of seven and a half miles.

The other main aspects of the lead industry – the dressing floors and smelt mills - are still fully visible to the explorer on foot. The whereabouts of a dressing floor can usually be identified by the remains of the bouse teems – solid, stone-built bins into which the ore from the mine was tipped. Good examples can be found at Bunton Level in Gunnerside Gill.

Another form of relic, which can often be seen, is the remains of the old wheel house. These formerly housed overshot water wheels which were used to drive the crushing rollers. Like the bouse teems, they were solidly built and many have survived.

Surrender Mill, Swaledale

Surrender Mill

The smelting of ore followed a historical development similar to that of mining. In the early days the smelting was done by a small and primitive technique using a hearth known as a bail hill. This was a circular stone hearth, about 6 feet in diameter, usually built on the shoulder of a hill where the prevailing wind could be used to blow the fire. The ore was placed on top of the fuel and the smelted lead allowed to gather in a hollow at the bottom, from where it could be tapped and run into a mould.

As mining operations got bigger, the bail hill process was replaced by smelt mills large enough to smelt the ore from several mines. One of the best preserved examples is at Grinton, in Swaledale. This was one of the largest mills in the area and was formerly owned by the London Lead Company.

Less well preserved, but much better known, possibly on account of its highly romantic name, is Old gang Mill, in Hard level Gill. Here are the remains of two smelt mills together with the strange looking shell of the former peat store, a building 390 feet long and 21 feet wide. It is formed from stone pillars which formerly supported a roof of thatched heather. Old gang Mill operated until the 1880s and, unlike many of the old workings, the site still bears the unmistakable remains of mining waste. Hard level itself was one of the most extensive and productive mines in Swaledale.

Aptly, this Gill is one of only two places in these dales where some mining is still continuing. Not for lead, which is now largely exhausted, but for barites, which can be found in some quantity on the waste heaps where it was left by miners as not worth exploiting.*


First published in Country Life.

*Since the publication of this article the barytes mining has ceased

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