A Lead-mining County

A Lead-mining County

Lead was probably worked in the upper valleys of the Wear and Tees in Roman times. Records certainly show that it has been mined since the 12th century. In the first half of the last century, when Britain was the world’s leading producer, Weardale and Teesdale, as part of the North Pennine orefield, were the chief centres of lead-mining in the country. Although the industry had virtually collapsed by the beginning of this century, it is still common to hear the upper valleys of the Wear and Tees referred to as ‘lead dales’, a term justified not only by remembered history, but in the visible legacy of mining, working and transporting the mineral.

Lead-working in Weardale & Teesdale
Lead-working in Weardale & Teesdale

The bishops of Durham were the major landowners of upper Wear-dale, where in the 12th century the mineral rights had been granted by the king to Bishop Le Puiset. The bishops alternated between leasing out mines for periods and leaving their agents to let them to local men who sold the ore to the bishop. Either way, one-ninth of the production went to the bishop as royalty. In addition to the use of lead for roofing, glazing and pipework, the same galena ore was of value for the extraction of silver used by the bishop’s own mint in Durham. In Teesdale a prominent family in the extraction of lead was the Bowes family, ancestors of the present Queen Mother. Although geological knowledge must have been rudimentary, most of the major deposits were known by the 16th century. Galena fragments in streams, particularly after storms, and even lead-tolerant plants were sought as clues. It also became evident that the ore occurrences had directional bias, the result of its association with fissures or veins. Consequently, open-casting (‘hushing’) or primitive bell-pit working began from the point of discovery. The former consisted of building an earth dam above the ore occurrence, digging a trench along the line of the intended hush, then releasing the water to excavate an artificial valley or gorge along the line of the vein. The process would be repeated as desired. Its effectiveness is reflected in its continued use well into the last century. In several instances the end result was a hush over half a mile in length and perhaps up to 100 ft. in depth. Bell-pits were produced by working outwards from the bottom of the shallow shaft; after some yards, however, the danger of roof-fall necessitated a new shaft, so that a sequence of pits would evolve. Adit mines, horizontal shafts or ‘levels’ into the hillside, were soon preferred where practical, since they were easier to work and drain. The excavated ore and spar (‘bouse’) was then ‘dressed’ or stripped of the most obvious waste material by crushing and sieving, and then burnt or smelted to produce lead ingots. Since London was the main market, transport was by teams of pack-horses across the moors along what became known as leadways or leadgates to staiths on the Tyne, or along the Tees valley to the ports of Yarm or Stockton.

The industry emerged from its medieval phase during the 18th century within a national context of business and financial evolution. It was at this time that the two companies which came to dominate lead pro­duction in the dales were formed. The London Lead Company, known as the Quaker Company, was founded in 1692 and began with leases across the watershed on Alston Moor in Cumberland before taking extensive leases in Teesdale. By the middle of the 18th century it had also acquired leases in Weardale, as well as in the adjoining Derwent valley in Northumberland, but its main activity was in Teesdale. Its northern headquarters were established at Middleton-in-Teesdale. The imprint of the company on that settlement speaks of the size of its operation. In Weardale the major exploiter was the Blackett- Beaumont Company, begun by Sir William Blackett in Allendale (Northumber­land) in 1684 and later passing to the Beaumont family. Its earliest mines were leased from the Bishop of Durham – in the early 1700s Sir William Blackett was the bishop’s moormaster in upper Weardale – but the company later owned some of its own mines. Although the company came to monopolise its dale to a greater degree than did the London Company in Teesdale, its headquarters were a much more modest affair at Newhouse, near Ireshopeburn. With business and capital connections, the two companies were able to introduce techniques relat­ing to drainage, ventilation, winding and dressing which had been developed earlier in the Derbyshire and Cornwall metallic-oreflelds; later, knowledge was gained from the experience of the Durham coal­field. Particularly notable introductions, all towards the end of the 18th century, were ‘horse-levels’, by which tubs of ore were hauled by pony from adit to dressing mill on wooden, later iron, rails; water-driven crushing mills; horizontal condensing flues. The last-mentioned, consist­ing of a long tunnel running up the hillside from the smeltery or ‘smelt mill’ to a vertical chimney, not only removed poisonous fumes, but, through periodic sweeping of the chimney and washing of the flue, enabled the recovery of the considerable lead fume. A tunnel at Rook-hope in the mid- 19th century extended for nearly two miles over the moors.

The two companies built scattered cottages with associated smallhol­dings in the dales in order to attract miners, washers and smelters to a relatively remote area for an industry which was subject to periods of recession. Many of the workers, therefore, were in effect miner-farmers: a dual economy existed in the dales. Given the finite lifespan of  mine, cottages could be far from current workings, so that it became common for dormitories or ‘lodging-shops’ to be erected at the actual place of work. Here, men and boys, having brought enough food for the working week, would have one room in which to eat and sleep and to dry clothes sodden from a dripping mine, from washing ore or from exposure to severe Pennine weather unavoidable at well over 1,000 ft. above sea level. Little wonder that life expectancy for such workers up to the middle of the last century was some 15 years below the national average. They were hardly compensated by the financial return. Miners were contracted to an agreed price for each bing of ore (8 cwt) or for each fathom driven. The ore had to be dressed ready for smelting; it had to be won by the miner’s own tools, gunpowder and candles, items which were of necessity obtained from the mine’s agent, who was free to fix the price. There was even a charge for sharpening the tools. Payment was normally only yearly or half-yearly, and although advances were made, interest was charged on the ‘subsist’ or ‘lent’ money so that it was possible for miners to end up in debt to their employer.

During the 19th century the business sense of the two major companies was balanced by an enlightened social policy. A series of charitable schemes was made financially feasible by the return of prosperity to the industry after a long period of falling prices and under-employment. At Eggleston the London Lead Company built model houses for smelters, while Middleton-in-Teesdale was practically converted from a village into a company town. A Lead Company school was opened in 1819; a bigger one was built in 1861. A prominent architect, Ignatius Bonomi, was engaged for the design of a suitable house for the chief agent, Middleton House (1823).  A year later the same architect designed the Masterton House and New Town suburb, consisting of houses, with stables, for overseers, surveyors and a doctor, and a terrace for miners. (Earlier  Bonomi had designed the house of the company’s Weardale headquarters in Stanhope.) A Mechanics’ Institute was built with com­pany support, and reading rooms were provided. More generally, the company had begun a workmen’s contributory benefit fund, given medi­cal attention to its miners and allocated subscriptions to local chapels. In response to such humanitarian measures by a company whose direc­tors were Quakers, the workforce was expected to be sober and hard­working. There was a prohibition on the frequenting of public houses and threat of dismissal if convicted of drunkenness; minor offences incurred a fine.

The Blackett- Beaumont Company was less obviously involved, but subscribed to the several schools built or rebuilt by Bishop Barrington in Weardale in the 1820s. The bishop hoped education in the Anglican tradition would counteract the spread of Methodism in the dale. Land and money were given for another school at Irehopesburn, and all local chapels were given support.

The period of peak prosperity for the lead industry, during the middle third of the last century as urban growth of Victorian Britain demanded more lead products, saw the advent of railways to the dales. The need to export the product had already led to the construction of passable valley roads, as well as tracks across the moor. Pack-horses were not totally superseded until after mid-century. Stanhope was linked to the Stockton and Darlington line in 1862 and Middleton to the North Eastern Railway network in 1868. Although for a while low freight rates made it possible to transport lead from Cumberland for smelting in the dales, by now the Durham mines were in decline, so that a projected – and surveyed – rail extension from Middleton to Alston failed to raise the necessary capital. That the Weardale line was eventually extended as far as Wearhead in 1 895 is attributable to the richness of the upper Weardale mines and to an optimism which interpreted the general collapse of the industry as a temporary, albeit severe, depression. The earliest railway to serve the industry had been the Stanhope and Tyne line, a composite of inclined planes with stationary engines and conven­tional locomotives, which carried lead from Stanhope to Tyne Dock at South Shields. The Weardale Iron Company built its own line in 1846 from Rookhope to connect with this line to take iron ore to Tow Law. Lead also travelled along this line.

Overseas competition occasioned a rapid decline in the lead industry of Durham during the 1870s. Mines and smelteries closed, and there was widespread emigration to seek employment, notably in the Durham coalfield or, further afield, to lead-mines in the U.S.A. Small companies went out of business, and the major ones eventually followed suit. The Blackett-Beaumont Company relinquished its Weardale leases in 1880; the London Lead Company, relying on its Wiregill/Little Eggleshope mines, contracted considerably and finally disposed of its Teesdale leases and assets in 1903. Lead working continued for a while as the Blackett-Beaumont leases had been taken over by the Weardale Lead Company, which was formed in 1883. Of its six mines in Weardale, it was the discovery of the Boltsburn (Rookhope) vein at the turn of the century which ensured that exploitation of the mineral was just about profitable until the early 1930s.

The lead industry in its later history was well served by its increasing technical efficiency, not least in the highly mechanised nature of ore concentration. This is best illustrated by the Kilihope Wheel at Kill­hopehead. Built in 1878 by the Blackett- Beaumont Company, it made a remarkable use of water power. Its main wheel, 30 ft. in diameter, hauled tubs of ore up to the crushing mill; other wheels worked the crushing rollers and an assortment of jiggers, buddles and other separators which progressively extracted and refined the lead deposit. The water needed to provide the hydraulic power was collected by an intricate system of races above Kilihope; after its use, the tail race led to a second plant at Burtree Pasture, three miles away, and then on again to Westgate, a further five miles downstream.

The last phase of the lead industry also drew some support from new demands for fluorspar and barytes. The former was now sought as a flux in aluminium smelting and in the steel industry; also as a source of fluorine-based chemicals. Barytes was the source of barium for the chemical industry. Previously both minerals had been discarded as waste (‘gangue’), and thus many of the tips were now reworked for these deposits. Two fluorspar mines remain today.

Other minerals had provided earlier additional employment in the lead dales. The earliest was Frosterley marble, a dark and highly fossiliferous metamorphic limestone, attractive when polished, and used as early as the 13th century in Durham Cathedral. Whinstone, used for stone setts and in road-making, was found in Teesdale, and was given a boost by the advent of rail transport. More widespread was the quarrying of limestone for fertilisers, cement and for the iron and steel industry, but the most significant activity was ironstone mining, especially in Weardale. Limonite is found alongside the fissured lead deposits. The first working was by Charles Attwood, who formed the Weardale Iron Company in 1842 and worked deposits in Middlehope Burn. These initially supplied his blast furnace at Stanhope Dene, but distance from coal soon induced him to transfer the smelting activity to Tow Law. Ore was also in demand from Consett and from Bolckow and Vaughan’s works at Witton Park (near Bishop Auckland, 1848) and after 1850, at Middlesbrough. Expansion of ironstone mining in the Cleveland Hills, however, finally brought limonite mining to an end in Teesdale in 1880 and led to a contraction in Weardale, where the last operation, at Rookhope, closed in 1905. A measure of the significance of iron ore extraction may be taken from the estimate that the tonnage removed in little more than half a century was comparable to that removed over many centuries of lead mining. Certainly at its peak, the Weardale Iron Company labour force of 1,700 men was far in excess of the number ever employed by either the Blackett- Beaumont or London Lead Companies. Statistics notwithstanding, however, with the extrac­tion of both minerals having now passed into history, it is as ‘lead dales’ that the area is remembered.