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 23rd March 1998 (p.7 & p.8), 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: LEAD SMELTING

Whilst nobody would envy the working life of a lead miner, our recent article about lead mining was only half the story. Further processes awaited the ore once it was brought out of the ground. To begin with it had to be prepared for smelting and this was largely undertaken by women and children working at the surface of the mine, sorting and dressing the ore with hammers before it was washed to separate the heavier lead ore from the lighter rocks.

The ensuing smelting process, which extracted the actual metal from the ore, usually took place some distance from the mine on a site which dealt with the output of several other mines. Known as 'boles' the earliest smelters were set up on exposed hilltops where the prevailing wind acted as a 'blast' for the fierce fire needed to melt the ore. Simple in design, if wasteful compared with later improvements, a bole was basically a depression in the ground, enclosed by a low wall with a windward-facing gap. Layers of ore and firewood were piled into the hearth for burning, and the melted lead channelled out into moulds to solidify into pigs. Old stone moulds have been recovered from a site by the Bar Brook, east of Baslow.

It is thought that the seven 'leadworks' listed in the Domesday Survey of 1086 were probably smelting works serving areas around those places referred to: Ashford, Bakewell, Crich, Matlock, and Wirksworth which supported three works.

Tantalising inscriptions on Roman pigs of lead are believed to refer to a place or mineral field named Lutudarum, the site of which has never been identified. One pig bears the word LVTVDARES, abbreviated on other examples to LVT or LVTVD.

Former lead smelting sites have left us with the place-name Bolehill, as at Wirksworth, Eyam, Hathersage, Wormhill, Bakewell and Holmesfield. The names Burton Bole and Smelting Hill occur at Abney, while Smeltinghill Wood is found at Fallinge, south of Beeley. Tangible evidence lies in numerous old slag heaps, waste from the smelting process, including the Bar Brook site already mentioned and several on Beeley Edge. Some bole smelters produced 'blackwork', a slag still rich enough in lead to be worth re-smelting. Charcoal was added to the fuel to obtain a higher temperature and the result was a hard metal much valued for shot making. The remaining slag made good road surfacing material.

Reliance on wind power had to be improved upon and one simple advance was the use of foot bellows to provide the necessary draught. Further progress came in the 16th century through water power, utilising a waterwheel to power large bellows, an innovation taken up on the river Sheaf at Beauchief.

This example attracted considerable interest and by 1574 a smelting mill was in operation on the Derwent in Chatsworth Park, followed by others at Calver, Curbar, Stoney Middleton, Hazleford Bridge near Hathersage and one belonging to the Duke of Rutland on the Wye between Beeley and Rowsley. Ruins in Hay Wood at Froggatt are believed to be the remains of an 18th-century smelting mill, where a stream was diverted along stone launders to a water wheel installed at a lower level.

Although similar undertakings continued in use for some time, a major advance in lead smelting arrived in the mid-18th century with the low arched reverbatory furnace, or cupola, introduced by the London Lead Company, a Quaker firm which had been attracted to Winster lead mines around 1720. Their first cupola was constructed at Kelstedge near Ashover in 1735.

INSIDE THE CUPOLA

Under the rounded dome of a cupola, ore and fuel (generally coal) were kept separate and a strong draught - provided by means of a flue and tall chimney - caused the flames to reverberate from the roof and hearth, blasting them over the ore and so melting the lead. The liquid metal ran into a pot and the slag was raked out. Not only was the cupola far more efficient than the bole but its design meant that poisonous vapours were cooled and condensed in the flue as they were drawn towards the chimney. Open smelting used to leave the surrounding land so toxic that it could never be grazed again. As recently as 1966 a number of cows died from lead poisoning due to seepage and disturbance of old slag heaps at a farm at Hope.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the existing smelt mill at Barbrook was modernised by the erection of a cupola, as was the communal Lord's smelt mill in Middleton Dale. A second cupola, Storrs Cupola, was built at Stoney Middleton around 1777. Three mine-owning brothers from Middleton also built a cupola below Eden Tree at Bradwell. Of three others at Bradwell, that known as the Slag Works, at the bottom of the Dale, was the site of a tragedy in 1854 when sulphurous fumes caused the deaths of two workmen and two young men who had gone to their rescue. Dilapidated remains of the 360-foot arched flue of the Slag Works can still be traced running parallel to the road.

A smelting works at Alport was in operation until the latter half of the 19th century, leaving behind arched underground flues, large enough to walk through, both crossing and ascending the hillside. From about 1879 to 1924, white, grey and red lead was produced at Brough Lead Works with smelting and refining carried on around the clock. Cupolas were also built at Harewood on Beeley Moor and Lumsdale near Matlock, where a well preserved chimney stands amongst other industrial remains maintained by the Arkwright Society. North-east of Hathersage an area of rough ground identifies the slag heaps of Callow Bank cupola.

According to Lead Mining in the Peak District (Peak District Mines Historical Society) Stone Edge Smelt, close to the A632/B6015 road junction about three miles from Ashover, is the most completely preserved Derbyshire example in its original state. The B6015 is in fact the Winster/Chesterfield road so the smelt was ideally situated to serve the lead mines of Winster and Ashover, not least because of its proximity to a main road and the Chesterfield-Stockwith Canal. There are abundant traces of former activity on the site including an impressive square-built chimney which may be the oldest industrial chimney in Britain, dating to the 1770s/1780s. In the late 18th/early 19th centuries the output from Stone Edge reached some 500 tons of lead a year.

Because lead smelting was inextricably linked to the fortunes of mining, both industries rose and fell together. So it was that when production boomed at the famous Millclose Mine near Wensley in the 1930s, a smelter had to be erected on site because Lea Lead to which ore was normally taken for smelting, could no longer cope unaided. Although mining ceased at Millclose in 1940, the smelter was taken over by present owners H. J. Enthoven & Sons, whose existing smelter in the East End of London was at risk from enemy bombing. Today lead is the fifth most commonly used metal in the industrial world and Enthovens is now wholly a recycling company, taking in some 3 million scrap batteries every year, mainly from cars, to reprocess the original refined lead alloys.

The company is therefore heir to one of the oldest industrial processes known in the Peak, smelting battery paste and metallic lead in 4.5 metre long rotary furnaces at a temperature of 1000C, a world away from the simple boles where the story of lead smelting began. By complete contrast a Romano-British smelting hearth of probable 4th-century date can be seen in the Peak District Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, alongside later examples of pigs of lead and assorted moulds including an example from the Peak incised 'T. Hill, Bradwell, Derbyshire'.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd March 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: http://texts.wishful-thinking.org.uk/BygoneIndustries/LeadSmelting.html
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library