The Miners Tearms are like to Heathen Greek – Edward Manlove, 1653
A guide to the brief history of lead mining in Derbyshire and notes on the sources available for research (written March 1993, updated June 2020).
Administration and Customs
There are few primary series for the study of Derbyshire lead mining before the 16th century. By this time the unique set of laws and customs which govern Derbyshire lead mining were already well established. Most of the ore fields within the county were within the estate of the Duchy of Lancaster and thus belonged to the Crown. A royal inquisition held at Ashbourne in 1288 recognised the “immemorial” right of miners to dig for lead anywhere on the Crown’s estates except under churchyards, gardens, orchards and highways, but it also codified the mining laws in order to regulate this activity. The mining laws of 1288 remained substantially unaltered and were accepted as the basis for the Derbyshire Mining Customs and Mineral Courts Acts in 1852 (see D163/1 and Local Studies 622.344).
The Crown’s ore fields were divided into the Kingsfield of the High Peak in the north and the Kingsfield of the Low Peak (also known as the Wapentake of Wirksworth) in the south. Each field had its own Great Barmoot Court, which met twice a year and had exclusive jurisdiction over matters connected with mining. The Great Barmoot Court was presided over by a steward, who could also summon a more frequent small Barmoot to hear lesser cases. Both the High Peak and Low Peak ore fields were subdivided into smaller administrative units known as liberties, each of which corresponded to a mining township, and an officer called a Barmaster was appointed for each liberty. There were some lead mining areas outside the Crown’s estates on private lands. These are known as the Private Liberities and had their own Barmoot Courts, Barmasters and mining customs, modelled on those of the Kingsfields.
Barmoot Court Books/Rolls: are the official minutes of the mining courts. At the beginning of each session should appear the title of the court, the name of the Lord of the Court (if a Private Liberty), the date of the session, and the name of the steward presiding. The business of the court will then follow and may include the appointment of the Barmaster and his deputies, the swearing-in of jurors, the delivery of accounts (of “lot” and “cope” collected) by the Barmaster and his deputies, and the details of cases of plaints brought before the court. There may be subsidiary papers such as jury lists, the articles of the court, court orders, case notes, and notes on mining laws and customs.
Records of the Barmaster: barmasters’ notebooks or diaries provide a day-to-day record of their activities, and cover the full range of official duties. These included
- recognising a new claim in return for a dish of ore (freeing the founder meer)
- making (nicking) the windlass (stowe) of an idle mine and re-allocating its possession after it has been nicked three times
- investigating the sudden death of any miner within the Liberty,
- making summons for breaches of the mining laws
- measuring lead ore, and
- collecting the mineral duties.
Lot was the payment of a set fraction of the ore raised by the miners. Cope was a monetary payment per load of ore measured, which was normally paid by the lead merchants or smelters. There are usually separate account books recording the amounts of ore measured and the lot or cope paid.
Derbyshire Record Office has three particularly good and complimentary collections for the study of lead mining administration and customs:
- D258 Gell family of Hopton, near Wirksworth. The Gell’s were prominent lead smelters in the 16th and 17th centuries and held the farm of cope from the Crown. Their archive contains a lot of material on the operation of the Barmoot Court and the Barmasters in the Wapentake of Wirksworth.
- D504 Brooke-Taylor of Bakewell, solicitors, contains a large amount of similar material for the Kingsfield and Private Liberties in the High Peak.
- D1289 Rieuwarts Collection is an artificial collection of lead mining records covering the private liberties of the Duke of Rutland.
Development in Lead Mining Technology
Initially lead production was fairly limited: the smelting process was primitive and the depth of the mines was restricted by problems of ventilation and flooding.
Smelting: was originally carried out using boles, wood fired furnaces on westerly facing hilltops. Smelting could only take place when there was a south westerly wind to fire the furnace, usually about twice a year, and would fail if the wind failed. the second half of the 16th century saw the introduction of the smelting mill. Lead was produced in a specially designed ore hearth, fired by bellows that were powered by a water wheel, thereby enabling production to take place continuously throughout the year. In the 18th century the ore hearth itself was superseded by the Reverbertory Furnace or ‘Cupola’, which used coal instead of wood to generate the heat for smelting. These changes in smelting practice can be followed using records including those relating to Sir John Gell’s smelting mill in the 1640s (see D258) and the county’s largest 18th century lead cupola in Lea owned by the Nightingale family (see D1575).
Soughs: were drainage tunnels designed to lower the water table, or free the mines of underground streams, by diverting the water into the near river valleys. the earliest recorded sough is the Longhead sough, driven by the Dutch engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden between 1629 and 1636 to unwater the Dovegang mines at Cromford. The Gell collection (ref: D258) contains material concerning early soughs including contemporary copies of documents concerning the draining of Dovegang. The largest sough driven in Derbyshire was the Hillcarr Sough. It was begun in 1766 and drained the mines at Alport-by-Youlgreave by carrying water a distance of four miles to the River Derwent at Darley Dale. A good number of records for this project are held at the record office, including the minute book of the proprietors 1775-1821 (ref: D200), as well as a contemporary copy of the sough articles, title deeds, plans, accounts and other material (ref: D504 and D1575).
Individual Derbyshire lead miners have left few records, and will only appear as names in the Barmasters diary or the Barmoot Court Book. From the beginning the lead trade was controlled by the wealthy smelters and merchants. As mining became deeper and more expensive the merchants grouped together to form mining companies. Many of the surviving records are therefore in family or company archive collections. These include account or reckoning books for particular mines detailing expenditure on wages and equipment, against income from the amount of ore produced.
The Barmaster’s Library
The Barmaster’s Library is a collection of publications and other items about the history of Derbyshire (particularly Buxton and the Peak District) including a number of items specifically relating to lead mining. Originally brought together by William and George Eagle Esquires, Barmasters of Wirksworth, it was presented to the Whitworth Institute at Darley Dale probably in the early 1930s – the original catalogue was produced in March 1931 but it is unclear if the catalogue was produced at the time of the presentation or some time later. It was transferred to the custody of the Local Studies Library (then based at Matlock Library) in 1968.
There are some early 20th century publications in the collection, but most of the items date from the 18th to 19th century – the earliest items are from the 16th and 17th century
- Edward Manlove Liberties and Customs of the Lead Mines (ref: Local Studies 622.344 for 1708 edition and D2193/1/1 for a photocopy of the c1653 poem)
- Blog Post – Acquisition of lead mining plan of Winster, 1769 (ref: D8163/1)
- J. H. Rieuwerts (1998) Glossary of Derbyshire lead mining terms
- J. H. Rieuwerts (2007-2012) Lead Mining in Derbyshire: history, development & drainage (4 volumes)
J. H. Rieuwerts (1972) Derbyshire’s old lead mines and minersJ. H. Rieuwerts (1988) A History of the Laws & Customs of the Derbyshire Lead Mines