I am doing a course at the moment called North Pennines Mineralisation. It’s another historical learning thing, studying the mining industry in the Pennines.
In the mid-nineteenth century, lead mining was a major industry in northern England and later, they extracted Fluorite which went down to the iron foundries around Consett where it was turned into flux to help the steel production process.
There is evidence of lead extraction in Roman times and almost certainly earlier settlers and Celts found ways of mining lead. It is found in narrow bands up to 50mm thick but the bands are surrounded by hard granite which must be chipped away; you can’t just use blasting to get it out because you would lose the lead as well as losing the granite. On Friday, we visited Bentyfield mine, nr Garrigill, one of the highest villages in England right on top of the Pennines. It is a protected site not a lot to see on the surface but the hillsides are covered with spoil from the mines and circular mounds on the ground where the entrances to the shafts can still be found. If you look on Google Earth here you can see these circular shafts on the hills; look at where the B6277 crosses another road and then look to your right and you can clearly see the markings on the hillside.
Records show that in the early 19thC they sent their kids down the shafts, as much as 100m deep. They would chip out the lead then be hauled up, dump their ore then back down to get more. Later, horses drove wooden wheels and pulleys which meant the child could stay down there all day and the horse would pull up his load using the pulleys. The horses meant that they could explore mines which had been dug out in earlier times when men could only go down thirty feet or so but with pulleys and a horse they could open up old shafts to a depth of 400m and extract ore that earlier generations of miners couldn’t reach.
It says in our notes that the mine yielded 4868tons of lead between 1848 and 1882 [with incidentally, 7.7oz per ton of silver].
It has a clarity about it that vividly shows how working people lived in those times. The whole family was engaged in mining; working the levels; getting the ore onto the tramway; working all daylight hours. It was too cold in winter up there so they had to make all their income during the spring and summer seasons.
Hard and dangerous, like so much of work in those days.
I have a glancing interest in mining. I lived near what was then, the UK’s most productive coal mine, the undersea levels of Westoe Colliery and a lot of our neighbours were miners. A few years ago I went down a gold mine in Nevada which had effectively been mined-out commercially but was now worked by weekend visitors hoping to find a nugget or two. They had fixed electric light-bulbs along the tunnel roofs and you could walk semi-upright along the passageways and get a real sense of the claustrophobic life of a nineteenth century gold miner.