Life in the Lead Mines

An extract from an article by ARTHUR RAISTRICK in the 1973 Yorkshire Annual.

There is now available, in increasing number, books and journals on lead mining in this country. However, an examination of this literature soon reveals that the bulk of it is concerned either with the history of mining in general, processes, the technology of mining, tools and apparatus or with the economic history of mining ventures. It is very rare to find any direct references to the conditions in which men worked or to the effect of their work on their health and life.

Lead mining needs to be looked at as an occupation with at least three strongly contrasted sections which have very little in common except the purpose of producing lead as an eventual marketable product.

Arthur R lead mining bookThe miner is the “getter” – he works mainly underground boring his way through rock in tortuous and confined ways to break out the ore and get it to the surface. The “dresser” takes the rough product of the mine, ore, crock and spar mixed, crushes it, and by various manipulations separates the lead ore from the waste and prepares it for the smelter. This work, except in the nineteenth century was done in the open air, the dressers being subject to exposure of every type of weather. The smelter worked under cover in the smelt mill but was continuously exposed to the heat and glare of the furnaces and to air fouled by fumes.

In addition to these three main groupings there were ancillary workers who however are not peculiar to mining – the large numbers of carriers, blacksmiths and clerks.

Because lead ore occurs in veins which are thin and near vertical, the workings usually follow the vein to a depth which may amount to hundreds of feet. The ore in a vein may be a rib not more than an inch or two thick or may be scattered in a mass of spar or rock, and will be only a small part of the material which the miner has to cut out to make working room for himself. Much of his work is driving through solid rock to and he is always constrained to cut the minimum room which will allow him to get to the ore.

He must work nearly always in closely confined spaces, he moves about in the mine through tunnels and passages which just allow his passage. The physical effort demanded, only to move about the mine, is excessive.

In the early days of mining, a vein being discovered on the surface was worked by open cast. The work was however in the open air with full exposure to the weather. Soon the vein would have to be followed underground. Here the miner met with one of his major enemies. Every hole cut into the water table, every shaft, every level or working place dripped water.

However good the drainage might be the working places and levels of the mine were always wet. The clothes the miner could wear were always wet and stiff with rock, dust and clay. In the later eighteenth century some companies like the London (Quaker) Lead Company introduced the mine shop, a building near the mines where a semi-retired miner kept a constant fire and where men coming out of the mine could change and leave their wet clothes to be partially dried overnight. Even with this provision the miner spent the bulk of his working hours in wet conditions often walking long distances underground to his working area ankle deep in running water. If there was no shop then the miner had to go home in his wet working clothes and had little facility to dry them.

Before his work began the miner often had a walk of a few miles over wild moorland and fells fully exposed to the storm, wind and rain and could be already soaked before he entered the mine. The journey to and from his working place underground might be hundreds of feet of an exhausting climb on ladders in the shaft. In deep mines the climbing could be so exhausting as to be a major hazard to health.

Arriving at the working face, the main work was breaking out the rock by pick, hammer and wedge. Fine cracks in the rock were opened out with a sharp pointed pick and an iron wedge driven in with a sledge hammer to break off a pitifully small piece of rock. In driving a level an advance in very hard rock might be a few inches in a day, with two men at work.

A boy often accompanied his father into the mine from the age of nine or ten, and spent much of his time dragging the material to the foot of the shaft.

In the eighteenth century gunpowder began to be used. The powder made smoke and fumes and used up air so that increased rate of working was got at the expense of a fouler air for the miner to breathe and work in. An absolute essential was always ventilation,  a supply of air which the miner could breathe. If the air was so deficient that a candle would scarcely burn, a man would give up working, but the necessity of earning drove countless men to work as near as possible to the limit.

The cumulative effect of these conditions was evidenced in the prevalence of asthmas and other pulmonary diseases.  Even in the nineteenth century in spite of all the advances in methods, the Kinnaird  Commission on health and working conditions  found for the years 1860 to 1862 that of men between the ages of 45 and 55 more than twice as many died amongst miners (33 per thousand) as men in other occupations. Of these there were over four times as many deaths from lung diseases as among other workers. The London Lead Company followed by others had tried to reduce this danger by providing allotments and smallholdings and encouraging their miners to spend regular days in work on them and in the open air.

When the mixed ore and rock was got to the surface it had to be prepared for the smelter by getting rid of rock and spar, leaving the high concentrate ore. The dressing was almost entirely the job of women and girls and boys, and was done in the open air, very seldom with any  protection from the weather.

Conditions of work were inseparably connected with earnings, living conditions and recreation. It was the outstanding character of lead mining that the productivity of a vein was subject to violent and completely unpredictable fluctuation. A vein might in one part carry a rib of ore that would give a rich return for working but equally it might change to a portion with little or no ore in it, in which there was no return at all. These frequent variations were the only constant and predictable feature of a vein. There was a constant urge to search for new veins, to try one’s luck in a new trial. It was this gamble that a rich place might lie only a few yards ahead that tempted the miner to keep on however poor his place might be showing.

Wages were based upon a payment according to the amount of ore raised and could involve periods of absolute poverty, only survived on loans or advances made against the possibility of a good strike. A life of  uncertainty, with frequent and recurrent periods of debt and near starvation, was all too common among a large proportion of the miners.

It is fairly true generalisation to say that the people who made money out of lead mining were the merchants and the larger owner-operating companies who had their royalties and dividends whenever the mine was good in ore. The great houses of the Devonshires and the Beaumonts, the London and country houses of Bathurst, Denys and other mine-owning families are in violent contrast with the poverty-stricken hovels of their miners on the coalfields and the lead dales.

One result of this arduous life of the miner was that such recreation as he could get was taken vigorously whether in the form of sport, in the brass band, or in work for his chapel. Shortage of food drove many to be skilled and persistent poachers to the benefit both of the family’s diet and their health, and  there are few but the land-owning class who would attach much blame to this activity. Hunting, represented by hound trailing, a course being set an aniseed rag across the country, was a popular sport for which the miners from time to time took a day off work. A whole mine would turn out for such an event. Tan Hill was the chosen place for Swaledale miners to witness and perhaps take part in prize fights, boxing and wrestling matches.

On quieter occasions holidays were marked by dancing, both mixed and country style and clog dancing among the men. The occasion of annual fairs, particularly the Bartholomew (Bartle) Fair at Reeth, drew all the dale together for a day of jollity, meeting old friends, buying new (often second-hand) clothes as far as one could, seeing fairings, dancing and often a good deal of drinking towards night.

All these recreations however were only occasional gleams in a hard and dreary life and they serve mainly to show up the indomitable spirit of the miners and their wives, which could survive poverty, uncertainty and danger with only rare times of jollity.


© Arthur Raistrick Estate

From the Yorkshire Annual 1973, reprinted in Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales, compiled by David Joy, Dalesman Books, 1991.

You can read Barry Winter’s profile of Arthur Raistrick here.

1 Comment

  1. […] have reproduced two extracts from Arthur’s writings here: ‘Life in the Lead Mines’, from the 1973 Yorshire Annual; ‘The Thorn Tree’, from Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales, […]

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