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Lead Smelters of the Peak District

Lead Smelters of the Peak District

The Derbyshire Peak was once the major supplier of lead in the world.  There is the possibility of lead being dug from close to the surface in pre-Roman times, but it was one of the reasons why Rome decided to annexe Britain to its empire.  There is a folk memory of a kind of concentration camp at Bradwell in the Hope Valley from which slaves were made to mine deep within the hillside. 

Once dug from the bowels of the earth, lead needed to be changed from crude ore into a product that could be moulded or beaten into its useful final form. Ore came from the mines, whose remains still dot the fields and hillsides of the limestone-based White Peak.  Known as ‘bouse’ it was full of impurities and it was the job of women whose husbands toiled far underground to beat the ore bearing lumps of rock and wash the resulting powder in convenient streams, or specially made leats, channels flowing from small dams.  More sophisticated methods used stone or wooden troughs called ‘buddles’, where water and ore flowed over baffles to catch the heavier particles of ore.

Lead mines were mostly run by one or two men at a time whose daily output was often no more than a few hundredweights of ore bearing rock; a Peakland saying is that if a miner could fill his ‘weskit’ (waistcoat), pockets with ore, then he could finish for the day.  Crushed and washed by miners’ wives, the ore was stored for safe keeping in a coe, one of the small barn-like buildings that still dot the fields above places like Bonsall or Wirksworth.  A fine example of one of these stores stands beside the B5056 Bakewell to Ashbourne road, about a quarter of a mile south of the Miners’ Standard pub outside Winster.  Railings have replaced the stout wooden doors, but it is easy to visualise miners pouring their ore through a slot in the back wall, into an early form of night safe.

 Periodically lead agents would collect the results of miners’ toil.  They were an important link in the chain but often had an unpopular reputation for their so-called unscrupulous dealings and price fixing, but without them the ore would never find its way to its final markets.  

Trains of pack-ponies employed by the agents carried the crushed and washed ore to smelters sighted on the surrounding hills.  Routes taken by the ponies can often be traced by the number of Jaggers’ Lanes that appear throughout our region, such as in Darley Dale, or Ashover.  The word Jagger is thought to come from the Old German word Jaeger, a breed of small tough ponies used by huntsmen.

Remains of the largest smelter in The Peak stands at the highest point in Matlock to Chesterfield Road at Spitewinter. A man-made pond, once used for washing ore, still exists.

With only one recognisable example, Peakland lead smelters have all but disappeared, the only clue to their whereabouts being marked on the map by the number of times the words Bole Hill appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Bole is an old word for a primitive open smelting hearth where lead ore and kindling were mixed together on top of a stone hearth. As the fire burned and fanned by the wind, it generated sufficient heat to melt the lead, separating it from impurities allowing the molten lead to flow into a suitable collecting dish. Later bellows were used to create extra draught so greater heat, but even so open hearth methods were slow and inefficient.

With the passing of time more efficient methods of ore smelting were developed which became known as cupolas, or reverberatory furnaces. Basically in this type of furnace the fuel, coal which was plentiful to the east of the Peak District, was burned in a grate separated from the ore by a firebridge.  Flames passed over the firebridge and ‘reverberated’ from the roof of the hearth, heating the lead ore, causing the lead to separate from the waste material, before passing through flues to a tall chimney built to provide the necessary draught.  The resulting slag or waste was either raked or drawn off, while the molten lead ran into a receptacle.  In later furnaces the flues were extended to cool and condense escaping lead vapour which was given off along with waste gasses. As the condensed lead ended up clinging to the sides of the flue it was someone’s, usually small boys’ job to scrape it from the brick or stonework. Unfortunately not only did they then come into contact with potentially poisonous lead, but with numerous other lethal substances which had a saleable interest to the smelter’s owner. Flues in Derbyshire smelters would meander over anything up to half a mile or so beneath surrounding fields before they reached the chimney, unlike those in the Yorkshire Dales that can still be traced, running for several miles up then out on to the fell tops.  The reason for the difference in flue design is because unlike the Derbyshire smelters that ran on coal, those in Yorkshire had to rely on burning peat which being less heat efficient, would require a considerably greater flow of air in order to produce anything like enough heat.

The chimney at Spitewinter. The square format tells you it’s a Derbyshire design as round ones are Cornish.

One of the many environmentally unfriendly side effects of lead smelting is the way lead fumes spilling out on to the surrounding fields poisoned the grass.  Any cattle eating this poisoned grass would become very sick and probably die and in Derbyshire this became known as ‘bellands’, a kind of stiffening of the joints.  Farmers kept their stock away from tainted ground by surrounding it with stone walls and planting shelter belts of trees.

At aptly named Spitewinter on the highest point of the A632 Matlock to Chesterfield road, Belland Lane links the A632 to the B5057 from Two Dales, a sure hint that the soil around about was once severely poisoned.  With the passage of time and regular rainfall, local grazing no longer gives cattle this dread disease.



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