Mining for ores in the Northern Pennines can be divided into two main periods of activity. The recovery of lead and to a lesser degree other metals such as iron and zinc dates back to medieval times, but reached its peak during the eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries. During the early 1880s the discovery of rich new deposits of lead in Spain effectively flooded the world market, causing a crash in the price for the metal. This resulted in a rapid collapse of the lead mining and smelting industry in the North Pennines, and all but the most profitable mines quickly closed. Until this time, fluorspar had been a relatively worthless byproduct of lead mining, but with the development and application of the modern Open Hearth Furnace method of steel-making, fluorspar came into demand as a fluxing agent used in the process. This, along with subsequent demand for fluorite as a source of fluorine for use in various chemical applications helped extend the life of the local mining industry through the better part of the twentieth century.

Though there is speculation that mining in the Northern Pennines may date back to Roman times, the first documented evidence of mining in the area dates from the twelfth century, and records the presence of silver mines (most likely reflecting early attempts to de-silver galena) in the areas of what are now Alston Moor and Northumberland (King 1982). Lead mining in Weardale certainly dates back to medieval times, and though much evidence of early mining has been obliterated by later activities the occasional intact site can still be found. Early methods of mining commonly employed included digging a series of “Bell Pits” along a vein outcrop, or hushing to expose and separate near-surface ores. Bell Pits were shallow, unsupported shafts dug on vein outcrops that widened in a bell-like shape as they were sunk. When the pits became dangerous or just too deep to effectively work by hand, they were abandoned, and another adjacent pit was begun. Where available, surface water was commonly employed for hydraulic mining, know locally as “hushing.” In this process a pond or reservoir was created on or near a vein outcrop by damming a stream. The dam was then breached, allowing the rushing water to strip away the downstream topsoil, exposing bedrock and any ore-bearing deposits present. This technique was particularly effective in parts of the dale where there is considerable relief, and many hushing scars can still be seen today in certain areas.

A hill just west of the village of Thorpe, in North Yorkshire shows the scars of medieval-era "Bell Pits" following the trend of mineralized veins. Evidence of such early mining has usually been obliterated by later workings. Image courtesy of

Lead Mining

Lead mining reached its greatest levels in the Northern Pennines during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when two major companies came to dominate the local industry. The London Lead Company acquired its first leases in the area in 1692 and continued mining and smelting activities until 1882. The Beaumont Company had its beginnings around the same time and was active until 1884. Mineral rights through much of Weardale are controlled by the Church of England and during the lead-mining period these two companies held the majority of the leases on productive properties. The actual mining, however, was done by teams of independent miners working under contract with the mining companies. The contracts, known as bargains were let out for specific time periods (usually three to six months), and though the name suggests that some sort of negotiations took place between the miners and the companies, they were usually offered at a set rate and either the miners took them or went without work. The bargains were mainly of two types, depending on the ground to be worked. If the bargain was for recovering ore, it was known as a bingtale bargain (a bing was a measure of dressed lead ore usually equal to 800 hundredweight), and the mining teams were paid a pre-agreed rate for the amount of dressed ore they delivered to the smelter. If the bargain was for driving tunnel through dead ground it was called a fathomtale bargain, and the teams were paid for the length of tunnel excavated. This system was advantageous to the mining companies because it allowed them to adjust quickly to the often-changing market price they were getting for their product without having the overhead of direct employees. For the miner, it held the often illusory prospect of finding a particularly rich section of vein and making a lot of money.

The Washing floor at Allenheads was typical of a 19th century lead mine. A team of miners would dump their take of raw ore into individual stalls, keeping it seperate from that of other teams. The task of washing and concentrating the ore was then performed, usually by children. The concentrated ore was then delivered to a smelter and each team would get paid for the amount they recovered. Image courtesy of Beamish Museum Archieves.

Though the lead market had been fairly volatile during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a major depression in the world price for lead during the early 1880s forced both the Beaumont and London Lead Companies to cease mining in the area. Some of these mines were picked up by the Weardale Lead Company, which continued lead mining and smelting at the Boltsburn mine until 1931. According to Dunham (1990), twenty-eight separate lead-smelting operations were active in the region during the height of mining in the nineteenth century, but by 1919 the last one had closed. Lead mining was the only major industry in the region, and the closure of so many of the mines and mills prompted large-scale immigration of miners and their families from the area, many of whom ended up in New Zealand, Australia and the American West. For those interested in the social and working conditions of the nineteenth century lead miner in Weardale, an excellent review is given by Hunt (1970), and a good summary with many archival photos has been published by Raistrick and Roberts (1984).

A late 19th century photo of the lead smelting plant at Lintzgarth, near Rookhope. The plant featured a unique horizontal flue (behind the plant in the photo), which carried smoke and fumes laterally and then up hill away from the plant. Image courtesy of Beamish Museum Archieves.

A single arch from the horizontal flue is all that remains today of the Lintzgarth smelter.

Iron Mining

Large deposits of iron oxides, created by the weathering of iron carbonates, are present in many of the flats surrounding sections of ore veins throughout Weardale. Over the years, many of these deposits have been mined for iron and supported a number of foundries once present in the area. The first record of iron production dates to the twelfth century when the Bishop of Durham leased an iron mine at Rookhope for making ploughs (Fairbairn 1996). Iron mining and smelting reached its peak during the second half of the nineteenth century, largely through the Weardale Iron Company, which had furnaces operating in the villages of Stanhope, Wolsingham and Tow Law. The fortunes of the local iron industry followed closely those of the lead mines, however, and by the early twentieth century iron mining and smelting had disappeared from Weardale. Lead and Iron ores were often found in close proximity but were usually worked by different companies. It should also be noted that in medieval times Weardale was a heavily forested region. Prior to the invention of the coking process for coal, wood (as charcoal) was the only fuel available for the local lead and iron smelters, and by the nineteenth century these forests had been completely cleared, leaving the open landscape seen today.

An iron-smelting furnace near Stanhope, in Weardale. The furnace appears to have been disused and in a state of disrepair at the time of the photo. Image courtesy of Beamish Museum Archieves.

Fluorspar and other Non-Metallic Ores

The mining of non-metallic ores - fluorspar, witherite, and barytes (commercial barite ore pronounced “bear-eye-tease”) in the Northern Pennines began about the time lead and iron mining were in serious decline. Previous to the advent of modern open-hearth steel-making techniques there was little demand for fluorspar as a commercial commodity, and most fluorite produced from the Weardale lead mines was either dumped on the surface or used as backfill underground. Modern steel making made use of fluorspar as a fluxing ingredient and by the late nineteenth century this process was becoming widespread enough in Britain to allow the transition of some mines from lead to fluorite production. Although the mining industry as a whole never regained the level of prosperity enjoyed during the height of the lead industry, it supported local mining through most of the twentieth century. Demand for the product was relatively low and restricted to the steel industry until after the Second World War, when the development and use of fluorine-bearing hydrocarbons (CFCs) became widespread.

The introduction of pneumatic drills in the early 20th century greatly sped up the process of driving tunnel. The lack of water for dust supression or dust masks for the miners made working conditions much more hazardous, however. Most miners could only work in these conditions for a few years before sucumbing to lung diseases. Image courtesy of Beamish Museum Archieves.

Commercial production of fluorspar in Weardale was first reported in 1882 by the Weardale Lead Company, which was formed to take over the Weardale leases that had been given up by the Beaumont Company. The Weardale Lead Company soon expanded into fluorspar mining and continued to operate as a local independent company until becoming insolvent in the early 1960s (Smith 2003). Weardale Lead was acquired in 1964 by CFC manufacturer Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which subsequently discovered and developed the highly successful Redburn mine, and engaged in a less-than-successful redevelopment effort at the old Burtree Pastures lead mine. Swiss Aluminum Mining UK (SAMUK), Ltd., anticipating an increased need for fluorspar in the production of synthetic cryolite for aluminum smelting, acquired the Stanhopeburn and Cambokeels mines in the early 1970s, and in 1977 purchased the holdings of the Weardale Lead Company. SAMUK also built a new flotation separation plant in Frosterley, but the anticipated demand for fluorspar never materialized and, the company was bankrupt by 1982.

Horses, referred to as "pit ponies" were still in common use in many North Pennines mines into the 1960s. This photo is of horse-drawn ore cars at the Blackdene Mine. Both the horse and miner are, however, equipped with modern battery lanterns. Image courtesy of Beamish Museum Archieves.

British Steel Corporation was also actively involved in fluorspar mining in the region beginning shortly after the Second World War. Its primary operations included the Blackdene mine and processing mill, as well as the Whiteheaps mine and the attempted reopening of the Beaumont mine in Allenheads. By the early 1980s the British steel industry was in collapse, and following privatization of the industry, British Steel withdrew from all mining operations in the region. In 1982 Weardale Mining and Minerals, Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Minworth Group) acquired many of the local assets of both SAMUK and British Steel. In spite of ambitious development plans they too were in receivership by 1991. Sherburn Minerals then took over the Groverake and Frazer’s Hush mines, as well as the processing plant in Frosterley, and operated them until final closure in 1999.

The flotation plant at Blackdene, used for processing fluorspar, seen in the late 1960s. After closure of the mine in the late 1980s, the plant was demolished and little evidence of it remains today.

The rise and fall of the Northern Pennines fluorspar mining industry, of course, followed the demands of the industries it supplied raw product to. With the privatization of the British steel industry, mills shut because they could no longer compete on the world market. At the same time an awareness of the environmentally damaging characteristics of CFCs and related chemicals was building, leading to decreased demand as they were phased out of use in many applications. Perhaps the final blow to the Northern Pennines mining industry was the increasing availability of inexpensive, heavily subsidized fluorspar from China during the 1990s.

Total production values for lead and fluorspar from the Weardale district over the years are impressive. According to Dunham (1990), almost 1 million tons of lead was produced during the period 1666 through 1985. Almost 2 million tons of fluorspar was produced between 1850 and 1984. Despite the fact that there are likely appreciable reserves of fluorspar left in and around Weardale, it is unlikely that economics will favor a resurgence of mining in the region for the foreseeable future.

The last mining crew at the Groverake Mine, at the time of closure in July, 1999. The Groverake was the last commercial mine operating in the region. With the exception of a few crushed stone quarries and a couple of small scale specimen recovery operations, mining in the North Pennines is now a thing of the past.

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