Child Employment at Greenside Lead Mine

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Workers at Greenside Mine in the early 20th century - Courtesy of Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum

The Employment of Boys

During the nineteenth century, it was usual for boys from mining families to work at Greenside Mine. The youngest were only 9 or 10 and although most worked above ground, conditions must have been extremely difficult for them. Most of the boys worked at the surface as lead ore washers, using water from the becks to separate the lead ore. Although women and girls carried out this work at other lead mines, there is no direct evidence that this was the case at Greenside.

The actual numbers employed are unclear. The census cannot provide a complete picture as so many travelled to Greenside from homes further afield. It was not until legislation was passed in 1872 that the company was required by law to keep a register. This shows that the numbers varied from 15 boys in early 1874, aged between 13 and 16, and 32 boys in early 1879, including two who were 12. There was usually a boy working underground to operate the ventilation. The Agent, William Philips, gave evidence to the Kinnaird Inquiry on the Condition of Mines in 1864 that, with the exception of a boy turning the points, the age for going underground was 21. The census returns seem to contradict this – there were often boys aged 16 and 17 who gave their occupation as lead miner and even boys as young as 10 in the 1841 census.

Lead ore washers

Lead ore washing involved a series of processes from sorting rocks, placing them on gratings to be washed in a stream of water, operating mechanical sieves to sort crushed rock and sifting material from “buddles” where finer particles of lead were separated with water. In 1842, a Commission looked into the employment of children in mines including at Greenside. William Eddy who had been a washer at Alston before coming to Greenside described how the washers’ hands were often cut by the cold. The Commissioner was critical of mines such as Greenside which didn’t provide shelter for the washer boys who would have been soaked through in wet weather. However, his general opinion was that the work of ore washers was not too laborious and the hours not too long. The evidence at Greenside contradicts this. William Marshall, owner of the mineral rights, told the Kinnaird Inquiry that the boys worked 13 or 14 hours a day in order that they could get home to their families on Friday evenings which, he said, “is apparent to anyone is beyond their strength”. Boys who lived locally worked shorter hours, but for six days.

Circular buddle at Greenside - used in the ore washing process to separate the ore. Courtesy of Beamish Museum.

Accommodation in Mining Shops

Because of the shortage of housing in Glenridding until the late nineteenth century, the boys suffered the hardship of living away from their homes during the week. They walked from Matterdale, Penrith and as far as Keswick early on a Monday morning and returned home either Friday evening (if the work was finished) or Saturday lunchtime. During the week, they were housed in communal shops with the working men. William Eddy said these were not “fit for swine to live in”, describing how 16 bedsteads were occupied by 50 men, three to a bed. The ground floor was not boarded in the early days, so was puddled with water and inches deep with dirt and potato peelings. He described icicles coming though the roof and the lack of ventilation. His brother, Joseph, complained of the stench of cooking bacon at all hours of the day and of fleas. He thought that the shops were more injurious to health than the washing work.

Interior of an unknown mining shop, early 20th century. This gives an idea of the cramped living conditions. Courtesy of Beamish Museum.


The washers started on pay of 4d or 5d a day from the age of 9 and that increased by 1d a day for each year. In the mine, they started on 9d a day and went up to 1s a day.


Education was available to the children of miners. The earliest housing built for miners at Glencoyne had an infant school, although the numbers attending were probably quite small. In the 1851 census, 11 children were listed as scholars at Glencoyne Cottages, but only 4 in 1861. William Marshall set up an infant school for miners’ children in Glenridding and was critical in evidence to the Kinnaird Commission that the Greenside Company did not contribute to this – a situation which was rectified soon after. The school closed in 1908 or 1909 because the number of men employed at Greenside had dropped significantly. There was also a parish school for older children. Jacob Johnson, a miner, told the Kinnaird Commission that the children of miners could and did go to school. The census returns suggest that attendance was not universal – many miners’ children are listed as scholars, but by no means all until 1871, the year following the introduction of compulsory education for 5-13 year olds, when only two miners’ families in Patterdale appear to have had children of school age who were not listed as scholars. The Greenside Mining Company subscribed £120 to building a new C of E school in 1871.

School House (centre), now a private home, was once the school. With thanks to James Sowerby.

Once working at the mine, it was difficult for children to continue their education, but some opportunities arose. During the winter when the water froze, ore washing was suspended and some of the younger boys went back to school. One of the shops had a room for reading which was also used for schooling. The company provided books, but teaching was left to the men. William Marshall, however, told the Kinnaird Commission that the long hours worked by the boys meant they were too tired to attend evening school after work. There was, however, an opportunity to increase literacy for many children at Sunday School. The Wesleyan Sunday School registers from Glenridding for the 1880s show that around 25% of Patterdale households sent their children there – 142 children in total in 1884, including from 30 miners’ households. A select class of older Sunday School boys had 17 members, 14 of whom were listed in the Register of Boys employed by Greenside.

Former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel © Chris Bray


Although most boys worked above ground, their employment was not without risk and accidents sometimes occurred. For example, in November 1861, James McIntosh aged 12 was driving a horse pulling wagons along a tramway when he fell over a wall and died of a fractured skull. His father was compensated 6s for accidental death. In January 1863, Roger Kean, 17, got his foot caught in the wheel of a crushing machine and could not be freed for an hour. His leg was amputated at Eamont Bridge Workhouse, but he died from his injuries. Edward Pool, 18, was killed in 1877 when a wagon fell on him in the mine.

by Emma Bray

Sources: Census Enumerator’s Returns, Patterdale-above-How and Patterdale-below-How, 1841 – 1881;British Parliamentary Papers 1842 , XV 1st Rep. R.C. on Employment of Children in Mines and Manufactories.Report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the condition of all mines in Great Britain to which the provisions of the Act 23 & 24 Vict. c. 151 do not apply, British Parliamentary Papers, 1864 (3389) (Kinnaird commission)Whitehaven News 8/1/1863Whitehaven News 14/11/18611877 Mines Inspectors’ Report (c.2003)KRO/WDB2/54 Greenside Register of Boys Employed Aged 13–18, 1874- 96CRO/DFCM/3/1/166 Glenridding Chapel scholars roll 1881-84S. Murphy, Grey Gold, Men, Mining and Metallurgy at the Greenside Lead Mine in Cumbria, England 1825-1962 (1996)

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