Riches in the rocks

by Tim Clarke

Banner Image: © Mark Hatton, with thanks

Riches in the Rocks

The Lake District rocks contain a wealth of minerals including copper, lead and iron, with small quantities of gold and silver. Almost every valley and fell shows signs of mining activities.

In the Ullswater Valley the dominant, and economically most important metal is lead (Pb), which is used in pipework, guttering, roofing, batteries and ammunition. The main ore-bearing rock is Galena (lead sulphide, PbS), which is found as veins in the Borrowdale volcanic rocks at the head of the valley.

Lead ore often also contains silver, zinc, copper, cadmium, bismuth, arsenic, and antimony. The proportion of silver in the ore varies between different ore-bearing rocks. Within the Ullswater Valley it varies between 15 and 25 ounces per tonne of ore.


Lead Mining

The first evidence of lead mining in the valley was at Hartsop Hall mine, beginning around 1700. Excavations of old mine shafts near Hartsop Hall, combined with the discovery of a 21 year mining lease in the name of Sir Nathaniel Johnson and Robert Joplin dated April 1696, provide the evidence. The workings had been cut with hand tools, just wide enough to allow the passage of one man and a barrow. They are known as coffin levels because of their shape, with smooth sides carved out of the rock and small pick marks etched on the surface.

Although mining itself is hard physical work, women played an important role too. A Patterdale Parish record of 25th November 1713 notes the death of Margaret Veazey, a washer of lead ore. The records also show the burial of George Smedley, a miner from Derbyshire, one of several immigrant miners. This indicates that the mining activity attracted people from other regions of the UK.

Hartsop Hall Mine © Mark Hatton, with thanks

Other records show that Eagle Crag in Grisedale valley was worked between 1784 and 1807, and Hartsop Hall between 1802 and 1804. A census in 1767 in Patterdale showed that 16 of the 165 males worked in the mines

It is thought that the first mining at Greenside Mine probably took place in the late 1700s. The earliest workings are now inaccessible. It seems likely that the first exploitation was in Glencoyndale, where the lead vein was relatively accessible from the surface.

The first documentary evidence of work at Greenside indicates the mine was being worked by a Mr Thompson in 1799 under a lease from the Duke of Norfolk. A few years later at the beginning of the 19th century the development of the mine started to take off.

Over time, Greenside Mine grew to be one of the largest and most successful lead mines in the country.

Greenside Mine 1933 © Joseph Hardman

Slate Quarries

As well as their mineral wealth, the Borrowdale Volcanics contain bands of rock with exceptionally good cleavage, enabling them to be split into slates. The industrial revolution brought a dramatic increase in demand for roofing slate to cover the thousands of town houses. This was accompanied by technological developments in transport, initially with the roads and canals but especially with railways. The peak production from slate quarries came in the 1890s. These new demands required a slate with consistent quality, much thinner and more regular than the old slate flags. This had the advantage of easier carting and transport as well as covering more roof area per tonne of slate.

In the Ullswater Valley the main slate quarry was on Caudale Moor, above Hartsop. Courageous men used to sledge the slate down the steep fell slopes then transfer it on horseback to the head of Ullswater. From there is was taken by boat to Pooley bridge, each boat carrying between 6 and 8 tons.

by Tim Clarke

View from Caudale Slate mine © Mark Hatton, with thanks


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

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

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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