Mining and Quarrying in Cumbria

by Tim Clarke

Banner Image © Mark Hatton

This subject is complex and highly technical, and a brief article such as this cannot do the subject justice. Those wishing for a more in depth understanding are strongly recommend to refer to the authors referred to under ‘sources'.

According to John Postlethwaite’s iconic book: ‘Mines and Mining in the English Lake District,’ first written in 1877, (revised three times), in his latest version of 1913 he states: 'there is good reason to believe that mining has been actively carried on in this district for about 2,000 years and much of the history of the lake country is associated with its mines.’

Today this statement is questioned due to the lack of any firm evidence of mining in Roman times. However, there are extensive remains of stone axe in the Langdale Greenstone Band that goes back as far as Neolithic times.

He continues: ‘since 1565, no less than seven smelt mills and two iron furnaces have been erected for the purpose of smelting the ores raised in the Lake District …with the exception of Greenside, all these works have fallen into disuse, owing chiefly to the desultory way in which most of the mines have been worked.’

Today it is not completely clear which smelters he was referring to – the oldest was at Brigham, which operated in the 16th century, but in the 18th Century they existed at Backbarrow, Newland, Cunsey etc. and in the 19th centuries others were opened in a range of locations: Stoneycroft, Hogget Gill and Greenside, and larger scale iron smelters at Workington, Millom, Askham and Barrow.

In fact, in the 16th Century, the copper smelting works built in Keswick was the largest and most extensive in England and probably in Europe. Not surprisingly, the money involved in mines created many interests … and conflicts. Queen Elizabeth 1st took a personal interest in mining, believing that it was in her kingdom's interest not to be dependent on imports from elsewhere. She created the Mines Royal Company and imposed levies that had to be paid to the Crown.

One of the oldest mines is Goldscope in the Derwent Fells which may have been first mined in the early part of the 13th century. But there are others of great antiquity too. It was the 16th Century which saw large scale sophisticated mining commence in the Lake District which depended upon labour and skills imported from elsewhere, notably Germany (now the Austrian Tyrol) and much later from Cornwall – since the 1800s).

Cumbria possesses some of the richest mineral resources in England, although Cornwall and Wales produced more copper and the Pennines produced more lead. Some were relatively small operations. Only 10-12 would be regarded as significant in size, and virtually all of these closed down in the late 19th Century, due to a combination of factors. Either ore seams were completely exhausted, or the economics of extraction had became unsustainable in the face of lower-cost competition from elsewhere in the world. Tourism was taking off.

Goldscope Mine © Mark Hatton, with thanks

The last operating mine was at Force Crag, Coledale, below Grisedale Pike that closed in 1990. It is now owned by the National Trust which occasionally opens the old processing mill as a visitor attraction. During the 20th Century, the largest lead mine in the UK was at Greenside, Glenridding. This mine operated for about 200 years before closing in 1962. It was designated an Ancient Scheduled Monument in 2003.

The main minerals that have attracted interest include copper, lead, silver, and to a lesser extent antimony, nickel, barium and tungsten. The sources of these minerals have tended to be located in wild mountainous country far from urban centres, necessitating often costly investments in basic infrastructure to process and transport the ore.

Force Crag Mine © Mark Hatton, with thanks

There has been coal mining since the 17th century in the area between Whitehaven and Workington, and Whitehaven's prosperity in the 18th century was largely the result of successful coal mining activity and commerce in the hands of the influential Lowther family.

Some minerals have become known by the regions from which they were extracted: Coniston Copper; Honister, Kirkstone and Tilberthwaite slate; Keswick pencils (graphite): Greenside lead: and Shap pink granite.

Significant quantities of iron ore were mined and processed on the west coast of Cumbria in the 19th and 20th centuries, producing some of the finest iron and steel in the world. There has been no gold worked commercially in Cumbria. Silver was associated with the lead veins and barytes was in great demand during the 20th century with the Tungsten from Carrock of great strategic value during both world wars as it is used for armour. Graphite from Borrowdale was also of major strategic and economic value. This is a unique mine and was worked from the 16th century and was world famous for much of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Coniston Copper Mine © Mark Hatton, with thanks

Slate mining was a big industry in The Lake District during the 18th and 19th centuries with large scale slate workings around Coniston, Tilberthwaite, Honister, Borrowdale and Langdale with smaller workings almost everywhere else. Whilst these were nowhere close to the scale of the Welsh slate industry they certainly were significant locally and there still are working slate quarries in Cumbria.

The cultural heritage of about 20 historic industrial mining sites has been formally recognised with the designation of Ancient Scheduled Monuments.

Honistor Slate Quarry © Mark Hatton, with thanks

Not surprisingly perhaps, the buildings, walls, and other man-made infrastructure reflect the diversity of the underlying geology of the rocks in the landscape. The Penrith buildings are made from the local red sandstone, slate buildings are common around Keswick, in Kendal the buildings are made from the underlying Carboniferous limestone, and in Grasmere some of the buildings show traces of hematite staining. The land is pock-marked with local quarries opened up to provide stones for local farm building, walls, bridges and household construction.

Most of the minerals in the rocks were laid down in the Ordovician period (488-440 million years ago) when most of the Lake District was covered by marine waters. Some rocks date back even further to the Precambrian period (4.6 Billion to 540 million years ago). Borrowdale volcanic rocks and Skiddaw slates dominate.

Initial mining was done with hand tools and tended to focus on mineral veins that were visible from the surface. During the time of industrialisation in the 19th century there was a seemingly insatiable demand in urban areas for slates for roofs and rocks for building materials. Explosives were used to blast out quarries. Mining became increasingly sophisticated, with long tunnels – adits and levels - being dug into mountains following the lode-bearing mineral veins. At Greenside 12 miles of tunnels were dug deep into the rock. At the time of its closure there were over 22 levels pierced into the mountain a distance of over a mile, with vertical shafts to a depth of almost 900 metres. Fell walkers strolling over Sheffield Pike towards Greenside will be completely oblivious to the honeycomb of interconnecting channels stretching half a mile beneath their feet.

A visitor to the Lake District today day will see traces of quarry workings and mines wherever they go. They will see the buildings where the miners lived, and the gravestones in the cemeteries where miners and their families were laid to rest, the ages on the headstones telling their own story of the relentlessly tough lives that they had to live, working often in very harsh conditions.

by Tim Clarke


John Postlethwaite: Mines and Mining in the English Lake District (1877)

William Rollinson: The Lake District Landscape Heritage, Edited 1988, notably the chapter on the Industrial Landscape by Andrew Lowe

Alastair Cameron, Liz Withey, Ore Mining in the Lake District (2017)

Samuel Murphy: Grey Gold - Men, Mining and Metallurgy at the Greenside Lead Mine in Cumbria, England 1825 to 1962 (1996)

Ian Tylor, Greenside and the Mines of the Ullswater Valley (1998)

Lancaster University Connected Communities Research Laboratory Report 2018 – Greenside Mine Smart Tourism

Special thanks to Mark Hatton from CATHMS for his editorial help and for allowing us to use his rich photo collection to illustrate our articles

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