This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 9th March 1998 (p.9), 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)


Whilst lead mining in the Peak has come to an end, a few associated industries - notably the extraction of secondary minerals from old mining waste - continue to this day. For anyone wishing to study the history of lead mining in depth, numerous records are available at the Local Studies department of the County Library in County Hall at Matlock. Specialist information is also on hand alongside the outstanding collection of mining memorabilia in the Peak District Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, operated by the Peak District Mines Historical Society which has received wide recognition for its preservation of mining relics including the Magpie Mine near Sheldon. This article does not extend as far as lead smelting, which will be the subject of a forthcoming feature.

Lead mining is regarded as being the oldest industry in the Peak and the Society estimate that 2-3 million tons of lead ores have been recovered since mining began, probably since pre-Roman times. Aside from the thermal waters of Buxton, there would have been little else to encourage a Roman presence in the Peak. Early extraction was most likely by opencast methods where veins outcropped at the surface. Evidence of mining from that era comes from some twenty pigs of lead (ingots) bearing Latin inscriptions, as well as lead ore found on Roman sites such as the fort at Brough.

Like others who followed them, the Romans appreciated the particular usefulness of lead, which came to be used for pipes, water tanks and roofing, lining fonts and coffins, weights, and for shot and bullets. In recent times, former miners from the famous Millclose Mine at Wensley have avowed that lead exported from their mine in the 1930s went into making German bullets used in the Second World War.

According to tradition, work at the Golconda Mine near Brassington, which continued well into the present century, began in Saxon times. Until the 9th century the Manor of Wirksworth was attached to Repton Abbey which fell to the Vikings in 874. Thus Wirksworth lead mines passed to the Danish King Ceolwulf, since which time mineral dues have been vested in the Crown [Ed: See Note] . The name of Odin Mine at Castleton is also attributed to a Danish presence.

The ancient laws and rights governing lead mining were set down at the Inquisition of Ashbourne in 1288. The lead mining region is split into various individually-owned 'liberties' in addition to the King's Field of the High Peak and the King's Field of the Low Peak, administered by the Barmote Courts, the oldest industrial courts in the world. Consisting of a Barmaster and jury the courts apply laws and settle disputes and although there is little business to conduct nowadays, they still sit at Eyam and Wirksworth. The latter is held in Wirksworth Moot Hall which contains the standard measuring dish presented to lead miners by Henry VIII in 1513.

Anyone could search for lead on any land in the King's Field, with the exception of gardens, orchards, burial grounds and the highway. A miner could also use or divert the nearest water supply to wash his ore and cut any timber he needed for his work. These privileges are a measure of the long standing importance of lead and the names of many old mines reflect hopes which were not always fulfilled: Dream, Good Luck, Chance, Hazard, Providence, Tanner's Venture, Neverfear and God Speed.


Throughout the medieval period much of the country's lead output came from Derbyshire. During the 14th century the metal was one of our major exports. Peak District lead was sold and shipped at Hull; in 1336 the Sheriff of Derbyshire was ordered to purchase a quantity of lead for the king's use, to be sent to Hull for forwarding to the King's Receiver of Victualling at Berwick-on-Tweed. In 1683 the mayor and burgesses of Hull brought an action against a number of Derbyshire lead merchants who had been depriving them of their accustomed dues by avoiding the common weigh house. Instead the merchants had disposed of their lead by landing and weighing it privately, transporting it from and to ships in the night. The plaintiffs successfully pleaded that they had already paid staple dues at York before the lead was conveyed to Hull.

From the 18th century, industrial progress brought about the installation of pumping and winding engines so that mines could be driven deeper to reach new sources of ore. Water was a tremendous problem underground and ambitious drainage soughs were built, most of which still flow freely as, for example, the mile-long Mandale sough which discharges in Lathkill Dale. Lead production peaked in the Industrial Revolution and in 1851/2 two Acts of Parliament brought mining law up to date, the first applicable to the High Peak and the second to the Soke and Wapentake of Wirksworth, the Liberty of Crich and the combined Liberties of Eyam and Stoney Middleton, Tideswell, Ashford and Harrington.

As the 19th century progressed, a number of factors, including expensive drainage problems, made lead mining uneconomic and the industry began to decline. Bradwell was particularly hit by the depression as early as the 1830s, when inhabitants held a meeting to find ways to relieve the plight of indigent local families. A London newspaper reported that it was 'impossible to conceive the vast depth of misery which exists ... many of these poor sufferers had their children in bed when visited, whose bedclothes had not a vestige of either linen or flannel about them.'

One major exception to the decline was Millclose Mine, where the Watts shaft was reopened in 1859. Expanding to become Britain's largest ever lead mine, Millclose reached its peak in the 1930s, employing around 800 men, before mining operations ceased in the summer of 1940.

Relics of mining activity are recognisable around many villages of the Peak, where workings dramatically changed the face of the landscape around places like Matlock Bath, Castleton, Winster, Bonsall, Bradwell, Wirksworth, Eyam and Monyash. Many old miners' paths are now public footpaths and care still has to be taken where these run close to disused shafts, which run into many thousands and were largely uncapped until comparatively recently. For centuries shafts were open death traps. Sadly typical of mid-19th-century accidents around Bradwell were the deaths of several children who fell down shafts, including an 10-year-old boy who was out bird nesting.

Any fatality in a mine had to be investigated by the Barmaster, taking on the role of coroner. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, scores of deaths were caused by rock falls and drownings, though an entry from Darley Dale burial register for July 1669 records that William Hodgkinson and Robert Sidwell had been suffocated in a mine. Some years later three men were killed on the same day at Haycliff Mine near Eyam and in 1830 four men suffocated in an incident involving rival miners at Maypits Mine, Sheldon.

According to early observers, the Peak's lead miners were extremely hard-working and in return indulged their fondness for cards and drinking, gathering at inns with names like the Pig of Lead, Miners' Standard and Miners' Arms. In fact ale was believed to give some protection against lead poisoning and Castleton miners took an extra glass to toast their luck with a hearty drinking song which, like their industry, is now confined to a place in history:

‘Come fellows drink - drink, drink your fill,
Full soon we must gang up the hill
Where Odin rich in shining ore
Shall give us glasses - hundreds more;
Then luck to Odin - golden mine,
With metal bright, like the sun doth shine.’

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 9th March 1998.

King Ceolwulf was in fact a Saxon king (of south-west Mercia) and not a ‘Dane’. His jurisdiction did not extend as far as Wirksworth which was, indeed, under Viking control in the 9th/10th centuries. The Viking leader(s) of Viking Mercia are unknown.
[Information supplied by Dr Phil Sidebottom]

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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