Updated 28 May 2002

WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900

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Lead Miner's Heyday

Here are extracts from a book about the great days of lead mining in the Wirksworth Area, its chief industry for hundreds of years. It was a very tough life, very different from our own today, with strange customs and organization. Most people with Wirksworth ancestors will have a lead miner somewhere in the family. Ron Slack's book vividly describes the miner's life and the problems he had to overcome. It is full of detail, and I consider essential reading for those interested in their Wirksworth ancestors.

The miners' art.. Technical change.. Barmasters and stewards.. Free miners.. Smelting.. Smelting mill workers.. Draining the Dovegang.. Driving the Dovegang sough.. The post-war soughs.. Cromford Sough.. Big new mines.. The small mines survive.. Mine drainage.. Daniel Defoe and the miners
Published by permission of Ron Slack.

Book details:
Title: "Lead Miner's Heyday: the great days of mining in Wirksworth and the Low Peak of Derbyshire."
by Ron Slack, ISBN 0 9509746 4 1, A5 size, 90 pages, 15 photos, good index, © Ron Slack 2000.

Available from local shops and information centres at £5.00 or by post from Ron Slack at £5.54

Ron Slack's address is: 26 Glenthorne Close, Brampton, Chesterfield S40 3AR, England
tel:(01246) 202288, e-mail: ronslack@derbycounty.co.uk
See also extracts from Lands and lead miners and Paupers Venture/Childrens Fortune, also by Ron Slack.

Page 4

The miners’ art

The ways in which the miners found their ore, and the tools and methods used to mine it, changed very little over the centuries. As late as 1880 a mining inspector could declare that “the working of the veins is carried on at the present day in a very crude manner, with but little improvement on the old Saxon mode of working the mines, some of the most antiquated customs and modes of working being still in use. Engineering skill and science have done little to improve the mode of working the lead mines of Derbyshire”. He was exaggerating, and there had been developments, but a seventeenth century miner would not have felt out of place in most of the nineteenth century mines.

Lead had traditionally been found by following veins from surface outcroppings,particularly in “rakes” - vertical fissures. The trenches, sometimes hundreds of yards long, left by worked-out rakes, are common in the old mining areas, and are probably the origin of the name the miners gave their shafts - “grooves” or “groves”. By the seventeenth 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. Illegal probing was called “progging” and twice during the 1680s the Gell family of Hopton, who had continued and enlarged Ralph Gell’s lead interests, intervened to stop progging on Hopton Moor. In one case, in July 1680, four local men “acknowledge we have made several holes by progging which is not according to custom: & do promise not to offend in the like case again but will work according to the custome of the mine” .

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, 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 - Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, once met a miner on Brassington Moor who described just such an operation. Defoe was on his way from Wirksworth to Buxton in the 1720s when he spotted the miner climbing out of a shaft by means of “pieces of wood” in the shaft walls and questioned him about his work. The miner told Defoe that he was working at 60 fathoms (360 feet) and other members of his group at 71 and 86 fathoms. He envied these workmates because they “had a way out at the side of the hill”.

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 500-yard length of eighteenth century wooden railway was found recently 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 “firesetting”. 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 firesetting only after the end of the day’s work was important because in the confined mines the smoke was deadly. Firesetting 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.

Page 7

Technical change

After the mid-sixteenth century slump the industry recovered, new mines were opened on Middleton Moor, and production increased. Apart from the renewed demand after the monastic lead had been absorbed, the sixteenth century recovery was 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. It required two days of strong wind and could only function when the conditions were favourable. In the late sixteenth 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. 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 forbing 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 seventeenth century new mines were being opened, shafts driven deeper, and old waste heaps were yielding new supplies for the smelters.

Page 10

Figure 1  Barmasters and stewards in Wirksworth Wapentake

King's farmers, chief barmasters
1592?-1623 Robert Parker?
1623-1637  Robert Parker/Thomas Parker/Richard Carrier
1638-1644  John Gell I, John Milward (except Dovegang)
1644-1654  John Gell II, John Milward
1654-1661  John Gell II, John Milward, Thomas Mitchel
1661       Earl of Northampton (including Dovegang)
           Edward Vernon  Ralph Freeman
1691       Lord Clifford/Hugh Chudley/William Montague
1692-1698  Francis Gell (2/3 of  Wirksworth Wapentake)
1701       Thomas Bagshaw
1708       John Hutchinson
1708       John Rowles

1630       Thomas Allsop   1661  George Hopkinson
1701       Thomas Bagshaw  1770  Godfrey Heathcote

Deputy barmasters
1623-1637  Thomas Noton, Richard Wigley, George Wright,
           Robert Wall, Richard Cadman, Edward Bradshaw,
           Robert Flynte, Laurance Stokes, Anthony Steeple,
           John Steeple, Thomas Needham, Edward Somers,
           William Tofte
1639-1650  Brassington              Henry Trevis
1639-1655  Cromford                 William Hardy
1639-1653  Middleton by Wirksworth  Thomas Spencer
1639-1653  Wirksworth               Ralph Poyser
1645-1650  Matlock                  John Abell
1645-1650  Bonsall                  William Needham
1645-1650  Elton                    John Wilson
1650       Middleton by Youlgrave   Richard Marshall
1650-1661  Brassington              William Blackwall
1656-1659  Cromford                 Francis Hardy
1653-1661  Middleton by Wirksworth  John Sladen
1653-1661  Wirksworth               John Sladen
1666       Wensley                  Henry Greatorex
1701       Wirksworth               John Annable/Samuel Mather
1706       Matlock                  George North
1714       Wensley                  John Abell
1730       Brassington              Samuel Bacon
1738       Matlock                  George Tissington
1740       Brassington              Stephen Bagshaw
1750-1792  Brassington              Edward Ashton
1753       Elton                    William Twigg
1772       Matlock                  Anthony Tissington
1777       Cromford                 John Abell jnr
1777, 1791 Matlock                  Joseph Simpson
1777       Wirksworth               Henry Sidebotham
1788       Cromford                 Robert Lockall
1792-1804  Brassington              Thomas Slack

Page 17

Free miners

Free mining - the traditional way - needed little capital and there were hundreds of small mines in the Wirksworth area. The evidence is still visible in the shafts and hillocks and in the heaps of limestones remaining from mine buildings. The barmasters’ records for the liberties in the Wirksworth Wapentake put names to these remains and to some of the men who worked there. The situation was to change later in the century, when successful mine drainage schemes enabled much deeper mining to be achieved, but the Wirksworth liberty figures for 1639 and the 1640s give a picture of many small mines, none producing much and most still worked in the traditional way by pairs or small partnerships of independent miners, owning shares in the mines they worked.

Ralph Poyser’s accounts for the Wirksworth liberty in 1639 list eighty-six mine owners. Twenty-three of them had ore measured at their mines on only one occasion and a further thirty-four required Poyser’s service fewer than six times during the year. These fifty-seven men who produced ore for measuring less frequently than every other month were either miner/farmers, with fields and animals as well as their mines, or were supplementing income earned from working in other men’s mines. The fifty-six miners producing less than 5 loads must certainly have worked only part of 1639 at their own mines. However, a mine’s output could vary over time, and it was usual to continue working during lean periods in the hope of better luck to come.

Most of the rest produced enough ore during the year to make a living - George Hardy, for instance, working in Upper and Nether Groves in the Barley Flat, had ore measured on seven occasions and mined 13 loads 7 dishes. With ore selling at about 25/- a load this was enough for a family to live on. There were twenty-two miners who produced between 5 and 20 loads (1-4 tons) during the year, figures suggesting that they could confine their mining to their own groves, though the infrequency of their ore measurements suggests that they too were miner/farmers. The 1639 picture persisted through the 1640s. In 1645 Ralph Poyser made more than seven hundred and thirty-four reckonings in Wirksworth liberty - some of the entries noted “at severall times mesured”. There were eighty-one names, eight of them paired, implying that in at least four of the seventy-seven mines listed there were only two partners. There were no high production figures - only four of the mines had over 30 loads measured and only one of these reached 50. There were, however, more mines producing enough ore to earn their owners a living wage than there had been in 1639. Twelve men had between 20 and 29 loads measured and a further twenty-six produced between 5 and 19 loads. Well over half of the men working these small mines were therefore earning more than enough to live on. Typical were Thomas Woodiwis, who had ore measured on twenty-six occasions and sold 25 loads, William Worslowe, 24 loads measured at twenty-four reckonings and Robert Wall, for whom Poyser measured 28 loads at twenty-five visits to his mine. They had small amounts measured at frequent intervals and were clearly working full time in their own mines. The small amounts indicate small labour forces - perhaps one or two underground, plus family help in winding and dressing the ore. As in 1639 there were many who, from the small amount of ore they produced, or the few times they presented ore for measuring, must have worked either on the land or in other men’s mines, as well as their own.

Page 20


There were four smelters at Wirksworth, all powered by the river Ecclesbourne. The earliest, Wash Green, was built about 1589 by Henry Wigley. Wigley’s sons Thomas and Richard succeeded their father in the business until 1635 and among their successors were George Hopkinson and Robert Sage, followed by Hopkinson’s son Adam. By 1693 the mill was in the hands of Sir Philip Gell, who sold it to John Hutchinson in 1701. At the same time Hutchinson renewed the lease of the two mills which had been in the Gell family’s hands since the time of Sir Philip’s grandfather, Sir John. These were the Nether Mill, also known as Milnhouses or Lower Mill, and the Over or Upper Mill. Like Wash Green, Nether Mill dated from the late 16th century, when it was held by William Blackwall. The fourth smelter, Middle Mill, was in Sir Philip Gell’s hands in 1693 and was also later leased to Hutchinson.

Sir John Gell had been smelting earlier than 1633, when he was sued by a former employee. He bought Nether Mill in 1640 and Upper Mill was in use before 1647. Detailed accounts for the two mills’ operations survive for 1648 and some later years. In 1648 Nether Mill made a profit for John Gell junior of £18 for the first quarter and £23 for the second. At Upper Mill, where the tenant was Johannes Molanus, recently Major in his father’s regiment during the Civil War, the profit was £40 for the five months January to May. Molanus was a tough old soldier and had never been particularly fastidious in any of his activities. Gell found that the old man had not changed. On the 22nd May 1655 Gell petitioned the Commissioners of Excise that four excisemen “by force and armes the 28th day of March last did breake open the dore of your petitioner’s said Mill” and seize eight pieces of lead, knowing them to be Gell’s property. They claimed “that one John Molanus was indebted unto them for the excise of some leade which he had formerly sould and sent away”. Gell protested that “neither accordinge to the lawes of the excise nor in equatie ought your petitioner’s personal goods to be seized on for a debt owinge by an other”.

The four 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.

In an attempt to lessen pollution, the mills were built on high ground to the east of the town, exposed to the prevailing westerly winds. Most of the fumes they produced were therefore carried away from Wirksworth. However, the mill chimneys were not high enough to prevent surrounding grass and woodland being contaminated and the mill streams themselves were poisoned. There were many complaints, but the high efficiency and profitability of the smelting mills ensured that such complaints did not interfere with their work, and lead poisoning persisted as long as the lead industry lasted.

Page 22

Smelting mill workers

The mills employed four workmen or women at each hearth. Two were skilled smelters whose job was to manipulate the ore as it was smelted. One tended the furnace and kept the hearth loaded with ore and a fourth attended to labouring jobs, including breaking the ore and ladling the molten metal into the moulds for the “pigs” (ingots) in which form the lead was sold. There were 8 pigs to the fother (221/2 cwts). At Nether Mill in 1663 there were six men and two women, earning in total £20-13-4d a quarter. This averages £2-6-8d or 3/7d per week, though in fact the smelters would earn a higher wage than the other two. The workers’ names are given in the bills for manufacture and repair of tools, presented to the manager by a blacksmith, who named each person for whom he had carried out a job. The most skilled work in the mill was done using a shovel and a “crow” (bar), and the entry in the blacksmith’s bill reading “to Elizabeth Roper a Crowe” suggests that the women may have done some of it. The work was well-paid but highly dangerous - the poisonous effects of smelting were not confined to the landscape outside the mills and lead poisoning often caused ill health and early death among the workers.

In addition to the smelting mill workers, the industry employed “jaggers” carrying ore to the mills, or smelted lead from the mills, woodcutters making white-coal, blacksmiths, builders such as “Adam Ogden for mending ye chimney which was burnt ye first time” at Nether Mill in 1647, and many other trades.

Page 29

Draining the Dovegang

The Dovegang vein ran for more than 600 yards, from near Black Rocks, between Cromford and Wirksworth, across Cromford Moor to Middleton. With its tributary veins it covered an area of about 200 acres. Intensively mined over many years the mines had been inaccessible since they had reached the water table in the early years of the century. There were by one account at least 300 mines and by another there were 28 owners at the time Heath obtained his lease. Among the owners were a group who had been attempting intermittently since 1615 to drain the mines. They had employed a succession of “engineers”, experts in drainage, to pump the mines dry. These experts used “rag and chain” pumps, in which an endless chain, with leather discs attached at one foot intervals, was turned by a windlass. The chain passed through a wooden pipe, usually a hollow tree trunk, planted at the bottom of a drowned shaft, drawing water through the pipe. The power was supplied either by teams of men or by horses. These efforts had had only temporary success. The latest engineer, John Bartholomewe, or “John the Devisor”, was a servant of the Earl of Dover, who joined the group in 1628 or 1629. A survey map prepared in 1632 to accompany the report of a commission set up by the Duchy of Lancaster shows a line of shafts along the Dovegang vein. The line runs south-east toward the Wirksworth-Cromford road, parallel to the Wirksworth-Middleton road, and ends in a “gyn pitt”, with an “ingen howse”. The “gyn pitt” or pump shaft was 240 feet deep and the “engine” was probably similar to one which Bartholomewe installed in 1633 at Tiersall mine, near Wensley. This was sunk in a shaft 174 feet deep and was operated by men and horses. It was designed to pump out water directed to it by the miners, who were to use “several sucking pumpes or hand pumpes” to lift water from below the level of Bartholomewe’s engine. Bartholomewe himself had other engines to attend to and at Tiersall appointed the most skillful man available to supervise its working. At the Dovegang he decided to try a different method. He had just started to drive a sough to drain the mines, shown on the 1632 map as “the sough end” at Dean Wall on the Cromford road, when Heath was granted his lease.

Heath used the Duchy Court to install the temporary barmaster and steward of the Barmote Court, and to appoint an agent to take over the mines of the Dovegang. Heath’s men used threats, bribes and violence to remove the existing owners, while Bartholomewe vainly urged the miners to stay put, denying Heath’s right to the mines and assuring the miners that he himself would drain the Dovegang “and content them for their interest therein”. This was the traditional bargain between miners and drainers and was the procedure followed in every subsequent sough. Heath, promoted to Lord Chief Justice in October 1631, entered into a partnership with Sir Cornelius Vermuyden in the same month. Vermuyden was the man most likely to succeed where so many had failed in draining the flooded mines of the Dovegang. He had come from the Netherlands in 1621 to drain the East Anglian fens and his success there earned him a knighthood, granted in 1628. It is a measure of Vermuyden’s importance to Heath’s enterprise that the agreement between the partners gave Heath a third of the profits and Vermuyden two thirds. In July 1632 the king issued a order confirming Heath’s and Vermuyden’s rights to the Dovegang mines and instructing all previous owners to allow full possession, under pain of a £500 fine.

According to a contemporary, Sir John Gell II, Vermuyden’s was the first sough in Derbyshire. Gell, who died in 1689, wrote towards the end of his life that “formerly when the works were troubled with water they used leathern bags, pumps and other engines to lay the works dry. The first sough that ever I heard of was brought up by Sir Cor. Verm. at the Gange, which is within the memory of man, and I remember his coming into the country to undertake the sough”.

The sough was driven intermittently until 1651, employing over 1000 local miners and tradesmen. In 1651 it drained a number of highly productive veins. Consequent investment in the newly rich mines altered the pattern of ownership in the Cromford liberty, whereby many formerly independent owners became employees of the shareholders in large mines.

Page 39

Driving the Dovegang sough

The one area of the Wirksworth Wapentake which was not covered by Gell’s lease, and the one which was later to become the most productive, was the Dovegang. By the time of the miners’ petition against the 48/- duty the Dovegang sough was employing 1,000 men “when it is in work”, and work seems to have continued intermittently throughout the war, financed mainly by loans made to Vermuyden by a fellow Dutchman, the merchant Marcellus Vanduren. The mines were not finally drained until 1651. It is characteristic of the confusion of loyalties during this war that Vermuyden was on the Parliamentary side and Vanduren was accused after the war of supplying the Earl of Newcastle with money and arms. Thomas Coke, meanwhile, who had sold the lease of the Dovegang duties to Vermuyden, was a declared royalist. Business was business, even if there was a war on.

Page 43

The post-war soughs

Until the seventeenth century mining had usually been abandoned when the work reached the water table. Efforts at draining lead mines by horse-powered pumps, or “engines” had little success. Soughs, driven into flooded veins to allow the water to run off, finally solved the problem. By lowering the water table and opening up large new deposits of lead ore, they transformed the industry. Without soughs most of the lead in the Wirksworth area would have been inaccessible. Vermuyden’s was followed by a succession of soughs which by the end of the century had drained enough of the mines in the Wirksworth Wapentake to cause a dramatic rise in production in the whole area. The most important were the Cromford sough, which was over thirty years in driving, between 1662 and 1696, and was continued in the eighteenth century, and Hannage sough, begun in 1693 and also continued into the next century. Also among the important seventeenth century soughs were the Raventor, begun in 1655, Bates (1657-84), Lees (1664), and Baileycroft (1667-73). The Baileycroft sough drained mines in Wirksworth. Those in the area just to the north of Wirksworth called the Gulf were drained by the Raventor and Lees soughs. The Bates and Cromford soughs drained mines on Cromford Moor - Bates sough had reached the Dovegang by 1684. Hannage sough drained the area to the east of Yokecliffe Rake, on the south of Wirksworth.

Some of the accounts of expenditure on Raventor sough have survived. They show that the work was carried out by teams of miners under contract. On April 9th 1659, for instance, Lawrence Toplis “& his partners” were paid £2-10-0d for driving five yards at 10/- a yard. In addition each member of the partnership was paid for each shift worked. These latter figures reveal that the leaders of the partnership, Toplis and John Gregory, were paid 1/6d a shift while others received either 1/- or 10d. The most complete surviving records for a Wirksworth sough of the period are, however, those for the Baileycroft. In great detain these reveal how a sough was financed, managed and constructed.

Page 52

Cromford Sough

Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries soughs continued to be the main means of draining the deep mines of the Wirksworth area. The longest and most successful to be started in the seventeenth century was the Cromford Sough, known originally as the Longe Sough. This was over a hundred years in the driving. It was begun in 1673, three years before the signing of the articles of agreement by Sir John Gell and others, and it was the strong, continuous flow from its tail that was to persuade Richard Arkwright to set up his cotton mill in Cromford almost a hundred years later, in 1771. The sough was originally intended to drain the mines of Ashcroft Vein on Cromford Moor and, driven in an undulating course to keep in soft shale, reached Dun Rake, a quarter of a mile to the south of Cromford, in 1680.

A short distance beyond Dun Rake the soughers left the shale and turned south-west, through limestone. In this section, as far as Tinley Vein, the much more difficult rock prompted the use of gunpowder - “for carrying on the Sough so vast a way thro’ Rocks of limestone which could not be worked but by boring holes and blasting with Gunpowder”. In addition to the problem of blasting a way through hard rock the soughers were plagued by poor ventilation - “great obstructions were occasioned by the want of wind in the Sough, which caused damps and killed the miners, and to carry on the Sough they were forced very often to sink Pitts or Shafts … at the expense of £100 to £200 a shaft”. After an expenditure of £20,000, Tinley Vein was reached by 1696.

The work was abandoned for ten years, before the sough was driven further south to the Godbehere Vein, which was reached in 1709. This section of the work was carried out in shale and the miners were menaced by firedamp. The ventilation problem in this section was tackled by a “double drift” system, with passages cut between the two drifts, a technique known as “thurling”. A basket of burning coal was suspended in the mouth of a shaft, creating an up draught. The current of air was drawn up the sough, through the thurl currently in use and back to the shaft. As the sough progressed the thurls were filled in to prevent short circuits in the ventilation current. After intersecting the Godbehere Vein the sough was driven westward along the Gang Vein, reaching Milcombottom , to the north of Wirksworth, by 1756.

Branches were driven south, the most important being the Ranter branch, which reached the Ranter or Raventor mine about 1773. The Gell family had retained a share in the mine, and the effect of the sough can be seen in the accounts prepared for Phillip Gell, the current holder of the family estate. Raventor, where 193 loads had been mined in 1693, produced 12,539 loads (3,145 tons) between March 1773 and May 1776. The ore was sold for £20,771 and, while the mine’s expenses were high, Gell’s sixteenth share of the profit yielded him £601-14-9d.

While the flow from the sough’s tail provided Richard Arkwright with the power for his mill, it also had an effect at the other end similar to the one caused by Baileycroft a century earlier. In 1780 Samuel Buxton, a Wirksworth miller, took the soughers to court, claiming that the sough had damaged his business by reducing the flow of water to his mill.

Page 54

Big new mines

The traditional way, where the men working a mine owned shares in it, was disrupted wherever a mine became very productive. In 1653, for instance the picture in Brassington, Middleton and Wirksworth liberties was quite different from the one in Cromford, the difference being that Cromford liberty contained the mines recently drained by the Dovegang sough. In each of the Brassington, Middleton and Wirksworth liberties the barmaster’ records named about forty proprietors, only half of the number mining at Wirksworth in the 1640s, suggesting that the large new mines in Cromford drew their workforces from the formerly independent miners in all the liberties of the area. While in each liberty apart from Cromford there were a small number of mines which produced a disproportionately large amount of lead ore for the barmaster to measure, the disproportion was small enough to demonstrate that the mines in these liberties remained small ones, worked by independent miners.

In Cromford however, with the Dovegang drained by 1651, the large amounts of ore made suddenly accessible attracted men with the capital to invest in extracting it. An unprecedented 6897 loads (1724 tons) of lead ore was mined in the Cromford liberty in 1653, compared with 702 in Brassington, 349 in Wirksworth and 278 in Middleton. Over 55 percent of the Cromford ore came from the mines owned by Lionel Tynley. Tynley, the same Lionel Tynley who had organised the miners’ petition of 1641, died in November 1653. He and his successor mined 3,816 loads (954 tons) while, in his capacity as merchant, Tynley bought 707 loads (177 tons) of grove and caved ore in the liberty between January 1653 and the time of his death. Two other mines produced over 19 percent and 11 percent respectively and, with over 5 percent from another entrepreneur who combined mine owning and ore buying, 90 percent of Cromford’s ore came from four sources. The rest consisted of small amounts produced by 45 independent miners.

There are no records of the numbers of men employed in the large mines but, since the tools and methods of ore getting in 1653 were the same in large and small mines, the enormous amount of ore extracted in such a short in Cromford indicates large workforces. The ore in the large mines may have been in larger deposits and have been more easily extracted than in the small ones, but in the days of high production there were obviously more men employed in the few large mines of the Cromford liberty than there were in all of the rest. They would have worked in teams of copers, supplemented when necessary by wage labourers paid by the shift. The pattern established in Cromford liberty in 1653 became typical wherever and whenever large deposits were discovered and worked throughout the Wirksworth Wapentake and elsewhere in Derbyshire.

Page 55

The small mines survive

However, whether or not an area was dominated by one or more large producers, most of the mines remained too small to attract rich predators, and many of the men in the barmaster’s accounts regularly had small amounts of ore measured. They included, for example, two of the Cromford liberty miners, William Copeland and William Ward. In 1653 Copeland had amounts varying between 3 and 9 dishes of ore measured on 16 occasions. These occurred in every month except October. His total for the year was 10 loads 5 dishes (2 tons 11 cwt). Ward had no ore measured in January, March, October and November. During the other eight months of 1653 he presented ore for measurement on 13 occasions, a total of 32 loads 2 dishes (8 tons). The measurements are too frequent for these miners to have spent any time working for such as Lionel Tynley. The barmaster’s accounts for this year do not give the ore prices. They are, however, unlikely to differ much from those for 1655, which varied between 22/6d and 27/- per load. At these prices Copeland’s income from his mining would be between £12-4-6d and £15-1-0d. Ward would have made between £36-11-6d and £44-5-5d. These figures are not net income for the two men. Apart from mine expenses, each would have had a partner or partners. Copeland’s income of around 5/- a week was just a living wage for a miner with family labour. Ward, earning three times as much, presumably needed more labour for his higher output.

The figures demonstrate that even small operators could make a living from mining. There were two other miners whose names occurred more than twelve times in the Cromford reckonings for 1653, four who appeared between seven and twelve times, and ten between three and six. Those whose names appear only once or twice may have been partners of others on the lists, or have spent more time farming than mining, or have worked for wages at a large mine as well as retaining their own small titles.

Mines could be short-lived. One small partnership, William Glazebrooke “and his grovefellowes”, made a lucky strike in Francis Hardy’s garden in 1664. They spent the months of November and December in developing their mine, which they named Garden Grove, work on which they spent a total of £5-9-2d. This development work produced 4 loads 4 ½ dishes of ore, measured by the barmaster on 21 January 1665. During the rest of that year they mined 105 loads which they sold at prices which ranged between £1-2-6d and £1-12-6d a load, making a total of £148-0-11d. Their expenses came to £86-13-6d, making them a profit for the year of £61-7-5d, of which £17-2-1d was paid “for the use of the scoole in Worsworth”. The record ends on 4 December 1665, by which time the yield had dropped and their expenses had risen. The short record of Garden Grove is a good illustration of the uncertainty of lead mining, where a promising vein could soon be worked out.

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Mine drainage

The soughs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries largely solved the water problem in the mines in the Wirksworth, Middleton and Cromford liberties. There was no need for the steam powered pumps used in Winster and other High Peak liberties and rag and chain pumps continued to be used to supplement the soughs. In the only other liberty in the Wapentake where there was mine flooding, Matlock, pumps driven by water wheels were introduced. For example, in one such attempt a group of mine owners in Matlock and Matlock Bath joined in 1766 in an agreement to rechannel the Derwent at Matlock in order to erect an “engine” on the diversion. The engine would pump water from the Dimple Mine and carry it back to the Derwent. A wheel driven pump, capable of raising 1,000 gallons of water per minute, was installed at the Side mine at Matlock in 1824.

Page 82

Daniel Defoe and the miners

Daniel Defoe’s conversation with the miner he met on Brassington Moor, and with a miner’s wife whom he had met earlier, produced a vivid picture of the working life and reward of the small miner at the time. At Wirksworth he had noted that “there is no very great trade to this town but what relates to the lead works, and to the subterranean wretches, who they call Peakrills, who work in the mines, and who live all round this town every way”. “Peakrill” was a dismissive and somewhat contemptuous term used by educated outsiders for the “lower orders” of the Peak District. Defoe described the miners as “a rude boorish kind of people” but also as a “bold, daring, and even desperate kind of fellows in their search into the bowels of the earth; for no people in the world can outdo them”. He noted the strange mining customs, the rule of barmasters and juries, and the quarrelsome nature of the miners.

Defoe then set off over Brassington Moor and came upon a woman and her children living in a cave usually thought to be the cave at Harborough Rocks, which has evidence of prolonged occupation. There was a plot of barley, a cow and some pigs. Defoe was greeted by a barking dog. He introduced himself to the woman, who told him that her husband was a lead miner. She told Defoe that her husband earned about 5d a day and that she herself, when she could leave the children, could earn another 3d by washing ore. Defoe’s comments on this woman and her cave home belie the low opinion of the “subterranean wretches” generally held by people of his class. Inside the cave, which was divided into rooms by hangings, “everything was neat and clean” and the family “seemed to live very pleasantly, the children looked plump and fat, ruddy and wholesome; the woman was tall, well shaped, clean, and (for the place) a very well looking, comely woman”. The description of his work given by the miner whom he met after leaving the woman, which had to be translated for him from the Derbyshire dialect, so moved Defoe that he thanked God “that we were not appointed to get our bread thus, one hundred and fifty yards under ground, or in a hole as deep in the earth as the cross upon St Paul’s cupulo is high out of it”. Defoe gave the miner 2/- for a piece of ore, more than he could earn in three day’s work, and when he met him later in an alehouse in Brassington, gave him more money to take home to his family.

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