Lead Mining in the Peak District
Lead has been mined in the limestone areas of the Peak since at least Roman times and continued until the last mine, Magpie mine, shut down in the 1950s.
In geological times mineral-rich magma was intruded into fissures and faults in the limestone. It cooled and crystallised, leaving deposits of galena (lead sulphide) surrounded by crystals of fluorspar (calcium fluoride) and calcite (calcium carbonate). Sometimes barytes (a barium ore) was found with the lead while in a few areas such as Mixton and Ecton the deposits were primarily copper.
Mines would usually start on a rake, which might initially be worked from the surface, and then exploit other veins which ran off. The lead rakes can often be followed for miles across the countryside, the land along their line pock-marked by the surface workings of old miners. A good example is the Great Rake north of Youlgreave, which has been quarried to a considerable depth and can be viewed easily from the Parsley Hey - Conksbury road.
The evidence of Roman mining is clear, for several Roman pigs of lead have been found in the Peak, the first having been discovered on Cromford Moor in 1778, and others have been found locally and across the country. They are all stamped 'Socii Lutudarenses', which is assumed to be the name of the company working a lead field called 'Lutudara', but this name does not crop up in any known records and so it is uncertain where it was. The most likely candidate is the area around Matlock Bath where the Great Rake crosses the Derwent valley, but all traces of Roman workings here or elsewhere have been obliterated by later excavations.
Mining probably continued after the Romans but the next historical mention is of the mines around Wirksworth being worked by Repton Abbey in the 9th century. Later the Danes destroyed Repton and the Danish king appropriated the mineral rights of north Derbyshire, which henceforth became known as the 'King's Field'. There is an oral tradition that the Danes worked the Odin mine near Castleton, but this is another claim which is impossible to verify. Lead mines were mentioned in Domesday and mining continued and expanded in Norman times.
The importance of the industry can be judged by the fact that the miners petitioned Edward I to give proper legal standing to the rules governing the extraction of lead, which he did in 1288. Essentially the same rules have remained in place since, though they were amended by Acts of Parliament in Victorian times.
In the King's Field, which is broadly the High Peak, the rights belong to the Crown (via the Duchy of Lancaster) and lead can be mined almost wherever it is found, irrespective of who owns the land. Miners had to lodge a claim to a deposit and pay an initial 'freeing' duty (in the form of lead ore) to the Crown, plus a percentage of all ore extracted. The 'freeing' duty consisted of two 'standard dishes' full of ore - the dishes being calibrated from an original which was presented to the miners by Henry VIII and which is kept in the Moot Hall in Wirksworth.
Early extraction methods were usually by quarrying from the surface or by driving horizontal shafts (levels) into the hillside where a rake crossed a valley - as at the Nestus Mine in Matlock Bath. By the 18th century deep shafts were being dug and the workings usually would extend horizontally along the vein from these shafts. The miners would descend the mine by a 'climbing shaft' which consisted of a number of short vertical shafts with wooden stakes to climb down and short horizontal levels between the sections of the shaft. Ore would be hauled out via a single deep shaft using a horse 'gin' or taken out via a level or even via a canal, as at Ecton.
Even up to the mid-19th century the methods used were very crude and usually the ore was dug out by pick and shovel. It was not uncommon for miners to hack out narrow passages between veins by hand using a pick, and these were known as 'coffin' levels from their cross-section shape. The miners would access improbable positions to extract ore, often hammering a wooden stake (stemple) across a vein, climbing onto it and hammering in another higher up, and so on. In Oxlow Cavern, which had a large pipe-vein, the stemples can be seen perhaps 30 metres above the floor of the cavern. T'Owd Man, as the old miners were known locally, was a tough individual.
From 1850 lead mining declined. The price of lead went down and the richest veins in the area had largely been worked out, so only a handful of mines survived into the 20th century. Of these the largest was the Mill Close mine at Darley Dale, which struck a rich vein deep under Wensley in the 1860s and from then until its closure in 1940 produced at least half of all the lead ore mined in the area. The Magpie mine was worked intermittently until 1956, when it finally closed, bringing an era to an end.
In modern times some of the mines have been reopened to extract the minerals discarded as waste by the lead-miners - fluorspar and calcite. Fluorspar is used in steel-making and the manufacture of PTFE, while calcite has uses in building. Though much of this is extracted by opencast methods (as on Longstone Edge or Bradwell Moor), there are working mines at Hucklow and Youlgreave and lead is extracted as a by-product of the fluorspar.
North Derbyshire is littered with relics of the old lead miners - shaft heads, old levels and a few old mine buildings. Most of these are a danger to humans and livestock and should be treated with great caution. In a few places it is possible to descend the old workings, but many of them are dangerously unstable and proper equipment and local knowledge are essential.
The classic text is "Lead mining in the Peak District" by TD Ford & JH Rieuwerts
However, there are many other books on lead mining in the area.
Well worth a visit is the Mining Museum at Matlock Bath.