Updated 28 May 2002
WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900
Return to Front Page
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.
Published by permission of Ron Slack.
The miners’ art
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.
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.
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.
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.
Smelting mill 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.
Draining the Dovegang
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.
Driving the Dovegang sough
The post-war soughs
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.
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.
Big new mines
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.
The small mines survive
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.
Daniel Defoe and 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.
Compiled and formatted by . All Rights Reserved.