BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on on 13th March 1995 (p.3 & p.4), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: COPPER MINING

Although pockets of copper ore were found in certain of the Peak’s lead mines, copper mining was neither widespread nor generally worthwhile, with one important exception. A number of small copper mines were worked in the locality of Butterton and Onecote, Mixon mine being the most productive, but the richest output by far came from nearby Ecton Hill in the Manifold Valley.

In its heyday Ecton was perhaps the richest source of copper in Europe. The mining rights belonged to the Earls, and subsequently Dukes, of Devonshire. It is not known for certain when ore was first extracted at Ecton but the earliest documented activity took place in the early 17th century. Tradition holds that Ecton was the first mine in Staffordshire to use gunpowder, also predating any type of mine in Derbyshire. Its introduction has been linked to Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I and a keen experimental metallurgist with a particular interest in gunpowder.

By the early 17th century, English copper mining had almost ceased in the face of foreign competition. Ecton, however, enjoyed a brief resurgence between 1660 and 1665 when just over four tons of copper were sent to London. J.A. Robey (Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society 1969) notes that in 1665 the mining lease passed to Jacob Mumma, believed to have been part-owner of a brass wire mill at Esher in Surrey. Copper, of course, is a component of brass. Surrey was also an important manufacturing centre for gunpowder and its introduction to Ecton may be linked to Mumma rather than Prince Rupert.

Attempts to resume mining around 1707 were short-lived but in 1739 a Cornish miner, probably employed at a nearby lead-mine, rediscovered copper ore on Ecton Hill. Together with ‘some adventurers from Ashbourne’ he obtained a 25-year lease from the Duke of Devonshire. Some of these speculators backed out but a fortune awaited those who took their place. After some £13,000 had been spent in sinking a shaft and driving a level, copper ore was found in vast quantities. Between 1760 and 1768 the copper yield was worth almost £57,000.

Not surprisingly, the Duke of Devonshire did not renew the lease in 1764, but took over the entire undertaking himself. An article by William Efford, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of February 1769 tells of a visit to the mine by the 4th Duke six years earlier. Access was by means of an almost level adit about 400 yards (366m) long and up to 6 feet (1.8m) high. Says Efford: ‘Thus far into the Mountain, with the aid of lights, ’tis easy enough of access. The late Duke of Devonshire ventured to this platform, took a cursory view of the works, gave the miners ten guineas to drink, but returned immediately not choosing to descend below. Indeed, such a horrid gloom, such rattling of waggons, noise of workmen boring of rocks under your feet, such explosions in blasting and such a dreadful gulph to descend, present a scene of terror, that few people, who are not versed in mining, care to pass through.’ Efford adds that it was a further 160 yards (146m) down to the ‘place of action ... ten thousand times more astonishing than that above’, where miners welcomed visitors to their ‘diabolical mansions’ with a salute of half-a-dozen blasts of explosive.

THE WHISTON SMELTER

Altogether more than 300 men, women and children were employed, including 60 miners earning a shilling (5p) per six-hour shift. They descended to the workface on wooden ladders or stemples - lengths of wood fixed across the shaft - with candles stuck into wet clay for illumination. The ore was raised in tubs and the largest pieces were smashed by men with sledge-hammers before being barrowed to a shed, where young girls sorted it into three grades. In another shed about 50 women crushed the graded ore into finer pieces using flat hammers called buckers.

The crushed ore was buddled (washed) in buddling pools. A water powered stamps mill opposite Swainsley Hall later took over the crushing work, giving name to Stamps Bridge, better known today as Ecton Bridge. Finally the good ore was heaped up and auctioned off. The refuse ore was originally smelted on site but in 1770 the Duke of Devonshire built a smelter at Whiston to serve the Ecton and Mixon mines. Transport to Whiston was originally by pack mules and horses via Grindon, Waterfall and Winkhill, where one section of track is still called Duke’s Lane. Local farmers later acted as carriers using horse drawn carts.

The Ecton mines drew workers from a large area. This entry appears in the Grindon register of 1774: ‘1 August, buried Solomon Barker, kill’d ye 29th July, by a fall of earth in a level in Ecton copper-mine’. Tradition has it that Wardlow’s parson used to preach to many of his parishioners in their work place, meaning that he held Sunday services down the mine.

Ecton had become one of the deepest copper mines in Europe: a 480ft (146m) shaft sunk in 1768 finally reached 1380ft (420m). Yet by 1820 only shallow workings were in use and 50 years later the output had dropped to just one ton a year. Extraction had ceased completely by the end of the century.

Many of the old buildings lay buried beneath waste tips which tumbled down the hillside. As well as workers’ cottages and mine buildings, there was formerly a cooperage, forge, carpenter’s shop and a small school provided by the Duke of Devonshire.

Today the steep slopes of Ecton Hill are crossed by ramblers’ tracks, offering a spectacular viewpoint with much visible evidence of mining activity, whether fenced-off, gaping shafts or ruins high on the hillside. The underground workings, with massive bell-shaped chambers up to 400ft (122m) across, became popular with cavers but now lie largely under water. Above ground, evidence of the old industry can be seen in two copper spires, one on a house at the base of Ecton hill, the other on Sheen church.

A postscript was added to the story in 1972, when the old Ecton mining rights were finally sold by the Duke of Devonshire.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13th March 1995;
Updated 17th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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