Lead Mining in the Peak
...a legacy of lead
Lead ore (galena) has been mined in the Peak since Roman times, but the real ‘lead rush’ took place in the 18th century, when up to 10,000 miners, usually doubling as farmers, were employed in the limestone White Peak area.
Visitors may notice that many of the flower-filled meadows of the White Peak are full of bumps and hollows. Most of these were left behind by the generations of lead miners who worked the underground veins continuously for something like 200 years. The Peak’s lead legacy has left behind an estimated 30,000 abandoned workings and up to 2,000 dangerous uncapped shafts.
Perhaps the most impressive remains are at Magpie Mine, near Sheldon, a place full of history and ghosts of the past, where three miners were murdered underground when rivals tried to smoke them out in 1844. Now a field study centre for the Peak District Mines Historical Society, Magpie Mine illustrates the long history of lead mining in the Peak, from the square Derbyshire-built flue chimney to the round, Cornish-built one, the engine house and powder store.
The Peak District Lead Mining Museum in The Pavilion at Matlock Bath also tells the fascinating story of “t’owd man”, as the lead miners are known. Here, among many other exhibits, youngsters can ascend and descend a reconstructed lead mining shaft, just as the old miners used to.
The language of the old lead miners was as colourful as it is ancient. ‘Bole’ is a common placename in the Peak, usually found on a hilltop facing the prevailing wind, indicating the site of a primitive lead-smelting hearth. The slang word for stealing – ‘nicking’ – originally referred to the taking-over of an abandoned mine.
The larger veins of ore, often running for many miles across country and marked by rows of trees planted to stop cattle from entering and being poisoned, are known as rakes. A sough (pronounced ‘suff’) was an adit or tunnel driven through the limestone specifically to drain water from a mine. Some soughs ran for miles underground, feeding into the nearest river, because water was a constant problem for the miners, and ‘de-watering’ the mines was a priority to get at the precious lead ore.
The venerable body which still administers the ‘liberties and customs’ of the lead miners claims to be the oldest court of law in the country. The Great Barmote Court at Wirksworth has convened for well over a millennium, and covers the southern part of the Peak District orefield.
© Let's Stay Peak District
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2015