Derbyshire lead ore, known as galena, was first smelted some 3500 years ago.
The Romans were the first to truly exploit the wealth of the Derbyshire Dales, and from the 1500’s for over two hundred years up to 1780, the Peak was the most important lead mining area in the world.
It may be less obvious today, but the remains of the industry and the wealth it created can be seen all over the Peak, in old workings, old barns erected in small fields by the miners, on the many “bole hills” used for smelting, and the later remains of smelting mills by the streams and rivers. Its large houses, for example Chatsworth, Haddon and Hardwick, were built by families who gained fortunes from lead duties, whilst most other substantial houses in the area were built by successful mine shareholders or lead merchants.
Whole villages grew up where the miners lived – amongst them Bradwell, Eyam, Winster, Bonsal and Wirksworth, where you can see the large houses of mine-agents and merchants and the mazes of tiny houses of lead miners reached by winding narrow footpaths or genels.
Mining was hard and dangerous work – death, illness and injury came from poisonous lead dust, underground floods, falling rock, methane gas in shale workings and lack of oxygen in badly ventilated galleries
From the later years of the 17th century gunpowder introduced a further hazard.
Nonetheless the thousands of shafts, hillocks and ruined buildings in the limestone landscape of the old lead mining areas, and the miles of galleries underground, make it plain that the veins of lead were intensively exploited.
In the words of a petition to king Charles I – “many thousand people are dailie imployed in the lead mynes, to the great profit of your Majestie … and to the whole Comonwealth … in getting great quantities of lead for the use of the Kingdome in generall, and in transporting the rest to forraigne Nations”.
The lead industry is long gone, but its traditions are still maintained – the barmaster and the jury still meet in the Barmote Hall in Wirksworth. Any man who could demonstrate to the barmaster that he had discovered a significant amount of ore was allowed to open a mine and retain the title to it as long as he continued to work it, and, secondly, mining took precedence over land ownership. No land owner or farmer could interfere with lead mining, though there were many attempts to limit its damage.
Lead is no longer important but a little is still mined today at places like Bonsal and Bradwell moors, together with the more important, but formerly waste minerals, fluorspar – used in plastics and toothpaste, and barite – used in glossy papers and North Sea drilling.
This is your chance to explore that hidden world, to walk the levels picked out by hand axe and chisel.