Changing Fortunes at Greenside 1825 - 1962
by Emma Bray
Large scale commercial exploitation of Greenside Mine started with the formation of Greenside Mining Company in 1825. It became the largest producer of lead ore in the country during the Second World War, but its fortunes were dogged by fluctuations in the price of lead and a shortage of manpower as more lucrative work became available elsewhere.
From Small Beginnings
The Greenside Mining Company was formed in 1825 to exploit the rich veins of lead that existed in the fells above Glenridding. To begin with, operations were small with only four miners and a few local business owners as shareholders. Henry Howard and William Marshall were the lords of the manors of Glenridding and Patterdale which entitled them to Lords’ dues from mineral exploitation beneath their land. There was a dispute between them about the demarcation of their rights, but they came to an amicable agreement to divide royalties equally in 1826 and granted the first lease to the company in 1827.
A slump in lead prices meant that the company got off to a poor start, but in 1835, operations gained impetus when Carlisle banker George Head Head became the largest shareholder and expanded the company. By 1837, the share price had risen tenfold from its price in 1827. The number of workers also increased – by 1842 there were 99 miners and a further 49 employed in subsidiary trades, plus an unknown number of boys who washed iron ore at the surface. Records of these boys were only kept after legislation passed in 1870s.
The men were self-employed, carrying out piecework and were paid according to the amount of work carried out rather than the price of lead. They worked in a team of four and negotiated a quarterly bargain with the mining agent. Up until 1855, men also entered into washing bargains as partnerships for a year or so – the ore was washed at the surface and a price per tonne was agreed, the partnerships employing other men and a team of boys. Miners’ pay varied, but mid 19th century, it was around 16-18 shillings per week.
In 1853, a new lease was negotiated with the Lords which gave them more influence over how operations were run, such as appointing the Agent or examining disputes which arose with the miners.
The bargain system caused problems by the 1870s because pay fell far short of what could be earned in coal or iron ore mining with the result that men were leaving to mine elsewhere. The number of miners declined from 120 in 1869 to less than 60 in 1872 and casual workers also halved. The 1880s saw a drop in production due to a fall in the price of lead and this time managers’ pay was cut. The quarterly bargain was revised to monthly during this period, possibly because of these strained economic conditions. In 1889, an experienced mining engineer form Cornwall, Henry Borlase, was appointed as Agent to try to turn the company’s fortunes around.
In 1901, the lease with the Howards and Marshalls was re-negotiated again so that they were paid according to the price of lead, not quantity mined. The fortunes of the mine did not improve, however, leading to the closure of the silver refinery and a reduction in wages for lead smelters and labourers.
Workers at Greenside Mine in the early 20th century. Courtesy of Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum
Conditions continued to be difficult during the First World War. Dry summers in 1914-15 led to a decrease in hydro-electric power which affected production, but there was also a loss of men, either to the war or more lucrative work elsewhere. Fifteen soldiers were sent to help with production in 1915, but in 1917, smelting ceased and by 1919 there were only 12 miners. A dispute with the lords of the manors in 1920 actually led to the company’s liquidation, but a new company was formed by Henry Borlase’s son. Men who were Union members fell into dispute with the company over pay, but this was settled in 1924 and the mine returned to profitability for a while, but the failure of the dam in 1931 and 1933 and the fall in the price of lead meant the company ended up in liquidation once more in 1935.
A new lease of life
In 1936, The Basinghall Mining Syndicate Ltd surveyed the mine and decided it could be made profitable if the right investments were made to modernise it. As well as significant investments, they introduced three-shift working to increase production. During the Second World War, Greenside became the most productive lead mine in the country, producing 5,000 tons of lead in 1941 and employing 220 men. Finance of the mine was taken over by The Ministry of Supply, but high levels of production could not be sustained and operations were cut back. In 1943, it was discovered that the vein of ore was not as deep as expected. Italian POWs were used to search for an extension of the vein, but without success. The company planned to close after the war, but managed to keep operations going until 1954 when a new Greenside Mining Company was established. This continued operations until 1959 when the mine was due to be closed, although in the event, the mine was used by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment for seismic experiments, so actual closure came in 1962. The equipment was dismantled and sold and the remaining twelve men lost their jobs.